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Belligerents and Participants
The Balkans had seen a lot of unrest for centuries, fought over between the Austrians and the Turks as various ethnic groups sought more autonomy. Serbia was one of the first to wrestle itself away from the Ottoman Empire, and in 1882 it declared itself a kingdom. It had a friendly relationship with Austria-Hungary until the ruling family was assassinated by elements of the Radical Party in May 1903. The new Serbian leadership under Prime Minister Nikola Pasic was not only openly pro-Russian; he looked aside as extreme nationalist organizations began to grow. Nationalists began to support a vision of a greater Serbia that would unite all the surrounding Serbs and people who did not yet think of themselves as Serbs. This put Serbia in direct conflict with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which also coveted these very same lands.
After the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina broke free of Ottoman rule, they fell under the administration of Austria-Hungary. Fearing both Turkish and Serbian claims over the region, Austria-Hungary decided to directly annex Bosnia and Herzegovina into their empire in October 1908. As both Serbia and Montenegro began mobilizing for war, Austria-Hungry politically isolated the Serbs who only found some eventual backing from Russia. When Germany applied pressure on the Russians they backed down and Serbia was reluctantly forced to recognize the annexation in March 1910. This however fueled radical nationalists, the most influential of these secret societies being the Black Hand that formed within the Serbian military and sought a pan-Slav empire by any means.
When Serbia began seizing Ottoman territory of its own during the First Balkan War of 1912, it was Austria-Hungary’s turn to be enraged. While there were calls to militarily intervene, Russia was again supporting the position of its fellow Slavs while Germany was in the process of reorganizing its military and could not offer Austria-Hungary any assistance. Further conflict was immediately avoided but Austria-Hungary did not give up on its ambitions over the region.
In June 1914 the Black Hand recruited members of a sympathetic organization, Young Bosnia to assassinate the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. How much of this Prime Minister Pasic knew remains unclear but Serbia was blamed when the Archduke was killed in Sarajevo on June 28th. Germany had finished reorganizing its army by this time and while they publicly called for moderation they urged the Emperor Franz Joseph to put Serbia in its place. Austrian generals such as Conrad von Hotzendorf had been hoping to add Serbia to the Hapsburg Empire since the Bosnian crisis of 1908. Free to be more aggressive, Austria then placed a number of odious demands on Serbia. Hoping to divert war, Pasic agreed to all of Austria’s terms except those that directly challenged Serbia’s sovereignty. When Pasic suggested these differences be arbitrated by The Hague, Austria-Hungary declared war on July 28, 1914.
Had the Austro-Hungarian Army been ready to act, this conflict might have been over fairly quickly and not expanded into the Great War. Instead Russia was given enough time to significantly mobilize to the point of worrying Germany who then declared war on August 1st. When the Austro-Hungarian army finally crossed into Serbia, it was so weakened by diverting troops to fight the Russian in Galicia that they were no longer capable of overpowering the mobilized Serbians. Not only was this first August offensive quickly thrown back, Serbia launched its own invasion of Syrmia hoping to cut the flow of enemy troops to the Russian Front.
Although a new and larger Austro-Hungarian offensive forced the Serbs to evacuate Syrmia, the heavy fighting that occurred at the Battle of Jadar forced them back once more. A third offensive against Serbia was launched in November, which advanced as far as Belgrade but the Austro-Hungarian army extended itself too far. When the Serbians counterattacked the Austro-Hungarian defenses broke and they fled back across the Danube.
Austria-Hungary lost interest in finishing off Serbia when it became overly involved in fighting the Russians. This posed a problem for Germany because Serbia blocked the supply route to the Ottoman Empire depriving the Germans of raw materials and the Turks of weapons. They agreed to help Austria-Hungary launch a fourth offensive against Serbia, which was to be reinforced by Bulgaria who was just persuaded to join the Central Powers. This new alliance made all the differing when they delivered an attack in October 1915. By this time the typhus epidemic that had been running through Serbia had hit its army striking down half its troops. Now unable to form a solid defense against attacks from the north and east, the Serb army finally broke. The Serbs made attempts to join up with Allied forces slowly moving up from Salonika but this failed as the Bulgarians swept in. The Central Powers however were unable to surround the Serbs as they had hoped.
