War in Eastern Europe
John Reed


Next morning early we were on our way to Kraguijevatz, the army headquarters. Our train was loaded with ammunition and American flour for the army at the front, and we carried five cars full of soldiers, in sheepskins, peasant dress, and Austrian uniforms picked up in the rout of December - one man even wore a German casque. They sang an interminable ballad to a minor air, about how old King Peter went to the trenches during the battle of Kolubara River:

'Kral Peter rose from his bed one morning
And said to his dearly beloved son, Prince Alexander,
"O brave, courageous Prince, my son
Who leads so well the army of Serbia,
The Swabos have passed Kroupaign, -
Their powerful hosts, like the rushing Morava,
Have passed Valievo....
I shall go forth to conquer or to die with them!"
He girt upon him his bright sword....'
The railway line paralleled the Morava River. Here all was green, and in the black loam of the fields women were ploughing with oxen, and winding wool on distaffs as they ploughed. White, low, tiled houses, their balconies overhung with graceful Turkish arches, their corners painted in coloured lozenges, lay hidden amid plum and apple trees in bloom. Beyond them stretched meadows under water, where thousands of frogs made a gigantic croaking chorus, audible above the roaring of the train - for the Morava was in flood. We passed Teshitza, Bagrdan, Dedrevatz, Lapovo, smelling of formalin and spattered with sinister white - pest-holes all.

At Kraguijevatz we were met by a delegate from the Press Bureau, erstwhile lecturer on comparative literature at the University of Belgrade. He was a large-featured, absent-minded young man with fat knees incased in pearl riding-breeches, a bright-green felt hat over one ear, and a naughty twinkle in his eye. Within two hours we were calling him 'Johnson,' which is a literal translation of his name.

Johnson knew every one, and every one knew him. He kept up a running scandalous comment on the people that we passed, and would halt the cab for long periods while he got out and exchanged the latest spicy gossip with some friend. Finally, we would shout to him: 'For Heaven's sake, Johnson, hurry up!'

'Excuse me, sair!' he would respond solemnly. 'You must have patience. Thees is war-time!'

We found the chief of the Press Bureau, former professor of public law at the University of Belgrade, hard at work reading a novel of George Meredith. Johnson explained that the Press Bureau was a very important and active organization.

'We make here many jokes about prominent people, epigrams, and rhymes. For instance, one of the conspirators in the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand was an officer of the Serbian army during the retreat. He feared that he would be recognized if taken prisoner, so he shaved his beard. In the Press Bureau we have made a sonnet about him, in which we said that it was in vain to shave his beard when he could not shave his prominent nose! Yes, sair. In the Press Bureau we make sometimes two hundred sonnets a day.'

Johnson was a dramatist of note. He had transplanted to the Serbian stage the Comédie Rosse of the Théâtre Antoine, and had been ostracized by respectable society. 'Because,' he explained, 'my play was obscene. But it was true to Serbian life, and that is the ideal of art, don't you think?'

Johnson was saturated with European culture, European smartness, cynicism, modernism; yet scratch the surface and you found the Serb; the strong, virile stock of a young race not far removed from the half-savagery of a mountain peasantry, intensely patriotic and intensely independent.

But many Serbian 'intellectuals' are like the city of Belgrade, where only three years ago the peasants drove their creaking ox-carts along unpaved streets deep in mud, between one-storey houses like the houses of Nish - and which now puts on the buildings, the pavements, the airs and vices of Paris and Vienna. They affect modern art, modern music, the tango and fox-trot. They ridicule the songs and costumes of the peasants.

Sometimes these affectations are laughable. We rode during all one day on horseback over the battle-field of Gouchevo Mountain with a young officer - also of the university faculty - who had lived for three years the life of a fighting nomad, such as no Englishman, Frenchman, or German could have endured. He had gone through the terrible retreat, and still more terrible attack of that winter campaign, sleeping out in the rain or in huts full of vermin, eating the coarse food of the peasants or no food, and thriving on it.

