Earlier this year, I had begun to paint some 1st World War figures, starting with Serbian infantry, followed by some 1914-era French. Figuring that I’d like to turn my attention to the Great War once more, I’ve reached for some figures from a country that has been overlooked by plastic 1/72 scale manufacturers hitherto; Austria-Hungary. This is perhaps surprising given the nation’s size and significance to the conflict. In fact, only HaT and Strelets have made any Austro-Hungarian figures that I’m aware of at 1/72 scale.
Neither manufacturer has made sublime figures, in my opinion, but I’ve opted to go for figures by the Ukranian manufacturer Strelets. Strelets have recently manufactured an impressive new kit; the WWI Austro-Hungarian Honved (a Hungarian version of the Austrian Landwehr). However, I’ve gone for their earlier, and now increasingly rare, sets of “WWI Austrian Infantry” and “Austro-Hungarian Infantry in Gasmasks’.
The style of Strelets figures tends to prompt a polarised response from hobbyists but I must confess to being a fan. They’re not ‘beautiful’, but typically they’ve plenty of character and loads of crisp detail to hang your paint on.
Going into the Great War, the Austro-Hungarian Army introduced a uniform colour known as “Pike-Grey” (“hechtgrau” in German) for general issue to the infantry in 1908. The main headdress in the field was the kepi, also coloured the same pike-grey. I’m unsure as to why the shade of grey was named Pike. ‘Hecht’ refers to the predatory freshwater fish, yet that is largely olive-green in colour with little in common with the light grey uniform shade.
A little history:
The empire of Austro-Hungary was inaugurated in 1867, being a dual-monarchy split between Austria and Hungary in place of the former single Austrian Empire. The empire’s full official and very wordy name was “The Kingdoms and Lands Represented in the Imperial Council and the Lands of the Holy Hungarian Crown of St. Stephen”. The new dual monarchy was formed following Austria’s defeat at the hands of an increasingly powerful Prussia in 1866, which marked the decline in power and influence towards Prussia (and consequently Germany) and away from Austria. The empire and it’s army was colloquially known as the “K und K”, or the Kaiserlich und Königlich, referring to the Empire being both Imperial and Royal (i.e of the Austrian emperor and Hungarian king).
It was certainly a curious conglomeration, the Austro-Hungarian empire, which eschewed the increasing popular idea of nations bound by ethnic identity then sweeping Europe. The state instead consisted of many different ethnic groups speaking different languages (including German, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Ukranian, Croat, Slovenian, Italian and Romanian). Their ageing monarch at the outbreak of the war in 1914 had ruled these disparate lands for 66 years.
The cataclysm began with the declaration of war by the Austro-Hungarian empire upon Serbia in 1914. As the other Great Powers were drawn inexorably into the conflict, the Dual Monarchy found itself faced with war against Russia to the east as well as Serbia and Montenegro in the Balkans to the south. In May 1915, another front opened with Italy’s entry into the war on the side of the Allies.
From the very beginning, things did not go well for the empire. It’s invasion into Serbia saw the K&K army ignominiously expelled to the dismay of the Emperor, being badly beaten by the Serbs at the battle of Cer. A second invasion later briefly took the Serbian capital Belgrade only for the army to be badly defeated and ejected once again by a Serbian counter-attack at the battle of Kolubara in the winter of 1914. Another front then opened with the Austro-Hungarian campaign in Russian-controlled Poland which was to prove another failure. A counter-offensive by Russia them also cost the Austrians many casualties and prisoners of war and resulted in lost territory.
With German and Bulgarian assistance however, the Austrians eventually managed to conquer Serbia and Montengro (see my earlier post on the flight of the Serbian army through Albania) but were confronted by renewed assaults by a re-equipped Serbian army and its allies, the French, British, Romanians and, latterly, the Greeks. Their heavy reliance on German help effectively made the Austrians increasingly subordinate to their allies. To the embattled Germans, fighting with an ill-equipped and beleaguered ally was akin to being ‘shackled to a corpse’ (a quote widely attributed to German General Erich von Ludendorff).
As the war progressed, Italy exerted great pressure on Austria-Hungary who, once again, required the assistance of German armies to turn the tide. The Russians withdrew from the war after the 1917 revolution but eventually, terrible food shortages and political strife at home, together with declining fortunes both in the Balkans and the Italian front, led to the empire’s own disintegration and collapse. The Czech, Slovaks and Hungarians eventually declared independence and forced the remainder of this once extensive ’empire’ to sign an armistice on the 3rd of November 1918, 8 days before the Germans did the same.
Despite defeats, setbacks and poor equipment; and despite the fractured ethnic and linguistic nature of the empire, the Austro-Hungarian army had endured for four long years of war against the allies. In its battles across the mountains of the Alps and the Carpathians; in Italy, Slovenia, Serbia, Poland and Romania; against the Russians, Italians, Serbs, Montenegrins and others; the K&K army had suffered over 1 million military combat deaths (the 4th highest of any country in WWI) and a further 3 and half million soldiers wounded. It was a terrible price to pay for a defeat that would ultimately see its old empire disappear into history.
I’ll be presenting my Austro-Hungarian army of 34 figures, gas-masked or otherwise, soon.
Following on from a post earlier this year, I came into a snippet of further information regarding John Neal, which I thought I’d share. He was a soldier in the 2nd Battalion Leicestershire Regiment during the Great War, being my great-uncle and brother to my paternal grandmother.
