In the early days of World War 1 Serbia achieved some remarkable victories against the first invading Austro-Hungarian forces. The Serbian army had managed to repulse three successive large-scale invasions, but by December 1915, was forced to retreat.
After the efforts of the Austro-Hungarians increased, and were then backed up by German and Bulgarian forces, the Serbian Army found itself far more outnumbered than ever before. On top of this, Serbia had only just been through the worst typhus epidemic in history for most of the year until October, losing around 150,000 people in addition to the many more casualties of war.
Shortly after the massive invasion in October, a full retreat was ordered, with the plan to head south through allied Montenegro and neutral Albania. Unfortunately, the journey would not go as planned for multiple reasons. The retreating forces were joined with a mass evacuation of civilians, who were equally under-prepared and low on supplies. Also, the main line of transport that would have been used was cut off as soon as the Bulgarians declared war.
From the outset of the retreat, the situation was not good. The weather was terrible, the roads were poor and the army had to help tens of thousands of civilians. But the bad weather and poor roads worked for the Serbians as well, as the Germans and Bulgarians could not advance past the treacherous Albanian mountains, and so the thousands of Serbs who were fleeing their homeland managed to evade capture.‘But the rain, which churned up the mud, and soaked the ill-clad people, was called by the Serbians “the little friend of Serbia”, for it held up the Austrian advance, and consequently saved practically the whole of Serbia’s remaining Army.’
During the retreat through the mountains, approximately 200,000 soldiers and civilians perished from a combination of hypothermia, starvation, disease and attacks from Albanian tribal bands and wild animals. At the end of the epic journey towards the coast, with only some 150,000 people left, they were then forced to wait for help from allied vessels to transport them to the Greek island of Corfu, and were subsequently bombed during their wait for days.Eventually, allied transport was able to make it to them in one piece, and they were taken to Corfu. The survivors of the retreat were so weakened that thousands of them still died from exhaustion in the weeks after their rescue. While the main camps of the recovering army were stationed on the island of Corfu itself, the sick and dying, mostly soldiers, were treated on the small island of Vido to prevent epidemics. Despite Allied help, the conditions of both the improvised medical facilities and many of the patients on the island resulted in a high fatality rate. Due to the small size of the island and because of its rocky soil, it soon became a necessity to bury the dead at sea . More than 5,000 Serbs were buried in such a manner in what became known as the ‘Blue Graveyard’
After the ordeal of this mass evacuation of a large portion of the Serbian population, and the events of the rest of the Great War, such a large amount of Serbs had died that Serbia had lost around 60% of its male population.
Today, the Island of Corfu still has a Serbian museum, showing the events of the retreat and the time during the stay at the island, as well as a memorial on Vido (shown below)
(excerpt included from diary of a member of a field hospital Serbian relief unit: http://www.firstworldwar.com/diaries/greatretreat.htm)