The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 156th installment in the series. NEW: Would you like to be notified via email when each installment of this series is posted? Just email RSVP@mentalfloss.com.
December 2, 1914: Serbian Victory at Kolubara
As Austria-Hungary’s determination to crush Serbia was the immediate cause of the Great War, most observers expected the Dual Monarchy to annihilate the small Slavic kingdom, still exhausted from the Balkan Wars, within a few weeks of the outbreak of hostilities. Instead the scrappy Serbs amazed the world by scoring a string of defensive victories, humiliating the Hapsburg armies and tying down hundreds of thousands of troops sorely needed on the Russian front.
After the first Austro-Hungarian invasion was decisively defeated during the Battle of Cer Mountain from August 15-24, 1914, the Austrian commander, Oskar Potiorek, regrouped in preparation for another offensive while the Serbs conducted harassing attacks across the frontier along the Sava and Drina Rivers, including incursions into Austrian Bosnia, with scant success in the Battle of the Drina from September 6-October 4.
By mid-October Potiorek’s troops had secured bridgeheads across the Drina River, while chief of the general staff Conrad von Hötzendorf scraped together reinforcements wherever he could find them, laying the groundwork for a renewed Hapsburg offensive in the autumn. In early November the Austro-Hungarian Fifth and Sixth Armies, together numbering around 450,000 troops, launched a pincer movement against northwestern Serbia, defended by around 400,000 Serbian soldiers in three main armies and two smaller army detachments.
Rather than simply wait for the blow to fall, however, Serbian chief of the general staff Radomir Putnik staged a fighting retreat, drawing the enemy deeper into central Serbia, where autumn rain turned primitive roads into mud, disrupting the Hapsburg supply lines and forcing the armies to widen the arms of the planned pincer. According to Josef Šrámek, a Czech soldier in the Hapsburg army, food was already scarce and disease rampant as early as October, exacerbated by corruption and indiscipline:
Hunger every day, too little bread available. Dysentery is spreading among us. I am expecting packages from home – in vain – feldwebels [sergeants] stole them. The same happens to rum and wine! Officers are drunk. They push us around and beat us with sticks… Being in the army is getting tougher day by day… We even lack water.
Nonetheless, encouraged by the apparent crumbling of Serbian resistance, Potiorek pressed forward, capturing the strategic town of Valjevo on November 15 and forcing the Serbs to abandon their capital, Belgrade, and relocate to the central Serbian town of Niš on November 29. Šrámek noted that this gave a much-needed boost to morale: “With great enthusiasm we think we have now won the war; there are even some prophets saying we will be home by Christmas.”
As jubilant crowds in Vienna celebrated each new Hapsburg advance, the situation looked increasingly hopeless for the Serbs – but now Putnik, running out of options, decided to make a last stand along the Kolubara River, where mountainous terrain would afford his troops would a defensive advantage, and the enemy forces would have to approach over relatively open ground from the north. At the same time the lines of supply and communication between the diverging Austro-Hungarian armies were stretching to the breaking point. Šrámek recounted: “We slept in the fields – hungry, freezing exhausted… No bread – there is one portion for ten men. We stay without meals for three days…”
After reaching the Kolubara on November 16, the Austro-Hungarians battered Serbian defenses in miserable conditions dominated by freezing rain and snow, finally managing to push the Serbian First Army out of its defensive positions on the southern flank on November 19. Potiorek followed up these gains with another push by Sixth Army against the Serbian First Army on November 21, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides. Now, as the Serbian First Army retreated east, he once again glimpsed the tantalizing prospect of a pincer movement leading to encirclement and total destruction of the Serbian armies.
However Putnik’s skillful management of the Serbian retreat prevented Potiorek from coming to grips with the First Army, aided by the latter’s decision to allow his own troops to rest. Meanwhile crucial supplies of artillery shells from the Allies began arriving from the south, where they were disembarked in the Greek port of Salonika and hurried north to the Serbs by rail. With his ammunition replenished, Putnik decided to stake everything on a surprise counterattack (top, Serbian artillery at Kolubara).
The sudden Serbian assault on December 2, 1914 took the enemy completely by surprise; running low on ammunition and supplies themselves, the over-confident Hapsburg forces were overstretched and had also failed to establish strong defensive positions. The first day’s attack succeeded in pushing the Austro-Hungarian troops back a few miles, and more importantly restored the Serbs’ flagging morale.
On December 3 they resumed the offensive, before the enemy had a chance to reconstitute their defensive line – and now, just as suddenly as they had advanced, the Hapsburg forces simply collapsed. By December 6 they were in headlong retreat, abandoning Valjevo on December 8 and Belgrade on December 14, while the Serbs captured tens of thousands of prisoners. Šrámek wrote in his diary:
It is all in vain! We’ve been firing for the 4th day now. The Serbs are all around. For 4 days now, we’ve had no food, no officers, and we’ve kept the last hill. Today I was in a real rain of bullets 3 times. The unit is destroyed; each of us has run in a different direction. Grenades crackle in the snow around me. I am dead tired… Suddenly the Serbs were here. “Bacaj puski!” [“Drop your guns!”]
