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The Tragic Fate of Serbian Writers in the Great War

November 8, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of a Serbian poet, Milutin Bojić. He was only 25 years old at the time of his eternal repose, but his famous verses became a solemn testament to a great Serbian tragedy.

Bojić published poetry well before the start of the Great War. His reputation, however, rapidly grew after his death, mainly due to the captivating poem he wrote about the epic, devastating retreat of the Serbian army through Albanian mountains in the winter of 1915/1916 before the invading German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian troops. When the decimated and emaciated soldiers and the fleeing civilians arrived at the Ionian coast, they were transferred by boats to the Greek islands of Corfu and Vido, where they buried over 5000 of their fallen comrades at sea.

About 60 percent of the Serbian male population between the ages of 15 and 60 perished in the Great War. Commemorating this heroic and tragic feat, Bojic wrote:

There at the bottom, where seashells fall into the tired grip of sleep
And peat falls upon the dead algae,
Lay graves of the brave, lay brother to brother
Prometheuses of Hope, Apostles of Pain.

This solemn and stirring poem, called "The Blue Tomb," written in the Alexandrine verse, masterfully conveys the apocalyptic extent of the tragedy:

So I want peace, to officiate my Requiem
Without words, without tears and quiet sighs,
To merge scent of incense, and the breath of dust,
With the pounding echo of distant battle drums.

Surviving the heroic and calamitous retreat, also known as the Albanian Golgotha, Bojic quietly passed away from tuberculosis in a hospital in Salonika, Greece, a year before the end of the war. 

Bojic shared his fate with many Serbian intellectuals, some of whom were taken from Greece to Italy and France, where they commenced or continued their studies. Many of them later returned to Serbia and took up important positions in the Yugoslav government and foreign diplomacy. The war experience of two prominent writers, Vladislav Petković Dis and Miloš Crnjanski, further illustrates the life-changing exploits of the Serbian youth during the Great War.

Vladislav Petkovic Dis was a reputable poet in the age when the publication of a new collection of poems was considered an event. Poetry was read in city cafés, the centres of the social and intellectual life in Belgrade, and Dis was one of its most prominent participants. In one of his greatest poems, "Perhaps She's Sleeping", he demonstrates the surreal influence of the French poets of the turn of the century, especially Baudelaire, but also a unique poetic vision:

Perhaps she's sleeping with eyes beyond the evil realm,
Beyond things, illusions, beyond reality,
And with her sleeps, unseen, her beauty;
Perhaps she is living and will come after this dream,

Perhaps she's sleeping with eyes beyond the evil realm.

At the outbreak the First Balkan War in 1912, Petković was conscripted by the military as a journalist. As a war correspondent, he covered the battles of both  Balkan Wars and World War I that quickly followed. In 1915 he joined the Serbian army in their retreat to Corfu. From Corfu, Dis was sent to France to recuperate and write about the war tragedy. In the Spring of 1917, on the way back, he boarded an Italian ship. The vessel was sunk by a German submarine, killing all the passengers and the crew.

Dis foretold his unfortunate destiny in one of his best known collections of poems, The Drowned Souls, earning him the reputation of a "cursed poet." He was 37 years old.

Miloš Crnjanski was a 21-year-old medical student in Vienna at the outbreak of the Great War. After the assassination of the Habsburg Heir to the throne, like many young Serbs in the Habsburg Empire, he was forced into the Austro-Hungarian military and sent to the Galician front to fight the Russians. He was soon wounded, and spent most of 1915 in a Vienna hospital. At the time of the 1918 armistice, he was in uniform again, this time at the Italian front.

After the war, Crnjanski documented his experience in the war in the novel Migrations through the fate of one of the most famous characters in all of Serbian fiction, Captain Vuk Isakovič, who fought for the Habsburg crown against the French in the 18th century: "The front, hospitals, then the front again, and love, love everywhere, in exchange for bread and sugar, all damp, all rain and mud, the mists of dying..."

Before World War II, he worked as a diplomat in Berlin and Rome, supporting the Franco and Mussolini regimes. Persecuted by Tito's post-war communist regime, Crnjanski lived in London exile until 1965, when he returned to Yugoslavia. He preferred a life in a communist country than staying in eternal exile. He died in Belgrade in November 1977, exactly 40 years ago.

The fate of these three Serbian writers encapsulates the destiny of young male Serbs, all afflicted in one way or another by the tragic attack and occupation of the German and Austro-Hungarian forces a century ago. Some were killed, some died from war-time diseases, and others, who survived, lived to describe the senselessness of warfare and the grievous tribulations of a small Balkan nation.

Svetozar Postic

This text, in a slightly different form, is set to appear in the November issue of the Canadian literary journal People Say.

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