Heroes, Ahead to Homeland
”To the heroic sons of Serbia, France, Italy, Great Britain and Greece who, faithful to the legacy of their ancestors, fought in these places and fell for freedom and world peace 1916-1918.” This is written on the white marble monument in Policastro, Greece, eleven kilometers from the border, where the anniversary of the epopee which decided the outcome of World War I will be marked again this September

By: Bane Velimirović

First you cross the border in Evzoni. The name of this place means frontiersman in Greek. Then you drive along the highway eleven kilometers towards the south. There, near the town of Policastro, fifty nine kilometers before Salonika, the inscription on a large board informs you: Monument to the warriors from Great Britain, France, Greece, Italy, Serbia, who fell at the Macedonian front 1915-1918. The name of each country is written in its original language; Serbia is, naturally, written in Cyrillic letters.
We turn and, via an unpaved road bending upwards, reach a small church on the top of a hill. Beside it, on the eastern side, a large cross ascends towards the sky, almost twice as large as the church. From there, you can see far to the plain spreading to the seashore. About fifty meters lower, on the famous Point 104, a monument was raised to the heroes of the Salonika Front from five allied countries. It has a pentagonal basis pedestal, with a stone torch on top. It is made of white marble. Each of the five sides has a coat of arms of each of the allied countries, as well as an inscription in the original language:
”To the heroic sons of Serbia, France, Italy, Great Britain and Greece who, faithful to the legacy of their ancestors, fought in these places and fell for freedom and world peace 1916–1918.”
The inscription in Serbian is on the northern side, between the Greek inscription on the western side and Italian on the eastern, facing towards Serbia, towards the place where the eyes of Serbian heroes and martyrs were facing to 90 years ago when, from these plains, a bit more to the west, they started a break-through without comparison in the European history of warfare. The range from the symbolic Point 104, where we are, to Point 2.525 on Kaimaktsalan, and a series of other points over 2.000 meters high, was conquered through tough battles and with a terrible number of casualties. That is – today we know – what decided World War I.
On the northern side of the marble monument on Point 104, above the mentioned words, today still stands the coat of arms of the Socialist Republic of Serbia, with wheat, a wreath and a five-pointed star. The country which suffered that heroic sacrifice of incredible proportions and performed the superhuman achievement was called Kingdom of Serbia and its coat of arms was different.
About ten meters north from this obelisk stand the busts of premiers of the allied countries that took part in the holding and breakthrough of the Salonika Front, in late summer and early autumn of 1918. The busts are also made of white marble and face towards the obelisk and the south. Facing them, from left to right, from west to east, you can see:
Aristide Bpiand (1863–1945), first minister of the French Government and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, premier of Kingdom of Italy. Eleftherios Venizelos, president of the Greek government (after the abdication of the pro-German Greek king Constantine to the benefit of his other son). Nikola Pašić (1845–1926), president of the Kingdom of Serbia Government. David Lloyd George (1863–1945), first minister of Great Britain.


In the center of the plateau where the monuments stand, a circle with an inscribed cross is made of paths and plants. While we slowly walk the paths which are the arms of the cross, we hear in our heads some unknown rumble, booming, battle cries deafened with explosions coming from somewhere. Life or a movie, this or some other reality, it does not matter, we hear it in our own heads.
The busts of the allied countries government presidents in PolicastroChronicles state that the transfer of the Serbian army from Corfu and Tunisia to the Salonika harbor began on April 12, and was mostly completed by the end of May 1916. Although insufficiently recuperated, with an uncompleted reorganization, the Serbian army had to go into the fire before time, due to the pressure of the allies. Out of the previous 13 infantry divisions, after the Golgotha in the darkness of the Albanian mountains, after Vido and the Blue Tomb, 6 new ones were formed with old names. In terms of formation, the reorganized Serbian army had three armies, two divisions each. The chief commander was Crown Prince Aleksandar Karadjordjević, the Chief of Staff of the Supreme Command was General Petar Bojović. The First Army (Morava and Vardar divisions) was commanded by Colonel Miloš Vasić, the Second Army (Šumadija and Timok divisions) by Duke Stepa Stepanović, the Third Army (Drina and Dunav divisions) by General Pavle Jurišić Šturm. It consisted of 147.000 men, 124.000 of them directly in the battle units.
There were 370.000 allied soldiers (124.000 Serbian, 127.000 French, 119.000 English) on the 450 kilometers long front, from the Orphan Bay to the Ohrid Lake. Opposite of them, 350.000 Germans and Bulgarians were holding the frontline.
In March 1917 – due to the losses in battles which took place in autumn of the previous year (after the break-through of a hard mountain line of Bulgarian defense, after conquering Kaimaktsalan, liberating Bitola and moving the front 50 kilometers towards the north, and before the offensive was canceled in the calculations of the allies) – a new forced reorganization of the Serbian Army was made. Two armies were formed with three divisions each, with dukes Živojin Mišić and Stepa Stepanović as commanders.


