General Draza Mihailovich
Josip Broz Tito
September 10, 2014
[English translation of original
"Novosti" article in Serbian by Boris Subašić
Vecernje Novosti Sept. 8, 2013 - last year]
99 years later, we’re back in the trenches where the 1914 Battle of the Drina took place, one of the fiercest in World War I. Hill 708, the grave of heroes that resisted Austro-Hungarian attacks for 55 days, was hidden from Serbia.
Photo: Vecernje Novosti Sept. 8, 2013.
Even 99 years later, endless trench lines, foxholes and craters from the Great War still crisscross and pit the ridges of mountains Gučevo, Boranja and Jagodnja – Serbia’s natural parapet on the right bank of the Drina. On September 7, 1914, the most terrible battle of the Great War began on the heights from Gučevo to Mačkov Kamen, during the second Austro-Hungarian invasion. Defending Hill 708 and Eminove Vode, thousands of Serb soldiers perished in 55 days of bloody fighting.
Older locals tell that long after the battle, the peak of Mt. Gučevo – scorched and stripped bare by artillery fire – would glow with an eerie green phosphorescence, from gasses released by unburied corpses. Eventually, the forests grew back and partly covered up the wounds of battle on the tortured ground. Yet not even a century of rain, snow and leaf deposits could fill in the hole that was once a bunker. A charred beam still sticks out of the ground. Some ways away are remnants of a stone wall protecting a machine-gun position. If one scratches the earth beneath the thick layer of leaves, it is easy to find expended bullet casings, shrapnel, or pieces of bone. Human. But no one comes to this terrible and holy place to so much as light a candle.
“The only people that come through here are foresters, loggers and an occasional hiker,” says Žarko Ćosović, chairman off the „Battle of Drina Memorial Society“ from the nearby Banja Koviljača. “No one knows this is the grave of heroes who held the Austro-Hungarian invader for 55 days from breaking through. Serbia was made to forget this place.”
As we crossed the three kilometers of muddy forest trails between the Gučevo’s Crni Vrh plateau – where a memorial ossuary has been built – to the “bloody Hill 708″, Ćosović told us about the battle. In 1914, Gučevo was the gateway to the Jadar valley and the road towards Valjevo. Commander of Austria-Hungary’s Balkans expedition, Oskar Potiorek, wanted to take Gučevo at any cost: he sent 125,000 men, 165 cannons and 92 machine-guns. The Gates of Serbia were defended by 60,000 Serbian soldiers, 88 cannons always short of ammunition, and 43 machine guns.
“There were 180,000 men fighting over a 10-kilometer front,” says Ćosović, pointing to the old parapets lining the forest trail. Left, down the slope, are the Serb positions. On the right, above, Austrian. “The famous photograph of Broz in Austrian uniform, as he aims below at the Serbian trenches (see here), was taken at Gučevo,” Ćosović notes bitterly.
WW1 collage: Josip Broz (left) and Dragoljub Mihailovich (right),
via Uroš Parezanović.
[Note: Photo of Tito - 1914. Photo of Draza on Salonika Front 1918]
Vienna’s hope on the Gučevo front was the 42. Croatian Home Guards Division, which earned the sobriquet “Devils” through unprecedented atrocities against civilians in Mačva. These atrocities were covered up in both Yugoslavias, as they had been committed by regiments from Zagreb, Karlovac, Sisak, Osijek, Varaždin, Sinj, Otočac, Sarajevo, Tuzla, Mostar…
“They were the most fanatical Austro-Hungarian soldiers. To the calls of Serbian defenders, ‘Don’t shoot! We’re brothers!’ they would respond with withering fire,” Ćosović tells us.
As we approach the peak, the network of trenches becomes denser. At Eminove Vode, they are but ten steps away. “The Serbian Army was running out of artillery ammunition, while the enemy constantly shelled the peak of Gučevo to cover the advance of their infantry,” Ćosović tells as we walk down the trench snaking between the trees. “This is why soldiers of the Drina and Combined divisions would dig trenches during the night to get as close to the enemy as possible. They would use grenades and bayonets to retake positions from which Austrian cannon fire had pushed them back. It was the longest and most horrible close-combat battle [for Serbia] in the Great War,” he concludes.