'I am so fond of the country,' he said as we rode along. 'It is so pastoral, don't you think? I am always reminded of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony when I am in the country.' He whistled a few bars abstractedly. 'No, I made a mistake. That is the Third, isn't it?'

We discovered afterward that his father was a peasant, and all his forebears since the Serbs first came down from the plains of Hungary had been peasants, and had lived in this 'country' which reminded him only of Beethoven!

And in Serbia they are still sensitive about Shaw's 'Arms and the Man.'...

We dined at the general staff mess, in the rude throne-room of the palace of Milan Obrenovitch, first of the Serbian kings; his gaudy red-plush-and-gilt throne still stands there, and on the walls are pictures of Milosh Obilich and the other heroes of Serbia's stormy history, and of the Serbian comitadji leaders who died by the hands of the Turks in Macedonia in the years before the Balkan War.

This palace is one of our oldest national monuments,' said Johnson. 'It was built more than fifty years ago.'

Astonishing, the youth of the kingdom of Serbia. Less than a hundred years have passed since she emerged as a free state from five centuries of Turkish domination - and in that time what a history she has had!

The secret dream of every Serb is the uniting of all Serbian people in one great empire: Hungarian Croatia, identical in race and spoken language - Dalmatia, home of Serbian literature - Bosnia, fountain-head of Serbian poetry and song - Montenegro, Herzegovina, and Slovenia. An empire fifteen millions strong, reaching from Bulgaria to the Adriatic, and from Trieste, east and north, far into the plains of Hungary, which will liberate the energies of the fighting, administrative people of the kingdom of Serbia, penned in their narrow mountain valleys, to the exploitation of the rich plains country, and the powerful life of ships at sea.

Every peasant soldier knows what he is fighting for. When he was a baby, his mother greeted him, 'Hail, little avenger of Kossovo!' (At the battle of Kossovo, in the fourteenth century, Serbia fell under the Turks.) When he had done something wrong, his mother reproved him thus: 'Not that way will you deliver Macedonia!' The ceremony of passing from infancy to boyhood was marked by the recitation of an ancient poem: ,

‘Ja sam Serbin,'
it began
'I am a Serbian, born to be a soldier,
Son of Iliya, of Milosh, of Vasa, of Marko.'

(National heroes, whose exploits here followed at length)

'My brothers are numerous as grapes in the vineyard,
But they are less fortunate than I, a son of a free Serbia!
 Therefore must I grow quickly, learn to sing and shoot,
That I may hasten to help those who wait for me!'

And in the Serbian schools the children are taught not only the geography of old Serbia, but of all the Serbian lands, in the order of their redemption - first Macedonia, then Dalmatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, Banat, and Batchka!

Now Kossovo is avenged and Macedonia delivered, within the lifetime of these soldiers who listened to their mothers and never forgot their 'brothers, numerous as grapes in the vineyard.' But even while we were in Serbia, other complications threatened.

'What if Italy takes Dalmatia?' I asked a government official.

'It is very exasperating,' he replied, 'for it means that after we have recovered from this war we must fight again!'

An old officer that we met later said, with a sort of holy enthusiasm: 'We thought that this dream of a great Serbia would come true - but many years in the future, many years. And here it is realized in our time! This is something to die for!'

And the boy who sang 'Son of Free Serbia' has made his country one of the most democratic in the world. It is governed by the Skouptchina, a one-chamber parliament elected by universal suffrage and proportional representation - the Senate, derisively known as the 'Museum,' was abolished in 1903. King Alexander tried to rule autocratically, and they murdered him; the present King is strictly a figurehead, limited by a liberal constitution. There is no aristocracy in Serbia. Only the King's brother and the King's sons are princes, and to the Crown Prince Regent the ultra-democrats and Socialists refuse even that title, referring to him always as the 'Manifest-Signer.' Queen Draga attempted to establish an order of nobility, 'but,' as Johnson said, laughing, 'we keelled her!'

