The Serbian People in War Time
By Stanley Naylor
[Scribner's Magazine, March 1916]
"And to think that this is really Serbia!" a young American Red Cross doctor complained to me bitterly when I met him at Skoplje in September. "Why, before I left America I thought life out here was such martyrdom that it would be a positive disgrace to return home alive!"
The poor fellow was obviously dejected. The trip, from his standpoint, he said, had been more or less a farce. From the graphic accounts he had read of her sufferings in the newspapers before his arrival, two months earlier, he had imagined Serbia to be a country ravaged by pestilence and disease, riddled by shot and shell, "the very seat of desolation." But alas for these preconceived notions! In reality, the panorama that unfolded itself was altogether different.
Like most people who arrive in Serbia for the first time, this young man had heard so much of her uglier side that he did not easily reconcile himself to the fact that to the outward eye she is wondrously beautiful. Frequently, as he had passed up and down the railway between Skoplje and Belgrade, he had been compelled figuratively to rub his eyes in amaze. Time and again he had asked himself whether by some magic means he had not been transplanted back to his own Middle West. The surrounding scenery away from the towns was of quite astonishing loveliness. It was wild and romantic and had for the most part that background of mountainous grandeur so typical of Serbian landscapes as a whole; and it was at the same time, especially in the vicinity of Belgrade, delightfully pastoral. Fine, fat cattle grazed in the meadows. Much of the land was under good cultivation. There were fields full of corn, to say nothing of rich crops of barley, oats, and buckwheat. Yes, there could be no doubt about it. Serbia, seen in mid-September, seemed to be so essentially a land of plenty that it was hard to realize she was not, also, a land of peace.
Folk who saw the country before and afterward, however—for example, in February and March, when typhus raged among the people, and in October and November, when fast and furious fighting once more rent the land—were able to fathom the true depths of this Balkan tragedy more accurately. In the intervening summer months there came a lull in Serbia's vicissitudes. In this brief resting-space the little nation seemed almost to have smiled away her tears. The way in which she had so quickly recovered from the effects of her sad winter's tale was well-nigh a miracle; and, what was more miraculous still, this happy transformation had been the work of women and children.
"Our peasant women are national heroines. Serbia is under an eternal debt of gratitude to them she can never repay," M. Pashich, the Serbian prime minister, told me, as he talked of the astonishing fertility we saw almost everywhere around us. Son of the soil himself, the veteran statesman went on to draw an intimate picture of how all day long thousands of valiant women had been out-of-doors doing the work of their absent men in the fields. To escape the heat of the midday sun, many of these Amazons were won't to start as early as three o'clock each morning, with their babies slung over their backs. Generally the little ones were placed in crudely improvised hammocks, near the spots where their mothers, aided by older children, toiled cheerfully away. Thus, last year's crops were raised in Serbia, arid since, with the pitifully primitive agricultural implements he still uses, it takes the average Serbian laborer two weeks to do what would be a mere holiday's work in the United States, this wartime task, left to his wife and daughters, seemed all the more incredible. Mercifully, the brave, toiling women had no vision of the wrath to come. A short time after the Bulgarian bombshell burst one of them was found wandering in the hills near the Greek frontier, many miles from her native village. Together with her five children she had escaped from the little homestead she had worked with might and main to keep together just before the Bulgarians laid it waste. Amid the confusion of the general exodus of villagers, one of her children, a little girl of seven, was lost and had not since been heard of. Another, the baby, had died before the family reached safety. And now the poor mother was roaming disconsolate and distraught. A doctor pronounced her to be hopelessly insane. So much, then, for Serbia's women harvesters and that second harvest of war I
My own first impressions of Serbia were formed when, as a prelude to settling down there for five months, I accompanied Sir Thomas Lipton through the country on a fourteen days' hustle. Not every man can claim that he has been personally conducted on a lightning Cook's tour to see war at first-hand.
