Great Retreat (Serbian)

The Great Retreat, also known as the Albanian Golgotha (Serbian: Албанска голгота), took place during the First World War following the invasion of Serbia by the Central Powers.[1] Facing total destruction but refusing to come to terms, the government and the supreme command made the decision, on 23 November 1915, to retreat through Montenegro and Albania where they hoped to reach the Adriatic coast and be rescued by Allied ships.[2]

Great Retreat
Part of Serbian campaign of World War I
Serbian retreat through Albanian mountains, 1915.jpg
Serbian retreat through Albanian mountains, 1915
Date25 November 1915 – 18 January 1916
42°22′56.69″N 19°58′51.29″E / 42.3824139°N 19.9809139°E / 42.3824139; 19.9809139
Result Central Powers victory
Royal Serbian Army is forced into exile
Central Powers capture Serbia
 Serbia  Germany

The retreat took the remnants of the Serbian Army, the King, hundreds of thousands of civilian refugees, with thousands of Austrian prisoners, across some of the roughest terrain in Europe in the middle of winter, enduring harsh weather, treacherous roads, and enemy raids. During the journey across the mountains, around 70,000 soldiers and 140,000 civilians froze, starved to death, died of disease or were killed by hostile Albanian tribes between November 1915 and January 1916.[3]

Out of around 400,000 people who set out on the journey, only 120,000 soldiers and 60,000 civilians reached the Adriatic coast to be evacuated to the Greek island of Corfu, 11,000 more would die later of disease, malnutrition, or exposure sustained on the retreat.[4] In some sources published following the conflict, the event was described as the greatest and most tragic episode of the Great War.[5]


Serbian campaignEdit

Central Powers attack on Serbia, October 1915

On July 28, 1914, a month after the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary, the second-largest country in Europe, declared war on Serbia. Five months later after suffering a third major defeat on the battlefield,[6] the ancient Habsburg Monarchy was left humiliated by "the peasant regiments of a small Balkan kingdom”. Franz Ferdinand had not been avenged, with the Dual Monarchy losing twice as many men as the Serbs had. The blow to Habsburg prestige was incalculable and Serbia marked the first Allied victory of World War One.[7][8]

In early 1915, the German chief of the general staff von Falkenhayn convinced the Austro-Hungarian chief of staff von Hoetzendorf to launch a new invasion of Serbia. In September Bulgaria signed a treaty of alliance with Germany and quickly mobilized its army. [9] On 6 October 1915, combined German and Austro-Hungarian forces under the command of Field Marshall August von Mackensen attacked Serbia from the north and west with the intention of drawing the bulk of the Serbian forces along the Sava and Danube.[10]

On 11 October, without any previous declaration of war, the Bulgarian started making attacks on Serbian border positions; then on 14 October Bulgaria finally declared war on Serbia, the First and Second Armies under the command of General Boyadzhiev, advanced into the Timok region of northeastern Serbia[11] with the mission of cutting the vital rail line that ran from Salonika, up the Vardar and Morava River valleys, and depriving Serbia of reinforcements and artillery ammunition.[12] Numbering nearly 300,000 men, the forces of Bulgaria quickly overwhelmed the weak Serbian units along the frontier.[11] The Serbian Army had 250,000 men of which a large number were already battling 300,000 Germans and Austrians in the north. In addition Austrian troops soon started marching from Dalmatia.[13]

Facing a front of 1,200 kilometres (750 mi) against three armies and as promises of aid and reinforcements from the Allies fell through, the Supreme Command of the Serbian Army started an organised retreat towards Kragujevac and Niš.[13] On 6 November the Bulgarian First Army, made contact with General Gallwitz’s Eleventh German Army in the vicinity of Niš, on 10 November they crossed the Morava River about 18 miles south of Niš and struck the Serbs. For two days, the greatly outnumbered Serbian army held Prokuplje but eventually had to retreat.[10]The pressure of the Austro-Hungarians, the Germans, and the Bulgarian First Army in the north and the Bulgarian Second Army advancing from the east forced the Serbs to retreat in a southwesterly direction into Kosovo.[1]  


Kosovo PoljeEdit

Frontlines of the Serbian Army between October and November 1915.

