Serbian Victory at Kolubara

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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11 Fascinating Facts About Mad Max

Mel Gibson stars in George Miller's Mad Max (1979).
Mel Gibson stars in George Miller's Mad Max (1979).
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

What began as director George Miller's ambitious action film about a solitary cop (Mel Gibson) on a mission to take down a violent biker gang has evolved into a post-apocalyptic sensory overload of a franchise that now has four films to its credit—Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)—and additional sequels in the works. So let's obsess over Miller’s masterpieces even more with these 11 things you might not know about the franchise.

1. Director George Miller worked as a doctor to raise money for Mad Max.

Mel Gibson in Mad Max (1979)
Mel Gibson in Mad Max (1979).
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Since the film only had a budget of $350,000, Miller scraped together extra money as an emergency room doctor to keep the movie going. “It was very low budget and we ran out of money for editing and post-production, so I spent a year editing the film by myself in our kitchen, while Byron Kennedy did the sound,” Miller told CraveOnline. “And then working as an emergency doctor on the weekends to earn money to keep going. I’d got my best friend, and friends of friends of friends of his, and Byron ditto, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, we made a film and it won’t cut together and we’re going to lose all their money.’”

Miller’s medical training is all over the film: Max Rockatansky is named after physician Carl von Rokitansky, a pathologist who created the Rokitansky procedure, a method for removing organs in an autopsy.

2. Mel Gibson went to the Mad Max audition to accompany his friend, not for the part.

Gibson was black and blue after a recent brawl with “half a rugby team” when his friend asked him to drop him off at his Mad Max audition. Because the agency was also casting “freaks,” they took pictures of Gibson, who was simply waiting around, and asked him to come back when he healed. When he did, Miller gave him the role on the spot. In a clip for Scream Factory, Gibson recalled the moment: “It was real weird. [Miller] said, ‘Can you memorize this?’ and it was like two pages of dialogue with a big speech and stuff. I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ I went into the other room and just got a gist of what it was and I came out and just ad-libbed what I could remember. I guess they bought it.”

3. George Miller paid Mad Max crew members in beer.

With barely enough money to finish the original film, Miller offered to pay ambulance drivers, a tractor driver, and some of the bikers on set with “slabs” (Australian for a case of 24 cans) of beer, according to The Guardian.

4. Real-life motorcycle club the Vigilanties played Toecutter’s gang for Mad Max.

Forget the money required to train stuntmen; Miller and crew hired real bikers to professionally ride into production. In an interview with Motorcyclist Online, actor Tim Burns said about working with them: “[The Vigilanties] all wanted to ride the bikes as fast as possible, as often as possible, by their nature. Their riding was individually and collectively superb.” Additionally, stuntman Dale Bensch, a member of The Vigilanties, recalled seeing the ad for the shoot at a local bike shop, and took a moment to clarify a mishap that had happened during production. Bensch said, “There’s an urban myth that a stuntman was killed, and that was me. The scariest thing was dropping the bike on that bridge. They took the speedo and tach off because they didn’t want to damage more than they had to. They wet the surface to make it easier, but I hung onto the bike too long and it flipped me over with it; that’s why it looked bad. But it’s a famous scene, so it worked out all right!”

5. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior was inspired by the oil crises of the 1970s.

During an interview with The Daily Beast, Miller discussed the making of The Road Warrior. Of its inspiration, he said, “I’d lived in a very lovely and sedate city in Melbourne, and during OPEC and the extreme oil crisis—where the only people who could get any gas were emergency workers, firemen, hospital staff, and police—it took 10 days in this really peaceful city for the first shot to be fired, so I thought, ‘What if this happened over 10 years?’”

6. Mel Gibson only had 16 lines of dialogue in The Road Warrior.

Upon Fury Road’s release in 2015, social media lit up with complaints that Tom Hardy was underutilized, only there to grunt and utter a couple of one-liners. But just to remind you, in Mad Max 2, Mel Gibson only has 16 lines of dialogue in The Road Warrior.

On his use of sparse dialogue, Miller told The New York Times, “Hitchcock had this wonderful saying: ‘I try to make films where they don’t have to read the subtitles in Japan.’ And that was what I tried to do in Mad Max 1, and I’m still trying to do that three decades later with Fury Road.”

7. Mel Gibson says The Road Warrior is his favorite movie in the original trilogy.

Once upon a time Mel Gibson enthusiastically spoke about Beyond Thunderdome, telling Rolling Stone, "[The films are] a sort of cinematic equivalent to rock music. It's something to do with the nihilistic sentiments of the music of the ’80s—which can't continue. I say, let's get back to romanticism. And this film [Thunderdome] is actually doing that. It's using that nihilism as a vehicle, I think, to get back to romance.”

Years later, he told Playboy what he really thought of the films, namely that The Road Warrior was his favorite. “It still holds up because it’s so basic,” Gibson said. “It’s about energy—it didn’t spare anyone: people flying under wheels, a girl gets it, a dog gets it, everybody gets it. It was the first Mad Max, but done better. The third one didn’t work at all.”

8. Beyond Thunderdome was inspired by Lord Of The Flies.

Mel Gibson and Tina Turner in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985).
Mel Gibson and Tina Turner in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985).
Warner Home Video

Even though Miller and his producers were on the fence about a third Mad Max, they couldn’t help but give in. "George was sitting and talking to me about … quantum mechanics, I think," Miller’s co-writer Terry Hayes recalled to Rolling Stone. "The theory of the oscillating universe. You could say he's got a broad range of interests. And I said something about ‘Well, if there was ever a Mad Max III ...' And he said, 'Well, if there was ...'"