The great landlords of Rumania are unknown in Serbia. Here every peasant has a right to five acres of land, inalienable for debt or taxes; he joins fields with his sons and daughters and nephews and nieces, until all through Serbia there exist co-operative estates known as zadrougas, where generations of one family, with its ramifications, live together in communal ownership of all their property. And as yet there is no industrial population in Serbia, and few rich men.

That night we heard the dramatic story of the great Serbian victory of December. Twice the Austrians invaded the country, and twice were hurled back, and the streets of Valievo groaned with wounded lying in the rain. But the second time the enemy held Shabatz, Losnitza, and the two rich provinces of Machva and Podrigna, and the heights of Gouchevo. The Serbians could not dislodge them from their strongly intrenched positions. And then, in the bitter weather of December, the Austrians began the third invasion with five hundred thousand men against two hundred and fifty thousand. Pouring across the frontier at three widely separated points, they broke the Serbian lines and rolled the little army back among its mountains. Belgrade was abandoned to the enemy. Twice the Serbians made a desperate stand, and twice they were forced to fall back. Ammunition began to fail - the cannon had less than twenty shells apiece. The enemy passed Krupaign and Valievo and was within forty-five miles of Kraguijevatz, headquarters of the Serbian general staff.

And then, at the last minute, something happened. New supplies of ammunition arrived from Salonika, and the younger officers revolted against their more cautious elders, shouting that it was as well to die attacking as to be slaughtered in the trenches. General Michitch ordered an offensive. The beaten Serbians, rushing from their trenches, fell upon the leisurely Austrian columns coming along narrow mountain defiles to attack. Caught on the march, burdened with big guns and heavy baggage-trains on roads almost impassable from mud, the Austrians resisted furiously, but were forced to recoil. The line was broken. Their centre, smashed by Michitch and the first army, broke and fled in panic across the country, abandoning baggage, ammunition, and guns, and leaving behind thousands of dead and wounded, and hospitals crammed with men raving with typhus. This is how the typhus, beginning somewhere up in the plains of Hungary, entered Serbia with the Austrian army. For a time the left wing tried to hold Belgrade, but the exultant, ragged Serbians drove them literally into the River Save and shot them as they swam across.

This great battle, which Voyvoda Michitch reported laconically with the proud telegram, 'There remain no Austrian soldiers on Serbian soil except prisoners,' has been given no name. Some call it the Battle of Kolubara River and others the Battle of Valievo. But it is, perhaps, the most wonderful feat of arms in all the great World War.

At the right hand of the colonel sat a pope in the long black robes of the Greek Church. He was not unctuous and sly like the Greeks, however - a great ruddy man who laughed uproariously and drank his wine with the officers. These Serbian priests are remarkable people. They are the teachers, the transmitters of patriotism among the peasants. They are elected to the Skouptchina as deputies of districts.

'Why not?' he said in French. 'In Serbia there is no Clerical party. We are all one here - eh?' He turned to the colonel, who nodded. 'I have now been fighting in the army for three years - not as a priest, but as a Serbian soldier. Yes, we are the State Church, but the government also subsidizes the Protestant and Catholic Churches, and even the Mohammedan hadjis. Why, it is really extraordinary. The government pays the Mohammedan mufti thirty thousand denars a year, and the metropolitan of the Serbian Church only gets twenty thousand! Our people do not forget that Milan Obrenovitch proclaimed the revolution against the Turks at a village church, with a pope at his side. We are Serbs and men first, and priests afterward,' He laughed. 'Have you heard the story of how the Serbian bishop, Duchitch, shocked the Bishop of London? No? Well, they dined together in England.'

'"You are fortunate," said the Bishop of London, "in your people. I am told they are very devout."

"Yes," said Mr Duchitch, "in Serbia we do not trust too much to God. We prayed God five centuries to free us from the Turks, and finally took guns and did it ourselves!"'

