How Did Austria Take Belgrade but Lose in Serbia? The Faltering Serbian Campaign

History Hit

3 mins

04 Dec 2018

Following the death of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 by Serbian assassin Gavrilo Princip, Austria handed Serbia the infamous ‘ultimatum’. When this was ultimately rejected, Austria would declare war on Serbia the very next month.

In what began as attempt to crack-down on Serbian defiance, and to display the unity and strength of the Austro-Hungarian nation, this crisis would intensify hostilities within the Balkans. This conflict would be swept up into the complex web of European alliances and hostilities, eventually culminating in the outbreak of World War One.

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Being fought throughout The Great War, the Serbian Campaign would be an everlasting and costly cause of frustration for the Austrian forces. Despite at several points seeming in the military ascendancy, Austria would be repelled, or forced to retreat time and time again before the eventual allied victory of November 1918.

One microcosmic example of the Serbian Campaign can be found in the short-lived Austrian occupation of Belgrade in the winter of 1914.

Russians stopped in Poland

Having already stopped the Russian advance on Krakow (capital of Austrian Poland) Conrad von Hötzendorf ordered the Austrian army to march on a Russian force which was paused in southern Poland.

Franz Graf Conrad von Hötzendorf, Austro-Hungarian general, Chief of the General Staff of the Austro-Hungarian Army.

The Russians had stopped due to disputes between its commanders Russki and Iwanow, the former advocated regrouping while the latter advocated a march on Budapest. The Austrians were able to drive back the hesitating Russians preventing Iwanow’s planned offensive into Hungary.

This would, however, be Austria’s final operation independent from Germany. Although this victory was important the Austrians had 8 million men fewer than Russia in terms of potential conscripts.

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In addition to that pressure on manpower German commander-in-chief Erich von Falkenhayn had announced on 1 December that no further reinforcements would be sent to the eastern front.

Austrians take Belgrade

The Serbians had inflicted heavy losses on the Austrians in their crossing on the Kolubara River and halted their advance but Belgrade still lay dangerously close to the front lines. It was decided therefore that the Serbian  High Command ought to evacuate from Belgrade.

‘Serbian Troops Marching Through the Countryside’ (Everett Marshall, 1914).

They did so on 29 November and by 1 December Austrian troops had taken the city. Seizing Belgrade had been the only war objective in the Austrian declaration of war made in July. The army paraded through the Serbian capital on 3 December and the were celebrations in Vienna for the impending victory.

Turning tides

While some Austrians were parading in Belgrade others spent 3 December fighting the Serbian army at Arandelovac. The Serbians had recently received fresh ammunition from the French and were able to inflict a decisive defeat on the Austrians.

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In their rush to take Belgrade the Austrian forces had become over extended and by  4 December they were in full retreat under Serbian pressure.

Archduke Karl, the heir to the Austrian throne, still believed the war in the east to be successful, so much so as to predict the imminent defeat of the Russians.  He was one of a number of leaders who, not truly grasping the situation on the ground, suggested the Western Front was unimportant and that other options should be explored, for instance an invasion of Italy.

Archduke Karl would later go on to become Charles I of Austria, the last Emperor of Austria.

This lack of understanding among senior military and political figures was one of the most enduring and dangerous characteristics of the Great War.