Crisis in Serbia | 14 Oct 1915


The Bulgarian government has its allies, and its fig leaf casus belli of two days ago. Today they declare war on Serbia and come piling across the border. Their plan is simple, and brutally effective. They have two armies. Second Army, to the north, is under the supreme command of General von Mackensen. Their job is to drive west towards Nis, the provisional capital, and keystone of the main Serbian railway line. At worst they’ll be able to distract and tie up half the Serbian Army while the Germans and Austro-Hungarians march on Nis from the north by way of Kragujevac. This component is known as the Morava Offensive.

Away to the south, General Georgi Todorov has an independent command of First Army. Again, they will march west into Serbia, making for that railway line, this time through the valley of the River Vardar. Ideally, they’ll be able to stop the Franco-British relief force reaching Skopje for onward travel into the Serbian interior. At worst, by threatening the relief force’s only reasonable supply line, they’ll be able to keep it tied up in the south of the country, where it can’t directly aid the Serbian Army against von Mackensen’s forces. This is the Ovce Pole Offensive.

Meanwhile, away to the north, the combined invasion force has now reached Pozarevac, and shows very little sign that it might be in danger of stopping any time soon. This is a large crisis; and it needs a solution larger than two pencils and a pair of underpants. (Two pencils and a pair of lacy French knickers?)

General Sarrail

General Sarrail has now finally arrived in theatre to take over command of the French force, now 20,000 strong and increasing daily. When news of the Bulgarian invasion makes it back to Paris, he’s soon given orders to “cover the lines of communication between Salonika and Serbia”. He has a quick look at the map and sees that the first important railway station in Serbia on the railway line to Skopje is at Strumica, only a single hard day’s march from the Bulgarian border; a small force sets off to help defend it, with the rest of the blokes to follow as and when they land.

Battle of Loos

The battle is usually reckoned as ending today, although as ever, the odd local action will continue for the next week or so as both sides attempt to straighten out their line and improve their position. General Haig and Sir John French will for the rest of the month exchange an enthusiastic and masturbatory correspondence about the chances of attacking again, but this is the final end.

The autumn offensive is over, and a GQG assessment will soon sum up the problem. Although considerable tactical successes have been made, the line advanced a few miles in numerous areas, etc. the offensive has been an unmitigated strategic failure. The French Army has now spent the better part of a year battering away at the German line, trying to force the enemy to quit Noyon. However, our German artillery friend Herbert Sulzbach is even today enjoying a nice day off in Noyon (of which more in a moment). He made a brief note of the autumn offensive in his diary when it started, but other than that academic note, it hasn’t affected him one tiny bit.

Now we must turn to casualties, and this is where the scale of the failure becomes truly stark. The BEF committed six divisions to attack three German divisions at the Battle of Loos. The Germans (depending on how you add up; again, the figures are disputable) have lost about 25,000 men killed, wounded, and captured. The BEF has lost 48,367 at Loos itself, a further 10,880 (including Captain Bagot-Chester) on Aubers Ridge in the subsidiary attack, and a firm shake more in the demonstration at Ypres, for what’s as near as damned 60,000 casualties. A two-to-one superiority in men has achieved nothing except the possession of one thoroughly wrecked village and sustaining more than double the amount of the enemy’s casualties.

The French story is no better. At Third Artois, they too had a two-to-one superiority in men; once again, the Germans have lost about 25,000 and the French nearly 50,000 men. Second Champagne sees the same story; double the amount of men, and 145,000 French casualties against a disputed German figure that swings wildly between 72,000 and 97,000 depending on who you ask. The only crumb of comfort on this score is that the French have seen a major drop in the number of dead among their casualties, and a compensatory rise in the number of wounded. It’s surely no coincidence that autumn 1915 was the first time that significant numbers of French poilus went into battle wearing the steel Adrian helmet, of which more later, instead of a fabric kepi.

Bernard Adams

Bernard Adams continues musing on life in rest billets.

In the afternoons you will see groups of Tommies doing nothing most religiously, smoking cigarettes, writing letters home. From six to eight the estaminets are open, and everyone flocks to them to get bad beer.

I often wonder if these peasants think much. They must have done at the beginning when their men were hastily called up. But now, after fifteen months of war? It is the children who are interested in the aeroplanes against the sky, or the boom from the battery across the street. But for the mothers and grandparents, these things have settled into their lives. They are all one with the canal and the poplar trees. If a squad starts drilling on their lettuces, they are tremendously alert. As for these other things, they are not interested, only unutterably tired of them.

His mildly patronising thoughts are cut off by being sent back up the line.

Herbert Sulzbach

As quickly as he’d started, Herbert Sulzbach concludes this little flurry of diary activity before going quiet again for another while.

Jolly old Lt Becker continues being the friend of all the war volunteers, and he invited me to Noyon. The French girls there are nice and pro-German, in every way.

Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more. I hope the German army tests for venereal diseases.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Loos
Third Invasion of Serbia
Morava Offensive
Ovce Pole Offensive

Further Reading

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