In mid-November, the Serbian armies reached Pristina ahead of their pursuers but were unable to break south through the blockade of the Bulgarian Second Army, at Kačanik Pass near Skopje, to reach Salonika and establish the liaison with the French troops of General Sarrail.[10]

The rupture of communications between Niš-Skopje-Salonika, and the rupture of the liaison with the Allies, brought the army into a most critical situation. Field Marshal Putnik begins concentrating his troops for the purpose of securing access to the plateau of Gnjilane known as the "Field of Blackbirds"; the region that resonated through five hundred years of Serbian history was the site of a famous battle in 1389 where the Serbs were defeated by the Turks, and later became the birthplace of Serbian nationalism.[14][1]

The entire Bulgarian army, supported from the north by parts of the Eleventh German Army, now advanced against the Serbs. Following intense fighting on 23 November Pristina and Mitrovica fell to the Central Powers, the Serbian government abandoned Prizren its last temporary capital in Serbia.[15]

Only three possibilities were considered: capitulation and separate peace, final honourable but desperate battle to annihilation, or further retreat. Nevertheless, only two options, retreat, and counter-attack were seriously considered, while the third one, capitulation, was not an option on the table; the Serbian government led by Prime Minister Nikola Pašić, Prince Regent Alexander and the Supreme Command under Field Marshall Radomir Putnik made the decision to order a general withdrawal and fight on from exile.[13]

The only possible avenue of escape lay to the southwest and northwest, over the towering Korab and Prokletije mountain ranges of Albania and Montenegro, part of the Dinaric Alps, a region of which the mean altitude is over 6,000 feet (1,800 m) as the snow began to fall. The Serbian Government planned to reorganise and reform the army with the help and support from the Allies.

On 23 November, Vojvoda Putnik ordered all Serbian forces to use the last of the artillery ammunition, then bury the cannon, taking breechblocks and sights with them; if burying the guns was impossible, they were to be rendered useless.[12]

On 25 November 1915, an official order of retreat addressed to the commanders of all armies, was published by the Serbian High Command:

The only way out of this grave situation is a retreat to the Adriatic coast. There our army will be reorganized, furnished with food, arms, munitions, clothing and all other necessities which our allies will send us, and we shall again be a fact with which our allies must reckon. The nation has not lost its being, it will continue to exist even though on foreign soil, so long as the ruler, the government and the army are there, no matter what the strength of the army may be.[16]

— Serbian High Command


Directions of withdrawal of the Serbian army during the retreat through Montenegro and Albania.

The Serbian Army split into three columns heading towards the mountains of Albania and Montenegro, pursued by the Austro-Hungarian Tenth Mountain Brigade and by the German Alpine Corps.[10]

The army’s rock-bottom morale was boosted by the presence of the ailing, 71-year-old King Peter, who had stepped aside  on June 14 to let his son Prince Alexander rule as Regent but now resumed his throne to face the crisis with his people. The elderly monarch, who was almost blind, traveled through the mountains riding in an ox cart.[17]

In order to evade General Mackensen's final encirclement effort, the Serbian army, and a mass of civilians fleeing the massacres perpetrated by Austro-Hungarian troops,[18] retreated along three routes, all converged on Lake Scutari, and from there reached the Adriatic.[19]

The group was composed of the First, Second and Third Army and the troops of the defense of Belgrade, it contained the largest contingent of Serbian troops, it also included a mobile medical unit named "The first Serbian-English Field Hospital", with two doctors, six nurses and six ambulance drivers, the unit was headed by British nurse and commissioned major, Mabel Stobart.[21] The retreat of this force to Andrijevica was to take place under the direction of the First Army, which, with this object, was to occupy positions at Rožaje. The mission of the troops of the defense of Belgrade was to cover the retreat of the Army of the Timok as long as that army had not begun its movement of retreat, and then to retire in its turn,[5] because of that the northern column delayed its departure from Peć until 7 December. It also had the responsibility to act as a rearguard against an attack by the Austro-Hungarians, Bulgarians, and Germans. Tracing an arc from northwest to southwest through Montenegrin territory and skirting the northern border of Albania, in the snow-covered mountains, hunger, exposure, and disease killed soldiers and civilians, as well as prisoners of war traveling with them, by the thousands.[22]