This extra information came in the form of a copy of his medal roll, demonstrating that he was entitled to the Victory Medal, the British War Medal and the 1914 Star. This trio of medals was commonly awarded to the early participants in the war and collectively were wryly known as “Pip, Squeak and Wilfred” (after a popular newspaper cartoon of the day).
The 1914 Star was a medal only awarded to men of the British and Indian Expeditionary Forces who had served in France or Belgium between Britain’s declaration of war on the 4th August 1914 and the end of the First Battle of Ypres, 23rd November 1914. This confirms that John Neal was not one of Kitchener’s new army of volunteers as I had speculated in the previous post. Instead, he was likely to have been one of the first troops in France, a member of the so-called ‘Old Contemptibles‘ (that is to say a man who was already a serving regular soldier with the BEF at the beginning of the war, or had joined up very early on). He was therefore likely to have been considered a well-trained veteran when he died in September 1915, not some green volunteer fresh out from basic training in England.
As part of the Garhwal Brigade in the Indian Corps, the 2nd Battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment had taken part in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. The battle was a costly success for the British army and a private from the 2 / Leicestershire won a Victoria Cross that day. Private William Buckingham enlisted in 1901 aged 15, serving in India and Egypt with the battalion, and was therefore a very experienced soldier at the inception of the war. Private Buckingham’s citation reads:
For conspicuous acts of bravery and devotion to duty in rescuing and rendering aid to the wounded whilst exposed to heavy fire, especially at Neuve-Chapelle on 10th and 12th March 1915.
He was wounded in the chest and convalesced back in Britain. Though he could have spent the remainder of the war recruiting and training new troops, he chose to return to the front and died in the later stages of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Being in the same battalion, it is entirely possible that my relative and Private Buckingham will have known each other.
Returning to my great-uncle John Neal’s medal document, it wrongly lists his rank as ‘Private’, instead of Lance Corporal. Under the remarks section, he is “presumed dead”. Yet, from the information listed on the re-interment form of the same year (1920), it shows that he was at last belatedly identified by means of the discovery of an identity disc. The British Army introduced these identity discs, replacing previous identity cards, in 1907. They were made out of aluminium with the soldier’s basic details being pressed into the thin metal one letter at a time.
The disc would have included his initial and surname, details of his regiment, and crucially his army number – 8666. John Neal was relatively fortunate in that regard; at least his body was identified via that identity disc. Of the 8500 soldiers killed on the first day of the Battle of Loos, incredibly barely 2000 have a known grave.
The writer and poet Robert Graves was one of those also present at the Battle of Loos, his first experience of battle which he called “a bloody balls up”!
In his book, Goodbye to All That, an appalled Graves tells the following anecdote of an officer advancing at Loos.
“When his platoon had run about twenty yards, he signalled them to lie down and open covering fire. The din was tremendous. He saw the platoon on the left flopping down too, so he whistled the advance again. Nobody seemed to hear. He jumped up from his shell-hole and waved and signalled ‘Forward.’ Nobody stirred.”
“He shouted, ‘you bloody cowards, are you leaving me to go alone?’ His platoon-sergeant, groaning with a broken shoulder, gasped out….
‘Not cowards, sir. Willing enough. But they’re all fucking dead!'”
Apart from John Neal, there was another notable death that day on the 25th September 1915 at Loos. The son of another famous writer, Rudyard Kipling. John Kipling was one of those who, like John Neal, was ‘presumed dead’ while missing in action. Unlike my great-uncle John, however, John Kipling was not found with his identity disc. However, many years later in 1992, the body of an unknown soldier was finally identified as being John following careful research, despite the continued absence of his metal disc. This caused his identity to be disputed by some historians until finally it was positively confirmed as bring John Kipling as late as 2016.
Rudyard Kipling was devastated at the loss of his only son, having been instrumental in securing his commission through his high-level personal contacts in the army, when severe short-sightedness had already prevented John from joining up in either the navy or the army. Kipling Senior later elected to be closely involved in the Imperial War Graves Commission, the body which had ultimately re-interred soldiers such as John Neal into newly established cemeteries. Many, many years later, it would also do the same for his son.
In his commission role, Kipling contributed to the liturgy of remembrance with his choice of biblical phrase “Their name liveth for evermore” on the stones of remembrance; the phrase “The Glorious Dead” which appears on the Cenotaph in London; and he even suggested the phrase “A Soldier of the Great War – Known unto God” which appears on the graves of unidentified servicemen – including, for many years and with great poignancy, that upon the headstone of his unidentified son.
Kipling also worked with Winston Churchill to ensure that all of the gravestones of the soldiers were the same shape and size, regardless of rank. Thanks to this, Lance Corporal Neal and Lieutenant Kipling, both casualties of the Battle of Loos in 1915, both belatedly identified, have gravestones which differ only in inscription.
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):
Yep, these Caesar figures are very impressive. The proportions are good and the sculpting and mould are too.
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…
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 1907T, otherwise known as the St. Etienne.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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!
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.
I’m also developing two separate machine gun (mitrailleuse) teams with each group on a separate base.
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.
Hopefully, I might get time to push them towards final completion by the very end of the week. Well, possibly…
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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”.
“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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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…!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)…
…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.”
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!