Although many subversive-propaganda activities were aimed at them, even from the allies, it was impossible to shake the morals of the Serbian army. They knew they were not there to resolve a strategic or tactics issue, but to resolve fate. And the new moment of faith, which turned out to be the right one, came in the summer of 1918.
Historians described the political, diplomatic, military, intelligence and other games from those times. Writers, especially those who participated, described the battles in an extraordinary and startling way. If you really wish to know how that war looked like and what an accomplishment it was, read The Life of a Man in the Balkans by Stanislav Krakov (this issue of the National Review presents a passage from the book).
The secret preparations for the offensive, according to the Franco-Serbian agreement, began in June 1918. The center of the attack was supposed to be in the Serbian part of the front, in the area of the Maglen mountains. ”If the Serbs suffer a failure, they should not count on our help to improve the situation”, warned on September 9, 1918 general Wilson, chief of the British Joint Staff, who was against the offensive.
Soon everyone will realize that the Serbs never expected such help. September 15 was determined for the beginning of the attack. In the evening of September 13, the Supreme Command Chief of Staff, Duke Živojin Mišić, issued the following order:
”All commandants, commanders and soldiers must be pervaded with the idea that the success of the offensive depends on the rapidness of penetration. This rapidness is at the same time the best guarantee against surprise attacks by the enemies, because it achieves derangement in the enemy lines and full freedom for our activities. We must penetrate arrogantly, without stopping, until the ultimate limits of human and horse strength. Into death, just do not stop! With unswerving faith and hope, heroes, forward to Homeland!”
After twenty two hours of extensive artillery preparations, the Serbian attack on the Bulgarian and German positions began on September 15, 1918 at 5:30.
The rest is history which each of us must know and remind ourselves constantly. Names, divisions, accomplishments, places, dates.
The commander in chief of the allied forces on the Salonika Front, French Marshal Franchet d’Esperey informed his Government during the September fights:
”The operations must be slowed down, since there is no communication for delivering food to the advancing French troops. Only the Serbian troops do not need communications, they advance forward like a storm.”


Four days later, the Serbian army was already deep inside the Vardar valley and cut the strategic communication routes of the enemy Gevgelija – Skopje and Prilep – Gradsko. Krivolak was conquered on September 22, Gradsko (the main enemy warehouse on the Skopje – Salonika railroad) on September 23, on September 25 the Serbian Equestrian Division enters Štip, Veles was captured on September 26, a day later the Serbian Equestrian Division appears at the Bulgarian border and starts towards Sofia. Both Serbian armies advance via the Kumanovo – Kriva Palanka – Ćustendil routes. Exactly 14 days since the beginning of the Serbian offensive which the allies joined with 11 days of delay, Bulgaria signed the ”armistice convention” on September 29, 1918, which is practically only another name for capitulation. On the fourth October day, their King and Commander in Chief Ferdinand fled Bulgaria.
The German emperor Wilhelm II sent a telegram to the Bulgarian king:
”Sixty two thousand Serbian soldiers decided the war. What a disgrace!”
The Serbian army was in Vranje on October 4, and in Vladičin Han on October 5. The most advanced positions of the allies remained as far as 180 kilometers behind! In the dawn of October 13, the troops of the Morava Division came to Niš. On November 1, 1918, at 10 a.m. sharp, Duke Petar Bojović leading the Dunav Division entered Belgrade. Such a penetration had never been seen in the European history of warfare.
”The Serbian attack on the enemy, entrenched in a rock above them, represents one of the most brilliant accomplishments in this war”, writes the British premier Lloyd George in his memoirs, the same gentleman whose marble image we see near Policastro, the same whose commander in chief almost threatened on September 9 that the Serbs, in case of trouble, cannot count on their help.
British military writer Liddell Hart wrote: ”The Serbian achievements in Macedonia not only shattered a pillar of the Central Forces, but also opened the road for advancing towards the Austrian background. The German Supreme Command lost their nerves in only a couple of days.”
”On September 15, the Balkan Peninsula became the most significant battlefield. The military power of Bulgaria was broken in only ten days. It seems that the consequences of these events are crucial for the outcome and duration of the war”, reported the French Supreme Command to the Parliament of their country on October 1918.
Yes, crucial.
President of the French Parliament, at the festal session celebrating victory, said: ”After Bulgaria Turkey, after Turkey Austro-Hungary… The Serbs are in Belgrade! All of France is with them. We are proud to have been on the side of these heroes during their three years of exile.”


Each September, delegations from the allied countries come here, to this piece of land which the municipality of Policastro granted to the Association of War Veterans in memory. Wreaths, speeches, a few tears. Only the Greeks and the Serbs hold requiems. The same this year, for the 90th time. While we go down the hill towards the highway in order to continue to Zeitinlik, the Serbian military cemetery in Salonika, we are followed by the words of Marshal D’Esperey from a report from the end of October 1918:
”Such are the Serbs, tough when in trouble, serious, humble, unbreakable. People who are free, proud of their race and masters of their fields… However, the war came. And there, for the freedom of the land, those peasants turned into the bravest, most persistent warriors, the best of all. Such are those brilliant troops, created of endurance and enthusiasm, and I am proud I led them, shoulder to shoulder with the soldiers from France, into the victorious freedom of their homeland.”


”The Serbs, reinforced with the strong contingent of Yugoslavs, completely changed the whole situation on the Balkans”, reported the London Times after the break-through of the Salonika Front. ”The victory in the Balkans is a worthy competitor of other successes of the allies. Serbia, for which Kaiser said it did not exist any more, showed that it is still alive, and very much alive indeed!” wrote The Daily Mail, while The Daily Express says: ”One of the most prevailing results of these victories is that the Serbs are victoriously entering their country, which will make Austria tremble from this army one more time.”


”Serbia paid its successes with a great number of casualties. It is estimated that it lost 1.200.000 soldiers and civilians, or 28 percent of its pre-war population, and suffered material loss amounting to about 6 billion golden Franks, which was almost a half of its national treasure. It mobilized 700.000 soldiers during the war and ended it with an army of about 150.000 people, including about 20.000 volunteers from other Yugoslav countries. In the battles on the Salonika Front and during the last offensive, 9.303 soldiers and officers died in battles or from injuries, and 6.020 were buried at the Zeitinlik cemetery in Salonika.” (Dr Petar Opačić: Salonika Front)


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