Serbia In Collapse

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 208th installment in the series.

November 5, 1915: Serbia In Collapse

With Serbia outnumbered by more than two to one by its German, Austro-Hungarian, and Bulgarian foes, there was never really any doubt about the outcome of the Central Powers’ offensive against the small Slavic kingdom in the autumn of 1915—and it wasn’t long in coming.

Attacked on multiple fronts in the first half of October 1915, the Serbian armies were quickly forced to fall back towards central Serbia by overwhelming enemy firepower, as German and Habsburg heavy guns blasted Serbian trenches out of existence. Reeling backwards, the Serbs made desperate attempts to slow the onslaught at the Battles of the Morava and Ovche Pole, while a French relief force, marching north from the Greek port of Salonika, fought the Bulgarians at the Battle of Krivolak.

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By mid-November all three battles had turned against the Serbs and their allies. During the Battle of the Morava, named for the river valley where much of the fighting took place, the Bulgarian First Army broke through the Serbian lines at Pirot on October 24, and by November 9 the outnumbered Serbian Second Army was in retreat towards the southern province of Kosovo. Further south, in the Battle of Ovche Pole the Bulgarian Second Army overwhelmed Serbian defenses at Kumanovo, severing the vital rail link to Salonika and conquering the Vardar River valley by November 15. Simultaneously the Bulgarians held off the French force advancing from the south at Krivolak, ending any hope that the Allies might be able to send reinforcements to the outnumbered Serbs by November 21.

Meanwhile the Austro-German Eleventh Army and Austro-Hungarian Third Army were advancing relentlessly from the north. A British observer, Gordon Gordon-Smith, described the tried-and-true method used by the Eleventh Army, which he was able to observe from the Serbian side in a battle near the town of Paraćin (top, German troops marching through Paraćin):

Shells fell by hundreds on every square mile of the Serbian positions. After two hours or so of this indiscriminate bombardment we began to see parties of infantry, twenty to fifty strong, pushing forward. When they came within rifle-range they began to deploy and opened fire on the Serbian positions. As soon as the Serbian infantry began to reply, a field telephone, with which each of the German advance parties was armed, ’phoned back the exact position of the trenches to the artillery in the rear. An instant later an avalanche of shrapnel and shell was poured on the Serbian lines, while at the same time the heavier German guns opened a “tir de barrage” [covering fire] on the ground two miles in the Serbian rear to hinder the movement of retreat or prevent reinforcements being brought up.

On October 19 the Serbian government abandoned the temporary capital at Niš for Prizren in the far southwest, near the Albanian border. By October 22 the Bulgarians had reached Uskub (today Skopje, Macedonia; below, local men listen to a Serbian soldier before the evacuation of Skopje) then captured Kragujevac, in the heart of Serbia, on November 1. On November 5 Niš fell to the Central Powers—opening direct rail communications with the Ottoman Empire, one of the main goals of the campaign—followed by Kruševac the next day. Gordon-Smith, who was present at the evacuation of Kruševac, described the lurid scene as Serbian troops and civilians fled into the hills while the Serbian rearguard tried to hold off the enemy for a few more hours:

From the eminence on which I stood the spectacle was terrifying. Krushevatz was blazing at half a dozen points, the whole sky was covered with a crimson glare, while below us the river, blood-red in the flames, could be followed to the horizon, where the flashes of Serbian guns delaying the German advance could be seen… Suddenly there was an explosion like an earthquake. An immense column of yellow flame shot heavenward, lighting up the whole country for miles round. The heavy girder bridge over the river had been dynamited.

On November 7 the battered Serbian armies began retreating towards the famous “Field of Blackbirds” or Kosovo Polje—full of symbolic meaning as the scene of Serbia’s crushing defeat by the Ottoman Turks in 1389, and soon to witness yet another heroic martyrdom at the hands of the Central Powers (below, Serbian forces in retreat). The ragged Serbian armies would make their last stand at Kosovo Polje from November 20-25, 1915.

Once again, Gordon-Smith was present as the Serbs retreated southwest from Kruševac down the Rasina River Valley towards Kosovo:

The panorama which met our eyes was grandiose in the extreme. To right and left of us snow-capped mountains towered to the clouds. Through the centre of the valley they formed wound a narrow road skirting a rushing stream, the Rasina. As far as the eye could reach, both front and rear, was an endless line of marching regiments, infantry, cavalry and artillery… For fifty kilometres in front of us and ten behind us rolled this human flood, 130,000 men, 20,000 horses and 80,000 oxen, with here and there a pontoon train, a field telegraph section or a battery of immense howitzers drawn by teams of twenty-four oxen. But behind us we could always hear the inexorable thunder of the German guns.

