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Nis: War Capital, 1915

Copyright © by Alan Grant Copyright © by Alan Grant
Bali-Beg Mosque, Nis Fortress

In January 1916, following the defeat of the Serbian Army, Bulgaria's King Ferdinand entertained the German Kaiser, Willhem ll, in occupied Nis. After the beginning of the war though, until October 1915, the Serbian government, and administration along with embassies from Belgrade had taken refuge in the city. At that time, it was visited by the American reporter John Reed who subsequently became famous for his account of the Russian revolution. According to Reed the city, which before the war had a population of 20,000, had now swelled to some 120,000. One of the first things he noticed were the Austrian prisoners of war.

Austrian prisoners in uniform wandered freely everywhere, without a guard. Some drove wagons, others dug ditches, and hundreds loitered up and down in idleness. We learned that by paying fifty denars to the government, you could have one for a servant. All the legations and consulates were manned with them. And the prisoners were glad to be servants, for there was no place for them to live, and scant food. Now and then an Austrian officer passed along, in full uniform with his sword.

"Escape?" said one government official we interrogated. "No, they do not try. The roads are metres deep in mud, the villages are depopulated and full of disease, there is no food… .It is difficult enough to travel by train in Serbia – on foot it would be impossible. And there are guards all along the frontier… "

Along the sidewalks elbowed a multitude of strangely assorted people: gypsies, poverty-stricken peasants, gendarmes with great swords, in red and blue uniforms, tax collectors dressed like generals, also with swords, smarty army officers hung with medals, soldiers in filthy tatters, their feet bound with rags – soldiers limping, staggering on crutches, without arms, without legs, discharged from the overcrowded hospitals still blue and shaking from typhus – and everywhere the Austrian prisoners. Government officials hurried by with portfolios under their arms… Women government clerks, wives and mistresses of officers, society ladies… peasant women in their humped up gay skirts and high-coloured socks.

War in Eastern Europe: Travels Through the Balkans in 1915. John Reed. 1994.
[pp. 13-15 / Phoenix]

January 2007
Tim Judah

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  1. Istanbul: Pamuk's City
  2. Istanbul: Swimming across the Bosphorus
  3. Salonika and the Jews
  4. Salonica: Slaves and Trade
  5. Thessalonika: 1923
  6. Ohrid: Rise and Fall
  7. Tornado of Dust - 1944
  8. Awake Romania - 1989
  9. Novi Sad: Nest of the Serbian nation
  10. Nis: War Capital, 1915
  11. Belgrade and the Selenites
  12. 1996: Serbia Calling
  13. Belgrade Train Station - 1964
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  15. Srebrenica: Blood
  16. Srebrenica: July 1995
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  19. London Buses in Sarajevo
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