11.Kosovo during the First World War

Serbian Headquarters’ staff crossing the bridge over the Drin River at Virzira (?), 17 January 1916.

Imperial War Museum , London. © IWM Q 52346   https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205223743

During the First World War, after the defeat of Serbian forces in 1915, Kosovo territory came under Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian occupation. The Austro-Hungarians were more accommodating to the Kosovo-Albanians allowing them to be part of local government, open their own schools and use the Albanian language. Many thousands of the retreating Serbs passed through Kosovo and Albania suffering horrendous deprivations and losses in the extreme winter conditions; sometimes known as the Albanian Golgotha. Some resistance was organised against the Austrian and Bulgarian forces by the Kacak bands. By mid-1918 the situation on the ground was changing and Serbian, French and Italian forces started to advance north from Greece, removing the Bulgarians and Austro-Hungarians. Once again Kosovo territory came under Serbian rule.

Kosovo and other Albanian areas during the First World War

Following the forced withdrawal of Serbia and Montenegro from Kosovo and other Albanian areas beyond the Albanian borders, those areas came under Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian occupation. The Austro-Hungarian occupation sector included Mitrovica, Vushtrri, Lower Drenica, Peja, Istog, Gjakova, Plava, Guca, Bar and Ulcinj. Whereas, the area of ​​Bulgarian occupation included Podujeva, Pristina, Gjilan, Gostivar, Tetovo, Dibra, Kicevo, Struga, Ohrid and Prespa.

There were marked differences under the occupations of the Albanian territories. While the situation of the Albanians under the Serbo-Montenegrin occupation had been extremely difficult, under the Austro-Hungarian occupation it was more favourable. The Austro-Hungarians granted Albanians the right to local self-government and the development of national culture. Albanian schools were opened and national awareness was raised. The Bulgarian occupant, however, did not accord any national or human rights to the Albanians.

During the war, in particular between 1916 and 1918, resistance against the Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian occupiers was organized in Kosovo and other Albanian areas. This resistance was organized in the form of gang warfare. The most famous squads were those led by Azem and Shotë Galica, Idriz Seferi, etc. The fight of the Albanian soldiers also yielded results. Azem Galica's men, supported by other groups of Albanian patriotic fighters, in the autumn of 1918 liberated Drenica, Istog and Peja, where they raised the Albanian national flag.

Jusuf Bajraktari, Fehmi Rexhepi, Frashër Demaj “Historia 10 – gjimnazi matematikë dhe informatikë dhe gjimnazi i shkencave natyrore”, Shtëpia Botuese ‘Libri Shkollor’, Prishtina, 2011, p.101.

The entire state apparatus (government, most National Assembly deputies, state administration), the army and a large number of civilians retreated through the rugged and roadless Albanian and Montenegrin mountains. They lacked food and clothing and their troubles were aggravated by attacks by local Albanian gangs. The elderly King Petar Karadjordjevic and the seriously ill Duke Radomir Putnik also retreated with the people and the army. During the Albanian Golgotha, tens of thousands of Serb soldiers and civilians were killed by the white death (freezing) and other adversities. At that time, a saying started to be used by the Serbian people: “No one knows what hard suffering is, until they’ve crossed Albania walking” It was not until early 1916 that the transfer of survivors on allied ships to the Greek island of Corfu began.

Despite large losses, Serbia did not capitulate. It continued to fight for its war aims. The refugees included King Petar, Regent Aleksandar, the government, the National Assembly and the army. The Serbian government’s headquarters were in Corfu, where the National Assembly also renewed its work in the summer of 1916. Soon other state institutions began to work, as well. Funding was provided for the state apparatus, the army, and a large number of refugees, most of whom were located in Corfu, but they were also in France, as well as in Tunisia in Africa. With the help of allies, the government was able to provide education for some 4,000 Serbian pupils and students, mainly in France.