Serbian officers and artillery crews in Montenegro handed over 30 cannons to the Montenegrin Army,[12] Montenegrin forces played a key role in covering up the withdrawal, most notably against Austro-Hungarian forces in the Battle of Mojkovac.[23] The northern column began to reach Scutari on 15 December.

The central column consisted of the King, the Crown Prince, the administration and the Supreme Command of the Army, once across the Vizier's Bridge, the troops, who had retreated from Macedonia, would continue west, through Albania, ultimately to Alessio. The Timok Division would also continue to move south and then west through Albania to Durrës. It had the shortest route to the sea but encountered some resistance from hostile Albanians.[25]

Serbian artillery retreating

Essad Pasha Toptani, an Albanian leader and former Ottoman General, who was a Serb ally, provided protection where this was possible.[26] Where he was in control, his gendarmes gave support to retreating Serbian troops, but in more isolated place and as the columns moved to territories in the north, where Essad Pasha’s authority did not hold sway, attacks by Albanian irregulars became commonplace. The previous two Serbian Army invasions into Albania, one in 1913 and the second in May 1915, made many of the locals ready to take their revenge (perhaps also in retribution for Serbian brutality in the First Balkan War).[27][28][29][30] Regent Alexander crossed it in just two and a half days, the Serbian government set off on 24 November 15 and reached Scutari four days later, while the officers of the Supreme Command who accompanied the Chief of the General Staff Radomir Putnik took longer, leaving on 26 November and arriving in Scutari on 6 December.[23]

  • The Southern Column was sent in the third route of withdrawal, from Prizren to Lum and further through the Albanian mountains to Debar and Struga.[31]

The southern column was the first to depart and the last to arrive at the coast, the southern route presented the most direct way to make contact with Sarrail’s Army of the Orient. The General Headquarters had asked the commanders of these groups to keep in constant telegraphic communication, but from the first day of the operations, this was found to be impossible. The character of the country did not allow of any other means of communication, so that the commanders of these groups were, during the whole movement, left to themselves.
All the troops part of this group were placed under the orders of the commander of the Army of the Timok.[5] The column left on 25 November and moved south all the way to Elbasan. Along the way it had to contend with Albanian resistance and Bulgarian attacks; on 10 December, the Bulgarians attacked Serbian positions along the crest of the Jablanica mountain range.[32] As the Bulgarians again reached Struga before them, Serbian soldiers and civilians turned southwesterly marching down the Albanian coast to Valona and across via Tirana reaching Durrës on 21 December.

King Peter of Serbia during the Great Retreat by Frank O. Salisbury

As early as 20 November, Pašić had sent an urgent message to Serbia’s allies, asking for supplies, particularly food, to be sent urgently to the Adriatic ports, but when the Northern and Central columns arrived in Scutari, they found the harbour empty of the foreign ships they had expected and hoped for. Food had been dispatched from France and Britain, but it was in Brindisi, on the other side of the Adriatic, and the Italians had not allocated more than a few small vessels to transport it on to the Serbs.[11] Some supplies had come ashore in Durrës, so the columns of troops and refugees had no choice but to set off on further marches south.[11] Eventually, a decision was made to evacuate the Serbian Army, and its accompanying civilians, to the French-occupied Greek island of Corfu and as far as Bizerta in French Tunisia.[33] This decision, made primarily by the French and British, did not involve any discussions with the Greek authorities.[11] The French sent their navy and the evacuation started on 15 January, the embarkation was made from three ports, San Giovanni di Medua, Durrës and Valona.[34]

