Voilà les Poilus: French WWI Infantry (1914)

You’ll be pleased to note that this will be the last of my ‘franglais’ titles for a while because the French infantry are all finished. After posting on the machine gun teams from this set, I hereby present the remainder of my box of Caesar French WWI Infantry from 1914 (apologies for the slightly dingy photos lacking in daylight – I hate this time of year):

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Yep, these Caesar figures are very impressive. The proportions are good and the sculpting and mould are too.

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French WWI infantry Caesar (13)

French WWI infantry Caesar (16)

The only downside is that the soft plastic has allowed the rifles to occasionally bend and I have been unable to put them back into the correct position without them just bending right back again! I wouldn’t expect that the poilu on the left below will hit a great deal at any range…

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Aside from the machine gunners, the box also came with a small group of infantrymen lying prone on the ground. I’ve placed these together on the same base in a kind of firing line. Half of them are loading and the other half firing from behind a small rise in the ground. Despite the cover, the German army will have an easier time identifying where they are thanks to the bright red kepi on their heads. Furthermore, the kepi will not offer much protection when the bullets fly. The dull, all-metal Adrian helmet is yet to be adopted…

The officer I’ve painted with a blue cover over his red kepi, which is I believe named the ‘Saumur’ version,  which was usual by the time of the Great War. He has binoculars in  a case; a sword, which was pretty useless in modern combat; and a revolver, which was more useful in close combat. He has been sculpted blowing a whistle, a nice touch by Caesar as it was a vital communication tool on World War One battlefields. He also has spurs on his ankles which horse riding company commanders such as captains or lieutenants would have had. My rank cuff stripes of gold lace have been too widely spaced, I reckon.

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French officer blowing a whistle. Would have been handy for refereeing duties during the 1914 Christmas Truce…

This nicely thought out set also came with an interesting ‘walking wounded’ figure. He has presumably received a bullet or shrapnel wound to the left arm and been subsequently treated at a dressing station behind the lines. On reflection, I might get a bit bloodthirsty and add a little seeping through red paint to one or two of them white bandages. Convincingly, they have had their backpacks and weapons removed prior to receiving their treatment at the front. Presumably, they will be transported off somewhere to convalesce – lucky buggers!

So that’s the Caesar French poilu ticked off; the third group of figures from the First World War. Going through my embarrassingly excessive collection of soldiers, I’m in the process of considering what to do next and will no doubt reveal all soon.

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La Mitrailleuse

Mon Dieu! I’ve now completed the French WWI Infantry by Caesar Miniatures! Before I present the rest of the box, I thought I’d first showcase my machine gunners. The box includes three sets of these machine gun crews and I attempted two of them:

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In my limited knowledge of WWI armaments, I initially assumed the machine gun was a Hotchkiss, which took ammunition in the form of the long metal feed strip that one of the men can be seen holding, kneeling down and ready to insert into the side.

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The French did adopt the Hotchkiss guns but only, it seems, as late as 1917. At the beginning of the Great War, the French were using another model of machine gun; the Mitrailleuse Mle 1907 T, otherwise known as the St. Etienne.

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Beautifully painted contemporary postcard entitled “La Mitrailleuse”. Men can be seen holding the ammunition feed strip ready.

So, being 1914 figures, I must assume that they are using the St. Etienne Mle 1907 mitrailleuse (machine gun). This gun was a development from the disappointing Puteaux APX. Although superficially similar to the Hotchkiss, the St. Etienne was intentionally radically different in its design in a deliberate attempt by the French government to circumvent the patent held by the private firm Hotchkiss et Cie.

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French troops operating the much maligned Puteaux APX machine gun, forerunner to the St. Etienne.

The St. Etienne fired it’s 25-round metal strips of ammunition at a rate of fire which was adjustable between 80 and 650 rounds per minute. At a high rate of fire, I imagine the men feeding the 25-round magazines would have had their work cut out! The bullets were the standard 8mm Lebel and, as with the Chauchat light machine gun seen in use by my recent Serbian infantry figures, the St. Etienne suffered gravely from stoppages and maintenance issues in the dirty and difficult conditions on the front line.

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The St. Etienne Mle 1907 mitrailleuse. Note the seat low down on the rear leg. The small wheel and handle are presumably for elevation and direction changes.

