Why did Austria-Hungary fail to subdue Serbia in 1914?


WWI Italian postcard represents Serbia fighting with Austria and Germany, while Bulgaria tries to kill Serbia with a knife and Greece watches from the sideline

It's why the First World War started and where the first battles were fought, but the history of the Austro-Hungarian war with Serbia in 1914 tends to go uncovered in accounts of the war among western historians as fighting on the western front invariably takes centre stage. I began to wonder recently, however, why exactly it was that the empire of Austria-Hungary, while considered by historians as a dangerous anachronism, nevertheless a 'great power' was unable to defeat the small and newly formed Balkan Kingdom of Serbia. Indeed many Habsburg officers believed, like the legions of jingoistic politicians and journalists at the time, that the defeat of Serbia would prove no more than einen kleinen Herbstspaziergang `a brief autumn stroll’. So why did they fail miserably? We'll it looks like it's time for a spot of military history, an occasional indulgence of mine, for those of you who prefer something a little more socio-economic, I still recommend reading on -to some military history its the best laxative they have ever known.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 began the well-known sequence of events which led to the outbreak of the First World War. On 25 July, after weeks of diplomatic manoeuvring, the chief of the general staff, Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf, issued the mobilization order for the Austro-Hungarian units required under Case B, the war plan against Serbia and Montenegro. War with Serbia was officially declared on 28 July, when Habsburg batteries at Semlin on the Sava River began hostilities by opening fire on Belgrade.

Yet the Austro-Hungarian army in summer 1914 was far from being the instrument required to fight the epic two-front struggle it was embarking on. Decades of cost-conscious funding, whose root cause was the hostility of Hungary’s ruling classes to greater outlays for the k.u.k. Armee, resulted in a force perennially short of money required for recruits, training and equipment. The ten years before war saw a marked degradation of the dual monarchy’s fighting power compared to its adversaries. The army in 1914 lacked the trained cadres, reservists, weapons and munitions it needed to fulfil the grandiose strategic plans dreamed up by the general staff, Conrad in particular. The army was notably weak in fire-power, a critical deficiency; its artillery park was not only inadequate in number, but also in the main obsolete: on average, the Austro-Hungarian infantry division’s artillery brigade possessed fewer guns than any other significant European power’s. Moreover, the army’s tactical training and doctrine placed scant emphasis on using the artillery it had effectively; infantry± artillery cooperation was almost nonexistent.

Let's not get too vicious about this, however, be it the 'slowly collapsing like a flan in a cupboard' instrument of a 'slowly collapsing like a flan in a cupboard' empire, the army, like the empire, had many strengths, especially the hardiness and basic loyalty of its mostly peasant infantry, regardless of
nationality, but there can be no doubt that when a multi-front war arrived, the Habsburg military was unequal to the task. 

The summation of a Prussian officer who knew the army well `The Danubian monarchy’s strength and armed forces were adequate for a campaign against Serbia, but inadequate for war against major European powers’ was sadly accurate. To make matters worse, the army’s mobilization and initial deployment were managed so as to create needless difficulties. The fundamental problem, namely that the Habsburg army of 1914 was incapable of fighting a two-front war, was fudged by self-deception at the highest level. Conrad was well aware of these perils, noting privately at the outset, `It will be a hopeless struggle, but nevertheless it must be because such an ancient monarchy and such an ancient army cannot perish ingloriously.’ Disregarding reports of Russian troop movements as early as 20 July, Conrad initially ordered the mobilization of about half the army, as he wanted to settle accounts with Serbia, although he was privately convinced that war with Russia was inevitable. The chief of staff dispatched the equivalent of some 19 infantry divisions against Serbia’s 11 first-line divisions, a barely appropriate force ratio for an invasion; however, this left only about 30 infantry divisions to go on the offensive out of Galicia against 50 Russian infantry divisions. 