“The Battle of Drina was the first real case of trench warfare in World War One, a preview of the Western Front before the lines had stabilized in northern France,” says historian Dragan Krsmanović, retired colonel and former director of the Military Historical Archive. He is the expert the Battle of Drina Memorial Society engaged to lead the project of marking a trail through the Gučevo battlefield, so it would be rescued from oblivion.
Scars of battle are still deep, especially from the sapper battles fought at Gučevo, first of the Great War. Giant craters, 16 meters wide and about 7 meters deep bear witness to them. Amateur historian Mića Tomić, who is gathering testimonials about the Great War, let us in on their secret. “My grandpa’, a miner and sergeant in the Drina Division, dug under the Austrian positions and blew them up,” says Tomić. At the end of September 1914, the Austro-Hungarians brought up fresh forces and began to push back the Serbs from Eminove Vode, below Hill 708. Serbian miners, such as Tomić’s grandfather, dug tunnels under the enemy and demolished them. The explosion looked like an erupting volcano.
The autumn of 1914 was very wet and foggy. It often rained, and the battle was fought in the clouds. Serb firing positions would hang on the steepest slopes, like swallow-nests, out of reach of Austro-Hungarian artillery. The enemy responded by using incendiaries and poison gas. Serbian heroes withstood that as well, though their supply situation was desperate.
“Frontline troops are suffering the greatest shortage of footwear, clothing and camping equipment. Vast numbers of recruits are fighting in their threadbare peasant clothes. There are regiments that nearly barefoot force-march across great distances and enter fighting completely barefoot,” wrote War leader Stepa Stepanović with bitterness to the government in Niš. Contractors would charge for equipment that never reached the front lines, while the Allies were not sending the ammunition they had promised in exchange for a bloody and futile Serbian attack in Syrmia.
“We are almost out of ammo for mountain guns and howitzers. On the Gučevo-Kostajnik front, our mountain batteries fell silent when their help was needed the most”, wrote to the government the commander of the Third Army, Pavle Jurišić Šturm.
Even so, the Austro-Hungarian infantry could nott seize the mountain range from Gučevo to Mačkov Kamen. “The unbreakable will of Serbs to fight has thwarted multiple times even those successes achieved over several days and with great sacrifice,” an Austro-Hungarian division reported from Gučevo.
When his cannons failed to drive off the Serbian army, Potiorek sent the 25th Zagreb Regiment to Hill 708. In it were Josip Broz, Vlatko Maček, Miroslav Krleža, and probably also Svetozar Pribićević, a Serb from Croatia. All of them were prominent political figures in both the Kingdom of Yugoslavia [Maček and Pribićević] and the Socialist Federated Yugoslavia [Broz and Krleža] – and for that reason, the story of the Battle of Drina was kept a secret. More so, because one of the defenders of Gučevo was Dragoljub Mihailović, sergeant in the Third Reinforced Regiment of the Drina Division. “Gučevo was the first battle between Draža and Tito, in which Broz lost. His company was completely defeated, and he never forgot that,” says Col. Krsmanović.
Even though the battle on Mt. Gučevo was crucial for the eventual collapse of the Austro-Hungarian invasion, it was kept out of history books almost entirely. “One reason is that Gučevo demonstrated the errors of the Serbian government and military command,” says Col. Krsmanović, former director of the Military Historical Archive. “But a more important reason was that Gučevo demonstrated how our ‘Yugoslav brothers’ were willing to fight against the Serbs and commit atrocities against civilians. After the 1918 unification, it became politically incorrect to point this out.”
“Gučevo and the whole Battle of Drina were a taboo subject during Communism,” says Aleksandar Dumić. “My father earned the Star of Karageorge on Gučevo. During the retreat across Albania, he carried the old King Petar on his back. At Kajmakčalan he lost his right arm. His family was killed by the Austro-Hungarians. After the Second World War, the Communists took away his house. When I started High School, the teacher made me stand before the class and told everyone, ‘This is the son of a pathetic hero that fought for nothing, for the king and his oppressors’. Only then did I find out my father was a war hero. He wouldn’t let us talk about the Balkan Wars or the Great War in the house, but it didn’t matter. Tito never forgave the heroes of Gučevo for driving him out of Serbia,” Dumić says as we wade through the trenches at Eminove Vode.
