First Serbian Volunteer Division
The First Serbian Volunteer Division (Serbian: Srpski dobrovoljački korpus) or First Serbian Division, was a military formation of the First World War, created by Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić, and organised in the city of Odessa in early 1916. This independent volunteer unit was primarily made up of South Slav Habsburg prisoners of war, detained in Russia, who had requested to fight alongside the Serbian Army. it also included men from South Slav diaspora communities, especially the United States.
|First Serbian Volunteer Division|
|Branch||Royal Serbian Army|
|Size||9,904 (April 1916)|
42,000 (both divisions early 1917)
|Part of||47th Army Corps|
|Engagements||World War I|
|Chief of Staff||Colonel Vojin Čolak-Antić|
|Colonel Stevan Hadžić|
Even though the Serbian volunteers greatly outnumbered all the other ethnic group, a large number of the division's officer corps was made of former Habsburg reserve officers of Croat and Slovene descent. In April 1917 the name of the division was changed to the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes Volunteer Corps. The force holds a particularly significant place in World War I history due both to its intermingling of different ethnicities, including Bosnians, Czechs, and Slovaks, as well as its role in the final military operations of the Salonika Front.
At the request of Serbian prisoners of war, out of the ranks of captured Austro-Hungarians soldiers, the Serbian consul in Russia Marko Cemović took advantage of the presence of Nicholas II in Odessa during a military parade to personally present to the Emperor the project of a corps of Serbian volunteers. On November 7, 1915, the Tsar agreed to establish volunteer units in Russia. In 1916 a mission of the Serbian army went to Russia and started organising the Serbian prisoners of war captured by the Russians in their early offensives against the Austro-Hungarian army, those early volunteers also included Croats from Dalmatia, Bosnian and Slovenes who chose to join in the spirit of Yugoslav unity.
Fighting on behalf of the Russian government's cause of pan-Slavic unity, the division started out approximately 18,000 strong. The General Staff was represented by cavalry Colonel Vojin Čolak-Antić flown in from Salonika for that purpose. Tsar Nicholas II, while eager to use the Serbian diaspora for his own purposes, felt reluctant at first to set up the Volunteer Division given that recruiting prisoners of war to fight against their former country is considered a war crime under the Hague Conventions; soon the exigencies of war overcame his scruples. The Volunteer Division also featured a number of Czech and Slovak officers before they transferred to the Czechoslovak armed forces gathering in Russia known as the Legion.
As part of the Russian 47th Corps under the command of General Zayonchkovsky, the Serb First Division, 23,500 men strong, was sent on the Dobruja front in Romania to help the Romanian army fight Bulgarian forces reinforced by Turkish and German units. The Division showed high combat morale but was restrained by inadequate equipment and the campaign ended terribly with 1,939 dead and 8,000 wounded.
In April 1917 the Pašić cabinet, under pressure from former POW officers, and by the revolutionary changes happening in Russia at the time, created a second division, the two divisions became part of a new force called the "Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes Volunteer Corps" 42,000 men strong and accepted the creation of soldiers' councils. On 29 July 1917, General Mihajlo Zivković became Corps Commander. The Serb officers treating the unit as a part of the Serbian army, and the choice not to name the corps "Yugoslav" as the POW officers had requested, led to the massive resignations of Croat and Slovene officers and men who joined Russian units instead. After the start of the February Revolution in 1917 as many as 12 735 soldiers left the Corps with some ending on opposiing sides of the Russian Revolution.
In 1917, it was decided to send the Corps to the Macedonian Front. The first division, 10,000 strong was able to leave Russia travelling west reaching Salonika at the end of the year. In the meantime, the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia and decided to put every possible obstacle in the journey of the remaining 6,000 men, denying them the route to the West, forcing them to go via the Trans-Siberian to China to Japanese held Port Arthur. From there, they were sent on a ship to Hong Kong then to Egypt, and on to Salonika. The first company arrived on 29 March 1918 at the Serbian camp at Mikra after travelling 14,000 miles in eleven weeks. The two divisions were restored and rearmed by the Allied Army of the Orient under French command, a new Yugoslav unit was created on 14 January 1918 within the Serbian army, the 1st Yugoslav Division.
According to the American historian Alfred Rieber, while definitely playing a role in crucial fighting on the Eastern Front, the exploits of both Serbian divisions became magnified for propaganda purposes by nationalists. In retrospect, tensions both on and off the battlefield that existed not just in terms of ethnic heritage but also related to economic class and political ideology, even while fighters faced a common enemy in the Central Powers, foreshadowed conflicts in the future nation of Yugoslavia. According to Stevan Hadžić Dobruja was: "where all three brothers, Serb, Croat and Slovene, fought for the first time shoulder to shoulder for liberation and unification".
A white pyramid memorial known as the "Monument to the Heroes of the First Serbian Volunteer Division" (Serbian Cyrillic: Споменик јунацима Прве српске добровољачке дивизије) is located as a part of a cemetery complex in Medgidia, a city in southeastern Romania near the Black Sea. The monument was dedicated in 1926 as a token of gratitude for the heroic struggle of all units of the First Serbian volunteer division. The area itself houses the remains of thousands who died in defense of Dobruja. In a 2013 ceremony, local mayor Marian Iordache remarked, "We can never forget their achievement... so it shall remain until the end of time".
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- John Paul Newman 2015, p. 202.
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