Serbian army’s retreat through Albania

Following the October of 1915 invasion of Serbia during World War I at the hands of German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian armies, the Serbian army retreated through Albania, an event sometimes called the Albanian golgotha (Serbian: Албанска голгота). During the long march, some 240,000 retreating Serbs died from the cold, starvation, disease and at the hands of Albanian tribesmen.

A French poster from 1916
A French poster from 1916

On 7 October 1915, the Kingdom of Serbia was invaded by a combined German and Austro-Hungarian force. On 14 October, the Bulgarians declared war. With his forces vastly outnumbered and outgunned, Serb Vojvoda Marshal Radomir Putnik ordered a full retreat of the Serbian military south and west through Allied Montenegro and into neutral Albania on 25 November 1915. The weather was terrible, the roads were poor and the army had to help the tens of thousands of civilians who had retreated alongside the soldiers who had almost no supplies or food left. But the bad weather and poor roads worked for the Serbians as well, as the Germans and Bulgarians could not advance past the treacherous Albanian mountains, and so the thousands of Serbs who were fleeing their homeland managed to evade capture. However, hundreds of thousands of them were lost due to hunger, disease, thirst, hypothermia and because of attacks by enemy forces and Albanian tribal bands.

The Serbians retreating through the Albanian mountains
The Serbians retreating through the Albanian mountains

The circumstances of the retreat were disastrous, and all told, some 155,000 Serbs, mostly soldiers, reached the coast of the Adriatic Sea, and embarked on Allied transport ships that carried the army to various Greek islands (many to Corfu) before being sent to Salonika.

During the retreat, approximately 200,000 Serbs perished in the Albanian mountains and thousands more perished once they arrived on the Greek island of Corfu. Because of the massive loss of life, the Serbian army’s retreat through Albania is considered by Serbs to be one of the greatest tragedies in their nation’s history.

The survivors of the retreat were so weakened that thousands of them died from sheer exhaustion in the weeks after their rescue. While the main camps of the recuperating army were on the island of Corfu itself (a contingent was sent to Bizerte as well, and many of the civilian refugees were accepted by France), the sick and dying, mostly soldiers, were treated on Vido to prevent epidemics. In spite of Allied material help, the conditions of both the improvised medical facilities and many of the patients on the island resulted in a high fatality rate. Due to the small area of the island and because of its rocky soil, it soon became a necessity to bury the dead in the sea (by binding rocks to the corpses to prevent flotation). More than 5,000 Serbs were buried in such a manner in what became known as the Blue Graveyard (Plava Grobnica), near the Greek island of Vido.

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