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1916: Serbia in Corfu

embarkment of Serbian troops in Corfu in 1916 -
Embarkment of Serbian troops in Corfu in 1916. Photo:

Everyone knows that the First World War began with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. Less well known outside of the region is what happened next. First Austro-Hungary attacked Serbia but, to its shock, its troops were routed and had to retreat. In 1915 however they returned along with German and Bulgarian forces. The Serbian government then made a momentous and extraordinary decision. Along with the army, the King, parliamentarians, university professors and thousands of others it began a long march through Serbia, Kosovo and Montenegro to get to the Albanian coast where Allied ships then rescued those who had not died en route. Understanding the course of the First World War in the Balkans is of course essential to an understanding of how the first Yugoslavia was created in 1918. A large part of that story is told by Andrej Mitrovic, who teaches history at Belgrade University and whose book on Serbia during the war was published in English in 2007. This extract covers the evacuation of the Serbs from Albania which began in January 1916. By February says Mitrovic, "90,000 soldiers and about 5,000 civilians had embarked in the port of Durres alone." Thousands more were to follow with some of them taken by the French to Bizerta in Tunisia but most of them went to Corfu. The final evacuation, of the cavalry division, took place on 5 April 1916.

A French eyewitness described the disembarkation in Corfu: "They were all totally exhausted and frightfully thin… Those poor Serbs. Sailors helped them out of the boats, and they made their painful way uphill using their rifles as supports. They finally dropped to the ground, prostrate, virtually unconscious." At least 15,000 of them were gravely ill, but Corfu could not be transformed into a gigantic hospital for the sick and convalescent all at once. It was a poor island and everything, even food, had to be shipped in for the 140,000 weak and sick newcomers. The French troops who had arrived had only been able to make the most basic preparations for the huge number of long-suffering evacuees, who first had to be helped to build shelters for themselves. In addition, the weather at the beginning was very bad. Heavy rain fell unremittingly, so that the Serb soldiers started to liken their plight to the biblical Flood.

The situation continued to be catastrophic. The French eyewitness recorded: "Huge numbers died every day… From 23 January to 23 March there were 4,847 deaths". A French nurse later recalled: "Corpses piled up like planks of wood one on top of the other… , four in a row, sometimes six… . An arm, a leg or a convulsed face stuck out here and there." The sick were quarantined on the island of Vidos near Corfu, where, after so much torment, many died; the island became engraved in the memories of both Serbs and Allies alike as the "island of death". Around 5,400 people died there. Another 1,000 Serb soldiers died in Bizerta. And disease struck many of the survivors. General de Mondesire reported to his superiors that on 24 February, some five weeks after the first Serb units had landed, there were some 6,000 sick people on the island of Corfu.

But even the worst of misfortunes have to end. The weather finally improved; and the lull in fighting and rest worked their cures. The Serbian army was gradually able to provide better conditions for itself. Under the leadership of the French mission and with the cooperation of the British mission, the Allies were able to deliver more and more food, tents, clothing, medication and other requirements. Soon even those evacuees who had been close to death began to recover. "The Serbs are setting their camps to order and embellishing them… .It was a pleasure to go and see them." Men only recently prostrate with exhaustion and illness could be seen lined up in impeccable ranks, "healthy, well-armed, equipped from head to toe". [French envoy] Auguste Boppe reported to his Foreign Ministry: "Such a rapid and complete transformation seems miraculous."

Today a museum commemorates the Serbs on Corfu. Marcus Tanner, whose books we have featured on this site, visited it in 2007 and wrote Serbian Ghosts Haunt Corfu for Balkan Insight about it.  

Serbia's Great War: 1914-1918. Andrej Mitrovic. 2007.
[pp.  160-161 / Hurst]

January 2009
Tim Judah

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