Succor for Serbia: The British Naval Mission to Serbia in 1915

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By Carl Savich

After the start of World War I, the British, French , and Russian navies sent detachments and shore batteries to assist Serbia in the defense of the Danube and Sava Rivers from Austro-Hungarian attack. The British force consisting of 75 men was to advise on the most effective manner to defend the Danube.

Rear-Admiral Ernest Charles Thomas Troubridge was sent by the UK to head the mission. Troubridge had been appointed to command the British naval mission to Serbia in January, 1915 after an interview with Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Troubridge had been Churchill’s private secretary when Churchill assumed that post in 1911, holding it until 1915. Troubridge was the Naval Secretary of the Royal Navy from 1911 to 1912. In 1912 he became the head of the War Staff where his role consisted of planning naval strategy if a war started.

Troubridge helped to organize defense operations in Belgrade and the retreat and evacuation of the Serbian Army and civilians across Albania and Montenegro in 1915 to the Adriatic Sea. He joined the staff of Serbian Prince Alexander and became an adviser to the Serbian government.

In 1914 he had been acquitted by court martial of the charges brought against him after the escape of the German battle cruiser SMS Goeben and the light cruiser SMS Breslau from the Mediterranean Sea to Istanbul. He had maintained that he was following Admiralty procedures not to engage a superior force. He never again obtained a seagoing naval command and remained controversial. Following his court-martial and acquittal, First Lord Winston Churchill deployed Troubridge to Serbia.

Troubridge arrived in Belgrade on February 22, 1915 to coordinate with the French and Russian missions and to make an assessment of the strength of the position. His other role was to serve as a liaison officer with the Serbian government.

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The French contingent agreed to be placed under his command. The Russian forces however, remained under their own command. He also commanded Serbian troops assigned to his forces. Lieutenant Edward Hilton Young, a member of the Mission in September, 1915, wrote that the forces were made up of “some 40 seaman-gunners, seamen-torpedo-men, armourers, shipwrights and so on and some 30 marines. The parts of flag-lieutenant and first executive officer were doubled by Lieutenant-Commander Kerr, R.N., D.S.O.” Two Marine officers were also part of the contingent: Major Bertram Nowell Elliot, R.M.A., and Lieutenant George Bullock, R.M.

The Danube River was a major conduit for commercial trade and ship traffic that connected Eastern Europe with Asia Minor. From its source in southwestern Germany, it flowed through Ulm, Ingolstadt, Regensburg, Linz, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Mohacs, Vukovar, Novi Sad, Zemun, Belgrade, Pancevo, Smederevo, Vidin, to the Black Sea. Because Romania remained neutral until 1916, the Central Powers were cut off from Bulgaria and Ottoman Turkey. Serbian forces also controlled the Balkan railway lines that passed through Belgrade and Serbia connecting Western Europe to Istanbul. The Danube connected Germany and Turkey and its blockage by the Entente meant that commercial and military traffic between the two countries could be severely restricted. Moreover, the Danube River represented the northern-most point of the front separating Serbia and Austria-Hungary and Germany. It was the geographical and military dividing line between the Entente and the Central Powers in Eastern Europe.

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The Danube River became strategically significant during the Gallipoli Campaign because it could be used by the Central Powers to send weapons and supplies down the river to the Black Sea to supply and to reinforce Ottoman Turkey. Britain sought to prevent the arming and supplying of Turkey because British forces were engaged against Turkish troops in the Dardanelles, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. The Serbian and British forces were able to successfully block the river in 1914-1915 until the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Bulgarian invasion.

The British naval contingent was dispatched to Serbia to combat the Austro-Hungarian flotilla on the Danube River. The force was meant to buttress Serbian forces. The Austro-Hungarian navy presence on the Danube consisted of a small fleet of monitors and patrol boats.

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A major objective of Troubridge’s mission was to prevent German and Austro-Hungarian forces from employing the Danube as a communication and supply line to Turkey. Turkey had entered the war on October 28, 1914 on the side of the Central Powers as the Triple Alliance by bombarding Russian ports in the Black Sea. Bulgaria was neutral but was leaning heavily in favor of the Central Powers to regain territory lost in the Second Balkan War in 1913. Control of the Danube would put pressure on Bulgaria to remain neutral and prevent traffic between Germany and Austria-Hungary with Bulgaria on the Danube. A second goal was to attack and destroy monitors that could be used to bombard Belgrade.

The British contingent outfitted picket boats to be able to load and to fire two 356mm or 14 inch torpedoes on the Belgrade front. Lieutenant Commander Charles Lester Kerr commanded one of the makeshift torpedo boats which sank two Austro-Hungarian river monitors.

