Monday, July 28, 2014

A child soldier in the Great War

One hundred years ago, you didn't learn about impending wars through your cellphone and the internet. You didn't find out that war had come because you were under "shock and awe" bombardment. Both news and war came more gradually. Stevan Idjidovic (The Snows of Serbia ) was about 15, an ethnic Serb whose native agricultural village was located within the territory of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. This weak polyglot state contained speakers of 26 recognized languages and several mutually hostile branches of Christianity, plus not a few Muslims. We would barely recognize the remains of the "Holy Roman Empire" as a state in the modern world. But on July 23, 1914 this complex kingdom issued an insulting ultimatum to the adjacent Serbian monarchy, demanding something close to unconditional surrender in response to the assassination of an Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo the previous month. As the Austrians and their German allies had anticipated, the Serbians would not capitulate, their Russian allies mobilized in their defense, Britain and France joined in with their Russian ally, and what became know as "The Great War" (World War I) had begun.

The assassination and Austrian mobilization only made young Stevan more conscious of his Serbian ethnicity. The unsettling events drew him back into musing on the mythologized epic of his people.

In my schoolboy way I kept thinking , “If Tsar Lazar had won on Kosovo Field, there would not have been a Vidovdan; Serbia would have continued as a kingdom and Serbs would not have migrated into Austrian lands as my forebears did; no opportunity would have been created for Austria to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina; and Archduke Franz Ferdinand would not have been assassinated this day by a Serb.”

But where was this new war? The men of his village were mobilized into the Austrian army, but members of his family were too old or too young to have to go.

The appearance of a plane in the sky did not alter what seemed to be a rather strange war with nothing happening since the declaration of war over ten days ago. I did not have the courage to ask Father how one starts a war for fear of showing my immaturity or adding to his obvious anxiety with such an infantile question. ...

[The Austrian army was unexpectedly thrown back from Serbia.] ... in spite of the hasty retreat, the Austrians had enough time to round up a few of the enemy on their way and bring them along for the purpose of hanging them, perhaps to ease their frustration over the defeat. On hastily erected primitive gallows near the cemetery, we came across the gruesome sight of six dangling bodies. Slightly swaying in the breeze were the bodies of five old gray-haired Serbian peasants and a young Serbian peasant woman. Undoubtedly this atrocity was intended as a warning to all the Serbs on the Austrian side of the river. We cut the bodies down later and gave the nameless victims of this brutal act a decent burial. ...

[Later that month, they buried Hungarian soldiers killed by Serbs.] The dead were Magyar soldiers and Roman Catholics, and our Orthodox priest’s prayer would not have been of any help.

But after about a month, war came to Stevan's village:

We could not understand why they were burning our Serbian village; we had been loyal subjects of the Empire for generations. "They are going to kill us," repeated Cika Krana .... We were all terrified by the realization that the village was being put to the torch and the people were being shot by our own soldiers. ...

... I happened to be the only male of adult size in the group. "You, come here!" I heard the Croat sergeant speak, his gaze fixed on me. As I was about to step forward I heard Mother plead "Oh don't, please don't," as she clutched my arm. I was afraid to step forward but realized I had no alternative. I broke loose from Mother’s grip and stepped forward facing the sergeant. He was about my height with blond hair and a well-groomed mustache, his steely blue eyes fixed on me. "What are you?" he demanded sternly, meaning what nationality was I. I was on the point of telling the truth but checked myself; I kept silent, realizing he wanted me to say, "I am a Serb".

... His rage was mounting and, raising his right hand, he struck a savage blow on my left ear. "This will teach you how to obey."

With my back turned to the soldiers, I walked away slowly and apprehensively. About halfway to the street corner a rifle shot rang out behind me and I stopped dead in my tracks. A bullet whizzed by me hitting the soft road ahead of me, raising the dust. I assumed it was meant for me, but why had it missed? I wheeled around. Instantly I learned that the bullet was not intended for me. There on the road I saw my father staggering slowly in my direction, bent over in pain.

The family pulled both Stevan and his dying father away. Soon he realized that his only hope of escaping would be to swim the River Sava to Serbian territory.

... I discarded everything except my underwear and my broad brimmed hat. This done I wasted no time and plunged into the cold water. ... I had hardly swum two hundred feet from shore when I heard the crack of rifle shots close by. ...

... It is said of the dying, or of a man about to die, that they experience flashes of memories of their whole life. Nothing of the sort happened to me. On the contrary, I was thinking of how my body would be eaten by the fishes. The volleys of bullets continued to splash around me. ...

Observing the [Serbian] shore as I came closer, I shuddered at an unbelievable sight. In the calm waters of the bend the current had deposited hundreds of bodies of Serbian soldiers who had fallen at the battle of Cevrntija two weeks earlier. Frightfully bloated and closely packed, the bridge of bodies extended out from the shore some twenty feet. There was no stench that I noticed, but the bodies did create a barrier to reaching the shore. ... With my head above the surface I figured the only way out of this was to dive underneath the bodies and go for the shore. Holding my breath I submerged and propelled myself slowly toward shore till my hands were digging into mud below and my back was feeling the weight of the bodies above. Heaving up through the bodies, I frantically pushed myself toward the bank and into a thicket of willows. I felt exhausted.

While catching my breath I wondered whether I had really made it. Having disturbed the closely packed balance of the corpses, I saw a few drift loose and begin their journey down the river. I was still lying hidden with my face buried in the willow thicket, trying to regain my strength, when a commanding voice boomed down from above me. “Come on up here!”

