Serbia and the Balkan Front, 1914 is the first history of the Great War to address in-depth the crucial events of 1914 as they played out on the Balkan Front. James Lyon demonstrates how blame for the war’s outbreak can be placed on different historical aspects. In doing so, he portrays the background and events of the Sarajevo Assassination and the subsequent military campaigns and diplomacy on the Balkan Front during 1914. Lyon challenges existing historiography that contends the Habsburg Army was ill-prepared for war and shows that the Dual Monarchy was in fact superior in manpower and technology to the Serbian Army. Here is what Sir Ivor Roberts, the former British Ambassador to Yugoslavia, Ireland and Italy and current President of Trinity College, Oxford thinks of the book:
It might have been thought that there was very little left to say about the events of 1914 after the distinguished crop of books which have emerged in the last year. Yet James Lyon’s book covers genuine new ground focussing as it does on the events of 1914 in the Balkans seen from the Serbian end of the telescope and basing himself on many Serbian, Austrian, and Bosnian archival sources which have not been accessed by writers in English previously, including new material on Serbia’s relations with Turkey.
He provides compelling evidence to reject the claims that the Serbian reply to the Austrian ultimatum was so full of ambiguities and evasions as to make it unsurprising that it was rejected. Lyon paints a vivid picture of the Habsburg ambassador in Belgrade, von Giesl, preparing his departure, even so far as to receive Serb ministers on the evening of the expiry of the ultimatum in plus-fours and travelling clothes, before he had even read the reply. This was perhaps to be expected as Count Berchtold’s ultimatum to Serbia was deliberately drafted to be rejected. And yet the Kaiser, no less, concluded that the Serbian reply was “a great moral victory for Vienna: but it removes every reason for war” And Sir Edward Grey told the Austrian ambassador that “ It seemed to me that the Serbian reply already involved the greatest humiliation to Serbia that I had ever seen a country undergo, and it was very disappointing to me that the reply was treated by the Austrian Government as if it were as unsatisfactory as a blank negative.”
Lyon also deals comprehensively and in painstaking detail with the old canard that the Habsburg armies were less prepared for war than Serbia’s. In fact, it emerges clearly from Lyon’s lucid account that not only was the Pašić government desperate to avoid war but the debilitating effect of the two Balkan Wars and the consequent parlous insufficiency of arms and ammunition meant that at least in the early stages any war with an army of Vienna’s strength would be a disaster. The problems of lack of arms were compounded by lack of manpower: disease, wounds and desertions (60,000 in the first five months of the war) and basic equipment, (they were often dressed entirely in peasant clothes) which reduced the Serbian army in the last months of 1914 to a rag tag ‘peasant mob’. Yet the US Ambassador to Serbia perceptively noted that while the Serb army “looked like bands of tramps… [they] made excellent soldiers.” A result of the hardening experience of the two Balkan wars. Moreover while the Austrians thought little of the senior Serbian generals and officers, this proved, as Lyon illustrates, a very flawed judgment.
The later parts of the book provide an impressive and exhaustive account of the early battles of the war as seen from the Balkan perspective. It touches on the dramatic moments when Belgrade was close to surrendering to the Dual Monarchy in November 1914, the impact of the Balkan theatre on other fighting fronts and the behind-the- scenes deals which aimed at bringing Italy into the war at the expense of Serbian territorial ambitions. I can think of no other English language work which addresses Serbia’s military effort in such a coherent and meticulous fashion nor which paints such a vibrant and dramatic picture of political life in Serbia in the days of the July crisis and immediately after the declaration of war.
Based on archival sources from Belgrade, Sarajevo and Vienna and using never-before-seen material to discuss secret negotiations between Turkey and Belgrade, Serbia and the Balkan Front, 1914 enriches our understanding of the outbreak of the war and Serbia’s role in modern Europe. The book publishes later this year and is available to buy on our website.