'What an American Woman Saw'
'on the Serbian Front'
Told by Mrs. Charles H. Farnum of New York


How I Viewed a Battle from a Precipice

pages from a British magazine


Mrs. Farnum was decorated by Prince Alexander for her relief work in Serbia. Here she tells how she stood for six hours at a military observation station on October n, 1916, and watched the successful fight of the Serbians to regain the village of Brod at the beginning of their advance against the Bulgarians.


I — Story of a Dinner with Prince Alexander

Having conducted hospital work with the Serbian armies in two Balkan wars it was out of the question for me to go anywhere but to Serbia when the present conflict started. I love Serbia and the Serbian people, and when I have told my story perhaps you will, too.

After serving through one campaign, a disastrous one for Serbia, I came to America, and with the assistance of Miss Catherine Burke raised $38,000 for the American unit of the Scottish Women's Hospital. I was only too eager to accept when it was suggested by the Serbian Relief Committee that I return to the war zone to see that the money was properly administered.

This explains how I came to be in Ostrova on a certain evening last October, seated at dinner next to Prince Alexander of Serbia, whose generosity of heart led him to overestimate my service to his nation.

"Would you like to go to the front ?" he asked me.

I had been behind the battle lines, and I wanted to tell my countrymen just how the Serbs were fighting.

"I would like nothing better," I said, "but, of course, it is impossible."

The Prince smiled. "Madam," he replied, "nothing that you may wish is impossible."

I thought at first that it was merely his innate politeness, but with the least possible delay Prince Alexander delivered me into the care of Col. Sondermayer, chief of the medical service of the Serbian army.

"She is to go wherever she wishes to," was the command delivered to the Colonel.

And so we started out in a somewhat rattly automobile and went upward into the mountains, passing a continuous stream of soldiers — French going to Kisova and Serbians to Dobrpolje. Ammunition trains and convoys of wounded rumbled over the roads day and night. They were the back currents, the eddies of the war we were traversing.

As we passed a stone post at the side of the wheel-rutted road one of the officers said: "We are now in Serbia. This soil has been wrested from the conqueror."

I cried, "Stoy!" which is to say "Stop."

The chauffeur brought the car to a standstill and I jumped out. The men followed me and we knelt and kissed the soil we all loved. I do not think their emotion could have been stronger than my own.

Shortly after this Major Todorovitch pointed into the sky and said, "See the aeroplanes. They are our scouts."

I looked in the direction he indicated, but all I could see was a series of puffs of white. It was shrapnel from the Bulgarian guns bursting so close to the Serbian planes that the round puffs of smoke were drawn out into streaks by the suction of the fast flying machines.

Occasionally we could see the sun flash on the wings of the aeroplanes just as you can sometimes see the approach of a canoe by the flash of the sunlight on the paddles before you can really distinguish the craft itself.

At Vrbeni I met Gen. Vassitch, the "voivode mishitch" (commander-in-chief) of all the Serbian forces. Col. Sondermayer explained that I wished to go to the front.

"How far forward do you wish to go?" asked the General.

"As far as your officers can go," I replied.

The General shrugged his shoulders as though to say, "There is no place for these women in war," then seeming suddenly to realize that I was in earnest, he bowed and said, "Madam, you should have been one of us — one of our Serbian soldiers."

Calling his aide-de-camp, Major Todorovitch, he directed him to obey my orders and take me wherever I wished to go, so we again got into the rattly automobile and began to climb still further up into the mountains.

In the distance I heard the roar of the big guns. As their noise grew louder the strumming of the machine guns mingled with it and their staccato was always distinguishable even amid the ear crushing thunder of the high explosives. Then came the rat-a-pat of rifle fire, foolishly insignificant in point of noise compared to the cannon, but cruelly deadly, as any one who has seen war knows.

Artillery is terrifying, but after all it is cold steel in the hand-to-hand, bestial fighting that slays.

II — The Wounded on the Serbian Roads

The ammunition wagons almost jammed one side of the road now and the other side was jammed with the carts bringing back the wounded. On their scant beds of straw they lay, some groaning, some shrieking in delirium, some grinning, but almost all of them contented and uncomplaining if they had a cigarette.

Your wounded Serbian prefers his cigarette to an anaesthetic, and I have seen the most painful, shocking operations performed in the field hospitals with no other sedative for the patient than a cigarette. In Serbia no one begs. It is considered almost a crime, but there is one temptation the soldiers cannot resist, especially the wounded ones. That is to ask for a cigarette.

During one of our halts I spoke to one poor fellow whose lips were blue, eyes dim and breath coming in short, painful gasps, almost sobs. I knew that before he reached the field hospital his body would be taken from the cart and laid at the roadside for burial.

Although the words almost killed him he managed to gasp, "Little Sister — for the love — of mercy — a cigarette."

I gave him one. I saw him take one blissful puff, blow from his mouth the smoke, which was no bluer than his lips, and die. So small a thing as a cigarette had sent one man who died for his country before his God with a smile upon his lips, despite his suffering. Was this not worth my whole trip?

We passed the Serbian artillery and to the summit of Dobrpolje. Here in the crevice of a great rock we ate lunch, which had been supplied by officers at the very front. There were pancakes, raw onions, bread and Turkiss coffee, and a meat stew. I know something about fare at the front, and there is no doubt in my mind that these same officers went on short rations for many a day to make up for the repast they set me. There was more sugar in the coffee than a soldier in Serbia gets in four days.

In our crevice in the rock we were 500 yards in advance of the Serbian guns. The panorama of the battle was spread out before us. The great projectiles from the masked Serbian artillery, which was being fired over a range of hills, swept diagonally in front of me from a line behind. They exploded in the village of Brod and on the hill in the rear of it were the Bulgarian trenches. Through binoculars I could see into the Serbian trenches and sometimes men in the Bulgarian trenches.

The enemy's guns were firing from behind the hill on which stood the village of Brod, but they did not have the range of our artillery, and most of their fire fell on a village a quarter of a mile in our rear. At times, however, a big shell exploded in the Serbian trenches and I saw monstrous mushrooms of earth and debris hurled high into the air.

In the debris were many fragments. Some were of timber and some were of human flesh and bone.

Stretching away directly in front of us was a wide plain, at the far extremity of which against a hill was Monastir, resembling a great cluster of pearls against the dark mountain. The French from the heights of Kisova were shooting down into this plain.

It was terrible; it was grand. It was cruel; it was sublime. My emotions almost overcame me. Major Todorovitch, noticing my agitation, thought I was unstrung and wished to return to the rear.

"Do you not feel well?" he asked me.

"I feel — I feel like a man," I said.

It was the only way I could express myself. I understood now how men fought and died, and were willing to fight and die innumerable times if it were possible for their country. If some of my sisters who cry for peace at any price could have seen the grandeur of this war in a just cause I am sure they would feel as I did.

Major Todorovitch leaped to his feet and grasped both my hands. I thought he would crush the bones.

"Come," he cried, "you are one of us. You shall have the greatest honor of us all."

Dragging me to the edge of the precipice, where had a Bulgarian officer seen him a burst of shrapnel would have greeted him, he planted his feet firmly against a solid rock.

"Lean over!" he cried enthusiastically.

Holding to his hands, my arms straining behind me, I leaned far over the edge of the precipice. I seemed suspended over the very heart of the battle. It seemed for a moment as though the spirit of the war had caught me up and flown with me where the whole fabric of the world conflict was being woven beneath my feet.

"Now," cried the Major, "you are further into Serbia — Serbia reconquered — than the bravest of our brave have been. No Serbian fighting man has yet been so close to Monastir."

The fineness of his compliment could not have been excelled.

I had been told that I might remain upon the summit of Dobrpolje an hour, but the scene fascinated me so and my soldier escorts were so chivalrous that they gave in to me and it was not until nightfall that they dragged me away to the rear, although we had reached the summit about midday.

Once more we were in the backwash of the battle. The roads were lined with stretcher bearers and in the stretchers lay men whose blood dripped through the canvas and stained the dust of the roads — the dust for which they were fighting and dying and suffering the tortures of the damned.

From the postes de secours they were taken to the rear in carts, and the steady rumble of the heavy wheels reminded me of the passing of the tumbrels in the "Tale of Two Cities."

At one point we passed about 800 Bulgarian prisoners and they did not seem at all unhappy at being out of the fighting. It is a commentary on the nature of the Serbians that they gave cigarettes to the prisoners, although the Bulgars have committed nameless atrocities against their foes and have devastated thousands of acres of prune trees, thus destroying a lucrative and immense Serbian industry.

That night Brod fell to the Serbs, but nevertheless I had been that day further into Serbia than any of her fighting sons at that time.

III — A Woman Officer of the Cavalry

I do not know what silly things Major Todorovitch told Gen. Vassitch, but the General, before all his staff, made me an officer of the First Cavalry, which is the crack Serbian regiment, and a uniform has been sent to me and is on the way to the United States, although there is not enough cloth in Serbia to clothe her own troops. Perhaps when I go back I can use it, for although many an officer offered me a horse, none proffered me a pair of trousers to ride in.

When I was back in Salonica Prince Alexander sent for me and with his own hands pinned on my breast the Order of St. Sava, which is the most coveted of all the Serbian orders.

When I asked him if he really thought I merited it, he said, "I know of no better friend to Serbia than you." I had already held the Kossova medal, which is given only for personal attendance to the wounded, and the Royal Order of the Serbian Red Cross.

Through the kindness of Col. Sondermayer another woman and myself were smuggled into a dinner given to Venizelos, at which no women were supposed to be present. During the course of the dinner Venizelos suddenly turned his head so that he happened to see me and started, as might be expected at a dinner where women were excluded. I also was covered with confusion and could not help showing it.

The next day Col. Sondermayer called with an invitation to visit Venizelos. When we reached his office he was overwhelmed with work, but he rose from his chair and said kindly, "Have I not seen your face before ?"

"Yes," I replied, "last night at the dinner when you turned your head and I lost mine."

He laughed, and we were engaged in conversation for an hour. Venizelos entrusted me with a message for the Greeks in America.

"Tell them," he said, "that we need them. If they cannot come to fight they can send money, and it will be used to take care of those who are fighting and those who are left alone after the great battles."

I might refer here to the attitude of the women and even the little children of Serbia and Greece. It is true that the hardest, most cruel burdens of war fell upon the women and the children who are left widows and orphans or who suffer while the men are at the front. It has always been so, but as in every patriotic nation the women are suffering and doing their share as bravely as the men. The soldiers are glad and proud to die for their country, and their women folk and children are proud to have them, despite the sorrow and privation.

It should be a lesson to us in America. Our men and our women and children would be as ready and as willing to bear their burdens, but now in peace and prosperity we should prepare against the time when we may have to take up our burdens so that they may fall no more heavily than is necessary.

Venizelos is above all a Greek.

"I do not care for myself or for what may become of me," he said. "I am working and living and will die for Greece. Greece must live and live in glory and integrity."

Salonica seemed to me the concentrated essence of life. It is a kaleidoscopic scene. You come across the uniform of pretty nearly every nationality, and every known language seems to be spoken. There are soldiers and refugees, Turks and Christians, Greeks and Jews, and the town hums like a beehive day and night. Troops are coming and going, not only white men but negroes, Sudanese, Congoese, Annamese and many others.

When I was in Serbia I had scooped up a handful of earth and had treasured it and brought it back with me to Salonica, where I showed it to some Serbs. Tears came into their eyes and they gazed upon it with a reverence worthy of a sacred relic.

One man thrust his hand into it and said, "You have had the honor and the joy, which, alas, I have not had, of setting foot on Serbian soil freed from the invader. But I swear to you by this sacred earth that I will not die until I have kissed the soil of my country. After that------" he shrugged his shoulders.

By now this man, who was a soldier, may have fulfilled his vow, and if so he is happy, though his kiss may have been a dying breath.


Back to Index