WW1: How It Began on The Eastern Front

This being the first post of our WWI month I decided I should probably start us off somewhere at the beginning. Not wanting to follow the trend of the western front taking centre stage, I will focus on the beginning of the war in the East. Despite not getting much attention in our media, the Eastern front was where the war started, and where much of the fighting and casualties occurred. It is widely considered that the spark to start the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and the First World War was truly underway when Austria-Hungary first invaded Serbia in retaliation.

But what was the reason for this beginning? Undoubtedly a great war was already likely to happen sooner or later in the ‘powder-keg’ that was Europe at the time. However, this series of events was the one that led to the start of the war in 1914. The trouble in the region seems to have started in the final years of the Ottoman Empire when Austria-Hungary caused the Bosnian crisis of 1908-9 by annexing the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina which was previously part of the Ottoman Empire since 1878. This angered the neighbouring Kingdom of Serbia and its ally the Russian Empire.Russian political manoeuvring in the region destabilised the peace further, and there was a standoff between Serbia and Austria-Hungary who both mobilized forces. Conflict was averted through negotiation, and Serbia was forced to back down and accept the annexation.

Moving on, the first Balkan War then began in 1912. This was a war fought against what remained of the Ottoman Empire by the Balkan League of Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro. This war resulted in the states of the Balkan League enlarging their territorial holdings. Bulgaria, dissatisfied with its share of the spoils from the war turned on its former allies shortly after, starting a Second Balkan War. Bulgaria was unsuccessful and ended up having to give over large portions of its territory to its previous allies, as well as its other neighbours of Romania and the Ottoman Empire.

So, shortly after this, in 1914, we come to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. It was found that this assassination had been done by a small group of revolutionaries known as ‘young Bosnia’, and the man to pull the trigger himself was a Bosnian Serb. This may show a link to the previously mentioned Bosnian crisis, only 5 years prior to these events, which may have provoked revolutionary actions against Austria-Hungary such as this. However, behind the assassination it is believed that the Black Hand, a secret military society composed of members of the Serbian Army, organized the assassination, and used Young Bosnia in an attempt to keep from being directly involved. The guilt for the crime had settled loosely on Serbia in general and long-existing tensions between Serbia and Austria-Hungary had finally come to a peak. Austria-Hungary delivered the July Ultimatum to Serbia, a series of ten demands intentionally made unacceptable, intending to provoke a war. When Serbia agreed to only eight of the ten demands, Austria-Hungary declared war Serbia on 28 July 1914. Serbia also had to be wary of Bulgaria at this point, who showed intentions of supporting Austria-Hungary. Overall, it is clear that this assassination was not the only reason for the start of the war, Franz Ferdinand was not particularly popular, and his death did not cast his country into deepest mourning. Considering this, the assassination comes off as more of an excuse to start a war than a real reason, further proven by Austria-Hungary’s attitude in previous years and with the July Ultimatum.

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

At this point the war had officially begun. But it didn’t truly begin on the Serbian front until the first fighting occurred on 12 August the when the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia began. Austro-Hungarian forces were met by stiff resistance from Serbian border guards and irregulars, but continued to move forward up until 15 August. The first Serbian counter-attack known as The Battle of Cer occurred when Serbian forces attacked Austro-Hungarian command outposts on the slopes of Cer Mountain. Austro-Hungarian forces were quickly overwhelmed by Serbian infantry, as they moved forward through the standing corn under cover of darkness and rain to engage at close range. The battle then escalated into a series of clashes fighting for control over several towns and villages near the mountain, especially Šabac. On 19 August, the morale of the Austro-Hungarians collapsed and thousands of soldiers retreated back into Austria-Hungary, many of them drowning in the Drina River as they fled in panic. The Serbian defenders re-entered Šabac on 24 August, marking the end of the battle of Cer. This event was the first Allied victory of The First World War and the first aerial dogfight took place during the battle. The Austro-Hungarian forces may have been in greater numbers and better equipped, but their troops of the first invasion force were largely made up of inexperienced and Czechs, with no experience of fighting in mountain terrain and untrusted by Austria-Hungary. The Serbs had plenty of experienced soldiers due to the recent Balkan wars. However Austro-Hungarian command also underestimated Serbian martial prowess. They 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 crippling overconfidence among Austro-Hungarian officers.


Map depicting the initial Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia, August 1914.

By this point, the dispute between Austria-Hungary and Serbia had already escalated into what is now known as World War I. Within a week, Austria-Hungary had to face a war with Russia, which had the largest army in the world at the time. Germany had moved against Russia, with France then backing Russia up, Germany quickly invaded Belgium, getting Britain involved. It all happened so fast!

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