After a series of defeats the exhausted Serbian army chose to flee across Albania and Montenegro were they could be rescued by Allied ships in the Adriatic. The winter was particularly harsh and the retreat caused horrendous hardships to both soldiers and refugees alike. It also slowed the enemy pursuit, which failed to surround them, and they were evacuated to Italy, Sardinia, but mainly to the Greek island of Corfu that was controlled by the French. It was there that Prime Minister Pasic set up a government in exile. It would take some time for the Serb army still stricken with typhus to recover and rejoin the war effort. While Serbia was in no position to produce postcards, many German and Austro-Hungarian publishers covered the events of the Balkan Front from their perspective, which emphasized the long hard Serbian retreat over the rugged Prokletije Mountains.
During Serbia’s long occupation by the Central Powers, many troops were not only stationed there to keep order, many also passed through its territory on the way to other fronts. This led to the production of many postcards, both artist drawn and real photo that captured this large foreign presence. While some of these are posed shots, other just display snippets of everyday military life without much implied meaning. These primarily served as fieldpost cards for use by occupation troops.
Occupation meant something entirely different for the Serbian people. With the entire country under enemy control, there were no Serbian publishers to depict the atrocities enacted against them as there were in France. Resistance in Serbia was real, and past animosities led to brutality on both sides. Partisans became a constant menace, and when they believed the French were advancing out of Salonika they rose up in an organized revolt under the leadership of Kosta Vijinovic. Serbians fighting in the Toplica Rebellion of early 1917 managed to seize territory, but the Allied offensive against Bulgarian did not begin until March, and by that time the insurrection had been suppressed with the help of Austro-Hungarian forces. Thousands were killed and a more brutal occupation followed. The Allied army, which included newly arrived Serbian forces, never broke through the Bulgarian lines; the Battle of Monastire ended in their defeat.
Some images of hangings and mass executions were leaked out and produced as photo-based cards, but these are rare. More cards were probably published in Germany or Austria depicting Serbian Franktireurs being gathered up as prisoners. This reinforced the idea that the occupying troops were not safe around these uncivilized people, so they deserved all the mistreatment and violence that came their way. Even so, resistance was never presented as a large scale problem, and so the scope of the retaliation was not well publicized. Atrocities had reached near genocidal proportions duding the earlier Balkan Wars, and this ethnic violence continued into the Great War. By War’s end, Serbia suffered the largest number of casualties in proportion to the size of its population.
Once Greece entered the war in June of 1917, the Serbian army in exile landed at Salonika and took part in the Allied offensives against Bulgaria. Progress on this Front was finally made in September 1918 when Bulgarian defenses were breached and an armistice was signed. By the end of the war the Serbian army had reoccupied all of Serbia and Montenegro, but they returned to a devastated kingdom. While the Allies pushed further north, there supply lines were stretched so thin they could not open a new front despite the lack of resistance.
At the end of 1918 the Austrian territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina formed into the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. Despite objections to Serbian occupation, Montenegro also united with Serbia, and by December they had all united into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia) under the Serbian King Peter I. Pasic, who never wanted a partnership among equals, continued to struggle to exert exclusive Serbian control over the new entity.
While postcards from the Balkan Front are not as plentiful as they are from other regions, there are many that depict activities within Serbia. Most of these were published in Austria as well as in Germany, and graphic battle scenes abound. Serbia did not have much of a postcard industry of their own before the War, so events here are usually portrayed through the biased eyes of outsiders. The Austrians in particular published many scenes of the Serbian army retreating in disarray, while the French often produced cards of the Serb evacuation onto Allied ships.
It was not uncommon for the publishers of all nations to produce some cards depicting their allies, especially early in the War. Photo-based cards tend to be very generic, often showing little more than troops on the march, gathered in camp or posing with equipment such as large guns. Political cartoons exist as well but are also often little more than expressions of generic victories based more on wishful thinking than reality. The card above was printed in the United States from a photo provided by a stock news agency.