The actual mobilization of reserves went according to well-laid plans, so that the army’s full, if inadequate, order of battle was quickly ready for action: 48 infantry, two militia (Landsturm), and 11 cavalry divisions, supported by 20 provisional Landsturm brigades, and numerous replacement (Marsch) brigades, a total of 1.421.250 soldiers in combat arms and combat support units.  The general staff’s large railway department in most instances had calculated accurately the rolling stock required to move troops to staging areas; however, pre-war planners stipulated numerous pauses in rail movements, to allow for feeding and resting. As a result, trains moved to war at the leisurely pace of 11 m.p.h. (as against 20 m.p.h. in Germany), less than the speed of a bicycle. Needless delays were the inevitable outcome, an important defect considering how much depended on the rapid dispatch of Serbia’s army and the immediate redeployment of the 2nd Army against Russia. In spite of these delays, mobilization proved totally and unexpectedly successful in one area at least. The ethnic factor, the generals’ bugbear, was nowhere to be found. The anticipated mutinies of recalled reservists failed to materialize. The response of soldiers and civilians alike to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the crises which followed was almost unfailingly patriotic; there were even violent anti-Serbian demonstrations in Sarajevo, Zagreb and Ragusa. 

The problems of the 1908-9 and 1912-13 Balkan preventative mobilizations, which saw disturbances in some Czech units, were not repeated. There were no disturbances or mutinies in 1914, even among Slav troops; the official history, which rarely missed an opportunity to find fault with Czech troops in particular, characterized the mobilization as `completely without friction’ and the Habsburg army marched off to a major war for the first time in 48 years.

Operations against Serbia, the war’s first campaign, were placed in the hands of Feldzeugmeister Oskar Potiorek, Governor-General of Bosnia- Herzegovina. By early August, after some train delays, Potiorek had at his disposal the 5th and 6th Armies, known as the Balkanstreitkrafte, supplemented by the 2nd Army until 18 August. Then the 2nd Army would have to depart for Galicia, leaving behind one of its corps to reinforce Potiorek. Yet the 2nd Army was the strongest army on the Serbian front, three corps with almost seven infantry and one cavalry divisions. The 5th and 6th Armies were considerably smaller. The former included the equivalent of five infantry divisions in two corps; the latter also totalled five divisions, four of them mountain divisions of the XV and XVI Corps garrisoned in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Dalmatia. Potiorek’s plan was adequate on paper. He intended to send the 5th Army across the upper Drina River, advancing southeast towards Valjevo (see Map 1), while the 2nd Army on the Danube would conduct supporting attacks. The 6th Army, initially defending eastern Bosnia- Herzegovina against Serbian and Montenegrin attacks, would invade Serbia five days after the 5th Army crossed the Drina, through the Uzice gap, advancing into the enemy’s rear. 

Once primary objectives were reached, the 5th and 6th Armies would commence mutually supporting offensives towards Kragujevac in central Serbia, where the main body of Serbia’s field forces would be annihilated. The plan was to be executed quickly, not merely to provide units for the Russian front but also to persuade Romania to stay neutral, and to destroy Serbia before Bosnian Serbs had any chance to stage an anti-Habsburg revolt.
Unfortunately for him, Potiorek’s scheme neglected several difficulties. The terrain chosen was rough, even mountainous, and lacked decent roads; logistical support would be difficult. Besides, the 5th and 6th Armies, separated by over 70 miles at the outset, were too far apart to support each other; the necessarily limited role given to the powerful 2nd Army only worsened the odds. Last, the Balkanstreitkrafte were given the task of confronting an enemy of approximately equal strength and considerable recent combat experience, well placed and motivated to defend its own soil. Thus Potiorek’s war plan contained the seeds of its failure, perhaps unavoidably given the forces at his disposal.


