War in Eastern Europe
John Reed


Our carriage rattled, echoing through silent Belgrade. Grass and weeds pushed between the cobbles, untravelled now for half a year. The sound of guns had entirely ceased. A hot sun glazed down, dazzling on the white walls of the houses, and a little warm wind whirled spirals of white dust from the unpaved roadway; it was hard to imagine that the Austrian big guns dominated us, and that any moment they might bombard the city, as they had a dozen times before. Everywhere were visible the effects of artillery fire. Great holes fifteen feet in diameter gaped in the middle of the street. A shell had smashed the roof of the Military College and exploded within, shattering all the windows; the west wall of the War Office had sloughed down under a concentrated fire of heavy guns; the Italian legation was pitted and scarred by shrapnel, and the flag hung ragged from its broken pole. Doorless private houses, with roofs cascading to the sidewalks, showed window-frames swinging idly askew without a pane of glass. Along that crooked boulevard which is Belgrade's main and the only paved street, the damage was worse. Shells had dropped through the roof of the Royal Palace and gutted the interior. As we passed, a draggled peacock, which had once adorned the Royal Gardens, stood screaming in a ruined window, while a laughing group of soldiers clustered on the sidewalk underneath imitating it. Hardly anything had escaped that hail of fire - houses, sheds, stables, hotels, restaurants, shops, and public buildings - and there were many fresh ruins from the latest bombardment, only ten days before. A five-storey office-building with the two top floors blown off by a 30.5-centimetre shell exhibited a half section of a room - an iron bed hanging perilously in the air, and flowered wall-paper decorated with framed pictures, untouched by the freak of the explosion. The University of Belgrade was only a mass of yawning ruins. The Austrians had made it their special target, for there had been the hotbed of Pan-Serbian propaganda, and among the students was formed the secret society whose members murdered the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

We met an officer who belonged to this society - a classmate of the assassin. 'Yes,' he said, 'the government knew. It tried to discourage us, but it could do nothing. Of course the government did not countenance our propaganda.' He grinned and winked. 'But how could it prevent? Our constitution guarantees the freedom of assemblies and organizations. ... We are a free country!'

Johnson was unmoved by the wreck.

'For years we have been cramped and inconvenienced in that old building,' he explained. 'But the University was too poor to build again. Now we shall demand in the terms of peace one of the German universities - libraries, laboratories, and all complete. They have many, and we have only one. We have not yet decided whether to ask for Heidelberg or Bonn....'

Already people were beginning to drift back to the city which they had deserted six months before, at the time of the first bombardment. Every evening, toward sundown, the streets became more and more crowded. A few stores timidly opened, some restaurants, and the cafés where the true Belgradian spends all his time sipping beer and watching the fashionable world pass. Johnson kept up a flow of comment on the people who wait at tables, or went by along the street.

'You see that little, important-looking man with the glasses? He is Mr R -, who is very ambitious and thinks himself a great man. He is editor of an insignificant newspaper called La Dépêche, which he published here every day under the bombardment, and imagined himself a great hero. But there is a little song about him which is sung all over Belgrade:

' "An Austrian cannon-ball flew through the air.
It said: 'Now I shall destroy Belgrade, the White City';
But when it saw that it would hit R –
It held its nose, crying 'Phoot!' - and went the other way!"'
In the corner a stout, dirty man with the look of a Jewish politician was holding forth to a crown.

That is S -, editor of the Mali Journal. There are three brothers, one of them a trick bicycle-rider. This man and the other brother founded a little paper here which lived by blackmailing prominent people. They were desperately poor. No one would pay the blackmail. So they published every day for two weeks a photograph of the bicycle-rider with his bare legs, bare arms, and medals on his chest, so that some heiress with millions of denars would become enamoured of his beautiful physique and marry him!'

We visited the ancient Turkish citadel which crowns the abrupt headland towering over the junction of the Save and the Danube. Here, where the Serbian guns had been placed, the Austrian fire had fallen heaviest; hardly a building but had been literally wrecked. Roads and open spaces were pitted with craters torn by big shells. All the trees were stripped. Between two shattered walls we crawled on our bellies to the edge of the cliff overlooking the river.