The Hotchkiss was to considered to be much more reliable than the St. Etienne and was eventually adopted in mid-1917. Many obsolete St. Etienne’s were then sent to reserve units and allied armies such as the Italian or Romanian. forces

While I’ve been painting these machine guns, a little thought was nagging me about a Great War painting I vaguely recalled being titled “La Mitrailleuse”. Sure enough, I discovered it was the title of a 1915 painting featuring French soldiers at a machine gun position by Welsh artist and Great War soldier, Christopher Nevinson.

La Mitrailleuse 1915 by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson 1889-1946
“La Mitrailleuse” 1915 painting by C.R.W. Nevinson

A BBC article from a few years ago had this to say about Nevinson’s “La Mitrailleuse”:

“It is a portrait of this first experience of truly modern war – rooted, as it now was, in mass production and the mobilisation of organised industrial process. In the painting the men are drawn with the same hard, angular, rigid lines as the gleaming silver-grey gun they are operating – the men are robotised to become, with the fiercely powerful weapon they are wielding, complementary parts of a coordinated destructive enterprise, humanity absorbed into the killing machine.” The Faceless Men – by Allan Little

The men in the Nevinson painting are wearing metal Adrian helmets, having abandoned the red kepi. However, they all still have the blue overcoat and the soldier operating the weapon is clearly still wearing the famous red trouser. In this image, the echoes of romantic military uniforms from the past are fading fast, but not yet quite disappeared completely. Le Pantalon Rouge is the only vivid and bright colour appearing in the painting.

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Looking at my figures, it does seem that some respects an incongruous image – a soldier wearing a 19th century-style colourful uniform sitting at an icon of industrialised killing. With the eventual change away from Le Pantalon Rouge into less colourful, camouflaged uniforms, these men would indeed merge ever more closely with La Mitrailleuse and become simply part of the industry of killing.

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Praise is due to Caesar Miniatures for producing these machine gun teams which, even with my typically ham-fisted attempt at model construction, look rather impressive.

I’ll be presenting the remainder of the box of figures shortly…

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En Avant!

I’ve had a challenging week requiring visits both to the doctors and the dentists which, given my hopeless ‘white coat syndrome’ is the stuff of nightmares, so far as I’m concerned. What was worse, due to home improvements and other commitments, I was unable to so much as lay a single brush on my latest figures until today!

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A little application of Daler-Rowney matt vanish will take some of the shine off their coats.

So, it is now well and truly “en avant” with my French early WWI poilus! These early WWI French infantry by Caesar stand already well advanced. There’s lots to paint, plenty to do to improve upon from what’s already painted and significant little details still to add, but they’re definitely getting there.

My aim is to create separate bases for all the standing or kneeling figures.

 

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I’m also developing two separate machine gun (mitrailleuse) teams with each group on a separate base.

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Infantrymen in position for the as yet invisible mitrailleuse…
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Beautifully painted Tuck Oilette postcard showing French infantrymen with a mitrailleuse. An officer stands to the right.

And finally there are also six figures all lying down, either loading or firing their rifles. These will be based all together, lying low on the ground whilst taking pot shots at the advancing Bosch in the distance.

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Hopefully, I might get time to push them towards final completion by the very end of the week. Well, possibly

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En avant!

 

 

Le Pantalon Rouge

“Eliminate the red trousers? Never! Le pantalon rouge c’est la France!” (Former French Minister for war, M. Etienne)

As a small boy, one of the key aspects of military history that first attracted me to the subject were the illustrations of brightly-coloured 18th and 19th century uniforms. Of course, the reality of the brutality and horror of war was obscured by those radiant fabrics. Nevertheless, in this era, warfare had evolved in a manner that allowed fashion to blossom alongside function. As the 20th century loomed, these ‘lace wars’ were passing by, irrevocably changed by industrial progress and its deadly armaments. Concealment and camouflage was the only logical response to the modern battlefield and its increasingly deadly weaponry.

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A 1910 postcard showing red-trousered French line infantry marching past a monument to Napoleon. His past glories cast a long shadow over the French army even a whole century after his final campaign.

But there were some refuseniks to the harsh reality of modern industrial warfare. Romantic attachment to these old-style, colourful armies burned as brightly in the French imagination then as it did within me as a schoolboy. When the world went to its Great War in 1914, the French marched off looking much as they would have done fifty years or more before, with red trousers, red kepis, and blue coats.

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The attractive red trousers and kepi would make it even less likely their menfolk would ever ‘come back’

Why had they done this? Great Britain had long since learned of the necessity of concealment from modern weaponry.  In 1902, the French army had actually experimented with a grey-green uniform and helmet, parading with it through Paris, but it had not been adopted. At the inception of the war, some in the French military felt that a rushed change away from their traditional uniform in the name of concealment could be construed by the enemy as ‘cowardice’. Furthermore, the interests of French business which had a stake in the production of the old uniforms also played a part (red clothing dyers, chiefly!), but romance was surely key in ensuring that the French soldiers still retained their bright colour.