Col. Krsmanović points out that Sergeant Broz of the “Devil’s Division” was decorated for his actions on the Serbian front. “He advanced very quickly for a NCO, and no doubt took part in battles in Mačvi, then on the Drina, most likely at the Ada Kurjačica and Jelave bridgeheads, and after that on the ridges of Gučevo,” says Col. Krsmanović “Since he was a scout, he certainly interrogated prisoners and had contact with civilians, which directly links him to Austro-Hungarian atrocities. There was no documentation of his conduct in the war that I could find, but I did run across a story of him being arrested for an attempted rape. His hagiographers changed that to arrest for antiwar propaganda, but that is entirely not true. This is why the Battle of Drina is still a sore subject, still hidden behind the veil of silence.” he concludes.
Yet the world had heard about Gučevo as early as 1915. Six months after the battle, American journalist John Reed toured the killing fields and filed a harrowing report:
“On one side of the no-man’s-land were Serbian trenches, Austrian on the other. Barely a dozen yards apart. The ground between the trenches had been turned into irregular clumps of dirt. Taking a better look, we saw with horror that the clumps were really pieces of uniform, skulls with hair matted to them, bloody bones sticking out of combat boots. We were walking on the dead. There were so many, our feet would sometimes slip into a pile of rotting meat, crushing the bones. For six miles along the ridge of Guchevo, the dead were stacked like that, ten thousand of them.”
“For years I would hear the locals talk about herding cattle on Gučevo, on fields covered with human bones,” says Žarko Ćosović. “A few years ago, an old shepherd found a bayonet sticking out of the ground, and began to dig. He dug up a skeleton of a kneeling man with a rifle in his hands. It was a Serbian soldier, who had been preparing leap out of his foxhole when he was buried alive by an explosion.”
Oskar Potiorek, a Germanized Slovene, was the commander of the Austro-Hungarian Balkans expedition. He pathologically hated the Serbs, and would say that Austria-Hungary would know no peace until Serbia was on her knees. His greatest hope in battles on Mt. Gučevo was the 42nd Croatian Home Guards Division.
“Its commander was Stjepan Sarkotić, a great enemy of Serbs and Yugoslavia,” says Col. Krsmanović. “Between the end of the Great War and 1929, he would be in charge of the ‘Croatian Committee’ in Vienna, literally the forerunner of the Ustasha – his successor at the head of the Committee was Ante Pavelić.”
Another member of the 25th Regiment, alongside Josip Broz and Vlatko Maček, was Slavko Štancer, who would become the top officer in the [Nazi] Croatian Army in 1941.
THE DARK OSSUARY
Only some of the bones of those who died in Battle of Drina were buried at the ossuary in Gučevo, built in 1929 as a private endeavor of the Union of Reserve Officers and Veterans. Croatian politicians opposed any attempt to commemorate the battle.
“No one could bury the people who had been pulverized into the ground,” says Ćosović as we tour the ossuary. “All of Mt. Gučevo is their eternal rest. That’s why we are begging the state to help just a little bit, after 99 years, and build a forest trail so people can come and honor the heroes who gave their lives for Serbia.”
From the hilltop, one can see all of Mačva, the Drina valley, and Bosnia – from which iron rain came down for 55 days in the autumn of 1914.
“A piece is missing from the Serbian coat-of-arms on the monument,” says Ćosović, “Stone benches with the sleeping lions, guarding the bones of the fallen, have cracked.
Someone stole pieces of the wrought-iron fence, and the wiring for the floodlights that had shined upon the monument. Once you could see it from afar, like a lighthouse. Now it has vanished into darkness. I fear that fate will befall Serbia, too, as it forgets its heroes.”
(Translation by the Reiss Institute. Fair use only, all rights reserved)
Original article in the Serbian language from September 8, 2013:
If you would like to get in touch with me, Aleksandra, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org