The Battle of Cer[b] was a military campaign fought between
Austria-Hungary and Serbia in August 1914 during the early stages of
the Serbian Campaign of the First World War. It took place around Cer
Mountain and several surrounding villages, as well as the town of
The battle, part of the first Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia,
began on the night of 15 August when elements of the Serbian 1st
Combined Division encountered Austro-Hungarian outposts that had been
established on the slopes of Cer Mountain earlier in the invasion. The
clashes that followed escalated into a battle for control over several
towns and villages near the mountain, especially Šabac. On 19 August,
the morale of the Austro-Hungarians collapsed and thousands of
soldiers retreated back into Austria-Hungary, many of them drowning in
Drina River as they fled in panic. On 24 August the Serbs
re-entered Šabac, marking the end of the battle. Serbian casualties
after nearly ten days of fighting were 3,000–5,000 killed and 15,000
wounded. Those of the Austro-Hungarians were significantly higher,
with 6,000–10,000 soldiers killed, 30,000 wounded and 4,500 taken as
prisoners of war. The Serb victory over the Austro-Hungarians marked
the first Allied victory over the
Central Powers in the First World
War, and the first aerial dogfight of the war took place during the
8 Further reading
Austria-Hungary and Serbia deteriorated in the
aftermath of the
May Overthrow in 1903. Almost immediately, the new
Karađorđević government aligned itself with the
Russian Empire and
oriented its foreign policy away from its long time patron, the
Habsburgs, and Austria-Hungary. In 1906,
Austria-Hungary closed its
border to Serbian agricultural exports in an episode known as the Pig
War. In 1908,
Austria-Hungary formally annexed
Bosnia-Herzegovina—a territory with a large Serb population that it
had been granted by the
Congress of Berlin
Congress of Berlin in 1878. The annexation
prompted the Serbian public to call for war with Austria-Hungary. With
no promise of Russian support in the event of war, the Serbian
government decided against pursuing the matter militarily. Count
Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf boasted that it would take Austro-Hungary
only three months to defeat Serbia should war erupt between the two
The Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia was commanded by General Oskar
Potiorek, the Austro-Hungarian Governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
With Bosnia-Herzegovina firmly in Austro-Hungarian hands, Serbia and
several other Balkan states turned to forcing the
Ottoman Empire from
southeastern Europe. The ensuing Balkan Wars, which lasted from 1912
until 1913, saw Serbia take possession of
Kosovo and Macedonia. On
28 June 1914,
Bosnian Serb student
Gavrilo Princip assassinated
Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria
Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo. The assassination
precipitated the July Crisis, which led
Austria-Hungary to issue an
ultimatum to Serbia on 23 July on suspicion that the assassination had
been planned in Belgrade. The Austro-Hungarian government made the
ultimatum intentionally unacceptable to Serbia, and it was indeed
rejected. The Austro-Hungarians declared war on Serbia on 28 July
and that same day the Serbs destroyed all bridges on the
Danube rivers in order to prevent the Austro-Hungarians from using
them during any future invasion.
Belgrade was shelled the
following day, marking the beginning of the First World War.
Eastern Europe began with the first Austro-Hungarian
invasion of Serbia in early August 1914. The number of
Austro-Hungarian troops was far smaller than the 308,000-strong force
intended when war was declared. This was because a large portion of
the Austro-Hungarian 2nd Army had moved to the Russian Front, reducing
the number of troops involved in the initial stages of the invasion to
approximately 200,000. Forty percent of this force was composed of
South Slavs living within Austro-Hungarian borders. On the other
hand, the Serbs could muster some 450,000 men to oppose the
Austro-Hungarians upon full mobilization. The main elements to face
the Austro-Hungarians were the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and
Užice Armies, with a
combined strength of approximately 180,000 men. The Balkan Wars
had only just concluded and Serbia was still recovering. Over 36,000
Serbian soldiers had been killed and 55,000 seriously wounded. Few
recruits had been gained from the newly acquired territories, and the
Serbian army had been stretched by the need to garrison them against
Albanian insurgents and the threat of Bulgarian attack. To compound
matters, the Serbian army was dangerously short of artillery, and had
only just begun to replenish its ammunition stocks. Its supply
problems also extended to more basic items. Many Serbian recruits
reported for duty barefoot, and many units lacked any uniform
other than a standard issue greatcoat and a traditional Serbian cap
known as a šajkača. Rifles were also in critically short supply. It
was estimated that full mobilization would see some 50,000 Serbian
soldiers with no equipment at all. The Austro-Hungarians, on the
other hand, possessed an abundance of modern rifles and had twice as
many machine guns and field guns as the Serbs. They also had better
stocks of munitions, as well as much better transport and industrial
infrastructure behind them. The Serbs had a slight advantage over
the Austro-Hungarians: many of their soldiers were experienced
veterans of the
Balkan Wars and better trained than their
Austro-Hungarian counterparts. Serb soldiers were also highly
motivated, which compensated in part for their lack of weaponry.
Austro-Hungarian forces assigned to the invasion were placed under the
command of General Oskar Potiorek, who had been responsible for the
security detail of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Prior to
the battle, Potiorek had predicted an easy victory over the Serbians,
calling them "pig farmers." The Serbian army was commanded by
Crown Prince Alexander, with the Chief of the General Staff, Field
Marshal Radomir Putnik, who had commanded Serb forces in the Balkan
Wars, as his deputy and de facto military leader. Generals Petar
Stepa Stepanović and
Pavle Jurišić Šturm commanded the
1st, 2nd and 3rd Serbian Armies, respectively.