“[To banish] all that is colourful, all that gives the soldier his vivid aspect is to go contrary both to French taste and military function.” Echo de Paris.

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In truth, it was probably far more about taste than function. But I can well imagine that I might be one of those seeking ways to justify my instinctive reluctance to abandon the iconic glory of their colourful uniform.

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Early WWI German propaganda postcard making use of colour to more vividly show French prisoners being transported still in their red kepi’s and glowing ‘pantalon rouge’.

By 1915, with losses mounting, the French army bowed to the inevitable. The urgent need for less visible uniforms was being heeded and their initial emergency measures included coyly hiding those sacred red trousers under drab blue overalls. Soon, a new pale uniform colour was adopted (horizon blue) and, after first unsuccessfully trialling a metal skull cap worn underneath the red kepi, the all-metal Adrian helmet was adopted too.

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French infantry uniform sans pantalon rouge…

A cherished romantic tradition died on the day that the red trouser was abandoned, but far too many soldiers had died to bring about that demise. It was a sacrifice which had demonstrated that it was not ‘le pantalon rouge’ that was France, rather it was the men that had worn it.

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It will come as no surprise, then, that I will be painting some French WWI infantry in their 1914 guise. Caesar Miniatures is a manufacturer that I haven’t used before. At first glance their figures look excellent, in my opinion. The only downside being the curious omission of any crossbelt straps and the softness of the plastic. I’ll be reaching for the red paint to make a start very soon…

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My young assistant steps up once more to present my latest box of figures…

 

Serbia is Saved! Late WWI Serbian Infantry (1916-18)

Continuing my Strelets Serbian infantry winter figures, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve now completed the final dozen figures remaining in the box! The first group of figures demonstrated the early war uniform. These figures all wear the French Adrian helmet rather than the Serbian šajkača hat. Furthermore, some of these also have the French Chauchat light machine gun. So this dates them to the post-1915 period.

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History, 1915-18:

After Serbia had successfully repelled the invasion in 1914, they were once more attacked in a renewed offensive by the German and Austro-Hungarian forces in October 1915. Bulgaria then declared war and attacked shortly after. Despite limited assistance from Serbia’s allies, Belgrade soon fell. Outnumbered and under-equipped, the Serbian army was facing annihilation. Unable to link up with advancing British and French divisions, C-in-C Marshal Putnik ordered a full retreat to the south-west via Montenegro and into Albania.

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The weather was terrible, the roads poor, and the army had to help the tens of thousands of civilians who retreated with them with almost no supplies or food left. Around 200,000 Serbs perished in the Albanian mountains and thousands more perished from disease once evacuated to the Greek island of Corfu. Because of the appalling loss of life, the Serbian army’s retreat through Albania is today considered by many Serbs to be one of the greatest tragedies in their nation’s history.

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Post-1915 Uniform and Figures:

The remaining Serbian army needed new equipment and uniforms from their allies before it could rejoin the front line and take on the Bulgarian, Germans and Austrians to liberate their homeland. I’ve painted Strelets’ ‘post-retreat’ uniforms separately as examples of the later war Serbian soldiers that liberated their nation. On the uniforms, Serbia.com has this to say:

“The part of the Serbian army that survived the retreat through Albania, arrived at Corfu in torn and dishevelled uniforms. After recovery, the Allies gave them new uniforms such as the French “Blue Horizon” (fr. horizon bleu) and the British “Khaki”.

And from Osprey’s “Armies in the Balkans 1914-18“;

“Other ranks were issued with M1915 French ‘horizon blue’ field uniform, the M1915 French African Army khaki version; or the M1902 British service dress uniform…(with) the French Adrian helmet with Serbian badge.”

Naturally, for my Strelets figures I went for the less common M1915 French African Army khaki version. My Osprey guide’s illustration of this uniform didn’t seem a close colour match for examples I found on the web. So, I’ve gone with the web versions instead.

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Museum exhibit of the French African army uniform.

I was anxious to get the right colour for the French African Adrian helmets, a kind of rusty brass.  I like to think that my mixing of gunmetal and red leather colours was very successful – I’m really pleased with it. Trouble is, with the metallic shine it doesn’t come out very well in photos!