We no sooner reached Belgrade than what practically amounted to free tickets were given us for what the citizens jokingly termed their "bombardment performances." Shells no sooner burst forth from the picturesque little town of Semi in, across the river, than we could, if we chose to brave the risk, mount to the top of the fortress in order to view the firing with more realistic effect. And in the entr'actes between these performances—which, curiously enough, had a knack of repeating themselves at fixed hours on appointed days of the week like theatrical matinées!—we had official permission, to wander by the river's edge, where, looking through powerful binoculars, we could see thrifty Austrian housewives bartering in the market-place while the rest of the straggling populace sauntered up and down Semlin's main street. How near war then seemed to us! And, if the truth must be known, how ludicrous, too, was the main effect produced! In building their capital on a site which the enemy could shell so comfortably from his own door-step, the Serbians had obviously made a big initial mistake. The result was much as though the city of Liverpool were waging deadly conflict with her friendly neighbor across the Mersey, Birkenhead, or as though Long Island were at war with New York.
In the brief but crowded space of those first four days we spent in Belgrade, several elaborate "war excursions" were planned in our honor. We began by inspecting the various batteries and intrenchments erected round the city. On mounting to the more prominent gun positions, some of us felt a trifle staggered to be told, with so little concern that we might have been examining marble statuary in the Louvre or the British Museum, how narrowly these guns had been missed by Austrian shells just half an hour before. "But our casualty list was not at all heavy," our guide, a Serbian officer, added consolingly. "Only two sparrows killed and one lizard wounded."
It was again our coveted distinction to be let into the then secret movements of a set of plucky young English naval men who, disguised in the uniform of Serbian officers, had come to Belgrade to manage a dashing little picket boat known as The Terror of the Danube. With Lieutenant-Commander Kerr—he has since been awarded a D. S. 0.—at their head, these jolly sailors were having the time of their lives, for on dark nights it was the Terror's habit to dart into mid-river and play pranks with the fleet of Austrian monitors assembled majestically on guard near Semlin. This fleet was two hundred times the strength of the little picket boat. Any one of the monitors would have made very short work of her, if given half a chance. But dignity opposed to impudence does not always win the day. The Terror had a way of springing up unawares just when she was least expected. And that sometimes she could torpedo with the best of them was shown in the unmistakable evidences of wrecked monitors floating about the Danube for all Belgrade to see.
Our passports, as we travelled, proved to be equally elastic all along the line. No matter where we went—to the military headquarters at Kragujevatz, to the miserably overcrowded, disgustingly dirty,, and dishevelled city of Nish, where the seat of the government had been transferred from the capital, to the more comfortable, sleepy-eyed Skoplje, formerly Uskub, which, Serbianized though if had been, obstinately retained the eerie Eastern charm of its old-time Turkish setting, or to the picturesque group of villages clustering round the Bulgarian frontier—always the curtain was lifted on persons, places, and things that would have been carefully screened from us had we been unknown wayfarers, journeying alone. And yet there was a reverse side to all these advantages.
Serbia, it is true, had turned the handle of her war kaleidoscope very generously for our benefit. We knew how irretrievably bombardment and invasion had spoiled the fair face of Shabatz, hitherto, one of the wealthiest of her townships—how all the churches and public biddings in this district had been completely destroyed while the sufferings of the inhabitants hardly yielded in frightfulness before those of Belgium. We knew, again, how great was the havoc brought to Belgrade, that once beautiful city which had been every Serbian's pride—-a sort of miniature Paris, the only one of his cities which could boast any claim to enlightenment and progress; incidentally, too, the only city rich enough to have installed an adequate system of sanitation. We knew that the mass of ruins at Belgrade now included the royal palace, the museum, and, above all, the university, with which had perished half a century of research work, to say nothing of a world of thought. And we knew that the pinch of poverty was now felt there so acutely that thousands of citizens were living on threepence a day. From the royal family downward rigid economy had, perforce, become the rule throughout the land among all classes of people. The veteran King Peter was living in a couple of rooms at Tapala, while the home of the crown prince was chiefly a railway-carriage, shunted nightly into a siding. Yet, whole we knew all these things, there were still many other things we did not know.
At the end of this Lipton pilgrimage my feeling was that, although she had permitted us to see just how she had suffered through war and epidemic, Serbia nevertheless had not really taken us into her confidence. She had shown us her outward husk but not her inner kernel. We had been conducted over her devastated war areas, her arsenals, and her hospitals for wounded soldiers, typhus sufferers, and the like, but we had not looked inside her cottages. We had talked freely with her princes, but we-knew next to nothing of her peasants.