On 14 January the Serbian government, ministers and the members of the diplomatic corps boarded an Italian ship, the Citta di Bari, for Brindisi.[3] On 6 February the Serbian supreme command and Regent Alexander were evacuated to Corfu, where around 120,000 evacuees had arrived by 15 February and around 135,000 ten days later. Up to 10,000 evacuees had been taken to Bizerta around the same time. The Italians took over the majority of Habsburg prisoners, and transferred them to the uninhabited island of Asinara (off the coast of Sardinia).[27]

Most of the Serb troops had been evacuated by 19 February. The cavalry division was last to embark on 5 April 1916, which marked the end of the operation.[23]


Serbia Day, organized in Paris for the benefit of the Serbian Relief Fund on 25 June 1916 to coincide with the approximate date of the first Battle of Kosovo. Poster by Theophile Alexandre Steinlen

According to the official statistics from 1919, 77,455 Serbian soldiers died while 77,278 went missing. The worst fate befell the Southern Column where approximately 43,000 young boys, that would have become conscripts in 1916, had been taken by the Army to join the retreat; within a month approximately 36,000 of them died.[35]

Of the estimated 220,000 civilian refugees who had set off for the Adriatic coast from Kosovo, only about 60,000 survived. Those who survived were so weak that thousands of them died from sheer exhaustion in the weeks after their rescue.  Because the rock composition of the island made it hard to dig graves, those who died on the journey were buried at sea, bodies were lowered from French ships into the depths of the Ionian Sea, near the Greek island of Vido, more than 5,000 Serbs are believed to have been buried this way. The sea around Vido is known as: "The Blue Graveyard" (Plava Grobnica)"[36]
Field Marshal Putnik travelled to France for medical treatment, where he died the following year.[37] The Serbian Army was subsequently redeployed after Greece entered the war on the Allied side, some six Serbian infantry divisions and one cavalry division would eventually return to serve, playing a key role in the breakthrough of the Macedonian Front in September 1917, and the liberation of their homeland a year later.[38]

The retreat of the Serbian Army across Albania is considered by Serbs to be one of the greatest tragedies in their nation's history.[5]


See alsoEdit



  1. ^ a b c Hall 2010, p. 46
  2. ^ Hall 2014, p. 280
  3. ^ a b Pearson 2004, p. 95
  4. ^ Hall 2014, p. 279
  5. ^ a b c d Gordon-Smith 1920, p.1
  6. ^ van Ypersele, p. 287
  7. ^ Schindler 2015, p. 561
  8. ^ War in History, p. 159-195
  9. ^ hall 2014, p 162
  10. ^ a b c d Dinardo 2015, p. 110
  11. ^ a b c d e Buttar 2015, p.341
  12. ^ a b c Sanders 2016, p. 248
  13. ^ a b c Glenny 2012, p.334
  14. ^ a b Dinardo 2015, p. 106
  15. ^ Dinardo 2015, p. 19
  16. ^ Dinardo 2015, p. 115
  17. ^ Pearson 2004, p. 93
  18. ^ Vickers 1999, p. 88
  19. ^ RTS 2016
  20. ^ Sanders 2016, p. 247
  21. ^ Stobart 1916, p. 243
  22. ^ Dinardo 2015, p. 116
  23. ^ a b c Mitrović 2007, p. 161
  24. ^ Hall 2010, p. 46
  25. ^ Hall 2010, p. 280
  26. ^ Pavlović 2014, p. 163
  27. ^ a b Kramer 2008, p. 142
  28. ^ Mojzes 2011, p. 198.
  29. ^ Majstorovic 2014, p. 178.
  30. ^ Ramet 2006, p. 48.
  31. ^ Hall 2010, p. 280
  32. ^ Pearson 2004, p. 94
  33. ^ Thomas, Babac 2012, p. 95
  34. ^ Gordon-Smith 1920, p. 195
  35. ^ Reader's Digest, 2000
  36. ^ Askew 1916, p. 360
  37. ^ Buttar 2015, p.
  38. ^ Hart 2015, p 189


Further readingEdit

External LinksEdit