They were able to block the river at Zemun and Smederevo by positioning guns, laying mines, and installing torpedo tubes. This stopped the Austro-Hungarian flotilla from sending patrol boats and monitors down river. The Danube River was controlled by the Allies until October, 1915 with the Bulgarian entry in the war and the ensuing joint Austrian-German-Bulgarian offensive forcing the British and Serbian forces to abandon their positions.

Troubridge led a British force made up of sailors and marines who brought along eight 4.7 inch naval guns. This force was subsequently supplemented by the addition of a picket boat forty-five feet in length which contained torpedoes. The British also were able to clandestinely ship in an entire steam torpedo boat in sections. The boat had been momentarily impounded by Greek border officials. Clearance was obtained, however, and sections of the boat were sent by rail to Belgrade where they were assembled. More boats were subsequently sneaked in.

In January and February, 1915, concurrently with the British plan to open the Dardanelles by way of a naval assault, there was a plan to form a joint British and French expeditionary force to the Balkan Theater.

Great Britain and France agreed in February, 1915 to send a joint expeditionary force to Greece and Serbia. There was difficulty, however, in obtaining Greek acquiescence. This was due to Greece’s precarious role as a neutral country. Greek King Constantine I was pro-German while the Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos was pro-Entente. Greece’s foreign policy, thus, remained divided between the alliance blocs although it leaned towards Great Britain and France. It was not until 1917 that Greece officially joined the Entente.

A joint Anglo-French expeditionary force under Generals Sir Bryan Mahon and Maurice Sarrail was deployed to Salonika. The first troops disembarked on October 5, 1915. Britain had 200,000 troops out of a total of 600,000 Allied troops stationed in Salonika.

TroubridgeBelgrade15Troubridge brought eight guns for the defense of Belgrade. The French forces had three 14cm guns. The Russian contingent had one 15cm gun of 15cm deployed at the Kalemegdan Fortress which was a strategically important height overlooking the river. The Russian gun was described as “the only gun of any size defending Belgrade … manned by a party of Russian sailors.”

A key objective of the British Naval Mission was to counteract the Austrian Danube Flotilla which contained monitors, patrol boats and supporting craft. The monitors had armored hulls and were armed with a 12cm turreted naval gun. Some monitors had two 12cm guns and possessed a 12cm howitzer. All the craft had mounted 7cm cannons and machine guns.

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When the war began in 1914, Austria-Hungary had six monitors. One had been sunk by a Russian mine in October, 1914. Four more were subsequently constructed. There were nine monitors when the assault on Belgrade began in October, 1915. The number of patrol boats matched the number of monitors. Their function was to combat enemy ships and craft, to provide artillery support in river crossing operations or in infantry attacks along the river.

Two weeks after his arrival Troubridge sent a request to London that military supplies be delivered to Serbia. He also requested a hospital unit to care for the men under his command. The hospital would consist of 400 British and Serbian members. It would grow even larger as more staff were needed to battle the typhus epidemic.

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The Belgrade front had remained quiet in 1915. There were signals, however, that an new invasion from the north was imminent. Enemy aircraft were detected reconnoitering the city. Serbian anti-aircraft batteries who responded were themselves shelled by guns from the Austro-Hungarian border. Shops began to close and people left the city.

On Tuesday, October 6, the German-Austrian assault began with the artillery bombardment of Belgrade. The Central Powers employed 470 guns, which fired 30 cm canon and 42cm mortars. The Serbian government made the decision to evacuate Belgrade and not to defend it. The focus was placed on the Bulgarian front, leaving 6,000 Serbian, Allied, and volunteer troops, who were retained on the northern Belgrade front. Troubridge vehemently disagreed with this decision. He planned to defend the city.

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The goal of the invasion was to seize the Danube, to punish Serbia, and to raise morale. One objective was to induce Bulgaria to join the Central Powers by gaining territory from Serbia lost in the Second Balkan War. After the bombardment, Austro-German forces cleared the Danube River of mines and destroyed the heavy guns of the British Naval Mission. They also destroyed the other guns in the city and forced their crews to flee. Even after all organized resistance had been quelled, Austro-German artillery continued to bombard Belgrade, fixing on escape routes as targets. Aircraft also continued to bomb the city. One of Troubridge’s Marine officers who witnessed the devastation described the city as “a smouldering ash-heap”. Troubridge estimated that the death toll was 7,000. German and Austrian occupation forces retaliated against Serbian civilians in the city.