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Late War Serbian Infantry (14)

Four of these late war figures are armed with the French Chauchat light machine gun which had a wooden handle and stock. It used an unusual half-moon magazine which held up to 20 8mm Lebel rounds. It was a light, portable gun that could be mass-produced quickly, cheaply, and in very large numbers.

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However, it was certainly not without problems, indeed according to this short YouTube film, it was considered to be ‘the worst machine gun ever’, being hopelessly susceptible to defective magazines, constant jamming, overheating and a heavy recoil with inherently inaccurate sights!

My officer is depicted still retaining his Serbian hat, which was apparently still a usual post-evacuation feature…

…and some of his men still wear the Opanci peasant footwear with embroidered socks.

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All in all, these Serbian Infantry in Winter Dress have been very reasonable figures. I personally like a little more crispness of detail, especially in the faces, but the choice of army was an inspired choice for Strelets – bravo!

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Late War Serbian Infantry (4)

Late War Serbian Infantry (3)

Coming up next:

I’ve got some WWI figures lined up. However, following on from my recent post about female soldiers in the Serbian army, I will be supporting #FEMbruary. More on that in the next post…!

 

Heroic Female Soldiers of Serbia

In the course of my research about the Serbian army in WWI as I continue to paint my Strelets figures, I was surprised to have come across a number of examples of remarkable female soldiers who fought in combat roles for the Serbian army. It’s all the more surprising, perhaps, that at a time when in Great Britain the electoral franchise had not even been extended towards women, there were to be found numerous examples of brave and adventurous women soldiers serving in combat roles with the Serbians on the Balkans Front. Here are some of the more notable ones that I’ve discovered:

Captain Flora Sands:

The first Serbian female soldier that came to my attention was in fact a British woman fighting for the Serbian army, Captain Flora Sands. Even as a very young woman (she was something of a ‘tomboy’) she enjoyed riding, shooting and driving racing cars. Yet, for all that, this adventurous spirit eventually ‘took a job as a secretary’, which perhaps says something about the job opportunities for women at the time. Not to be denied a life of adventure, Flora joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), the only quasi-military organisation for women in Britain at that time. This enabled her to travel to Serbia and Bulgaria during the 1912 First Balkan War.

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Captain Flora Sands in Serbian army uniform

At the time of the First World War in 1914, a ‘middle aged, chain-smoking’ Sands served with the Serbian Red Cross only to become separated from them during the desperate retreat through Albania the following year. She eventually joined up with the Serbian Army and enrolled as a private. Action soon saw her promoted through the ranks to Sergeant Major and, ultimately, Captain, until being badly wounded by a grenade whilst in the thick of hand-to-hand fighting during the Battle of Bitola. This effectively ended her front line military service.

 

Sands survived the war, married a fellow officer and settled in Serbia where, in true pioneering style, she was said to have driven Belgrade’s first taxi cab! She was awarded the Order of Karađorđe’s Star, Serbia’s highest civilian and military decoration. Only a few years ago, this English woman was still remembered in Serbia via the release of a postage stamp with her face upon it.


Sergeant Milunka Savić

The second woman I discovered was Sergeant Milunka Savić who was brought to my attention by my Serbian friend from Benno’s Figures Forum. She was an astonishingly brave and tough personality, possibly even the most decorated female soldier in recorded history!

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Milunka Savić

Her enrolment is shrouded in some doubt but the most popular story states that it was a consequence of her responding to the enlistment call intended for her brother:

In 1913, her brother received call-up papers for mobilization for the Second Balkan War. She chose to go in his place—cutting her hair and donning men’s clothes and joining the Serbian army. She quickly saw combat and received her first medal and was promoted to corporal in the Battle of Bregalnica. Engaged in battle, she sustained wounds and it was only then, when recovering from her injuries in hospital, that her true gender was revealed, much to the surprise of the attending physicians…

It’s interesting to note that the means of her discovery (injuries sustained in combat) bears similarity to the experience of British female soldier Hannah Snell in the mid-17th century, who narrowly avoided a similar discovery by employing the services of a local doctor rather than the regimental surgeon.

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Milunka Savic posing in full uniform festooned with bandoliers
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Savic in a post-1915 Allied forces uniform with French style Adrian helmet.

At the time of her discovery by surgeons, she was already a decorated soldier who had been promoted and had experienced up to 10 engagements. Despite being a woman, therefore, Marshal Putnik agreed that she was to be retained as a valued combat soldier and Milunka Savic went on to commit further acts of valour.