'Don't show yourselves,' cautioned the captain who had us in charge. 'Every time the Swabos see anything moving here, they drop us a shell.'

From the edge there was a magnificent view of the muddy Danube in flood, inundated islands sticking tufts of tree tops .ibove the water, and the wide plains of Hungary drowned in a yellow sea to the horizon. Two miles away, across the Save, the Austrian town of Semlin slept in radiant sunlight. On that low height to the west and south were planted the invisible threatening cannon. And beyond, following southwest the winding Save as far as the eye could see, the blue mountains of Bosnia piled up against the pale sky. Almost immediately below us lay the broken steel spans of the international railway bridge which used to link Constantinople to western Europe - plunging prodigiously from their massive piers into the turbid yellow water. And up-stream still was the half-sunken island of Tzigalnia, where the Serbian advance-guards lay in their trenches and sniped the enemy on another island tour hundred yards away across the water. The captain pointed to several black dots lying miles away up the Danube behind the shoulder of Semlin.

'Those are the Austrian monitors,' he said. 'And that low black launch that lies close in to shore down there to the east, she is the English gunboat. Last night she stole up the river and torpedoed an Austrian monitor. We expect the city to be bombarded any minute now. The Austrians usually take it out on Belgrade.'

But the day passed and there was no sign from the enemy, except once when a French aeroplane soared up over the Save. Then white shrapnel cracked over our heads, and long after the biplane had slanted down eastward again, the guns continued to fire, miles astern.

They have learned their lesson,' said Johnson complacently. The last time they bombarded Belgrade, they were answered by the big English, French, and Russian naval guns, which they did not know were here. We bombarded Semlin and silenced two Austrian positions.'

We made the tour of the foreign batteries with the captain next day. The French guns and their marines were posted among trees on the top of a high, wooded hill overlooking the Save. They were served by French marines. Farther along Russian sailors lolled on the grass about their heavy cannon, and on the sloping meadows back of Belgrade lay the British, guarding the channel of the Danube against the Austrian supply-boats which were moored above Semlin, waiting for a chance to slip past down the Danube, with guns and ammunition for the Turks. The Serbian batteries were a queer mixture of ordnance; there were old field-guns made by Creusot in France for the First Balkan War, ancient bronze pieces cast for King Milan in the Turkish War, and all kinds and calibers captured from the Austrians - German field-guns, artillery manufactured in Vienna for the Sultan, ornamented with Turkish symbols, and new cannon ordered by Yuan Shi Kai, their breeches covered with Chinese characters.

Our window looked out over the roofs of the city to the broad current of the Save, and the sinister highland beyond where the enemy's guns were. At night the great Austrian search-light would flare suddenly upon the stream and the city, blinding; sparks would leap and die among the trees of the river islands, and we would hear the pricking rifle-fire where the outposts lay in mud with their feet in the water, and killed each other in the dark. One night the English batteries roared behind the town, and their shells whistled over our heads as they drove back the Austrian monitors who were trying to creep down the river. Then the invisible guns of the highland across the Save spat red; for an hour heavy missiles hurtled through the sky, exploding miles back about the smoking English guns - the ground shook where we stood.

'So you want to visit the trenches,' said the captain. We had driven out a mile or so through the outskirts of the city that lay along the Save, always in sight of the Austrian guns. Our carriages were spaced two hundred yards apart, for two vehicles together would have drawn fire. Where we stood the shore jutted out into the flooded river behind the trees of a submerged island that screened us from the Austrian bank. 'It is not very safe. We must go in a boat and pass three hundred yards of open water commanded by an Austrian cannon.'

The aged launch was supposed to be armoured; a heavy sheet of tin roofed her engine-pit, and thin steel plates leaned against the bulwarks. As soon as we rounded the protecting curtain of trees, the soldier who was pilot, engineer, and crew stood up and shook his fist at the point of land where the Austrian gun lay.

'Oh, cowards and sons of cowards!' he chanted. 'Why do you not fire, Swabo cowards? Does the sight of unarmed Serbians cause your knees to knock together?'

