Reviewed by Alex Popovich (Kwantlen University College)
Published on HABSBURG (September, 1999)
An English Perspective on World War I in Serbia
In the introduction to The Destruction of Serbia in 1915, C.E.J. Fryer correctly points out that, while the literature dealing with the western campaigns of World War I is abundant, the campaign in Serbia has received scant coverage in the English language. The author's objective is not only to fill this gap in the western literature on the war but to draw attention to the role played by Rear-Admiral Ernest Troubridge, the head of the British Naval Mission to Serbia, in organizing the massive winter retreat of the Serbian army in 1915. Fryer contends that the retreat of 1915 is comparable to Napoleon's from Russia and that Troubridge's assistance may have saved the Serbian army from annihilation. In putting forth this interesting assertion Fryer wishes to resuscitate the sullied reputation of Troubridge, who is only remembered for his part in the inglorious failure to engage the Goeben in August of 1914.
This is an intriguing, if not idiosyncratic, thesis to say the least. The inclusion in the appendix of Troubridge's journal for his term in Serbia is helpful. However, it casts doubt on Fryer's assessment that the Rear-Admiral played a significant, perhaps even a decisive role in the military operations of the Serbian army during the retreat. The main difficulty with Fryer's thesis is the lack of biographical information provided on Troubridge and the absence of material from the journal in the narrative. Fryer directs the reader to the Dictionary of National Biography for details on Troubridge, which provides a bare bones outline of his life. This omission is one of the major shortcomings of the book. Additionally, Troubridge's journal provides evidence of a deeply embittered individual, which is the opposite of what Fryer suggests.
The book is divided into two parts. The first is Fryer's narrative of the situation and events in Serbia prior to the war and up until the evacuation to Corfu. The second part, an Appendix, is Troubridge's Serbian Journal covering the period from October 1915 to January of 1916. Fryer's narrative is based on some published documents, archival sources, and outdated secondary literature on the war. The absence of any Serbian documents or literature indicates that the author is not a specialist in Serbian or Balkan history. Without a single citation of sources, Fryer covers Serbia's history from Dusan to Sarajevo in eight pages. The remaining narrative is equally superficial, contributing little to the existing western literature on the war in Serbia. The main military and political events in Serbia are described generally and never succeed in providing the reader with a Serbian perspective of the war. On the other hand, one of the highlights of the book is Fryer's competent discussion of Austro-German planning and operations in the Balkans for 1915. Paradoxically, we learn more about what Falkenhayn, Mackensen, and Conrad were up to than how Putnik and the Serbian General Staff responded.
Fryer also draws attention to the little-known activities of the British Naval Mission in Serbia. Strategically and logistically, control of the Danube became an important objective in the Balkans for both the Allies and the Central Powers in 1915. Presumably, this was the primary purpose of the British Naval Mission under Troubridge. Troubridge's efforts to neutralize the activities of the Austro-Hungarian monitors around Belgrade are told in an interesting and informative manner. Fryer alludes to the disagreements between the Serbian high command and Troubridge over their priorities in 1915. The Serbs concentrated their efforts on meeting the imminent Bulgarian invasion in the south, while Troubridge was keen to convince them to defend Belgrade from the Austro-Hungarians. Looking at it from the perspective of 80 years later, Fryer maintains that Troubridge's criticism of the Serbian decision remains valid. He makes no attempt to analyze the Serbian decision nor to seize upon this disagreement as an opportunity to explore the differences between the Serbs and their allies on the issue of strategy and war aims.
There is very little evidence to support Fryer's claim that Troubridge played a key role in Serbia's defence and in her retreat. He claims that Troubridge's views were well respected and that "...on one occasion by his good advice almost certainly saved the remnants of the Serbian Army from annihilation." (p.28) What the advice was, and when it occurred, is never revealed to the reader. In fact, there is very little to suggest either from Fryer's narrative or from Troubridge's Journal that the admiral had a close relationship with the Serbian high command or with the Crown Prince, which is repeated several times. It is one of the curiosities of the book that a person who allegedly played a significant role is quite often seen standing on the margins. This is supported by Troubridge's own Journal.
Although the Journal is of little value in providing new information on Serbia's war experience, it is a fascinating document for the insights it gives into the mind and attitudes of the English officer class prior to World War I. The author of the Journal betrays his attitudes toward race and class and his inability to comprehend warfare outside of a pre-established paradigm. Troubridge came from a prominent line of English naval officers, but his career received a decisive blow in August of 1914. As one of the commanders in charge of blocking the exit of enemy ships from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean, he failed to prevent the escape of the Goeben. For his lack of decisiveness he was court-martialed, but exonerated on the grounds that he correctly followed orders not to take action against a superior force. Despite the exoneration, Troubridge never again held a command post at sea. Hence his appointment as the head of the Naval Mission to Serbia. Regrettably, Fryer does not discuss how this dishonourable episode might have impacted on Troubridge psychologically.
The Journal reveals a man deeply resentful of his circumstances and of those around him. Throughout the days from October 1915 to January 1916, Troubridge does not miss an opportunity to vent his frustration and anger at perceived Serbian duplicity, cowardice and at his own material discomforts. He dismisses Serbian reports that they are outnumbered and outgunned as an excuse for surrender. As he writes, this was "...a preparation for chucking up the sponge." (p.150) He interprets the Serbian response to the German/Bulgarian offensive as typical of Slavic incompetence and lack of organizational skill. He writes: "The Serbs have no organization in peace so what it is in this emergency can be imagined. It seems to me all are tired of effort, like all Slavs, & wish it was all over & they could resume their normal Slav existence of idleness, plotting & dreaming while the virile Teuton colonizes the country, bringing prosperity in his train." (p.153) Not being included in the high circles of Serbia's elite, Troubridge denounces the arrogance and privileges enjoyed by this group, while he, his servants, and his baggage were not afforded the same respect. He compares the Serbs to a small tribe no bigger than the population of north London and mocks the Serbian elites pretensions to being European. As he puts it, "We see clearly that most of this country is humbug." (p.170) Contrary to Fryer's claim that Troubridge was sympathetic and influential, the Journal provides evidence of someone struggling to comprehend a war in a remote and foreign land, of a writer whose existence received scant attention in either London or among the Serbian authorities.
Overall, The Destruction of Serbia in 1915 is a disappointment: for both specialists in the area of Balkan or military history and for those who were expecting a much needed study in English of World War I in Serbia.
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Alex Popovich. Review of Fryer, C.E.J., The Destruction of Serbia in 1915.
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