…Typically for her, she ran through no-man’s land between the fronts throwing hand grenades, sprang into the Austrian trenches with a bayonet and – still alone – captured twenty (!!) soldiers.

This act won her the order of Karađorđe’s Star for the second time, (the first being gained after the Serbian victory at Kolubara). She would go on to be lavishly decorated by other Allied nations also, such as Britain, France and Russia. In the thick of the action, she was wounded nine times in total. There are numerous tales of her abilities and bravery. In one such tale, French officers had challenged her to demonstrate her skill with hand grenades only to witness Milunka confidently hit a bottle of cognac at 40 metres. The French must have been very confident she’d miss to have risked a bottle of cognac!

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Milunka in later life

After the war, she was married and had a daughter, but soon divorced and, being illiterate, was forced to take a job as a cleaner in a bank. She fell on hard times, which were made even more difficult by her compassionate decision to care for three adopted orphaned girls. Standing up to the Nazis in WWII landed her 10 months in a concentration camp. As tough as ever, she and her girls survived and endured in poverty until, belatedly, she was recognised by the Yugoslav state and rehoused in small accommodation just prior to her death at 81 in the 1970s. With great ceremony, in 2013 she was buried in the Alley of the Greats cemetery  in a service led by the Serbian president to be nationally recognised as a great Serbian war hero.

Serbian sergeant

More on the remarkable Milunka Savic at the splendid Serbia, Land of Heroes blog.


Sofija Jovanović

Yet another to come to my attention was Sofija Jovanović, apparently she is sometimes referred to as the ‘Serbian Joan of Arc’. She was a graduate from Belgrade and had applied to volunteer for the infantry immediately after the outbreak of war. Like Milunka Savic, Sofija served initially in the Serbian Army using a man’s name – Sofronije Jovanović  – and was soon in action in the early days of war in 1914. I am not entirely sure at which point her true gender was discovered, or in what manner, or even why she was retained. I am also unsure of her army rank but one photo shows her with an officer’s sword.

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Sofija Jovanovic apparently during the time of the 1912 1st Balkans War?

I do know that she served in the defence of Belgrade and, as with her sister soldiers Flora Sands and Milunka Savic, survived the horrifying, brutal retreat through Albania to achieve evacuation by the Allies. Rearmed and re-equipped, she fought with the Serbian army on the Salonika Front until Serbia’s final liberation in 1918.

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Sofija Jovanović in uniform.

I regret that my cursory research of mostly English Language sites has uncovered little more information than this. The images I have uncovered reveal both a smart and richly decorated officer (above) and a tough guerilla fighter (below).  The latter picture is a postcard dated 1912 and therefore appears to suggest that Sofija was an experienced soldier and a known female combatant even before WWI, having been a veteran of the Balkan Wars 1912-13. In the postcard, she wears the traditional Serbian šajkača hat and opanci shoes. The rest of the uniform seems (although artificially colourised) to be a dark blue or black uniform. It appears to be the 1896 double-breasted kaporan or tunic. This could indicate she belonged to the 2nd ‘Ban’ or line reserve which was less likely to be equipped with the new single-breasted, olive-grey 1908 pattern familiar in the 1st Ban.

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Sofija Jovanović stands with another guerilla fighter from the 1912 Balkan War.

Sergeant Antonija Javornik (aka Natalija Bjelajac)

It would be remiss not to mention Antonija Javornik, aka Natalija Bjelajac, another woman whose combat achievements were heroic. I’m not entirely sure how it was that she became a combat soldier or was allowed to do so as woman; there is no suggestion of disguise so it’s possible that she simply made a kind of natural transition from army nurse to soldier. Unfortunately, I’ve only located the one picture and I have found it equally difficult to find out much about her that doesn’t require some translation from the Serbian. Consequently, I respectfully reproduce the following in its entirely from the English language Serbian history site – “Meet the Serbs“:

Natalija Bjelajac was the Serbian army sergeant and a nurse. However, her real name is Antonija Javornik. She was born in 1893 in Maribor, Slovenia, the city where she finished elementary education and left on the eve of the Balkan wars. Impressed by the stories of Uncle Martin, an officer and a lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian army who changed sides and became a Serbian soldier, Natalia decided to follow his footsteps and go to Serbia to help the Serbian people in his mission of liberation and unification of the southern Slavs. Just when she started to attend a course for nurses, the First Balkan War broke out. In this war, Antonija was a nurse in her uncle’s regiment. They both participated in the liberation of Kosovo and Metohija and the siege of Shkodra. In the Second Balkan War she already fought as a volunteer, with a gun in her hand. On one occasion, she captured an entire battery of Bulgarian soldiers and earned herself her first medal.

