Sunday, May 21, 2017

Serbia and the Balkan Front, 1914

Having recently been motivated to give the early years of WWI some study with the purchase of GMT's 1914: Serbien Muss Sterbien,
I ordered James Lyon's 2015 book on the heretofore little covered 1914 Serbian campaign to help provide historical context to the boardgame.  Did Lyon's book provide the historical context I sought towards enhancing my understanding of the situation and campaign?  Did reading Lyon increase my anticipation of cracking open the game?  Yes, on both counts !  James weaves a well-told story providing background leading up to the campaign, its prosecution, and eventual outcome.

From the back page of the book, a summary of the work is provided hinting to the importance of the campaign in the grand scheme of WWI.
Winner of the 2015 Norman B. Tomlinson, Jr. Book Prize
Serbia and the Balkan Front, 1914 is the first history of the Great War to address in-depth the crucial events of 1914 as they played out on the Balkan Front. James Lyon demonstrates how blame for the war's outbreak can be placed squarely on Austria-Hungary's expansionist plans and internal political tensions, Serbian nationalism, South Slav aspirations, the unresolved Eastern Question, and a political assassination sponsored by renegade elements within Serbia's security services. In doing so, he portrays the background and events of the Sarajevo Assassination and the subsequent military campaigns and diplomacy on the Balkan Front during 1914.
The book details the first battle of the First World War, the first Allied victory and the massive military humiliations Austria-Hungary suffered at the hands of tiny Serbia, while discussing the oversized strategic role Serbia played for the Allies during 1914. Lyon challenges existing historiography that contends the Habsburg Army was ill-prepared for war and shows that the Dual Monarchy was in fact superior in manpower and technology to the Serbian Army, thus laying blame on Austria-Hungary's military leadership rather than on its state of readiness.
Based on archival sources from Belgrade, Sarajevo and Vienna and using never-before-seen material to discuss secret negotiations between Turkey and Belgrade to carve up Albania, Serbia's desertion epidemic, its near-surrender to Austria-Hungary in November 1914, and how Serbia became the first belligerent to openly proclaim its war aims, Serbia and the Balkan Front, 1914 enriches our understanding of the outbreak of the war and Serbia's role in modern Europe. It is of great importance to students and scholars of the history of the First World War as well as military, diplomatic and modern European history.
What I did not realize before reading Lyon was just how important this campaign was for providing the Triple Entente its first victories of the war and for drawing needed Austrian resources away from the Eastern Front. 

Lyon begins by laying the historical foundation for the cause of the conflict's eruption in the Balkans in 1914.  In many respects, 1914 was a continuation of previous Balkan Wars as prior conflicts had not released existing pressures in the region.  From the assassinations of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie in Sarajevo in 1914 through the conclusion of the Balkan 1914 campaign, Lyon recounts important events during the early stages of WWI.

Lyon smoothly moves from the strategic to the operational to the tactical level of the Serbian conflict providing details on the thinking and decision making at all levels of command.  Fascinating study of the motivating factors from both sides of the conflict.

This is really a story of David (Serbia) vs Goliath (the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary) and how Serbia overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to defeat the powerful Dual Monarchy.  Time and time again, the under supplied Serbian Army came back from near defeat against unfavorable odds to stop the aggressions of the mighty A-H Empire.  Without proper food, clothing, weapons, and ammunition, the Serbian Armies struck back to thwart Austrian attacks time after time.  

How could this result happen?  Lyon presents a number of arguments for Austria-Hungary's defeat.  Poor strategic planning coupled with poor A-H generalship allowed the Serbs to hang on and then turn the tables on the Dual Monarchy.  On a tactical level, the Dual Monarchy failed as well.  Its artillery advantage was rarely fully employed and infantry attacks repeatedly went in without proper artillery support.  Artillery was seldom concerted and A-H infantry often used massed formations on the attack.  In an age of machine guns, this tactic was a recipe for mass casualties for little gain.  Finally, when the Dual Monarchy was successful on the battlefield and had wrong-footed the Serbian forces, the Dual Monarchy was slow to pursue.