Like the rest of her Balkan neighbors, Serbia is by no means an open book to read by all who run as soon as they reach her gates. She is to some extent a paradox—a nation of warring truths. To understand her more thoroughly, a stranger must obviously stay longer in her midst. It was because I sought to know her better that, having gone as far as Athens on our homeward journey, I decided to turn back.
From Salonica to Nish, in my eagerness to get at grips with the Serbian peasant, to see the man with his kith and kin for myself at close quarters, I travelled third-class. The memory of that journey will ever haunt me. For the first twelve hours all went comparatively well. At any rate, a fellow passenger assured me we were "not more than reasonably overcrowded." It was as night set in, after the train left Skoplje and we tried to compose ourselves for sleep, that the trouble began.
Constantly we stopped at little wayside stations to pick up more and more human freight. Looked at in the right light there was something saddening in the thought of herd upon herd of rustic travellers, many of them women and children, having to turn out of their homes at ungodly hours and tramp miles in order to catch the one and only train in the whole twenty-four hours that would take them on their way. And, as often as not, they had to set forth a long while in advance; for one of the difficulties about railway travelling in Serbia is that you can never tell to within six hours the precise moment a train will arrive. Jammed, tight in the hard, wooden seat of that third-class compartment, albeit, I was too hot and uncomfortable to feel sympathetic and kind.
To realize the extent of my discomfort you must take several facts into account. Remember, first of all, that we sat eight and nine a side; that, since all windows were closed, we were some seventeen or eighteen people hermetically sealed in an air-tight compartment. Remember, too that the majority of the passengers were Serbian peasants—men and women who have hitherto considered it to be the height of fastidiousness to wash more than a very limited number of times a year. The Serbian man peasant, indeed, has usually only two suits, one for winter and one for summer. Each suit is firmly stitched on to him by a devoted wife according to season.
It is at such moments a stranger sees how far the Serbs have to travel; that the great curse resting on them is. a pagan toleration of filth. Among those who have made a valiant effort to help eradicate it, the work of the army of American Red Cross doctors, sent out from Washington after the fearful typhus epidemic, under Dr. Richard P. Strong of Harvard, must not be forgotten. For several months, right up to the moment when hostilities blazed forth afresh, Dr. Strong and his workers—Strong's army, as they were called—tried hard to initiate an "Order of the Bath" in Serbia. They not only disinfected the unsanitary homes of countless peasants; they instituted sanitary cars, bathing in which was made compulsory by Act of Parliament.
Happily, it is of the finer rather than the sordid side of Serbia we all now think. To-day the whole world has nothing but wonder and praise for the splendid fight the little nation put up when she was attacked by three fronts in that final cataclysm last autumn. The Serbs then made a stand which, as an epic of bravery, is more Homeric than Homer. Wonderful is a big word, but it is not too big to fit them. And even before this great onslaught they had proved themselves wonderful many times over. They had been wonderful, first of all, in the stoicism one had almost said, gayety!—with which they had borne the heat and burden of over four years of war. They were wonderful, again, when in that first moment of the European conflict they successfully drove 500,000 Austrian invaders from their territories and took 62,000 of them prisoners into the bargain. And, perhaps, they were most wonderful of all when, before Bulgaria declared her hand in October and Germany and Austria still refrained from striking a decisive blow, they "stood like greyhounds in the slips waiting for"—well, they-knew not what.
Toward the end of these ten months of masterly inactivity there was to me something impressive and grand in the picture of these stout-hearted men of Serbia—massed round the little nation's borders—waiting, always waiting. Several hours daily for nearly a year many a Serbian private soldier had known what it was to stand there rigidly on guard, glued like an automaton to his post, his face stolidly inscrutable, but his heart yearningly aflame to be once more up and doing. "I'm dead sick of having to wait," a private told me when I talked with him, while off duty, through an interpreter who, having lived in America, was able to translate very racily. "If only we could have another whack at 'em! I'm just longing for the war to end. You see, I haven't seen my wife and children for three years. My home is so far away and we have been so everlastingly fighting or expecting to fight that I have never had a chance to go back."