In a 1985 interview with Time Out, Miller recalled the story himself. “We were talking one day and Terry Hayes started talking about mythology and how where people are short on knowledge, they tend to be very big on belief. In other words, they take a few fragments of knowledge and, if you take like the Aboriginal tribes of Australia, they just take simple empirical information and using those little bits of the jigsaw construct very elaborate mythological beliefs, which explain the whole universe,” Miller said. “Terry was saying if you had a tribe of kids after the apocalypse who had only a few fragments of knowledge, [they would construct] a mythological belief as to what was before. And what would happen if Max or someone like that [came in] ... and it kicked off the idea of kids who were Lord of the Flies-type kids, and that led to this story.”

9. Tina Turner was cast in Beyond Thunderdome because of her positive persona.

According to Rolling Stone, Tina Turner beat out Jane Fonda and Lindsay Wagner for the role of Aunty Entity. On her casting, Miller told Time Out, “One of the main reasons we cast Tina Turner is that she’s perceived as being a fairly positive persona. You don’t think of Tina Turner as someone dark. You think of the core of Tina Turner being basically a positive thing. And that’s what we wanted. We felt that she might be more tragic in that sense. But more importantly [when] we actually wrote the character, as a shorthand way of describing the character we said someone ‘like Tina Turner’—without even thinking of casting her. We wanted a woman ... we wanted someone who had a lot of power, charisma, someone who would hold a place like that together—or build it in the first place. And we wanted someone who was a survivor.”

10. Mad Max characters’ names hint at their backstories.

One of the most peculiar quirks of Miller’s franchise has to be his bizarre character names. In an interview with Fandango, Miller explained exactly how he comes up with them: “One of the things is that everything in the story has to have some sort of underlying backstory. Not just every character, but every vehicle, every weapon, every costume—and the same with the language. So [the concept] was always found objects, repurposed. Immortan Joe is a slight adjustment to the word 'immortal.' The character Nux says 'mcfeasting' instead of using the word 'feasting,’” Miller explained, adding that his favorite name of all is Fury Road’s The Dag (played by Abbey Lee). “In Australia, the dag is sort of a goofball-type.”

11. George Miller is a proud feminist.

Director George Miller, recipient of the Feature Film Nomination Plaque for “Mad Max: Fury Road," poses in the press room during the 68th Annual Directors Guild Of America Awards at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on February 6, 2016 in Los Angeles
George Miller poses with the Feature Film Nomination Plaque for Mad Max: Fury Road during the 68th annual Directors Guild Of America Awards in 2016.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Perhaps evidenced by Charlize Theron’s scene-stealing role as Imperator Furiosa, Miller is a proud, outspoken feminist. He told Vanity Fair, “I’ve gone from being very male dominant to being surrounded by magnificent women. I can’t help but be a feminist.” That female influence even stretched behind the scenes, with Miller asking his wife Margaret Sixel to edit Fury Road. “I said, ‘You have to edit this movie, because it won’t look like every other action movie,” Miller recalled. Moreover, feminist activist Eve Ensler also consulted on the film to offer, according to Ensler herself, “perspective on violence against women around the world, particularly in war zones.”

What Happens During a Jeopardy! Commercial Break?

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek chats with the show's contestants.
Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek chats with the show's contestants.
Getty Images Entertainment

Jennifer Quail:

Typical Break One: First, if there are "pickups" (re-recordings where Alex misspoke or coughed or stuttered, or Johnny mispronounced someone’s name or hometown) to record, they do those. A stagehand brings water bottles for the contestants. The production team who wrangles contestants comes over and gives their pep talk, makes any corrections, like if someone is consistently buzzing early; and keeps you quiet if there are pickups. Alex gets the cards with the "fun facts" (there are about three, one highlighted, but which one he goes for is ultimately up to Alex alone) and when the crew is ready, they come back from commercial to Alex’s chat with the contestants.

Typical Break Two: If there are any pickups from the second half of the Jeopardy! round they do those, the water gets distributed, the production team reminds the contestants how Double Jeopardy! works and that there’s still lots of money out there to win, and Alex comes over to take a picture with the two challengers (the champion will have had their picture taken during their first match.) Then we come back to Double Jeopardy!.

Typical Third Break: This is the big one. There are pickups, water, etc. and they activate the section of the screen where you write your wager. One of the team members brings you a half-sheet of paper ... and you work out what you want to bet. One of your "wranglers" checks it, as does another production team member, to make sure it’s legible and when you’re sure that’s what you want, you lock it in. At that point you can’t change it. They take away the scratch paper and the part of the board where you write your answer is unlocked. Someone will tell you to write either WHO or WHAT in the upper left corner, so you do know at least whether it’s a person or thing. They make sure the "backup card" (a piece of card stock sitting on your podium) is turned to the correct who or what side, just in case your touchscreen fails. If everything’s ready, then as soon as the crew says, they come back and Final Jeopardy! starts.

There are breaks you don’t [even know about, too]. If there is a question about someone’s final answer, they will actually stop tape while the research team checks. Sometimes if something goes really off, like Alex completely misreads a category during the start of a round, they’ll stop and pick it up immediately. Those [are breaks] you’ll never notice because they’ll be completely edited out.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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