In the spring of 1916, the Serbian army began to recover. It was armed with new, French weapons. Instead of the ill Duke Putnik, Petar Bojović was appointed Head of the General Staff. Nearly 150,000 Serbian soldiers were preparing to return to battle. They were transferred to the Thessaloniki Front, where they fought alongside the British, French and the Greeks. Already in the autumn of 1916, after heavy fighting, with big losses, the Serbian army took over the mountain peak of Kaimakchalan, and then Bitola which was located in the territory of the pre-war Kingdom of Serbia. This opened the door to the fatherland. The front was then settled and did not move for the next two years.

(Subtext on the left) “The Blue Grave” In the first weeks after the transfer to Corfu, the agony of the Serbian army continued. Every day, they were dying from the effects of superhuman efforts, exhaustion and illness. A small island near Corfu, Vido, was turned into a hospital. More than 5,000 Serbs died there. Because of the rocky terrain, burial was not possible, so most of them were lowered into the sea – a blue grave, as poet Milutin Bojić called it.

Djordje Djuric, Momcilo Pavlovic “Istorija 8 – za osmu razreg osnovne skole”, Zavod za Udzbenike, Beograd, 2011, faqe 74.

Those Albanians who had calculated that Serbian rule would be only temporary must have begun to think they were right when, on 28 July 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Orthodox Serbs from Kosovo were called up to fight, but the Muslim Albanians were officially exempt under the terms of an agreement between Serbia and the Ottoman state. (Nevertheless, it is recorded that 8,481 Albanians from Kosovo were enlisted, and that by late 1915 this number had grown to 50,000.) For more than a year the Serbian army succeeded in driving back the Austrian forces that were launched against it from the north and west. Not only did it repulse the attacks on those fronts; it also used the opportunity the war provided to conquer part of central Albania, seizing Elbasan and Tirana in June 1915. Only during the next four months, with a new joint Austrian-German offensive and the entry of Bulgaria into the war as an ally of those powers, did Serbia’s position become untenable. The Bulgarian army attacked on a broad front in October: its main aim was to take over Macedonia, cutting the Serbs off from the Salonica area, where the British and French armies had their toe-hold in the Balkans. On 21 October the Bulgarians entered south-eastern Kosovo, and on the following day they took Skopje; the Serbian division which had been stationed in Macedonia withdrew northwards into Kosovo. One of its officers recorded that in addition to Bulgarian attacks, the Serbian troops also had to contend with frequent raids by Albanian kacaks; at the same time he noted that his own men were committing numerous ‘disorders and robberies’ against the local population.

Meanwhile the main body of the Serbian army was being pushed relentlessly down through central Serbia by the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. By 18 November, when a council of Serbian generals was held (in an atmosphere of bitter mutual recrimination) near Novi Pazar, they had lost 60,000 men (35,000 of them captured), 450 artillery pieces and almost all their transport. On the next day the Austro-Hungarians entered the Sandžak, where the local Muslims, apparently with fond memories of the Austrian garrisons there before 1908, greeted them as liberators. The Serbian government, which was in flight with its army, knew that the only options were retreat or surrender, but hoped to continue southwards to Salonica; that possibility was now excluded, with the news that Bulgarian forces had reached western Macedonia. And so it was decided to evacuate the entire Serbian army over the mountains to the Adriatic coast, using the narrow and, in winter snows, almost impassable roads that went through northern Albania and Montenegro. The decision was made on 20 November; but because of the congestion of Serbian forces in Kosovo, and the speed of the enemy’s advance on several fronts, many thousands of Serb soldiers were captured as the Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian armies took Mitrovica, Prishtina and Prizren in quick succession. By 29 November, when Prizren fell, the total number of captured Serbian soldiers during this campaign had reached 150,000.

For those dignitaries who had good horses and escorts, the journey over the mountains did not take too long: Prime Minister Pašić managed it in four days, and Crown Prince Aleksandar in two-and-a-half. But for the ordinary soldiers, exhausted, ill-shod and completely unsupplied with food, it was a terrible ordeal. The mountain tracks became lined with the bodies of those who had perished of cold and hunger: some of the horses that died were eaten raw, and cases of cannibalism were also reported.
There are complaints in some Serbian accounts about the reluctance of the local Albanians to give food to these soldiers as they passed through. They could have expected worse treatment than that, however, and the comment later made by Edith Durham was probably a fair one: “That they suffered great hardships on the way, is because they fled through districts which they had completely pillaged and devastated barely two years before. That the Albanians spared the lives of the retreating Serbs who had previously shown them no mercy, is to their honour.’

The Austrians stayed longer in Kosovo this time than on their previous visits in 1689 and 1737. They occupied the northern half of the territory, while the south was held by the Bulgarians. After the experiences of the last two years, ordinary Albanians were clearly glad to see the Austrian army: early communiqués from the War Ministry in Vienna reported that ‘numerous Arnauts’ took part on the Austrians’ side during the initial fighting between Mitrovica and Peé, and that the local population joined ‘enthusiastically’ in the victory celebrations on 2 December. The Albanian political leaders would also have been aware that Austria-Hungary, more than any other power, had favoured the creation of an Albanian state. So it is not surprising that local leaders such as Hasan Prishtina and Ferat Draga cooperated willingly with the new occupier: Prishtina organized the recruitment of 2,000 Albanian volunteers to go with Austrian forces deeper into Albania, and Draga recruited 1,000 men who were sent off to Austria-Hungary’s eastern front.“ (Of the other leaders, Bajram Curri was in Albania, where he had spent 1915 trying to persuade the government to take a more pro-Austrian position; Isa Boletin had been interned in Montenegro, and was killed in a shoot-out there as the Austrian army approached.)

The Austrian authorities installed Albanians in the local government, allowed them to use the Albanian language in their work, and positively encouraged the setting up of Albanian-language schools. The same policy was applied in northern and central Albania in 1916; there the Austrians even set up two Albanian teacher-training schools, and established an ‘Albanian literary commission’ to standardize spellings and publish Albanian books in cheap popular editions. The official policy of the Austrian Foreign Ministry towards Albania itself was that it was a friendly neutral country, not a conquered land; the Austrian military thought this an unreal attitude and argued for partition, with the northern part, plus Kosovo, being annexed by Austria-Hungary, but their policy was never applied.
The Austrian Foreign Minister, Burian, was in favour of adding most of Kosovo to an independent Albanian state (while subtracting territory from southern Albania and giving it to Greece); this policy was not implemented either. Kosovo and Albania were not reunited, and Albanians needed special permission to cross from one to the other.”

As well as being separated from Albania, Austrian-occupied Kosovo was also divided from the Bulgarian-occupied zone. This division was the cause of serious political friction between the two powers. When the Bulgarian Army’s Third Division had taken both Prishtina and Prizren in November, it had gone beyond the limit of Bulgarian expansion agreed by the two governments in advance; but instead of handing over these areas to the Austrians, the Bulgarians had left some troops there and installed a civil administration, which they then extended to the Gjakova district too. King Ferdinand of Bulgaria was quick to visit the area, and by February he was assuring the Austrians that “a large part of the population is Bulgarian’. In April 1916 the Austrians gave in, allowing Bulgaria to occupy Prishtina and Prizren and requiring only their withdrawal from Gjakova. Conditions of life under Bulgarian rule were significantly worse than in the Austrian zone: compulsory labour service was introduced for such projects as railway-building in Macedonia, there was heavy requisitioning of food and materials, and severe famine developed in 1916 and 1917. According to Archbishop Mjeda, in 1917 roughly 1,000 people died of hunger in Prizren. The Serbs, many of whom were interned under Austrian rule, suffered even worse under the Bulgarians, thanks partly to the long-running rivalry between the Bulgarian and Serbian Churches: the Serbian Orthodox Metropolitan of Skopje, who took refuge in Prizren, was taken away and murdered by Bulgarian soldiers. And just as the Serbs had carried out a policy of Serbianization in Kosovo and Macedonia during 1913-15, so the Bulgarians now forcibly Bulgarianized the Macedonians and the Serbs.”