And if such was the lot of some of Serbia's first-fine soldiers still in their prime, what of those veterans of the third, and fourth lines to be found guarding the remoter places less liable to attack? These grizzled warriors were generally cheerful. Yet for them, also, life held more than its fair share of irony. "Of course, I'm only scrap-iron—too old for the firing line," one of them confessed to me. "I'm fifty, and I've been in the army thirty-three years. In Serbia, you know, we start serving at seventeen and finish at fifty-five." "Then in another five years you will be free?" I ventured encouragingly. "Yes, in another five years I shall be free all right," he replied; "but please don't forget, sir, I shall also be fifty-five!"
But not for nothing has the Serb been called "the Irishman of the Balkans." His temperament is mercurial and his moments of depression soon slip away. One of his most charming characteristics is a complete freedom from malice, Hard fighter though he is, it seems constitutionally impossible for him to bear hatred for long; and although he far from loves his enemy on the battle-field, any animosity he feels toward him vanishes like lightning as soon as he takes him prisoner. To strangers travelling through the land last summer nothing was more amazing than the sense of comradeship which existed between the Serbs and their Austrian captives. Captives, forsooth! Some of them openly gloried in their chains.
That the lot of a private in the Serbian army, no matter how far he might be from the firing line, was often worse than that of an Austrian prisoner, first struck home to me at Belgrade when in the main street I saw a peasant soldier bargaining with a prisoner for a loaf of bread. The soldier had just reached the city, weary, worn, and more than a trifle footsore, after a long cross-country march. The one solitary loaf which was all his daily ration comprised from the military authorities, had long since been devoured. The poor fellow was obviously hungry and in need of another. The Austrian prisoner, on the other hand, with a cigarette between his lips, looked sleek and well-fed. Yet the bargain between the two was completed in the friendliest spirit, and cash down was paid for that extra loaf.
When I asked a Serbian soldier why prisoners of war were treated so leniently by his country—being left to wander at large unmolested like one of themselves—he replied that the great majority of the captured Austrians were of their own kith and kin. They were of Slavonic origin and had no heart in this war. With them it was simply a case of Hobson's choice. They had either to fight for Austria or be shot. Evidence of their curious detachment in the struggle was given in that, since the opening of hostilities, many of these so-called "Austrians" had fought valiantly and well on both sides! On being taken prisoners, they had at once re-enlisted under the Serbian flag!
But while this explanation held good in the case of Slav prisoners, how came it to pass that throughout the country one constantly met German-Austrians and Magyar Hungarians who were almost equally fortunate in the treatment meted out to them? Consider the generosity shown to that small minority of prisoners who were considered too dangerous to be allowed at large. The big internment barracks in which these enemy officers were quartered at Nish were a veritable hôtel de luxe. The accommodation provided for the officers of the Serbian army was not nearly so lavish. Separate kitchens were run, so that the Germans, Hungarians, and Croats could each have their food cooked in the style most pleasing to their respective fastidious palates. And there were several acres of beautiful grounds in which the prisoners could rove at will. They played tennis and other outdoor games while, escorted by a Serbian guard, they often went on picnics and excursions in the surrounding countryside. Some of them, well-known Hungarian artists, were daily to be seen with Serbian soldiers in attendance, sketching the landscape in and around Nish. And as with the interned officers, so with the interned men in the ranks: they were infinitelybetter housed and better fed than the Serbian troops in training a stone's throw away.
Although openly hostile to the Serbian cause, prisoners were frequently found again in civilian occupations at good rates of pay and, except that they had periodically to report themselves to the authorities, they were allowed to live practically as free men.
Many Londoners visiting the leading restaurant in Nish were surprised to recognize installed there as maitre d'hôtel an Austrian who for many years had been a waiter at the Carlton Hotel. This old-time friend seemed as happy and cheerful as ever. He was just as well-groomed as in his palmy Carlton days. Looking at him, you would never have judged him to be an Austrian prisoner out on "ticket of leave." "When the war is over, I hope to meet you all in the same old spot," he told his English customers hopefully.