Troubridge was reportedly wounded during the assault on Belgrade. In a November 14, 1915 New York Times article entitled “British Admiral Wounded in Serbia. Mme. Grouitch Writes That Troubridge Was Hit While Defending Belgrade”, it was reported that “Otto T. Bannard, President of the New York Trust Company, has received two letters, one describing incidents in the bombardment of Belgrade, from Mme. Mabel Grouitch, the American wife of the Serbian Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs.”

The joint Austrian-German-Bulgarian offensive in October forced the Allies to retreat and abandon their positions. Troubridge and his contingent of naval forces retreated with the Serbian Army to the Adriatic coast port of San Giovanni di Medua or Shengjin in northwestern Albania. On October 16, the hospital staff of the evacuated British Naval Mission at Belgrade arrived in Skopje accompanied by Lieutenant Edward Hilton Young and two wounded Marines. From here they were taken to Salonika. A hospital ship returned them to Great Britain.

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Troubridge was in charge of the evacuation and the redeployment of the remnants of the Serbian Army and the transfer of thousands of Serbian refugees to the Greek island of Corfu in December, 1914, and January, 1915. Troubridge had also begun organizing deliveries of food and medical supplies to the Serbian refugees in January.

Troubridge’s forces accompanied the Serbian Army on its retreat across neutral Albania in the middle of winter in the midst of snowfall a distance of 150 miles. It is estimated that thousands of Serbian soldiers and civilians died during the retreat due to exposure, starvation, illness, or by attacks from armed Albanians. Troubridge helped to organize the evacuation of Serbian troops and civilians to Corfu and to Italy. Historically, this operation is significant because it was the largest seaborne evacuation before Dunkirk in 1940 during World War II.

In June, 1915, he was promoted to vice-admiral and was redeployed to Salonika to join the reformed Serbian armed forces. He was stationed on the Balkan Front for the remainder of the war. The Bulgarian Front collapsed in September, 1918.

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French commander Louis Franchet d’Esperey subsequently made Troubridge the admiral in charge of the Danube. Troubridge sought to form a new naval brigade supported by artillery and torpedoes to launch an attack along the Danube. This plan was not approved, however, by the British Admiralty. He stayed on in the Balkan Theater after the war, leaving in early 1919.

Troubridge was the first Englishman to congratulate Crown Prince Alexander when the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was proclaimed on December 1, 1918. He had dinner with Alexander that night. Alexander rushed to his room and gave Troubridge his Order of Karageorge Medal, 2nd class. He said “it’s dirty, but it is my own — will you have it?”

In his journals that he kept during the Balkan campaigns he was critical and wrote disparagingly of the Serbian forces. But in his foreword to the 1918 book The Guardians of the Gate: Historical Lectures on the Serbs (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1918) by Robert George Dalrymple Laffan (1887-1972), where he recounted his wartime experiences in the Balkans, he presented a much more positive assessment:

“I have lived among the Serbians during the past three years, in days, and under circumstances, which encourage the revelation of every human attribute: in the days immediately following their first success, when they triumphantly flung out of Serbia the ‘Punitive expedition’ of their powerful neighbour and relentless enemy: in long and weary days of tenacious defence: in the days of overwhelming and treacherous attack upon them, with hope of succour growing less and less: in days of terrible marches in a fighting retreat through their beloved country under moral and physical conditions surely never paralleled in the history of any nation: in the days of regeneration of all that was left of them: and finally in days of eager and reckless fighting to regain that which they had lost. …

From such experiences a judgement can be formed; I permit myself, with the Serbians, to believe in a Serbia great and flourishing in the future, pursuing her national development and ideals in peace and quietness, bound to Great Britain in the closest ties of friendship, and once more — as for centuries past — holding the gate of freedom of life, of freedom of thought, against the sinister forces of moral enslavement.”

He was awarded by the Serbian government the Grand Officer of the Order of Karageorge Medal with Swords and the Grand Cross of the Order of the White Eagle Medal with Swords. Lieutenant-Commander Charles Lester Kerr, D.S.O., R.N., was also awarded the Order of Karageorge Medal, 4th class, with swords. The Order of the White Eagle, 4th Class, was conferred upon Captain (temporary Major) Bertram Nowell Elliot, D.S.O., R.M.L.I. and 5th class on Assistant Paymaster Henry Maldon Fitch, R.N. The Order of St. Sava Medal, 4th Class, was awarded to Surgeon Edward Rowland Alworth Merewether, M.B., R.N. and to Lieutenant George Bullock of the Royal Marines.

After the war, Troubridge served as the president of the International Danube Commission from 1919 to 1924. He was promoted to Admiral in January, 1919 and knighted in June, 1919. He died in 1926.