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The Opening Shots of World War One

The centenary of the start of WW1 has resulted in a plethora of publications and documentaries on the conflict. Most people have a fair idea that the spark was the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, but fewer still will be aware that the first shots of the war were fired at Serbian soldiers.

I use the word ‘murder’ deliberately, because despite the revisionist attempts by some Serbian nationalists, that is what it was. The involvement of the Serbian state security services also means that the Serbian state cannot absolve itself from some responsibility for the ensuing conflict. However, the consequences for the Serbian people were truly horrendous. Serbia suffered the most casualties in the war with 62% of males aged between 15 and 55 being killed.

The early battles of the war have not received much attention in the English language with the focus on the western front and the great battles in France including the Marne that stopped the German advance on Paris. The centenary publications have at least begun to change that. The documentary series have all covered the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia and I would give a special mention to Max Hastings’, ‘Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914’ that goes out of its way to bring these campaigns to a wider readership.

The horrors of the war have not been omitted in his book and The Independent newspaper’s 100 moments of WW1 includes a shocking picture of a line of Serbian men in civilian clothes attached to posts: possibly dead already, possibly awaiting execution by firing squad. Anti-Serb propaganda postcards on sale in the Austrian capital depicted Serbs as backward “Untermenschen” or “Sub humans” – a term later used by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to describe Jews and Slavs. Some advocated that Serbs should be boiled alive in cauldrons or stuck on forks and eaten. An independent report by the Swiss Professor Reiss, reported in 1916 that countless Austro-Hungarian troops confirmed having received orders to attack and massacre the Serbian civilian population and that “everything was permissible”.

 It was Austria’s desire for revenge that led to the first great strategic error of the war. Instead of focusing with the Germans on the Russian’s in Galicia, they divided their efforts between both fronts and failed in both. 19 Austrian divisions were committed against Serbia’s 11, while 30 divisions were sent to face 50 Russian formations in Galicia.  

The incompetent General Oskar Potiorek commanded the Austrian army. He led a badly equipped and poorly motivated force, although the Serbs were also poorly equipped with around a third of the troops mobilised lacking rifles. They were commanded by Marshall Radomir Putnik, a competent and experienced soldier, like most of his troops, even if war weary from the Balkan Wars. 

The war started with the shelling of Belgrade, but the real action was further south as two Austrian armies tramped through Bosnia aiming to cross into Serbia over the Drina River. After a short bombardment the Serbs conceded the crossing and withdrew to more defensible positions on Mount Cer, twenty miles east of the Drina. The Austrian attack was badly coordinated and a Serbian counterattack forced the Austrian’s back. The hand to hand nature of the action is illustrated by the fact that 35 Austrian colonels died in battle. By 20 August the rabble remnants of the Austrian army were back over the Drina, having lost 28,000 casualties. The Serbs also suffered serious casualties, some 16,000 dead and wounded, and were unable to exploit their victory.

The Serbian people suffered a terrible punishment for the role of their state in the murder of the Archduke. The early battles of the war also highlighted the weaknesses of the Hapsburg Empire that eventually collapsed with huge suffering for its constituent peoples. 

Wargaming the August battles 

My armies for the conflict are in 15mm and based for Great War Spearhead rules. The Austrian’s are mostly Minifigs and the Serbs from the range produced by the late Spiros Koumoussis, sadly no longer available. The Serbian army is also available from Eureka Miniatures. 

I have a few Austrian’s in 28mm that I painted for the later Salonika campaign and I am planning to expand these for skirmish level games using Bolt Action rules. Here is a basic army list


Serbs are available from Tiger Miniatures and Old Glory. Here is a basic army list for Bolt Action

and on the tabletop. Serbian troops crossing a river


Further Reading

 Max Hastings ‘Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War’ is not a particularly good military history, but it gives a good feel for the chaos of the Austrian advance with quotes from front line soldiers.  

Andrej Mitrovic ‘Serbia’s Great War’ is the must read one volume history on Serbia in WW1. I think probably the only study in English.  

Armies of the Balkan States 1914-18 is a General Staff study with plenty of detail on the armies and was reprinted by Battery Press. Osprey MAA 392 covers the Austro-Hungarian Army. 

Another relevant good read is Michael Kihntopf ‘Handcuffed to a Corpse’. This covers the German interventions.

Some period Pathe News clips.


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Last modified: 01/23/12