In these circumstances, those Albanians who had welcomed the Bulgarian advance in 1915 were quickly disillusioned, and many reacted to the new occupier in their traditional way. In the Skopska Crna Gora the old local leader Idriz Seferi, who had taken part in every rebellion since 1878, organized several kacak bands: in one action near his home village of Sefer they killed twenty Bulgarian soldiers. Later in 1916 he was captured by the Bulgarians; he would be released at the end of the war, aged seventy-one. There was some resistance too in the Austrian zone: particularly active here was a charismatic young Albanian from north-central Kosovo, Azem Bejta (also known as Azem Galica, from the nameofhis village), whose young bride, Shota, joined him as a comrade in-arms and became a famous fighter in her own right. Azem Bejta cooperated with local Serbs against the Austrian army, and in early 1918 he even had discussions about joint actions with the leader of the main četnik organization, Kosta Pećanac, who had daringly entered occupied Serbia by aeroplane.”

By the summer of 1918 it was quite clear that the Austro-Hungarian forces in the Balkans, already sapped by mutinies and desertions, were heading for defeat. In September the Allied army at Salonica (which had been joined by the remnants of the Serbian army after the retreat through Albania) began its advance through Macedonia; and at the end of that month Bulgaria signed an armistice with the Allied powers, which made the Austrian and German position in the Kosovo region quite untenable.
Serbian and French troops were approaching Skopje, and a joint French-Italian force was pushing up through western Macedonia towards Tetovo. On 1 October the German and Austrian soldiers received the order to withdraw northwards from Macedonia; the commanders of the Central Powers realized that the Kosovo Polje plateau was indefensible, and so a further withdrawal, to Kruševac in central Serbia, was ordered five days later. Azem Bejta’s men did capture a large number of Austrian and German soldiers, but one officer who encountered a band of Albanians to the north of Prishtina was more fortunate: he was allowed to go on his way with the words, ‘Germans good, Bulgarians no good.’ By the end of October the French 11 th Colonial Division had taken Prishtina and Mitrovica, and the Italian 35th Division had entered Prizren and was pursuing the remnants of the Austrian army northwards through Gjakova and Pec. Some Serbian units stayed to occupy Kosovo; the rest of the seven Serbian divisions that formed part of this allied army pressed onwards towards Belgrade. Their victory was assured. Kosovo was now back under Serbian rule.

Noel Malcolm, “Kosovo – a short history”, New York University Press, 1998, pages 258-263

The Serbs had hoped to win through to Shkoder where the Allies promised to wait for them with food and supplies. The route of the Serbian Army passed through central Albania, via Elbasan… On the whole, the Albanians refrained from physically attacking the pitiful columns of Serbs, whose journey was described by an English observer;

“The roads southward from Shkoder lay through a country that was at any rate nominally friendly. Here the influence of Essad Pasha, the one central authority left in Albania whose name commands any widespread respect, was exercised on behalf of the Allies. But this did not prevent the inhabitants of the plain from following the example of the Albanians of the mountains in regard to the extortion of money. At the ferries they demanded gold, and those who could not pay might remain where they were and die. Those who went through that whole retreat say that the last stages through the marshes and mud of central Albania were the worst of all. When at last Vlora was reached, thousands still died neglected, before they could be taken off by the French and British ships. From Vlora the army of 150,000 strong finally left Albania and crossed over to Corfu.” (RGD Laffan, The Serbs: The guardians of the Gate, New York, 1989, p.227)

Miranda Vickers, Between Serb & Albanian – A History of Kosovo, London, 2001, pp.91-92.