Few countries began World War I with a supreme commander who had the breadth of experience of Serbia’s Marshal Radomir Putnik. A successful battlefield commander and a skilled administrator, he largely built the armies that Serbia fielded in 1914, and he directed them as well as any commander might have done during the next two years. Defeat became certain when Serbia’s enemies banded together for a joint effort, and her allies did not; the rigors of the campaign also hastened Putnik’s death. Radomir Putnik planned a solid defense and executed it well, but the failure of Serbia’s diplomatic efforts to win an intervention by its allies doomed it in the long run.
When Putnik was born in 1847, his native land was still a part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1878, Serbia won its independence as part of a series of conflicts that sheared away Turkish possessions in Europe. Putnik had served in the army until 1895, when he retired from active service. Like several other senior commanders in World War I, however, he was persuaded by his government to return to service after his retirement; in his case, that call came long before 1914. In 1903, Serbian officers staged a bloody coup that killed the king and queen and placed a new ruler on the throne, King Peter. The new king personally appealed to Putnik to return to the colors and serve him as Chief of the General Staff.
Putnik accepted this post, and during the next eleven years he was also named War Minister three times. In these two capacities, he did much to build the Serbian Army into an effective and reasonably modern fighting force. While the advent of the First World War would catch Serbia with inadequate artillery and with outdated rifles in second-tier units, it remained true that there were enough rifles for all of its soldiers, which could not always be said of the Russian Army.
He also prepared his forces for a major conflict in another way: he led his army in war, and won. Under Putnik’s leadership, Serbia participated in two Balkan wars between 1912 and 1913. In the first, Serbia joined with Montenegro, Greece and Bulgaria to push the Turks back to Istanbul and, in the second, Serbia and Greece turned on former ally Bulgaria with the cooperation of Romania and Turkey. Both campaigns were successful for Serbia, and Putnik led his forces actively. For his victories against the Ottomans, Putnik received the title of Voivode; in English this term means “warlord,” but carries none of the negative connotations. It was a distinction that could only be earned on the battlefield.
By 1914, Putnik was nearing the age of seventy, and his health was deteriorating. Ironically, he was recuperating at an Austrian spa when the war began. The Austrians would later pay dearly for the gallantry with which they permitted Putnik to return to his country. Putnik returned at once to work; as chief of staff to Prince Alexander, he governed the army in the prince’s name. With the raising of reserves and a small contingent of Montenegrin volunteers, Putnik had enough men for three armies, which he arrayed in the north of the country, ready to respond flexibly to the expected Austrian attack.
Here, at least, Putnik was surprised by the Austrians. While the war began with the ceremonial shelling by Austrian gunboats of the Serbian capital, Belgrade, which was perched precariously at the extreme north of the country, the invasion did not follow in that sector. Instead, the Austrians came through Bosnia-Herzegovina, at the northwestern end of Serbia. There, the terrain was better suited to an invasion, and the Serbs had no fortified positions.
A lesser commander might have taken the bait, and rushed headlong into withering fire as a result. Putnik scrambled his forces and led them on a forced march, but stopped short of the enemy positions, instead occupying commanding terrain along the river Vardar. When the Austrian advance came, it was the Serbs who were in a position to deliver a withering fire. The invasion was repulsed.
While the Serbs were doing well, their Entente partners generally fared poorly at the end of August, and Serbia faced significant pressure to mount an offensive of their own. Putnik was compelled to march his forces into Bosnia-Herzegovina, but no prior provision had been made for such an offensive, and it stalled quickly. Putnik’s troops returned to Serbian territory in time for the second Austrian offensive.
The failed offensive cost the Serbians the positional advantages they had enjoyed during the first Austrian invasion. Putnik was unable to repel the Austrians as they crossed the River Drina, and so he ordered a retreat to the Kolubara, where the Serbs could gather their strength anew. This measure ensured that the Austrians would be able to capture Belgrade on December 2, but for Putnik, it was a necessary gamble. He launched a counterattack at the Kolubara, and within two weeks he had recovered Belgrade. The Austrians had been swept from Serbian territory again.
This began a lengthy period of quiescence on the Balkan front, but it was not a respite that allowed the Serbs to regain strength. Losses in battle had been heavy, and much of the experienced core of the army had fallen. Moreover, a typhus epidemic took hold, killing more people than the fighting had done and prompting Serbia’s allies to maintain a quarantine at just the time when the Serbs could have used substantial resupply.
October 1915 brought renewed hostilities, and this time, the opposition was far more effective. Shifting political allegiances turned Serbia’s rail lines into a vital resource connecting Germany to Turkey; at the same time, they brought Bulgaria to the war, while Serbia’s own efforts to win support from France and England brought little more than hollow promises. This new invasion, striking Serbia from three sides and coordinated by one of Germany’s best generals, was too much for Putnik to repulse. On October 22, the Bulgarians secured the strategic rail lines, and after that, aid from the Entente ceased to be possible, even if it had been offered. The Serbs faced a stark choice: surrender, fight to the last, or retreat.
The Serbs chose the last, not to escape, but to be able to continue the fight after they had rested and regrouped, even if they could not fight on Serbian soil itself. Grievously ill, Putnik was the very image of his army as it trudged on through the Great Retreat of November 1915. Withered, but still strong of will, he guided the retreat from a litter that carried him to the Adriatic Sea. Putnik was among the 150,000 who were rescued, but due to his health, he was not sent to Corfu with the rest of his men. Instead, he was sent to Nice to convalesce; there he died in May, 1917.
Putnik had performed well, despite his eventual defeat. He had won spectacularly as long as the threat came only from Austria-Hungary and, when the latter’s allies joined together to defeat Serbia, there had been no way to stave off the invasion. His refusal to give up, even when his body lacked the strength to carry on by itself, proved a fitting metaphor for the Serbian Army itself, and cemented his position as a national hero in Serbia.
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