Serbian Mobilisation
By any standards, the Serbian army was an impressive, if comparatively small, force. On total mobilization it included three armies (each actually the size of a large army corps) and more than 270.000 field soldiers, supported by many irregulars. The army’s main element was made up of ten first-line infantry divisions, five of them recruited in the districts won in the recent Balkan Wars. Serbian first-line divisions were somewhat larger than their Habsburg counterparts, including four four-battalion infantry regiments, each with a machine gun detachment (16 pieces per division), a 36-gun artillery regiment, a cavalry regiment with three squadrons and four machine guns, and two engineer companies. There were also five second-line divisions, `shadow’ formations for the first-line units from Old Serbia; these had only three infantry regiments and machine gun detachments (nine battalions and twelve machine guns in all), one or two artillery battalions (12± 24 guns), and two cavalry squadrons and two engineer companies. Despite the firepower differential, ample recent combat experience meant that first- and second-line divisions were nearly equal in quality. The army’s third line included 15 supplementary infantry regiments, four battalions each. There were also a small cavalry division and three separate artillery regiments to support the field armies. Swarms of irregulars supported the Serbian army in the field as well. Known as komitadji, these bands of up to 200 guerrillas were frequently armed with modern rifles, grenades and other explosives. As many of the irregulars possessed ample combat experience, the komitadji presented a formidable obstacle to any invading army, particularly in vulnerable rear areas. Despite the Serbian army’s peasant origins, it was a well-equipped force, as the small kingdom had invested heavily in armaments from all over Europe.  Therefore the Serbian army was at least as well equipped as its Habsburg adversary, and in many cases notably better supplied with modern weaponry, especially artillery. The experience of years of irregular warfare against the Ottomans as well as several major campaigns in 1912-13 in the Balkans gave the Serbian army an advantage over the Habsburg military, un-bloodied for two generations.  The test of war for Serbia had produced a force which was tactically proficient, well organized, equipped and administered, led by battle-tried officers, and fiercely determined to defend its homeland. Its only significant deficiency was a logistical inability to sustain a prolonged war. The Serbian high command was led by the stalwart Vojvoda Radomir Putnik, `the undisputed patriarch of Serbian soldiery’, the army commander since 1912. An able tactician and strategist, Putnik had been the architect of Serbia’s victories in the 1912 and 1913 campaigns. Ironically, Austria-Hungary might easily have been spared great difficulties, for Putnik was visiting Bohemia when the war broke out, taking the cure at Gleichenberg. The old general was briefly interned at Budapest, but was released as a soldierly gesture by Emperor Franz Joseph, to return home to defeat the Habsburg army.

While Vienna had followed Balkan military developments closely, and was impressively informed about Serbian order of battle, equipage and general war planning, it nevertheless underestimated Serbian martial prowess. The army tended to attribute Serbian successes in the Balkan Wars to Turkish numerical inferiority and poor readiness, rather than to Serbian tenacity and skill. This led to corrosive overconfidence among Habsburg officers from Potiorek down.

The Serbian war plan was not merely defensive: because the invader’s initial advances were to be thrown back by counterattacks. By the time Potiorek was ready to begin his offensive, the Serbian 2nd Army’s four infantry divisions and the 3rd Army’s two infantry divisions were positioned first to absorb and then push back Habsburg spearheads across the Sava and upper Drina.

The Habsburg army chosen for the most vital task in Potiorek’s operation was General der Infanterie Liborius von Frank’s 5th. This army’s two corps were the heavily Czech VIII and the strongly Croatian XIII, Army command held a mountain brigade and a Croatian militia brigade in reserve. The Croatian corps, with two infantry divisions and a separate infantry brigade, was the stronger of the two. The choice of General der Kavallerie Arthur Giesl von Gieslingen’s VIII Corps for such an important role was perhaps an odd one, given the army’s suspicions about its Czech troops.  Czech units from Bohemia had been the source of headaches for the army during the 1908-9 and 1912-13 mobilizations. Troops from three infantry regiments, inspired by pan-Slav propaganda, refused to entrain during the Bosnian annexation reservist recall; in some cases had been badly alienated by the Austro-Hungarian compromise (Ausgleich) of 1867, which only worsened the long-standing antagonisms between Czechs and Magyars. To Czech nationalists and Slavophiles, the Ausgleich condemned Hungary’s Slavs, and especially Slovaks, to Budapest’s misrule and Magyarization. 

