The Battle of Drina – October 1914
Excerpt from “My Dad, Volunteer in WW1. Abridged for Saturday Writing Essential
“28 June 1914, Vidov dan (St. Vitus Day).”
This is how Dad started his story while I was recording it on my cassette recorder.
“It’s two o’clock in the afternoon. We’re sitting in a coffee house by the lake on the outskirts of Graz when the waiter comes with the latest news: ‘Two hours ago Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo.’ We paid our bill and went home.”
“Only a day before, I had received a letter to report at Bregenz on Lake Constance for the voluntary one-year military service. “
“As soon as I arrived, a Czech student approached me and whispered into my ear when he had learned I was a Serb. ‘You know what you can do? You can go for an excursion on the lake to Konstanz.’ He was a one-year volunteer like me.”
“Thank you”, I replied. “I’ll think about it.” I knew what he meant.
“Yes, that would be a way out of this dreadful situation, I thought. I’d be free in Switzerland.”
“But first I went to see the captain of the garrison to report for duty. When he read my name, Bogdan Stojić, he asked me with a stern face: ’Du bist ein Serbe aus Sarajevo?’ And I replied politely: ’No, I’m a Serb from Croatia.’ He was quite unpleasant, clearly expressing his disgust at what had happened in Sarajevo. ‘See me tomorrow,’ he said.”
“The next morning, at 6 am I caught a ferry to the town of Konstanz. The German-Swiss border runs through the south part of the lake. I hired a boat and started rowing around in circles, wondering whether I should escape to Switzerland or not. I was rowing around for three to four hours unable to make a decision. I was thinking of my parents, my father could lose his pension and suffer all kinds of reprisals.”
In the evening, filial duty prevailed: Dad returned to Bregenz and the next morning reported to the captain.
“Tomorrow you’re going to ‘Freibürger’ school in Innsbruck,” the captain informed him.
“What kind of school?” I interrupted.
“Freibürger school, where students who volunteer to do military service for one year are trained to become officers. They were called ’einjährige Freibürger’, one-year volunteer. University students and those who matriculated enjoyed the privilege to choose three garrisons where they would prefer to serve. I chose all three in the Tyrol and Vorarlberg because I liked the mountains.”
“The next day I came to collect my travel papers and, to my shock, instead of going to Innsbruck I was being sent to Osijek in Slavonia to the 78th regiment of the Austro-Hungarian Army.”
The assassin spoiled Dad’s idyllic one-year voluntary military service in the picturesque Austrian Alps.
Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia exactly a month after the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife by Gavrilo Princip, one of a group of Bosnian nationalists who plotted the assassination in protest against the annexation of Bosnia by Austria-Hungary in 1908 and the oppressive rule that the Serb population was subjected to. They belonged to the movement “Mlada Bosna” (Young Bosnia), which was promoting ideas of young intellectuals who saw their future, free from Austrian domination, in a Yugoslav state.
The declaration of war on Serbia came as no surprise to those who followed the course of European history. This war had been in the making for many years with the superpowers playing their games of holy and unholy alliances. Recently, the Pan-Slavic movement became a threat to the multi-ethnic Austrian-Hungarian monarchy and Serbia was regarded as the main instigator of the Yugoslav idea. And Germany longed so much to get to the sea in the East, with the plan to crush Serbia made already in 1909. Gavrilo Princip’s response to the constant harassment of Serbian people by Austrian authorities was just the match that lit the carefully prepared bonfire - a good excuse for Austria to attack rebellious Serbia – after Serbia refused to sign the ultimatum whereby she would have to relinquish her sovereignty.
* * *
I loved listening to Dad’s wartime stories. I wish I had more time when he was still around, but I was a working mother and pursued some of my pastimes as well. There just isn’t enough time to do everything one would want to.
“You are lucky”, Sasha says. “All my father told me was how he enjoyed catching birds when he was a boy.”
* * *
Bogdan Stojić, aged 21, medical student, was sent to a garrison in Osijek, a pretty town on the Drava River in Slavonia. It must have been hard for him to put on the Austrian Infantry uniform. Although much more sophisticated than the one he wore when he volunteered in the Montenegrin Army in 1912, I’m sure he would have preferred to wear the ‘opanaks’ he wore then:
“We slaughtered an ox. From the hide we made our shoes and the rest was boiled in a big pot to feed us for a few days. We all made our ‘opanaks’ ourselves. You take a piece of hide larger than your foot, then you wrap it around your foot, pierce a few holes and stitch together the parts with thin strips of the same hide. The fur is on the inside, so they’re nice and warm. Once it happened that my ‘opanaks’ fell into the soup boiling in a big petrol drum. But I managed to convince everybody that all the germs had been killed by high temperature, and we all enjoyed our hearty meal.”
Bogdan was a resourceful young man!
Here he was in Osijek wearing the Austrian uniform. Here he was on training, about to take part in attacks on the Serbian Army. He didn’t cross Lake Constance to spare his father from reprisals. But now he would have to think of something.
He planned his escape. He just waited for the right opportunity. This is what he told me:
“It was a sunny day, five o’clock in the afternoon on 4 October 1914.”
Dad always remembered the date and what the weather was like. His memory in his late nineties was just amazing.
“Our position was at plate 712 in the mountains of Gučevo, north of Zvornik, over the Drina River. After the attack against Serb positions, I decided to try my luck. There were many killed and wounded. I was with the four stretcher-bearers, about 50 metres behind the frontline. For me this was an opportunity for reconnaissance. I sent two of my stretcher-bearers down into the valley to the completely deserted Serbian village. They found plums in big barrels prepared for making brandy. They found plum brandy too and brought back several flasks. I gave a flask to the sergeant-major. I ate my lunch and then on purpose partially burnt my tent. I changed my underwear, put in my haversack a tin of meat, a tin of condensed milk and the most important thing – white foot wrappings. Then I went to the sergeant-major and said: ‘My tent is burnt. There must be some tents on our killed soldiers who haven’t been buried yet. I’d like to go to the valley and fetch one.” And I went there with the sergeant. The distance between our and Serbian trenches was about 400 metres, and between them there was a valley with huge beech trees. We passed four dead barefooted Austro-Hungarian soldiers. I later noticed that Serbian soldiers were wearing Austro-Hungarian boots! The sergeant stopped to pee by a tree, so I quickened my step and when I lost sight of him, I took out of my haversack one white foot wrapping, fixed it to a twig and started to climb in the direction of the Serbian trenches. I soon spotted a Serbian soldier on guard. I thought he might shoot me, but he didn’t. And in a few minutes I found myself in a Serbian trench.”
Dad was so overwhelmed to be among Serb soldiers that he burst into tears and couldn’t stop crying.
“They kept asking me: ‘Did the Krauts kill your family?’ And I couldn’t even answer their questions – tears were choking me. When I calmed down, I said: ‘No, none of my family has been harmed. I’m just so happy to be here with you.’ I suppose I was also glad to be alive.”
In Dad’s eyes sparkled diamonds that almost became tears. For a moment I pictured him as he was then: so very young at twenty-one, so patriotic and brave with those white foot wrappings ready in his haversack.
“And then, what happened then?” I asked.
“I’m ready to fight on the frontline,” Dad told them.
“Well, we can’t decide that, son. You must go to the headquarters,” he was told. When the Commander heard he was a third-year medical student, he said: “You are worth to us more than ten soldiers.” And they sent him to serve in the military hospital in Niš, 180 kilometres south of Belgrade.
Bogdan’s defection from the Austro-Hungarian army took place during the Battle of Drina, the second victory of the Serbian army over the Austro-Hungarian army, and about a month after the Battle of Cer, the first victory of the Allies, which occurred after the first Austro-Hungarian invasion when Belgrade came under heavy artillery bombardment and the country was ravaged, houses burned, wells poisoned, and unspeakable atrocities committed against civilians, young and old, women and children as well. The ailing King Peter, riddled with arthritis, walking with great difficulty and with a grieving heart, made his way to the troops on the frontline and to boost their morale addressed them with these words:
“Heroes, you have taken two oaths: one to me, your King, and one to your country. From the first I release you, from the second no man can release you. But if you decide to return to your homes and if we should be victorious, you shall not be made to suffer.” (p. 582 Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, Canongate Classics 1993)
They all stayed and went on to prepare for a counter attack – the Battle of Cer in August, followed by the Battle of Drina in October.
© irina dimitric 2013
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