Common sense, of course, was at the root of Serbia's policy in placing her prisoners in occupations to which they were peculiarly fitted. At a time when the country was denuded almost entirely of her male population, the flower of her manhood being away with the array, why should not the trained services of her sixty-two thousand odd able-bodied Austrians be turned to profitable account? So, no doubt, Serbia argued, and therein lay one explanation of the humanity and kindness she showed to every prisoner who was willing and able to fill a definite place in the working life of the community. And so, too, it followed that all over the country one found Austrians, skilled at their business, who were employed on a fair financial basis as mechanics, engineers, tailors, and bakers—in fact in well-nigh every conceivable trade; while, without the aid of prisoner orderlies, it is now universally admitted that most of the war hospitals in Serbia could never have been run.
So far as possible each prisoner was given the job that suited him best. There was something Gilbertian in the situation that nightly at Nish and Skoplje sweet music was distilled in the open air, quite as though the fashionable German and Austrian spas had been transplanted to Serbia, by those captives who happened to be professional musicians. But not unnaturally among so many thousands there were occasional human misfits. It appeared to be rather a hardship, for instance—although it may strike some minds as ironically appropriate—that the gentleman who in peace time had been professor of mathematics at Prague University was mainly engaged in counting the dirty linen at a big hospital in Kragujevatz. And a Vienna merchant, who informed me his normal income had never been known to amount to less than the equivalent of three thousand English pounds sterling a year, fulfilled the duties of bootblack in the same institution.
I happened one afternoon to be in a little town when a young German aviator literally dropped down from the skies. In charge of what were believed to be important papers bearing on the Dardanelles campaign, this flying Teuton had come from Mehadia, near Orsova (on the Hungarian side of the Danube near where Serbia, Hungary, and Roumania meet). His intention was to fly to Bulgaria and then go on to Turkey by train. But his proud hopes were dashed. At first, all went swimmingly. According to his own story, he flew over Nish at a height of 6,000 feet. Then, two hours later, when near the Bulgarian frontier—so near that he cocksurely imagined he had crossed the border-line!—his engine gave out and he came down to earth with a thud, only to find himself still in Serbia and soon in the custody of two stalwart frontier guards, who marched him, off to this nearest wayside town.
In almost any other country but Serbia this dramatic débâcle of an enemy airman would have meant a bitterly hostile demonstration. To say the least, there would have been frantic hisses and boos. But the Serb, when once he has captured his prey, is good-natured. The advent of this unexpected visitor hardly aroused more than the ripple of laughter with which most country people greet the arrival of a travelling showman or clown. Among other things, his equipment included a plentiful supply of visiting cards, and these were clamored for as souvenirs by the amused townsfolk. Otherwise, there was little excitement.
The authorities had doubts as to what kind of hospitality to give to so unusual a guest; and it was eventually decided to accommodate him for a night or two in the town's best hotel—where, as luck would have it, I too was quartered. After the evening meal in the little inn restaurant this German captive seemed thoroughly to have recovered his equanimity, if he had ever lost it. Stolid in his exterior, he was voluble enough in his talk. Gradually the company gathered round his table and a merry evening was spent. For the nonce the Serbs were disposed to bury the hatchet. They treated the intruder with the utmost friendliness, as one of themselves.
Side by side with these side-lights on the innate chivalry of the Serb place the irrefutable proofs that abound of his bravery on the battle-field, and you soon realize that, despite many black pages in Serbian history, he springs from a stock of which heroes are made. Difficulties do not daunt him. Instead, they fire his blood. In the recent fighting one section of the army's long front was held by the courage of a single man. Of his comrades serving the machine guns he alone survived. But he did not withdraw. He continued to work his gun with such fiendish energy that at last the advancing enemy, not realizing that he stood alone and fearing a trap, hastily retired.
"Victory is not won by shining arms but by brave hearts," runs the Serbian soldier's guiding maxim, and even when in the past victory has been his, he has had, perforce, to live up to it. Since many Serbian officers contrive to cut quite a formidable dash on seventy pounds a year, it follows that the uniforms and armor of men in the ranks are not exactly glittering. The only allowance they get is a very few dinars a month, together with one loaf of bread and one hundred rounds of ammunition a day. And unless they are first-line soldiers they fight in their peasant dress. The homes which many of them left last year seemed almost too wretched to fight for. Yet they still went on fighting—for the unification of all Serbian-speaking peoples, for what is known in Serbia as the Jugoslav ideal. To them the thought that Serbia should be vanquished was simply unthinkable. Patriotism, an all-consuming love of the land of their forefathers, was practically the only religion they knew and understood. Provided they held fast to their faith in the salvation of Serbia, they felt all would be well. Inevitably their enemies would go to the wall.