This he kept up until the launch slipped out of range behind Tzigalnia, alongside a huge cargo-scow, painted black and loophooled for rifles. On her bow in large yellow letters, was Neboysha, which is Serbian for 'Dreadnought.'

'That is the Serbian navy,' laughed the captain. 'With her we have fought a great battle. In January, one dark night, we filled her full of soldiers and let her float down the river. That is how we captured this island.'

From the Neboysha a precarious plank footbridge on floating logs led between half-submerged willow-trees to a narrow strip of land not more than ten feet wide and two hundred yards long. Here the soldiers had dug their rude rifle-pits, and here they lay forward on the muddy embankment, unshaven, unwashed, clothed in rags, and gaunt with scanty, bad food. From head to foot they were the colour of mud, like animals. Many of the trenches were below the flood level, and held water; you could see where, only two days before, the river had risen until it was up to the men's waists. We could not walk along the line of trenches - soldiers poled us up and down in little scows.

A score of shaggy, big men in fur caps, with rifle-belts crossed over their chests and hand bombs slung at their shoulders, were at work under an armed guard, surlily digging trenches. These were comitadjis, the captain said - irregular volunteers without uniform, drawn from the half-bandits, half-revolutionists, who had been making desperate guerilla war against Turks, Bulgarians, and Greeks in Macedonia for years.

'They are under arrest,' he explained. They refused to dig trenches or work on the roads. "We have come to fight the Swabos," they said, "not to dig ditches. We are warriors, not labourers!"'

Removing our hats, we peered cautiously through the gaps made for the rifles; a similar barren neck of land appeared about four hundred yards away through the tree tops rising from the water - for all this had once been land - where the Austrians lay. A blue peaked cap bobbed cautiously up - the soldier beside me grunted and fired. Almost immediately there was a scattering burst of shots from the enemy. Bullets whined close over our heads, and from the trees green leaves showered down.

Our boatman thrust off from the Neboysha and headed the launch up-stream before he rounded into the channel swept by the Austrian artillery, a quarter of a mile away.

'We will go closer,' said he, 'perhaps it will tempt them.'

The clumsy, chugging boat swept clear. He stood up in the stern, cupped his hands, and bellowed a satirical verse that the soldiers sang:

'The Emperor Nicholas rides a black horse,
The Emperor Franz Joseph rides a mule -
And he put the bridle on the tail instead of the head,
So now is the end of Austria!'
Hardly had he finished - the boat was within fifty yards of the sheltering island - when a sudden detonation stunned us. We hit the bottom of the boat with one simultaneous thud just as something screamed three yards over our heads, and the roof of a building on the shore heaved up with a roar, filling the air with whistling fragments of tiles and lead pellets - shrapnel.

'Whoop!' shouted the steersman. 'There's enough black balls to defeat any candidate!'

Now we were behind the sheltering trees. A row-boat full of soldiers put off from the bank, paddling frantically.

'Don't go out there!' cried the captain to them. They are firing!'

‘That's why we're going!' they cried altogether, like children . 'Perhaps they'll take a shot at us!' They rounded the island with shouts and a prodigious splashing of oars....

Lunch was ready in the ruins of a great sugar factory, where the colonel in command of the island had his headquarters. To get to it, we crossed a bridge of planks laid on a quaking marsh of brown sugar - tons and tons of it, melted when the Austrian shells had set fire to the place.

The colonel, two captains, four lieutenants, a corporal, and two privates sat down with us. In Serbia the silly tradition that familiarity between officers and men destroys discipline apparently does not exist. Many times in restaurants we noticed a private or a non-commissioned officer approach a table where officers sat, salute stiffly, and then shake hands all around and sit down. And here the sergeant who waited on table took his place between us to drink his coffee and was formally introduced.

One of the privates had been secretary of the Serbian National Theatre before the war. He told us that the charter required fifty performances of Shakespeare a season, and that the Serbians preferred Coriolanus to all the other plays.

'Hamlet,' he said, 'was very popular. But we have not played it here for fifteen years, for the only actor who could do the part died in 1900.'

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