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A deservedly highly decorated Natalija Bjelajac in Serbian army uniform.

In World War I, Antonija fought alongside Serbian soldiers [at the battles of] Cer, Drina and Kolubara. She used a false name Natalija Bjelajac to protect her family in Maribor from the Austrian retaliation, in case of being captured by the enemy. In one of these battles she received another medal. Her uncle Martin died heroically In the Battle of Cer, but Antonija continued to fight with even greater zeal. In the battles on Kaimakchalan (12-30. September 1916), Antonija managed to capture 30 Bulgarian soldiers by herself, and was awarded once again. In breach of the Thessaloniki Front, on 15 September 1918, she had shown great courage, but was severely wounded in the leg and the chest. The wounds healed, but a shrapnel remained in her leg for the rest of her life as a memory of passing through the “Gate of Freedom”. She met the end of the war as a sergeant in the Serbian army. Twelve wounds and twelve medals were there to remind her of the turbulent past. In addition to several medals for bravery and the Order of the White Eagle with Swords, Antonija also became the Knight of the Karađorđe’s Star with Swords and a knight of the French Legion of Honour. She died in Belgrade in 1974 at the age of 81.


Ljubica Cakarević

Ljubica Cakarević, was born in Uzice and became a school teacher there. In 1914. her father and brothers were among the first to go to the front to defend their homeland. Once Serbia was occupied by the enemy during the First World War, she refused the invitation of the occupier to work as a teacher and performed tough rural jobs instead.

After three and a half years of this labour, Ljubica was forced to leave occupied Serbia in order to escape the Austro-Hungarians, who had issued a warrant for her in the summer of 1918. With a few more people, under the leadership of the Duke of Lunet, Ljubica started out to find the Thessaloniki front to join the rest of the Serbian army. After 27 days of avoiding the pursuit and ambush, the group of starving, exhausted, almost barefooted people came close to the battle lines.

Ljubica Cakarevic, iz fotoarhive Milorada Iskrina

Along the way, they saw burned villages with hanging corpses of people killed by the Austrians, Hungarians, Germans and Bulgarians. The group somehow broke through the Bulgarian positions and finally appeared in front of the Serbian army in a state of complete exhaustion.

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Ljubica Cakarević with Serbian soldiers on the Thessalonika front.

After 27 days of this traumatic journey, she testified to the Supreme Command of the Serbian Army, giving an account of the occupier’s crimes. Ljubica Čakarević was part of the Serbian army which liberated its homeland, breaking through the Thessaloniki front on September 15, 1918. For her service she was decorated with the Golden Medal for Courage, the “Miloš Obilić” medal. Ljubica notably became the first freelance journalist of a newspaper for the enslaved Serbia which was produced on the Thessaloniki front. So it seems this brave woman fought with both the pen and the sword.

 


Lenka Rabasovic

Once more, I know little about this lady, but I do know that Lenka Rabasovic narrowly escaped capture by the Austro-Hungarians and escaped to the mountainsto join her brother’s Chetnik squad. As a Chetnik, she was akin to a nationalist guerilla fighter rather than a regular soldier. The Chetniks had been active in the two Balkan Wars (1912–13), and as they had proven valuable during that war, the Serbian Army used them again in World War I (1914–18).

Lenka quickly learned to handle a rifle, a knife and a bomb, and bravely fought in all the battles with the enemy. Occasionally, she acted as a courier or messenger in disguise, maintaining communication between the Chetniks of the mountains and settlements then still under the Austro-Hungarian / Bulgarian occupation.

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The only image I can find of Lenka Rabasovic, seemingly in her later years.

Her brother was killed in 1917. I note that this date coincides with the failed Toplica Uprising, a Serb rebellion in 1917 carried out by Chetniks against the Bulgarian occupation force which was eventually suppressed. Lenka survived one wound and remained in arms until liberation in 1918.


Of course, many Serbian women demonstrated their valour and fortitude or suffered enormously in many other ways during WWI; be it as nurses, workers, farmers, civilians or carers. Over the past century, some of the stories of these soldier women’s achievements may have merged myth with fact. Yet there is no doubt about their incredible bravery and valour which was proved time and again in brutal combat. Some of them would have been considered a truly astonishing soldier in any era and for either gender.

I found even more references to other women serving the Serbian army, such as the courageous and adventurous Australian woman Olive Kelso King who served as an ambulance driver. But that’s probably more than enough for now!