Next to the love of his country the peasant soldier places his love of a woman—or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to say, all women. In the famous folk-songs which, he composes extemporaneously, and is heard singing day and night, his theme is invariably either the glories of war or the charms of some I fair maid. In Serbia the lad who has not been deeply in love by the time he is sixteen is reckoned to be, indeed, a fool. The Serbian peasant places woman on a pedestal—until he marries her. Then she who was his divinity quickly becomes his drudge.
"And this—God forgive me!—is my wife," is the habitual formula used by a peasant if forced to introduce the woman of his choice to you. He is, however, passionately fond of his children. In Serbia the humblest child is an enfant gâté. One day, while I was staying at a hospital at Vrnjatchka Banja, a wounded soldier, whose leg had been amputated, was visited by his wife and child. The father greeted the little one rapturously, while his wife, her face full of the tenderest solicitude and sympathy, stood meekly aside. At length, turning from the child to the woman, he seized her by the hand and asked gruffly: "Well, Milka, my girl, have you brought me something nice to eat? How's the cow?"
The Serb, in his whole conception of womanhood, is unblushingly Oriental. It seems, then, to be a comic stroke of fate whereby feminism has lately scored a notable triumph in his midst. The women most vital in nursing wounded peasant soldiers back to health and strength have been in many cases suffragettes—women of an emancipated view-point in direct antithesis to that of their patients. Several of the most efficient war hospitals in Serbia have been conducted by feminists as all-women institutions, no man being employed where a woman will do.
To Kragujevatz, Mrs. St. Clair Stobart brought a hospital unit, "manned entirely by women," as an Irishman would say, even to doctors and orderlies. Forty-five Englishwomen in all—just think of their pluck! Unaided, they managed to rig up a 'field-hospital of sixty-five tents in hard, mud-caked fields. Furthermore, they applied to this open-air encampment hygienic and sanitary measures that would do credit to many an indoor New York hospital. The camp included a fully equipped operating theatre, an X-ray department, three kitchens, commodious stores, and several baths—all of them modelled on the most modern lines.
On her arrival in Serbia, Mrs. Stobart claimed that the chief advantage of this All-Woman Hospital was its mobility. On little more than half an hour's notice the whole camp could be quickly brought within reach of an advancing or retreating army at almost any given point. She guaranteed, too, that even the manual work of pitching and moving the tents could be undertaken by her unit with little or no help from men. How, then, reduced to practise, did her theory work out?
From an unexpected quarter the unit was given a chance of showing how rapidly it can move. Just before the five-o'clock reveille bell one morning the whole camp was aroused by the violent explosion of a bomb close at hand. They rushed out to find three aeroplanes—one Austrian and two German—encircling them overhead. Was the enemy bent on performing the feat of exterminating the women's field-hospital? For a time it looked suspiciously like it. Then whir, whir—that old sound, familiar to Mrs. Stobart and others of her unit who had been in Antwerp-—was followed, by a loud crash and the usual smoke and debris. Fortunately the bombs fell not within the camp but a few yards from, its outer radius.
"Forewarned is forearmed," said Mrs. Stobart, as she told me this story. "Our white, gleaming tents were evidently an excellent target, and obviously we had to contrive some means to frustrate the enemy's possible designs. We set to work on a scheme of evacuation, and were quite glad to put it into effect when we received from, the military headquarters at 6 A. M. a few days later, a message that enemy aeroplanes had been sighted over the frontier and were expected to reach Kragujevatz in an hour's time. Within half an hour of receiving that message we had cleared the hospital of 130 wounded soldiers. Those who could walk or hobble had been sent with nurses and orderlies a kilometre along the road adjoining the main hospital tents, with instructions to lie down when aeroplanes were sighted, while the helpless cases were placed on stretchers on the automobiles and ox-carts and taken in small groups along-the main road to safe distances from the camp. The tents, too, were takers down, but we quickly put them up again and reinstalled our wounded when another message came through that the aeroplanes had thought better of their intentions and had turned back after crossing the frontier. Please don't think the incident was wasted. It made a fine dress rehearsal."