Stevan's escape had been watched by a Serbian patrol -- he was taken in by the Serbian army and made a soldier. Over the next 15 months he survived skirmishes, a bout of typhus and hideous privation in snow and often without food. The Serbs were ground down by better equipped Austrian and then Bulgarian forces; their "allies," Britain and France, were little help. At length

the Serbian High Command ... considered how desperate the situation was and, in view of the state of its troops: hungry, barefoot, weak and wounded and, above all, lacking food, equipment and ammunition, made the remarkable decision to avoid battle and to make a total retreat over the mountains across Albania to the Adriatic ... This decision was communicated to the army and the people by a proclamation of the High Command on the 26th day of November, 1915 ...

At this point the Central Powers began celebrating the destruction of their small enemy. On November 28th the German High Command notified the world: “... with the flight of the scanty remnants of the Serbian Army into the Albanian mountains, the great operations against it are concluded.” An eminent Austrian historian then theorized that most of Serbia would be given to Bulgaria and the remnants to Austria. ...

And so began the Serbs' harrowing trek over rugged mountains to the sea.

... the expansive plain outside Pec, crowded with men, wagons, guns, automobiles, oxen, and horses, was a multicolored scene that, had it not been so tragic, might have been taken for a gigantic fairground. Evidence of suffering from hunger, exposure and disease was widespread among the soldiers, many of whom were wounded, as well as among the civilian refugees.

One wondered how many were marked for death tomorrow. The civilians--old men, women and children--would die by the hundreds. Hundreds had already died along the route thus far, dropping along the roads from exhaustion and other causes, fighting to the last breath and never asking for any help. When the time came they were left where they fell, without mourners or burial. The survivors pushed on, deep in their own thoughts. There were poignant scenes like the dead mother and child in each other's arms lying in a muddy ditch, or the lone child left dead by the roadside unmourned by passersby.

Death was all about us in groups and in singles to such an extent that its throes held no meaning for us any longer. Though the death toll was overwhelming in the first stages of our retreat, the worst was yet to come. For while the supply of food had been meager so far, it was to be virtually non-existent on the route over the mountains. ...

... Soon, as we crossed a stone bridge, the road shrank into a three or four foot wide trail . The narrow trail was cut in the side of a sheer cliff three or four hundred feet above the Pecka Bistrica stream. There was no lip at all ; the earth simply ended and space began. Soon after we entered into this narrow defile, called Rugovo Gorge, we witnessed the first casualty when a pack horse slipped down over the precipice. Over on our left, looking westward, Mt . Koprivnik surged up from a broad base, its peaks wrapped in fog. To the right Mt. Paklen, the “Mount of Hell,” soared almost vertically and its snowy summit was hidden by clouds.

It had stopped snowing and the fast-descending darkness had caught us on the narrow, ice-covered ledge. That night we spent in terror. We picked a convenient place against the cliff offering the best possible place of safety during the night. However, taking care of ourselves in this situation was simpler than taking care of the horses and oxen inextricably mixed with us. ...

Stevan and most of his unit survived this death march, staving off hunger through some hunting successes and a little barter with Montenegrin and Albanian peasants. They were billeted on the island of Corfu and fed by French and English ships. One day Stevan received perhaps the most amazing surprise of his unimaginable war:

Inside the big tent I faced the Major and our clerk, Sindjic, both smiling. Putting me at ease, Major Kovanovic spoke:·"I suppose you are wondering why I want to see you. I have good news for you. You are going to be sent back to school." I was not quite sure I had heard him correctly. The Major continued: “Our High Command has issued orders to take all boys under the age of eighteen out of the army and send them abroad to school.” (I was not yet seventeen). “Too many boys have been lost in this retreat,” he said, “and we have to save the rest of you for the future of our country.”

And so it came to pass that Stevan Idjidovic was shipped to Oxford University in England to study Forestry for the duration. Serbians and their allies fought on, finally making a breakthrough on the Macedonian front. After the war, it was estimated that the Serbian forces suffered 25 percent casualties, higher than any other combatant nation.

So far as his mother and siblings knew, Stevan had died in the war, like so many others. They treated his return in peacetime much like the appearance of a ghost. But that's another story.

I cannot recommend this gripping tale highly enough. Insofar as we have any images at all of the horrors of World War I, they tend to be of mud-filled trenches spread across France and Belgium on the "Western Front." Just maybe we know of the misbegotten slaughter of Australian and New Zealand troops at landings at Galipoli aimed at the Ottoman Empire. The war in the Balkans remains obscure in our imaginations, as the Balkan nations themselves tend to, a region of strange historic antipathies and unfathomable carnage. Perhaps if we knew a bit more about the lives and feelings of these peoples, we'd not be so taken aback by more current developments.
***
Stevan Idjidovic [later amended to "Stevens" for American consumption] was my uncle by marriage. My aunt and Stevan's son-in-law edited this little volume, faithfully and deftly. I suspect the original was more florid. English was, after all, late on the list of Stevan's many languages.

I did not know him in any significant way. My mid-American parents never stopped thinking of him as an exotic. I doubt he felt any connection to them. He felt prickly to me as a child -- that is not perhaps surprising in a man of his difficult trajectory to Buffalo, NY in the '50s. Here's Stevan with one of his daughters in that time.

1 comment:

SF Rob said...

Thank you, Jan. Thank you very much.

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