It was midnight when we took the train for Belgrade, less than a hundred kilometres away, but by morning we were still far from the city. We crawled slowly along, waiting hours on sidings for the passing of trains going north laden with soldiers and with supplies, and empty trains going south; for we were now within the lines of the Army of the Danube, and on the main military artery serving fifty thousand men. It was a region of high, rolling hills, and here and there a loftier mountain crowned with the ruined castle of some Dahee overlord, dating from the Turkish days. There was no longer any pretence of cultivation. Hillside after hillside hollowed into caves or covered with huts of mud and straw housed the ragged regiments; trenches gashed in the sloping meadows crisscrossed that hard-fought ground - and in spots where the battle had been particularly fierce, the jagged stumps of great oak-trees stood branchless and leafless, stripped bare by the hail of shells and rifle-bullets.

The railway-station of Belgrade had been destroyed in the bombardment, and one by one the searching Austrian cannon had wrecked the nearer stations, so we were forced to leave the train at Rakovitza, six miles out, and drive to the city. The road wound through a beautiful, fertile valley, with white villas and farmhouses smothered in thick blooming chestnuts. Nearer town we entered the shaded road of an immense park, where in summer the fashionable world of Belgrade comes to show its smartest carriages and its newest gowns. Now the roads were weedy, the lawns dusty and unkempt. A shell had wrecked the summer pavilion. Under the big trees at the edge of an ornamental fountain a troop of cavalry was picketed, and a little farther on the tennis-court had been disembowelled to make emplacements for two French cannon - the French sailors of the gun crew, lying around on the grass, shouted gayly to us.

Our carriage had taken a left-hand road, leading toward the River Save, when suddenly a distant deep booming fell upon our ears. It was like nothing else in the world, the double boom of big cannon, and the shrill flight of shells. And now, nearer at hand, off to the left, other great guns answered. A two-horsed cab, its horses galloping, appeared around a turn ahead, and a fat officer leaned out as he passed us.

'Don't go that way!' he shouted. 'Putzaiyu! They are firing on the road! The English batteries are replying!'

We turned around and took a long detour that led around to the right. For about a quarter of an hour the far shooting continued - then it ceased. A deep, steady humming had been growing more and more audible for some time, filling all the air. Suddenly there came the heavy, sharp crack of a detonation over our heads. We looked up. There, immeasurably high, gleaming like a pale dragon-fly in the sun, an aeroplane hovered. Her lower planes were painted in concentric circles of red and blue. 'French!' said Johnson. She was already turning slowly toward the east and south. Behind her, not more than a hundred yards it seemed, the white puff of an exploding shrapnel slowly flowered. Even as we looked, another distant gun spoke, and another, and the shells leaped after her as she drifted out of our vision behind the trees.

We crawled up a steep hill and descended the other side along a straight, white, unpaved road. In front of us, perched on a high headland between the Danube and the Save, was Belgrade, the Beograd of the Serbians, the White City which was ancient when they first came down from the Hungarian mountains, and yet is one of the youngest of the world's cities. Down at the bottom of the hill a long double file of Austrian prisoners, dusty with the long march from Rakovitza, stood patiently in the sun while two Serbian officers questioned them.

'Of what race are you?'

'I am a Serb from Bosnia, gospodine,' answered the prisoner, grinning.

'And you?'

'Kratti (Croat) of the mountains.'

'Well, brothers,' said the officer, 'this is a nice thing for you to be fighting for the Swabos!’

'Ah!' answered the Croat. 'We asked permission to fight with you, but they wouldn't let us.' Every one laughed.

'And what race are you?'

'Italiano from Trieste.'


'I am Magyar!' growled a sullen-faced, squat man with a look of hate.

'And you?'

'I am Rumaniassi' (Rumanian), said the last man proudly.

A few hundred yards farther along was a great shed stored with all sorts of provisions, fodder, hay, and grain for the army. Here in the hot sun the Austrian prisoners were sweating at their work of loading ox-carts with sacks of flour, their uniforms, hands, and faces caked with white meal. A sentry with a bayoneted rifle walked up and down in front of them, and as he walked he chanted:

'God bless my grandfather, Vladislav Wenz, who came to settle in Serbia forty years ago. If he hadn't, I would now be packing flour with these prisoners!'

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