It was a dress rehearsal, too which proved of full value when, shortly afterward, this All-Woman Hospital encountered the real thing in war. On the reopening of hostilities, Mrs. Stobart split up her unit into squads, which then moved up to different positions where they could best tend the dying and wounded behind the firing line. And thenceforward these gallant "women-soldiers" had constantly to pitch and repitch their tents, following in the wake of that section of the retreating army to which they were attached. It stands also to Mrs. Stobart's credit that in the long lull in fighting, last year, she seized the opportunity to found roadside dispensaries in outlying Serbian villages, where the civil population—and more particularly the women and children—could be treated. And in the region of Skoplje, the same plan was adopted by the American Red Cross Sanitary Commission, with the famous expert in tropical diseases, Dr. Aldo Castellani, in command.
To watch the sick peasants waiting outside a roadside dispensary was to be given an illuminating insight into their isolated lives. From dawn till sunset, men, women, and children would arrive, the victims of every conceivable kind of disease. Some of them, never having been able to consult a doctor before, would walk from fifty to a hundred miles across country for the privilege. That, weak and ill, they could perform such big walking feats, seemed impossible to believe. One woman I saw had walked twenty miles with a condition of the neck and throat that would make a civilized being think twice about crossing a room. Another, suffering from cancer, had ridden on horseback on a journey lasting several days, while other patients came in ox-carts or, if too poor to afford even that mode of travel, were strapped to the backs of donkeys. One grimly stolid-looking peasant brought two children delirious with diphtheria. His wife and two other children were lying dead at home.
The way in which these destitute, stricken people sought to express their gratitude was. not without its touching side. Many of them would bring bunches of flowers gathered by the wayside on their long and tedious journeys. Others, at the American clinic, were distressingly anxious to give the eminent Dr. Castellani his fee in coin. For the medicine he prescribed they tried in vain to induce him to accept a penny or twopence—probably all they had. Such flashes of self-respect and pride, revealed by the most submerged of Serbia's population in the face of poverty and pain, are an earnest of the spirit and temper of the race as a whole. No matter how poor he may be, the Serb still remains proud. "Our enemies may trample over our bodies, but stamp out our spirit they never will!" M. Pashich declared lately when the outlook was at its blackest: "Better for us to die in beauty than to live in shame!"
Whether the Allies have cause to reproach themselves for the crucifixion of Serbia is a question, now often publicly raised, even by critics in their own camp. If diplomatic wits had been sharper to apprehend the nature of the Bulgarian menace; if Anglo-French forces had arrived earlier on the scene, could the little country have been saved the unspeakable tribulations and anguish of that last big life-or-death fight? These points future historians must decide. | Certainly, all last summer, it was common knowledge in the Balkans that the trouble brewing between Bulgaria and Serbia must soon come to a head. When in August I visited the picturesque little hamlet of Strumitza, on the edge of the Bulgarian frontier—the very spot where two months later the Serbo-Bulgarian conflict waged fiercest—I was invited to luncheon by the colonel of Prince Michael's regiment, which had then some 2,000 soldiers stationed in that village. The colonel was quartered in an old chateau, charmingly French in design. The property had formerly belonged to a rich Greek miller, but on the outbreak of war he fled, having been adding grist to his mill as a highly paid German spy.
Our meal was served to us under, the trees in an old-world garden and as the ball was set rolling, the grim stalking-horse, War, seemed far enough away. Yet, all the while, a few paces behind mine host's chair, two armed peasant-soldiers stood watchfully on guard. At first, you were inclined to doubt whether this was a strictly necessary precaution. Was it merely for show? Then you recalled just why this regiment was stationed here. A few weeks before, a mysterious band of Bulgarian comitadges (outlaws), descending suddenly on the village, had killed 40 Serbian soldiers and, after extracting their brains had stuffed their heads with peas. The Bulgarian Government disclaimed responsibility for the ugly episode. Still, coming events cast their shadows before.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald