'the Darkest Hour'
'Fleeing the Bulgarians'
Told by Alice and Claude Askew

Our Experiences in the Great Serbian Retreat

from 'the War Illustrated' - a British magazine


A vivid narrative, by eye-witnesses, of the supreme tragedy in the history of gallant little Serbia. Mr. and Mirs. Askew went to the country as members of a Field Hospital, and, with the Staff of the Second Army, took part in the terrible retreat across the mountains into Albania. "Little we thought," write the authors, "that it would prove to be the Via Dolorosa, the stony road to Calvary, of an entire nation."


from 'the War Illustrated' - a British magazine
a British volunteer ambulance in Serbia


I — Story of the Flight from Prokuplje

We were surprised when we were told by one of our friends on the staff of the Second Army that we must prepare to leave Prokuplje that very evening.

"Why," we cried, "only a few hours ago we were told that the Bulgarians have had a bad set-back!"

"So they have," was the quiet rejoinder. "The Bulgarians won't get here in a hurry. But the Germans may."

Which goes to show that at this period the Serbian Army was putting up a gallant fight against foes that were bearing down upon it from all sides. What was the good of beating back the Bulgars when the crushing force of the Austro-Germans, with their heavy artillery, had also to be reckoned with? If it had been only the Bulgars!

As a matter of fact, the immediate source of danger was not so much that Prokuplje would fall as that the road to Prishtina — the only route open to the retreating army — might be cut. Koshumlja was threatened, and if Koshumlja were to be taken we should all be caught like rats in a trap.

We had come to Prokuplje from Nish, and all the time we were there — over a week — there was heavy fighting. Had the promised assistance come even then, at the eleventh hour, the tide might have been stemmed, the tables turned, for the Serbian successes were by no means to be despised. The famous Morava division of the Second Army had covered itself with glory in a tough battle at Mramor, Lescovatz had been retaken, and the Bulgarians had been driven out of Nish. The latter victory, however, proved useless, for the Germans immediately stepped in their place.

And in spite of all this, Prokuplje must be evacuated.

We liked Prokuplje — it is a pleasant little town very picturesquely situated. Moveover, we had comfortable quarters in what we were frequently told was the "finest room in the town."

We were always being envied our luck in finding accommodation. Generally speaking, it was abominable beyond description, but the man who sleeps in the open air will envy him who has a roof over his head, and he who lies upon bare boards may be excused if he covets his friend's mattress.

A friend of ours, coming to visit us at Scutari, was stopped by an acquaintance in the street and asked where he was going. He mentioned our name.

"Oh, those are the lucky people who did so well for themselves at Plavnitza," was the grudging comment.

Had we been asked we should not have agreed that we did well for ourselves at Plavnitza; indeed, the night we spent there was not far off being the worst in all our varied experience.

II — Story of Our Night at Plavnitza

In the first place, we had no desire to stay there at all. We were waiting for a steamer to take us to Scutari, but a violent storm had arisen and the steamer failed to appear. Furthermore, we were not actually at Plavnitza, but upon the quay, the best part of half an hour's walk from the village along a sort of embankment that was swept by wind and rain and where the mud was so deep and sticky that it needed courage to face it.

There were many people in the same plight as ourselves, but when it became a matter of certainty that the steamer was not going to show up they returned to the village and sought accommodation there for the night. No doubt a large number were disappointed.

For ourselves, we stayed where we were — on the quay. We had found shelter of a kind, and we were not disposed to give it up to someone else on the remote chance that after ploughing our way through the mud again we might find something better at the village.

There was only one building on the quay, a storehouse for goods delivered by the steamer. Just now there was nothing doing, and the doors were locked. There was, however, a small room, with a dirty narrow bed in it; it was occupied generally by the watchman, but he happened to be absent that night. He had left his son in charge, a sickly, pale-faced boy of fourteen or fifteen, who never ceased smoking cigarettes, and who had the manners and conversation of a grown man.

It was in this room that a crowd of us sought refuge from the storm, and here, when most of the others took their departure, we elected to remain. Our small host was very kind — he gave up his bed to us — but it was quite beyond his power to make the general conditions anything but disgusting in the extreme. We shiver still at the recollection of them.

Our young friend had been lavish in his hospitality, and so we shared the room with some half-dozen men — excellent fellows, but whose habits could hardly commend them as companions for the night. The fact that there was a lady in the party made no difference to them at all.

Oh, the atmosphere of that room! It was redolent of stale fish, cigarette smoke, and the smell of foul garments sodden with rain. The storm that raged outside made it quite impossible to open door or window.

It was very cold, and we, like the rest, had been drenched to the skin, but, of course, we could not think of removing any of our wet clothes. We were faint for want of food, too; expecting to reach Scutari that night, we had brought but little with us, and that we had consumed at midday. But in that foetid atmosphere we could not have eaten much, however richly supplied we might have been.

Our little host sat on a box and smoked and talked with his other guests for the best part of the night. It was the same with them all. When they were not smoking and spitting they were eating dried fish and cheese, the order of which was sickening to sensitive nostrils.

The boy was bare-footed, and his clothes hung about his wizened, deformed body in rags. They were palpably verminous, and, knowing this, we shuddered for the bed upon which we lay. Nevertheless, the poor little fellow was so cold when at last, like the rest of the company, he stretched himself out on the filthy floor to sleep, that we were impelled to give him one of our coverings, ill as we could spare it.

We had but a small fragment of candle, which spluttered to its end somewhere in the early hours of the morning. After that we lay, sleepless, in total darkness, listening to the moaning of the wind outside and the contented, unconcerned snoring of our companions. And there was a great fear upon us — that the coming of day might not bring us relief, for if the storm continued, as was by no means unlikely, the steamer would be indefinitely held up, nor could any rowing-boat venture forth. If there had only been a road to fall back upon! But there was none.

We shall not easily forget our night upon the quay at Plavnitza, and it certainly never occurred to us that we were likely to be envied the experience!

III — Story of the Last Hours Before Retreat

But to return to Prokuplje, where we occupied "the finest room in the town" — which meant that it possessed a fairly comfortable bed, carpet, curtains, and abundant decoration upon the walls in the way of Berlin wool-work and cheaply-framed photographs. We were sorry that we had to leave it in such a hurry, though, perhaps, we should have regretted our comfortable quarters still more had it not been that our host had elected to slaughter three large pigs that day in the yard just beneath our window, and so all the resultant processes were thrust upon our unwilling view.

The administrative staff of the Second Army were leaving Prokuplje that evening, so we were told; the operative staff would take its departure early the following morning and probably, for strategic reasons, follow a path across the hills instead of the main road. There would be room for us in one of the cars, and we were to be informed by the orderly of our friend, Captain Gworsditch, aide-de-camp to the staff — who himself would be absent till late that night — at what time we were to hold ourselves in readiness. No doubt it would be about six o'clock, certainly not later than seven. With luck it should not take us more than twenty-four hours to make Prishtina, whither we were bound, but the road in places was very bad, and so we must allow for longer, and if we had not provisions enough in hand for the journey, it would be wise to lay in some more.

We reviewed our stock. We had bread, cocoa and tea, a bottle of Greek brandy, sugar, and three tins of sardines. Thinking things over, we calculated that if we had a good dinner before we left we should require nothing more; if all was well we should dine the following night at Prishtina.

We did not know that we were shortly to be under famine conditions. True, we had had difficulty with our meals at Prokuplje, but this was not so much due to a shortage of supplies as to the fact that we had no one to cook for us. The young woman of the house was extremely lazy, and used to protest that it was as much as she could do to look after her father and the children. Nevertheless, she spent half her time gossiping in the street, for which, not unfrequently, her father would thrash her, and, as, in retaliation, she would bully her little brothers and sisters, the whole house used often to resound with ear-splitting and most discomforting howls. So it happened that our food, which was brought to us every morning, uncooked, by Selam, Captain Gworsditch's orderly — we did not have our own orderly till later — might, or might not, be attended to; if it were, it was usually so badly cooked as to be uneatable; if it were not, we had to do the best we could with it ourselves, which was generally even more fatal in the result. Eventually, however, we found a cook who was quite clever in spite of the poverty of material at her disposition.

But we were very remiss in failing to purchase supplies while they were still to be got, and we suffered for it — not only upon the journey to Prishtina but afterwards, for Prokuplje was the last town upon our route at which preserved foods, chocolate, biscuits, and suchlike necessary articles of consumption were to be purchased. And even at Prokuplje they were getting scare; the last tin of sardines we bought came from the private store of the chemist; all the other shops were sold out.

We waited patiently that evening for the arrival of Selam, who was to take us to our car, and we did not worry till eight o'clock struck and he had not arrived; even then we were not particularly concerned, for we concluded that the staff must have postponed their departure. But that was not so; Selam had mistaken his orders, and we were left behind!

We learnt this when, about nine o'clock, Captain Gworsditch himself appeared, having found out that there had been some mistake. He was terribly worried for it was absolutely necessary for us to get off at once — yet what was to be done, since the cars had already started, all the carriages were requisitioned and at that time of night and in the pressure of flight it was impossible to arrange for horses? There was one at our disposition, our beloved charger Pigeon, but we were two people and we had some luggage as well. It seemed as if we must walk or travel by ox-wagon, but anything of the sort was decidedly dangerous as it was imperatively necessary to pass Koshumlja with the smallest possible delay.

For two hours, with Captain Gworsditch, we beat the town in search of a conveyance, and at last luck befriended us. We found some motor vans that were going to Prishtina with a heavy load of petrol, and the officer who was arranging the consignment happened to be a cousin of Captain Gworsditch. It was arranged that we should travel in one of the vans, and so we were hurriedly packed in with some half-dozen other refugees, and by midnight we were off. It was by no means comfortable, and sleep was impossible because of the jolting of the car on the rough road, but we comforted ourselves with the reflection that we should not have another night of it. We were traveling at a fair rate — not till the following day did we realize that that was because we had started late and the great mass of traffic was in front of us.

IV — Story of a Journey to Koshumlja — and the King

We reached Koshumlja at about eight in the morning and remained there for a couple of hours. We had fondly imagined we should find an inn of sorts where we could obtain some breakfast, but there was nothing of the kind, nor could we purchase any food or wine, as we had relied upon being able to do. We were, however, most hospitably entertained by the family of the local chemist, whose shop we had merely entered to make some small purchase. They gave us bread, cheese, sausage, and coffee, had our muddy boots cleaned for us, and generally provided for our comfort before we started off again. They were genial, kindly folk, true Serbs, and later on we had frequent occasion to contrast their hospitality with the rough and money-grabbing methods of the Montenegrins.

They told us a lot of interesting things, among others that a few days earlier they had been asked by the local authorities to prepare a meal for a couple of distinguished travellers. No names were mentioned. They had done as they were bid, and were now quite sure that it was the King himself whom they had entertained.

On leaving Koshumlja that morning we ourselves saw the King. He was riding with a small retinue, hardly an assumption of state, and to one of us particularly the little calvacade had something about it that was infinitely pathetic. A brief quotation from one of our diaries will explain why: —

"At Koshumlja to-day we saw the King. Curiously enough this is the first time that I have come across him since I have been in Serbia, though Alice saw him at Tarpola. He is a fine old man, and trouble, sickness, and age have not bowed him. And meeting him thus my mind goes back — how many years it may be I should be afraid to guess. I was a small boy spending my holidays with my people at Vevey, on the Lake of Geneva, and at the hotel we struck up an acquaintance with Prince Peter Kara Georgevitch. He was then in the prime of life, tall, dark, handsome — not yet married. He used to talk to us quite unaffectedly of his hopes and ambitions. King Milan was, of course, the prime enemy.

" 'One day I shall come into my own.' I can quite well remember him saying that.

"And it was true. Destiny — call it what you will — gave him the coveted throne. And now, a dozen years later, he has lived to see a fresh shuffle of the cards. How they will fall it is still for time to show."

We made but poor progress that day, and it was not to be wondered at. The congestion of traffic was amazing. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that from Koshumlja to Prishtina there was an unbroken stream of vehicles of the most varied kinds, though the ox-wagon predominated enormously. With these were soldiers and civilians on horseback; soldiers and civilians on foot; oxen laden and unladen; pack-horses; buffaloes, donkeys, and mules; dogs on the leash or running with their masters; men, women, children, and beasts jostling each other in the confusion of hurried flight. It was not so much the retreat of an army as of a whole nation.

Yet all was orderly and in the main good-tempered. The soldiers were kept to their respective "trains," and were well under the control of their officers. There were as yet no ghastly roadside sights, but now and again came presages of what was to be — the fall of a tired horse, the overturning of a cart, and once we were sickened by seeing a couple of frightened oxen, with wagon attached, precipitate themselves over the low parapet of a bridge into the torrent that flowed below. There was little or no excitement, and the empty space was rapidly filled up; it was not well to fall out of rank, if one could help it.

We soon gave up hope of reaching Prishtina that night. Midday to-morrow, the chauffeur promised us. In this confidence we consumed two of our tins of sardines during the day — it was not much for lunch and dinner — leaving the third for breakfast. And therein lay a catastrophe, for when we came to open the tin, hungry after another wakeful and uncomfortable night, the contents proved to be hopelessly bad! We made a meal off dry bread, and. it did not improve our tempers to see our companions devour a pig's head between them. There was something revolting in the way they picked the bones.

That day progress was slower than ever; we did not seem able to make any headway at all. By midday we could scarcely have advanced half-a-dozen miles. It became increasingly clear that we should have to spend a third night among the petrol-cans — if not a fourth and fifth. That was bad enough in itself, but what about food?

Our companions did not seem to mind a bit. They were in no hurry and, considering that they had lost practically all they possessed in the world, wonderfully cheerful. But we were anxious to get to Prishtina and rejoin our friends who might be concerned about us; we were nervous on their account, too, since, though there had been no attack upon the main road, we had heard a great deal of firing going on among the hills, and we knew that the route by which they proposed to travel came at times — especially at the old Turkish frontier which we were approaching, very near our own.

V — Story of What the Bulgars Did

It was near the frontier, as we learnt afterwards, that the staff had a very ghastly experience. They came, quite unexpectedly, upon the mutilated bodies of some fifty men — Serbs, not regular soldiers, but transport-bearers and drivers — practically unarmed. They had been massacred by Bulgars, a skirmishing party that had been shown a path across the mountains by some treacherous Albanians, and which had fallen unawares upon the unfortunate Serbs. The brutality of the Bulgars upon this occasion — brutality as to which there can be no doubt whatever — was on a par with all the other stories that have percolated through.

They tied their unfortunate victims — defenceless men, be it remembered — hand and foot and then proceeded to slash them to pieces with their swords. Having perpetrated these murders and secured all the booty that they could carry off, they escaped by the same way that they had come.

No punishment could be meted out to them, but it is good to know that the treacherous Albanians were caught and promptly shot, while their houses were razed to the ground — a more drastic punishment still, according to local views.

No wonder we heard firing among the hills!

About midday we determined to abandon the lorry and to make our way on to the next village — some dozen miles — on foot. We did not feel disposed to face another night of discomfort, but what put the finishing touch was the introduction into the car of a little live pig that was destined to be a new travelling companion until such time as he should be killed, cooked, and eaten. We had no food left of our own, but we felt that we could never regale ourselves upon that pig.

We found an officer friend who gave us a couple of soldiers to carry our baggage, and we set out to thread our way through the stream of traffic; but we did not walk very far, for coming presently across a carriage, empty except for a load of forage, we determined to commandeer it. The driver informed us that he belonged to a cavalry division attached to the First Army, and if his commandant had no objection to our intrusion he, for his part, had none either.

Presently the commandant himself came along. He knew us by repute, as did most of the other officers, and the result was that we were cordially invited to ride with the division and offered hospitality and refreshment for the night.

It was, however, well after seven o'clock and dark by the time we had crossed the old frontier and descended upon the broad plain of Kossovo. Having practically had nothing to eat or drink all day — and very little the day before — we rejoiced when at last camp was reached and we found ourselves sitting beside a huge wood fire — it was bitterly cold — waiting for our supper to be cooked for us and for our tent to be pitched.

We did not reach camp, by the way, without some excitement. Out of the darkness there suddenly came the sound of shooting uncomfortably near. Our friend the commandant was riding by our side at the moment; he apologized and galloped off sharply. Then came more shooting. We learnt afterwards that it was a case of Albanian snipers, and that due punishment had been meted out.

Our supper consisted of "confection," as the tinned meat provided to the army is called. When cooked it is quite good, as each tin, besides the meat, contains an ample supply of soup. We had Nestle's milk, too, and now for the first time we learnt to appreciate this commodity at its true value. What we should have done without Nestle's later on it would be hard to say. Our friend was very apologetic about the entertainment he was able to offer us, and kept repeating that it would have been very different in other circumstances; but we were able, wth absolute truth, to assure him that we had rarely enjoyed a meal so much.

We might have added: "or slept so well." We were accommodated in a little "dog-kennel" tent, but there was a comfortable mattress and plenty of wraps, and though the rain fell in torrents during the night, it did not affect our rest. We only felt a sense of rejoicing that we were no longer wedged in among the petrol cans, cold and uncomfortable, and in unavoidable proximity to uncleanly companions — not forgetting the pig. As a matter of fact, had we remained in the lorry we should have been another three nights en route.

Our kind friend's hospitality did not end with the night. The carriage was placed at our disposition the next morning, and starting at six o'clock we reached Prishtina by noon. There was no breakfast in camp for anybody, but we were provided with peksimeat, as the hard army biscuit is called, water, and cognac as we drove along.

And as we came to Prishtina our spirits revived, and we told each other that, after all, there was still hope for Serbia. There would be a concentration of the three armies upon the historic plain of Kossovo, and perhaps, if things were well in the south, a junction might yet be established between the Serbs and the Allies. It would be a grand thing, we argued, if Kossovo should once again be the scene of a tremendous battle — Kossovo which is already the centre of all that is best in Serbian legend and story — and if at Kossovo Serbia should vindicate her honour and re-enter into possession of her own!

Perhaps at Prishtina our flight would find its end! Alas, for such sanguine views; our stay at Prishtina was destined to be short, and when once again we set out upon the weary road of retreat it was to find the wayside scattered with dead oxen, dead horses — and dead men. At Prishtina Serbia entered in earnest upon her road to Calvary.


from 'the War Illustrated' - a British magazine


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