The unalterable nature of the compromise and its inequities only angered the Czechs further. Nationalist campaigns grew increasingly shrill by the early 1900s, notably in Bohemia, where Czechs accounted for nearly two-thirds of the population. Still, Czechs had served the Habsburgs loyally for centuries; their prowess in the technical arms and services, especially the artillery, was widely acknowledged. Yet Czech nationalism presented a potentially serious problem by 1914. The use of German as the language of command and service annoyed many nationalist Czechs, who resented the superficially German character of the monarchy. That said, as a leading scholar noted of the Czech predicament, `On the eve of World War I the Czechs, though deeply frustrated in the Habsburg Empire, could not conceive of living outside of it’,and this was no less true of Czechs in uniform, the vast majority were prepared to do their duty when war came, as shown in the enthusiastic and patriotic response of almost all Czech fighting men in the summer of 1914.

Settled on the Sava, the division prepared for the coming offensive, making last-minute adjustments to organization, equipment and supplies. All units reached war strength by 11 August; the day before the war commenced in earnest. On 12 August the invasion of Serbia began, with the 5th Army’s VIII and XIII Corps crossing the Drina, heading towards Valjevo and the Jadar valley, supported by the fording of the Sava by the 2nd Army’s IV Corps. Potiorek, determined to win his first battle, not least to erase the embarrassment of having been commander in Bosnia-Herzegovina when the heir to the throne was murdered, noted confidently in his private diary, `Today my war has begun’. IV Corps quickly captured the border town of S├Ćabac, valued as a command and logistical centre. Yet the Drina crossing by XIII Corps proved easier than the more northerly movement of VIII Corps, which encountered stiff local resistance from Serbian border guards and irregulars. The 9th Division ran into two reinforced Serbian battalions supported by artillery, delaying the advance by a day. 

The 21st Division’s progress inland on 13 August was slowed by stiff resistance from Serbian irregulars. Although VIII Corps soon had reliable pontoon brigades over the Drina, the hilly terrain, combined with the lack of good roads or railheads near the front, led to delays and mounting supply problems, not least because service columns moved slowly across the Drina.  Worse, the Serbian high command at Kragujevac, having by now accurately surmised Potiorek’s intentions, shifted its field forces. The Serbian 1st Army now faced IV Corps, the 2nd confronted VIII Corps and the 3rd stood before the advancing XV Corps. On 14 August, the 21st Division continued its advance in a south-easterly direction. Three of its regiments, following the shortest route to Valjevo, entered the Cer mountain, a plateau twelve miles long and four wide, dominated by numerous hills and ridges between 1000 and 3000 ft. high. The strenuous uphill march proved trying for the heavily burdened infantrymen, most of them reservists. Supply problems mounted as the troops outpaced their logistical columns; the division was not equipped for mountain warfare, lacking mountain guns and pack animals. The provision of fresh food and water was poor, the latter being especially serious due to a daytime temperature frequently in excess of 95°F. Supplies were further delayed by komitadji attacks on vulnerable rear columns; infantry and cavalry patrols were required to protect logistical and artillery units.



By 15 August, Stepanovic , the former Serbian war minister and successful commander of the 2nd Army in the Balkan Wars, was ready to send his veteran troops of the Combined and Sumadija I Divisions, supported by the Cavalry Division, to confront Habsburg units advancing deeper into the Cerska planina. Sentries initially failed to react, as the Serbian infantry announced that they were Croatian Honved troops, and most soldiers were asleep when the enemy opened fire at very close range. The murderous crossfire cut down many infantrymen before they could resist. The attack produced chaos among the novice Bohemians, as officers tried desperately to rouse their men to form defensive positions, before being overwhelmed by Serbian infantry, moving forward through the standing corn under cover of darkness and rain.

The 28th Regiment’s forward positions were rapidly shattered, despite desperate attempts to coordinate a coherent defence.  Soon Przyborski was in action as well. Serbian assaults increased and Habsburg units counterattacked, causing confusion among commanders, and the divisional headquarters was in the middle of the fighting. Przyborski helped to rally his startled soldiers, forming them into viable units. As Serbian attacks came closer, the divisional commander, wielding a rifle, led the defence of the headquarters area. Przyborski at one point only had 20 men around him, many of them staff officers, but the position held, although the general was wounded. The confused melee, which raged for hours, was not so much an organized battle as a series of fire-fights at point-blank ranges, producing heavy losses for both sides By dawn both sides were exhausted, by mid-morning, positions had stabilized as exhaustion brought the battle to a close. Word had by now travelled up the Habsburg chain of command about the extent of the 21st Division’s losses. Serbian casualties included 47 officers and nearly 3000 men; their 6th Regiment lost all four battalion commanders and 13 of 16 company commanders. 

However, the 21st Division’s own losses had been severe, in some of its units crippling; it was certainly incapable of further advances. On Giesl’s orders, the 6th and 28th Regiments, which had borne the brunt of the battle, were the first to depart the field on 16 August. Their retreat was observed by Serbian King Peter, who watched the day’s events from a nearby hilltop. Throughout the day, komitadji inflicted casualties on rear units, including the artillery and the 7th Regiment, despite cavalry patrolling. The withdrawing 21st Division was pursued by Serbian cavalry and irregulars, resulting in several small yet bloody engagements on 17 August On 18 August Franz Joseph’s 84th birthday, and also the day the 2nd Army began to depart for Galicia ± divisional elements resisted more probes by Serbian infantry, cavalry and irregulars, and attempted to support the nearby 9th Division, which was under severe enemy pressure. Although the troops suffered from a lack of sleep and limited water and rations, the retreat was essentially orderly. The next day, the division left the Cer mountain, preparing to cross the Drina again. On 20 August, a relatively quiet day, Przyborski’s soldiers re-entered Bosnia, and by nightfall no units of the 21st Division remained on Serbian soil. The Serbian 2nd Army had delivered the Entente its first victory of the war.

After only a week in Serbia and one major battle lasting a few hours, the Austro-Hungarian invasion force had lost nearly a third of its riflemen. The exact number of dead was difficult to determine due to the confusion attending the retreat; many dead soldiers were thus listed as missing. In the worst case, the 28th Regiment lost 1700 men, over half its strength, but many of the two-thirds of the casualties listed as missing were dead on the Cerska planina. Although losses were heaviest among the infantry, service units had taken casualties too, and the artillery was substantially weakened: field batteries had lost half their pieces.

The division soon filled its depleted ranks with replacements from Bohemia and readied for further action. Although losses of men and materiel could be replaced, trained leadership cadres could not be. Worse, the damage to the division’s morale and cohesion caused by the Cer catastrophe would take considerable time to repair. The attitude of corps and higher commanders towards the division was hardly conducive to such restoration of battle-worthiness, and the situation soon worsened. The retreat of the 21st Division from the Cer mountain caused the immediate failure of the 5th Army’s offensive and precipitated a general Habsburg retreat. The withdrawal of VIII Corps from its untenable positions was soon followed by the move of XIII Corps back to Bosnia, thus ending the 5th Army’s 10-day offensive.  Therefore Potiorek reluctantly ordered a complete withdrawal by the Balkanstreitkrafte, and by sunset on August 24 no Habsburg units remained on Serbian soil.

The `brief autumn stroll’ had ended in disaster. The psychological impact of failure was shattering. While the losses of men and equipment could be made good, the ancient Habsburg army had failed ignominiously in the war’s first offensive. It had been humiliated, driven from the field by the forces of a small Balkan kingdom. At the cost of some 28 000 casualties, including 4500 prisoners in Serbian hands, the army had gained little but an appreciation for Serbian martial prowess. The Serbs had also suffered notable losses of 16 000 dead and wounded, an attrition of men and equipment it could not afford. However, Putnik’s victorious armies remained cohesive and ready to fight on. In Vienna and throughout the Habsburg army the search for a scapegoat commenced at once. Potiorek should have borne the commander’s traditional responsibility for failure, not least because his strategy had been poorly conceived and at best indifferently executed. Conrad complained often about Potiorek’s leadership, placing responsibility for defeat on his shoulders and those of his corps commanders. Nevertheless, Potiorek remained at his post, thanks to his excellent connections in the emperor’s military chancery.