After a month of non-stop fighting and marching, the Serbian troops were understandably exhausted and demoralized. Gordon-Smith recalled the sad scene when the army pitched camp at night:

Squatting down on their heels, the men stretched their numbed hands to the flickering blaze. Sometimes one would hear the plaintive strains from the violin of a gipsy soldier, or the low sounds of the native flute. The men seemed in these somber days to sleep but little. After tramping all day alongside their wagons they would remain seated around the bivouac fires, dozing or talking in low tones, till the advent of the cheerless dawn warned them to feed the oxen and prepare to resume their weary march.

Things were about to become much worse. Even by the standards of the First World War Serbia’s fate was a humanitarian disaster, as hundreds of thousands of peasants streamed south to join the Serbian Army in the “Great Retreat”—a horrible journey over the snowy Albanian mountains in mid-winter, conducted without enough food or shelter, from November 1915 to January 1916 (below, peasant refugees).

Already the weather was turning against the retreating Serbs—not to mention thousands of Habsburg prisoners of war who suffered the same privations as their captors (or worse). Josef Šrámek, a Czech prisoner of war, described the incredible conditions in his diary as his POW column made its way through Pristina, Kosovo, on October 28-30:

We walk all day without stopping. Those who stay behind get beaten with a stick or gun butt or stabbed with bayonets. You mustn’t stop to have a sip of water as the guards keep on screaming “Četyry a četyry” [“march”]. The road is flooded. We walk in water that reaches up to our waists for almost 4 hours… Last night we slept in the rain again. Our guards raged—they hit, kicked, and robbed us.

Hunger was already spreading in the Serbian ranks, and with the logic of war thousands of Habsburg prisoners of war would be the first to starve to death. On November 12 Šrámek wrote:

Sad times—no bread or meals for 3 days, and yet we have to work. We are dying for food. It is raining; the creek flooded the road, and the supplies can’t reach us. We boil corn and rose hips. I traded a little corn flour for a shirt and underwear. The Arnauts [ethnic Albanians] do not want Serb money. The boys trade flour for their last blankets… Today someone shouted at the narednik [officer]: “Give us bread or shoot us. We cannot live like this.” We’re hopeless.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

The 11 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Wilson Webb/Netflix

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 11 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may be in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town.

2. Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan's Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who take to bank robberies in an effort to save their family ranch from foreclosure; Jeff Bridges is the drawling, laconic lawman on their tail.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes on the life of pugilist Jake LaMotta in a landmark and Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese that frames LaMotta's violent career in stark black and white. Joe Pesci co-stars.

4. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family.

5. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators.

6. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks.

7. Flash of Genius (2008)

Greg Kinnear stars in this drama based on a true story about inventor Robert Kearns, who revolutionized automobiles with his intermittent windshield wiper. Instead of getting rich, Kearns is ripped off by the automotive industry and engages in a years-long battle for recognition.

8. Locke (2013)

The camera rarely wavers from Tom Hardy in this existential thriller, which takes place entirely in Hardy's vehicle. A construction foreman trying to make sure an important job is executed well, Hardy's Ivan Locke grapples with some surprising news from a mistress and the demands of his family. It's a one-act, one-man play, with Hardy making the repeated act of conversing on his cell phone as tense and compelling as if he were driving with a bomb in the trunk.

9. Cop Car (2015)

When two kids decide to take a police cruiser for a joyride, the driver (Kevin Bacon) begins a dogged pursuit. No good cop, he's got plenty to hide.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Another De Niro and Scorsese collaboration hits the mark, as Taxi Driver is regularly cited as one of the greatest American films ever made. De Niro is a potently single-minded Travis Bickle, a cabbie in a seedy '70s New York who wants to be an avenging angel for victims of crime. The mercurial Bickle, however, is just as unhinged as those he targets.

11. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal lumbers through this thriller as a former rodeo star whose career has left him physically broken. Now managing a hotel in small-town Alaska, he stumbles onto a plot involving a murderer-for-hire (Christopher Abbott), upending his quiet existence and forcing him to take action.

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