Any hopes Šrámek and his fellow Slavic soldiers they may have held of gentle treatment from their ethnic cousins, the Serbs, were quickly shattered:
The Serbs robbed us immediately. I didn’t want to give them my bag. A Serb hit me with the butt end of his gun, and I fell down… The first thing our brother Serbs did was take off our coats and put them on themselves. The same with our shoes. All that had any value – underwear, blankets, watches, money – everything comes in handy for them. All we ate in 3 days were 3 halves of a bread loaf. We slept on the snow and saw the first swamps the first two nights.
In strategic terms the defeat at Kolubara was yet another disaster for the hapless Hapsburgs, coming on top of their earlier humiliation in Serbia in September and their repeated defeats in Galicia, and further confirming the opinion of the German general Erich Ludendorff, fairly dripping with disdain: “Ally? Ha! We are shackled to a corpse!” As 1914 drew to a close it had become clear that Austria-Hungary was entirely dependent on Germany for its continued existence – and the Germans weren’t shy about taking control of the situation, stirring Austrian resentment against the high-handed behavior of the “arrogant Prussians.”
Boer Rebellion Collapses
After the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, the Germans hoped to distract the British by stirring up colonial rebellions in Africa and Asia, but for the most part these schemes quickly collapsed in the face of the British Empire’s superior resources. The short-lived uprising by several Boer groups in the Union of South Africa was one of the first to be crushed.
Taking advantage of the South African government’s general lack of preparation, compounded by the difficulty of marshaling troops over the vast spaces of the interior, the Boer rebels managed to score a few minor victories at first. On October 24 rebel forces under Christiaan de Wet captured the town of Heilbron in the Orange Free State, and on November 8 they defeated government troops in a skirmish at Doornberg, though De Wet’s son Danie was killed.
But the net was already closing around them. On October 22 loyalist forces defeated Boer rebels under Manie Maritz at Ratedrai, near Upington, then pursued them until they fled over the border to German Southwest Africa (today Namibia). Meanwhile South African Prime Minister Louis Botha (a Boer who remained loyal to Britain, and was familiar with rebel tactics from his own experience in the Boer War) personally took the field in late October, forcing rebels under Christian Frederick Beyers to flee Rustenburg, Transvaal.
The climactic battle occurred at Mushroom Valley in the Winburg region of the Orange Free State on November 16, following an all-night march by government forces under Botha. Eric Moore Ritchie, a British observer with Botha’s forces, described the exhausting journey through a strange landscape:
It was bitterly cold – cold as the Free State night on the veld knows how to be. And we could not smoke, could not talk above a faint murmur, and nodded in our saddles. The clear stars danced fantastically in the sky ahead of us, and the ground seemed to be falling away from us into vast hollows, then rising to our horses' noses ready to smash into us…
As dawn broke Botha’s armored cars and machine guns took Wet’s irregulars by surprise in open fields, decimating the rebel force. De Wet himself managed to escape, fleeing to nearby Bechuanaland, and on December 1, 1914 the rest of his troops surrendered. A week later Botha’s troops destroyed another rebel force under Beyers, who attempted to flee by jumping into the Vaal River, but drowned in the swift current.
Although isolated clashes occurred into 1915, the Boer Rebellion was effectively over. Now the South African Government could return to the main task – the conquest of German Southwest Africa.
Allies Advance in Cameroon
German Southwest Africa was the scene of just one of several African colonial campaigns during the First World War. While a scrappy colonial force under the brilliant commander Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck defied the British in German East Africa (today Tanzania), on the other side of the continent the Allies were slowly making headway against German forces in Kamerun (today Cameroon – map shows borders before the Treaty of Berlin).
The commanders of the German schutztruppe in Cameroon, numbering less than 2,000 men in 1914, faced a daunting prospect of war on all fronts, as the colony was surrounded by British Nigeria, and French North Africa, Equatorial Africa, and Congo; the Allies could also call on Belgian troops from the nearby Belgian Congo. However the Germans also enjoyed a considerable defensive advantage thanks to Cameroon’s huge size (comparable to California), sparse population, and extremely rugged terrain, including a mountainous interior blanketed with tropical forests. They also benefited from rivalry between the British and French, who both wanted Cameroon for themselves after the war (the French got it in the end).
Despite their differences, in 1914 the Allies were able to pick off most of the low-hanging fruit (literally) as they navigated rivers to capture unprotected towns in the low-lying coastal region. The British campaign got off to a bad start with a defeat at Nsanakong on September 6, but they on September 27 they occupied the main commercial city, Duala, and a small British force headed up the Mungo River to capture Yabassi on October 4. Another British force moved up the Nyong River and captured Dehane on October 22, then headed north to capture Edea on October 26.
On November 15 British colonial troops under Colonel E.H. Gorges captured the German colonial capital, Buea (above, Nigerian troops at Muyuka, near Buea). The French took the coastal town of Kribi on December 2, and on December 10-11 Gorges took Nkongsamba, giving the British control of the German Cameroon Northern Railway, followed by the town of Bare, where in a stroke of luck they captured several German warplanes, still in crates.
The Allies also made some progress in the interior, as French and Belgian troops occupied Batouri on December 9, Molundu on December 19, and Bertoua on December 29. To the north French troops had occupied all of northern Cameroon by December 12, with the exception of the fortified town of Mora, where British and French troops from Nigeria were repulsed despite their superiority in artillery on October 29-31. The German defenders settled in for a long siege, which continued into early 1915.
However the vast, rugged highlands of central Cameroon remained unconquered, and the Germans were able to recruit more colonial troops in 1915, effectively tripling their small force. Ultimately they would manage to hold out until March 1916.
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