As the Cer disaster was the immediate cause of the offensive’s failure, inevitably the 21st Division received a disproportionate share of the blame. Rather than find fault with army training and preparedness, much less Potiorek’s questionable planning, many Habsburg officers placed culpability on the 21st Division and its supposedly poor, even dishonourable, showing in combat. Accusations that the division `simply melted away’ and had `abandoned field guns and materiel’ began to spread, from Conrad down the chain of command. Worse, the division’s alleged failings were attributed not to military shortcomings but to ethnic disloyalty. Much of the officer corps, mistrusting Czech soldiers before the war, reverted to its deeply ingrained prejudices: to do so caused much less embarrassment and soul-searching than finding fault with the army and its leaders.

Potiorek quickly blamed the 21st Division for the failure of his offensive. He felt that the Bohemians had not done their duty, and the Czech infantry units doubtful reliability gave Potiorek the excuse immediately to impose emergency martial law on the division, now safely in Bosnia, to prevent further disintegration. The portrayal of the Cer battle which emerged and became widely accepted throughout the Habsburg army was one of battle® eld breakdown caused by poor leadership and cowardly, even treacherous, Czech behaviour. Blaming the failure of the 21st Division on Czech misconduct was convenient, but it contradicted what actually occurred. Many Czech units performed successfully in Serbia. Potiorek, among others, managed to ignore such awkward facts.


In truth, the fate of the 21st Division on the Cerska planina had little to do with Czech disloyalty. An untried, relatively poorly trained division, tired from long marches and inadequately supplied and nourished, was surprised at night by an equal number of battle-hardened, well-led enemy soldiers: the result could well be anticipated. Przyborski and his staff had neglected to provide proper reconnaissance of the mountain, in particular the Skakalite area, a grave defect with a decisive impact on the battle’s outcome; in this sense, the investigation’s harsh criticism of Przyborski was warranted. The division should not have been taken by surprise. Yet Przyborski and his officers somewhat redeemed themselves by fighting very bravely once battle was joined.

Thus the lesson learned by the Austro-Hungarian army from the first offensive against Serbia was not that its training and tactics were inadequate, especially when confronting an experienced foe, but rather that its soldiers -particularly Czechs needed closer supervision, vigorously enforced. In the aftermath of the Cer battle, army leaders badly alienated their Czech soldiers, and particularly the men of the 21st Landwehr Division. The survivors of the terrible night of 16 August, accused of cowardice and dereliction of duty, and compared unfavourably to their German comrades-in-arms, grew demoralized. Although Potiorek’s imposition of emergency martial law on the division was rescinded on Franz Joseph’s orders, there was little enthusiasm for the next phase of the war against Serbia, which was soon to come.

Putnik gave Potiorek’s forces little chance to rest. Although weakened by the Austro-Hungarian offensive, and lacking munitions and supplies for a protracted struggle, Serbian forces quickly carried the war to Habsburg soil. Units of the 2nd Army crossed the Sava into southeast Srijem, opposite Belgrade, on 6 September, taking the city of Semlin four days later. Serbian units only remained in Slavonia until 14 September, suffering a severe local defeat at Mitrovica, where one of their divisions was shattered by Habsburg forces; ominously, however, the invaders were greeted warmly by many Serbs in the Semlin area. More threatening was the Serbian-Montenegrin invasion of Bosnia. Some forty battalions, backed by numerous irregulars, crossed into eastern Bosnia, where fighting raged throughout September. Serbian units came within a dozen miles of Sarajevo before being beaten
back across the Drina.

The 21st Division had done its duty to the end, despite its egregiously insensitive and demeaning treatment at the hands of Potiorek and the high command. That said, the division’s appetite for battle had died with many of its soldiers on the Cer mountain, and it never regained the fervour and enthusiasm of the first days of the war. Indiscipline, while never significant, persisted throughout the Serbian campaign, as evidenced by self-inflicted wounds and desertion, the latter particularly in the last weeks of the campaign.  While Potiorek’s imposition of martial law may have prevented some 21st soldiers from deserting, it doubtless alienated many more. The much-maligned division fought on all the same; its Czech soldiers, most of whom stayed admirably loyal, if often unenthusiastic, in the fight against Serbia, were beaten by both the enemy and their own military bureaucracy.