In the meantime, I am continuing with finishing the last batch of Strelets Serbian WWI figures which are wearing a very different colour uniform to the early war figures. I feel I should look very closely at them, perhaps a Milunka Savic or a Sofija Jovanović stands disguised within their ranks…

 

For further information on this topic, see also Heroes of Serbia blog!

Early WWI Serbian Infantry (1914-15)

The first part of my Strelets Serbian infantry in Winter Dress are finished!

I’ve split the box into early war figures (1914-15) and later war figures (1916-18). The key difference is really just the French Adrian helmet instead of the Serbian traditional šajkača hat. The late war figures will be next but the majority of these Strelets figures wear the šajkača and it’s these (of the 1st Ban / army) that I present below.

Serbian Infantry Early (16)

Serbian Infantry Early (12)

I’ve based the figures in a landscape which has featured a dusting of snow, so possibly just prior to their epic retreat with Serbian citizens through the Albanian mountains with the winter snows on their way.

Though some wear puttees around their lower legs, for the others I’ve tried to pick out in paint the classic Serbian peasant footwear, the opanci shoes with their horn-like endings to the toes. Likewise, I’ve added some colour to emulate the floral embroidery design often found on their thick woollen socks, the bright red colour of which symbolised the blood lost at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 fighting the Ottoman Turks. Little of this is visible in the snow and grass – but at least I know it’s there, dammit!

An experimental twist of the arm (above right) made for a more realistic pose for the grenade thrower than came off the sprue (above left), I think. However, the pose is clearly far better than the Plastic Soldier Review’s sour description of it being “the most unconvincing, flat and generally poor grenade pose we have ever seen”.

Plastic Soldier Review also had a bit of rant about the folly of Strelets depicting Serbian soldiers armed with Lewis machine guns, something they said would never have happened. Britain was an ally, so I’m happy to believe some examples may have gotten through. For example, Britain sent Rear-Admiral Troubridge with a naval force to help defend Belgrade, perhaps some examples accompanied that mission? Actually, that story about Admiral Troubridge is a fascinating one and I recommend reading the excellent Succour for Serbia: The British Naval Mission to Serbia in 1915. Anyway, I’ve trimmed one figure (above left) without the Lewis gun (which should keep PSR happy), leaving the figure vaguely gesturing instead.

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Serbian Infantry officers

A little more trimming on the officers; those swords would have been a useless luxury on the battlefield, never mind the retreat through the Albanian mountains. One officer figure, therefore, I created sans sword and without a revolver either (above left) . They have ‘some colour’ to indicate the appropriate enameled tricolor cockade on their variation of the šajkača cap.

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I am really pleased that Strelets have now produced this under-represented but crucially important part of the Great War armies. The figures themselves are good and well proportioned. The only downside, I’d say, is that the faces lack a little of the crisp detail and character so familiar to early Strelets sets. But that’s a quibble; I think these early war Serbs make for a great first set of figures for my 2018 WWI Project.

And it’s more Serbs still to come with the late war figures. These are already under way and with only a dozen to do rather than 30-odd, shouldn’t take much longer. In the interim, I’ve been researching a little Serbian WWI history, but more on that in the next post…

Soldiers of Serbia

My latest painting venture will take me into the First World War. Indeed, for 2018, it may be that I visit a number of topics for the Great War which ended 100 years ago in November. The war truly was a world war, taking place across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and across the world’s oceans. It drew in many countries and the obvious protagonists (Germany, Great Britain, etc.) have often been depicted in 1/72 scale model figures. Other nations have been more neglected and, where possible, it is these that I’d like to concentrate on.

So, the first WWI kit of 2018 will be Strelets’ new release; Serbian WWI Infantry in Winter Dress.

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The latest set of figures (…thank you, kind assistant).

First, a little history…

Serbia and the Great War

The Great War which ended nearly a century ago, began in the Balkans. This enormous conflict, which sent shock waves throughout Europe and the World, was inaugurated when on 28 July 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

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The Serbian Army at the beginning of WWI was a tough and experienced force which had emerged victorious from fighting two Balkan Wars in 1913; firstly against the Ottoman Empire and latterly against former allies Bulgaria. The Serbian army immediately scored a great success at the Battle of Cer; the first major battle of the First World War. In November 1914, Belgrade was briefly occupied by the invaders but then subsequently liberated in another remarkable and costly victory against Austria-Hungary which occurred at the Battle of Kolubara.