To counter these Dual Monarchy shortcomings, the Serbs relied on battle tested commanders and troops motivated by the cause to defend their homelands.  Throughout the campaign the Serbs exhibited terrific initiative  and staying power that the Dual Monarchy troops could not match.  While the Serbian Army might suffer demoralization due to losses or lack of supplies, as soon as supplies began to flow to the front line troops, over to the offensive they went.  Hardy souls, no doubt.       

Not being that familiar with Balkan geography, I found myself flipping back to find the few maps included to pinpoint the villages, towns, and geographic features described in the text.  More maps would have aided my understanding and enjoyment of the well-written battle accounts.  Overall, I highly recommend Lyon's work on this often overlooked start to the First World War conflict.

18 comments:

  1. Sounds interesting, I guess the Serbs had been through a number of balkan wars by the time ww1 came around and were used to using their initiative and being successful which counts for a lot, the dual monarchy had lost in 1866 and in Italy and all through it's military history it seems to react slowly and be led by less than the best (with the exception of Prince Eugene) , sweeping statement I know!
    Fascinating area in this and unfortunately many other periods from a military history standpoint.
    Best Iain

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    1. Iain, you summed up the situation nicely. The Serbs were battle hardened after years of conflict while the AH troops were less well led and motivated. See Janos' interesting comment below on the Hungarians.

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  2. Very interesting Jonathan. I haven't read on this topic very much at all. I do enjoy a good wargame from time to time too (GMT, Decision Games, etc..)

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    1. Interesting indeed! Just the proper background needed to better enjoy this GMT game.

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  3. I have recently read a memoir from this front. In Hungarian. The Hungarian staff sergeant Antall Hermann (36 years old) who written down his experiences was served in his young age in the common army for years (the Monarchy had 3 armies that time) then became a reservist in the Hungarian Honvéd army. He was the most competent soldier in this reservist company, so step by step he became the real commander of the unit. For them this war was pretty much like 1848 or 1859. Armed only single shooter old rifles, 35+ or older fathers skirmishing in the mountains against the Serbs. Lack of information from the world around, sometime they see some villages again after a week marching, so they know they are retreating. A second line Empire, second front, with reservists against the well motivated Serbs. For these soldiers, the Serbs was a formidable enemy, hunting each other in the forests and mountains.
    He later in 1916 became a POW in Russia, escaped, went home to recruited again and send to Italy in 1918. Served from the first day until the last of the hole war. Died in 1965, his grandson is a leading Hungarian Professor of the Military History.

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    1. Janos. thank you so much for your enlightening peek into the Hungarian situation during the early stages of WWI. Your contribution to this topic is appreciated!

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  4. I have also enjoyed the book. When do we play Serbien muss Sterbien?

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    1. Good read, for sure! Did it make you want to replay the campaign with GMT's game? Do you have SmS?

      I would enjoy tackling this one FtF some time but also Tunisia is high on my list of topics to game with you.

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  5. Thanks for the review. i have added it to my wishlist!

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  6. I too will add it to my very long reading list. It is a much ignored front, but as you have alluded a crucial one since drew a significant nunmer of Austro-Hungarian troops from that opening campaign against the Russians.

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    1. With so few books on this topic, it is a must read for those interested in this campaign.

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  7. There is a boardgame by SPI on Serbia in 1914 as part of their Great War in the East quad. It uses the same rule mechanisms as per their Tannenberg game. I played it a number of times and enjoyed it.

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    1. I did not know of the SPI quad game with Serbia 1914. I bet GMT's offering is several steps above it in terms of complexity.

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    2. GMT games that I've seen are very impressive. You can see the SPI game here: https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/8070/great-war-east

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    3. GMT's 1914 series is impressive as well. First rate components. Check it out on BGG. Beautiful!

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  8. Good review. Thanks for taking the time and effort to produce it and to share this resource. This is an often glossed-over aspect of the Great War, usually tossed off with a sentence or two about the outbreak of hostilities. Few people realize that the Balkans had essentially been in a state of war since 1912 (in the two Balkan Wars), or place the events of 1914 in that context.

    Good stuff.

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    1. Lyon crafts a good story of these early and oft-overlooked stages of the Great War.

      Reviews and BatReps do take time and effort to draft. If only a few post a comment of thanks then it is a worthy undertaking. Even better, as in your case, when I receive support and encouragement.

      Much appreciated, Ed!

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