The army’s undisguised lack of faith in its Czech troops continued unabated. A report by VIII Corps at the end of December, commenting on the `dubious manner of discipline’ in the last days of the Serbian campaign, advocated ever-stronger discipline, rather than the creation of inner motivation, as the solution to morale problems.  While the army doubtless needed stronger discipline in some cases, the option of treating Czech troops more equitably to cure low cohesion and motivation was apparently not considered. Instead, the army persisted in singling out Czech units for special treatment. The practice of relocating Czech Ersatz units to `safe’ areas actually increased, with predictable effects on morale and enthusiasm. The fate of the 21st Division on Cer mountain, and its alleged ethnic roots, haunted the division, and in a sense all Czechs in uniform. The division’s accomplishments in Serbia, as well as the excellent performance of other Czech units tended to be forgotten, or at least greatly undervalued, by the high command. Czech enthusiasm for war against fellow Slavs, never high, had been permanently blunted. Army insensitivity, combined with understandable pessimism stemming from defeats and horrible casualties, led to disaffection among Czech troops, especially in rear areas and depots. By the end of 1914 the summer’s bellicose and patriotic slogans had disappeared from the lips of Czech recruits: trains of Czech replacements headed for the Eastern front were seen leaving Prague painted with the slogans `cannon fodder’ and `shipment of Czech meat to Galicia’.

The Balkan Army of Austria Hungary was from now on never anything but a shell of its former self. Leadership cadres had been destroyed, with brigades commanded by colonels, regiments by lieutenant-colonels and majors, and battalions by captains. Of the ten officers leading infantry battalions on 8 December, seven were gone, killed or wounded, in less than a week. The critical officer shortage could not be remedied. Even fresh infantry was hard to come by. By the end of 1914, after two infusions of replacements from Bohemia, the 21st contained only 5575 riflemen; three of its four infantry regiments counted barely more than 1000 men each. The division had to be reduced temporarily to a single brigade of five battalions.


In time the 21st Division would regain its strength, but never again would it demonstrate the cohesion and motivation it enjoyed in the summer of 1914. It could replace men and equipment, but not fighting spirit. Like most in the Balkans, they were soon dispatched to the Eastern Front, to the frozen hell of the Carpathians, to combats and conditions worse than anything experienced on the Sava, Drina or Kolubara. The Serbian front, where so many Habsburg soldiers gave their lives in Potiorek’s grand but futile offensives, quietened down, falling into temporary obscurity. Indeed, for the 21st Division, a long war had really only just begun. The heavy losses of opening battles represented only a small fraction of its wartime casualties: the 6th Landwehr Regiment’s total of 556 killed in action in Serbia surpassed the losses of other 21st Division units; however, 4844 more soldiers of the 6th Regiment would lose their lives in battle before the division’s long, total war would come to an end, four years later.

The failure of the dual monarchy to subdue Serbia in a four-month campaign constituted a severe psychological as well as strategic setback.  It can now be attributed to a myriad of the tactical shortcomings of the Habsburg army in 1914 and the basic weaknesses of the Austro-Hungarian military, but also the poisonous nature of the `national question’ in Vienna’s forces, and the often counterproductive methods the army used to enforce discipline among allegedly unreliable ethnic groups. It was unfortunate for Vienna that the spearhead of the initial Habsburg invasion of Serbia in mid-August would be the heavily Czech VIII Army Corps , the most politically sensitive command in the army. Long suspected by the high command of harbouring Slavophile and even treasonous tendencies, the Czech troops of its inadequately trained 21st Division nevertheless were fated to bear the brunt of the doomed Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia. When the Habsburg effort proved abortive, the army blamed its allegedly disloyal Czechs for the misfortune, with momentous consequences for the Habsburg military and war effort. Czech disaffection was the result of the army’s ill-fated nationalities’ policies, not the cause, and, significantly, was nowhere in evidence upon mobilization in late July, the last fleeting moment when the Habsburg army would appear as a self-confident and united force.


Monument to fallen heroes of the Battle of Cer