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“Men who are making a heroic defence against Bulgaria and Germany: Serbian Infantry manning a hill-top trench… The troops are, as a rule sturdy, strong-limbed fellows, recruited almost entirely from the peasantry, hardy and stubborn fighters, and particularly notable for their marching capabilities…”

All this was in vain, however, as Bulgaria joined with Austria and Germany in an offensive which saw the Serbian army retreat all the way to the Albanian coast where allied ships evacuated them to Corfu. Here it was reorganised and re-equipped using Entente uniforms. The army then rejoined the fight to liberate its homeland fighting alongside French (mostly), but also British and Greek allies, finally achieving its liberation in 1918 after Bulgaria capitulated.

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“Heroic Serbia” fights off both Germany and Austria-Hungary, whilst Bulgaria lurks behind ready to stab it’s neighbour in the back… (Punch cartoon, 1915)

Casualties:

The cost to Serbia for securing its liberation was truly appalling. A staggering 58% of the 420,000 strong Serbian Army died (nearly 8% of total Entente deaths), leaving 100,000 still serving at the point of liberation. The nation suffered approx 450,000 civilian deaths due to disease, privations and in uprisings against the invaders. Much of this treatment of the Serbian population was captured in photography and appeared to be war crimes.

One of my fellow hobbyists from Bennos Figures Forum, a Serb, shared with me some time ago the following story from his own family history during this time.

My great great grandmother died during battle of Cer, she was in hiding with her son Gvozden, while her husband was fighting with an army…She realized something she forgot, devil knows what at home, she went back and the K und K army captured her and put her in the house and [set the] house on fire…

The “K und K army” refers to the Kaiserlich und Königlich or “Imperial and Royal” army, a colloquial term for the Austrian-Hungarian forces. The harrowing effects of the conflict were certainly not solely suffered by Serbian soldiers alone.

Uniform:

The Serbian army wore the same uniform going to war in 1914 as it had recently worn in the Balkan Wars the previous year. My two Osprey guides to the Serbian army at this time suggest that they wore the M1908 “khaki” woollen uniform with a double-breasted (winter) coat which was in the same colour as the uniform. As the Strelets troops come wearing their winter coats, this information is helpful. Their uniform colour is also described in the Balkans Wars 1912-1913 book as being green-grey, not khaki, yet this is the same uniform as worn in 1914. Choosing the right colour, as so often with painting soldiers, is a matter of making some choices.

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Types of the Serbian army throughout the Great War. The 3rd figure (right) will be of the type I’m painting.

It goes on to detail the red branch colour collar patches on the coats which denoted the soldiers to be of the infantry (blue = cavalry, black = artillery, dark brown = ambulance and maroon = engineers). Trousers were tucked into thick woollen peasant socks and the distinctively curved opanci peasant shoes were worn if black marching boots were unavailable.

The Serbia.com website has a very informative page on the WWI Serbian army uniform. It describes the colour of the uniform a little differently. It says:

“The Kingdom of Serbia was one of the first European countries that introduced olive-grey uniforms in 1908. In this uniform, Serbian soldiers went through the Balkan wars (1912-1913), not knowing that they would not have time to put it off, as a new conflict was waiting around the corner, a war in which Serbia would take a heavy toll.

Tired and overwrought, the Serbian soldiers were mostly distinguished in this grand theatre of world war by a cap called šajkača, which was worn, without exception, by anyone who fought under the Serbian flag. However, not all šajkača caps were the same. Officer’s cap was firm with a sun visor and a cockade (enameled tricolor cap insignia with the king’s monogram)…

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Serbian officer’s cap.

…The trousers were wide at the hips and narrow at lower legs. The majority of the Serbian army wore the so-called opanci (rustic footwear made of leather), although some soldiers wore boots combined with curlers that offered protection during cold days. An integral part of the uniform was the pouch usually made of cloth in which the soldiers carried their supplies.”

Униформа_Српског_војника_из_1914_године The figures:

The Strelets figures are quite a departure from the old figures. They are slender and all to scale and in proportion. Great news for wargamers who felt that Strelets were a poor fit with other manufacturers figures on the war game table. On the downside, the figures lack a little of the character and crisp details which made painting them fun. Ah well, there’s seldom such thing as the perfect figure.

So, I’ve been busy working on creating a decent olive-grey / green-grey / khaki / insert-colour-here uniform. I’m already very well advanced so I will share more on how I’ve got on soon!

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Some figures from Strelets new set “Serbian Infantry in Winter Dress”.