Mobilized Austro-Hungarian troops sent across
Sarajevo for Serbia.
From 29 July to 11 August, the Austro-Hungarian army launched a series
of artillery attacks in northern and northwestern Serbia and
subsequently managed to exploit the bombardments by constructing a
system of pontoon bridges across the
Drina rivers. The
Serbians knew that it was impossible for their forces to line the
entirety of the Austro–Serbian border, which extended 340 miles
(550 km). Putnik therefore ordered the Serbian army to fall back
on a traditional line of defence as he grouped the bulk of his forces
in Šumadija, from where they could rapidly move either north or west.
Strong detachments were posted in the towns of
Valjevo and Užice, and
outposts were stationed at every important point on the frontier. At
this stage, all the Serbian General Staff could do was wait until the
Austro-Hungarian invasion plan materialized.
Veliko Gradište continued to be subjected to
more vigorous artillery bombardments, and a number of failed attempts
to cross the
Danube resulted in heavy Austro-Hungarian losses. The
bulk of the Austro-Hungarian forces were stationed in Bosnia, and the
Serbian General Staff were not misled by these feints on the Danube.
Subsequently, the Austro-Hungarians attempted to cross the
Ljubovija and the
Sava at Šabac, and these attacks were seen as more
significant. On 12 August, Austro-Hungarian troops entered Serbia
through the town of Loznica, crossing the Drina. There, and in the
village of Lešnica, the Austro-Hungarian 13th Army Corps made a
crossing, while on the same day the Austro-Hungarian 4th Army Corps
Sava to the north of Šabac, while other Austro-Hungarian
troops crossed the Drina. The town of
Šabac was quickly
taken. By 14 August, over a front of about 100 miles
(160 km), the Austro-Hungarians had crossed the rivers and
converged on Valjevo. The Austro-Hungarian 2nd and 5th Armies
moved towards Belgrade, where they encountered the Serbian 1st, 2nd
and 3rd Armies. On 15 August, Putnik ordered his forces into
"The forward battalion had advanced during the night towards the
Trojan peak, and when we made it to Parlog the shower began, followed
by volcanic thunder and sheet lightning. Water was drenching us from
all sides ... Suddenly another soldier, out of breath and
"Major, sir, the Krauts!"
That's how the night-time clash between our Combined Division and the
enemy's 21st Landwehr Division started and with it the battle of Cer
Captain Ješa Topalović, of the Serbian army, recounting how his
division encountered Austro-Hungarian forces on the slopes of Cer
Around 23:00 on 15 August, elements of the Serbian 1st Combined
Division encountered outposts set up by the invading Austro-Hungarian
army on the slopes of Cer Mountain and fighting erupted. The
Austro-Hungarian positions were lightly held, and their defenders were
driven back away from the mountain. By midnight, fierce clashes
between the Austro-Hungarians and the Serbs were underway and chaos
ensued in the darkness. By the morning of 16 August, the Serbians had
seized the Divača Range and dislodged the Austro-Hungarians from
their positions in the village of Borino Selo. The
Austro-Hungarians, who had suffered heavy casualties during the
fighting, retreated in some disorder. As the day progressed, the Serbs
drove the 21st Infantry Division off the slopes of Cer to prevent it
from linking with the 2nd Army in Šabac.
On 17 August, the Serbs attempted to retake Šabac, but their efforts
failed. The 1st Combined Division attacked the villages of Trojan and
Parlog before moving on towards the small town of Kosanin Grad.
Elsewhere, the Austro-Hungarians succeeded in repulsing the Serbian
3rd Army, forcing it to manoeuvre one of its divisions to protect the
approach to the town of Valjevo, which was threatened by the 42nd
In the early morning of 18 August, the Austro-Hungarians launched
another attack, with the intention of pushing the 1st Šumadija
Division off the
Šabac bridgehead to allow the 5th Army to advance.
However, the attack failed as the Serbs defeated the Austro-Hungarians
at the Dobrava River, forcing their surviving soldiers to withdraw.
Elsewhere, the Serbian 2nd Army's counter-offensive continued along
the Cer and Iverak, with the 1st Combined Division attacking the
village of Rašulijača and coming under severe pressure at Kosanin
Grad. The first Serbian assault was fought off, but a wave of further
attacks followed throughout the night. In the early morning of 19
August, the Serbs finally defeated the Austro-Hungarians and seized
the small town. The 1st Morava Division drove the 9th Infantry
Division from its position and fought off the division's subsequent
counterattack, inflicting heavy losses. The 4th Corps renewed its
attack against the
Šumadija Division, forcing the Serbs to withdraw
having only sustained light casualties. Because the 4th Corps did not
break the Serbs, the Austro-Hungarian division was unable to alter the
direction of its advance towards Cer Mountain, since doing so would
have put the
Šumadija Division in a position to attack the 4th Corps
from the rear. As a result, the 4th Corps was unable to join other
Austro-Hungarian forces fighting at Cer.
Cer Mountain in northwestern Serbia. In 1914, the mountain was the
site of the eponymous battle in which Austro-Hungarian forces were
defeated by their numerically-inferior Serb opponents.
The Serbs retook Rašulijača at noon, and the 1st Combined Division
exploited this to advance towards Lešnica. Meanwhile, the 1st Morava
Division attacked Iverak and managed to drive the Austro-Hungarians
back. The village of Velika Glava fell to the Serbs before mid-day,
and by the late afternoon the Rajin Grob ridge had been retaken. At
around this time, the Austro-Hungarians began retreating with
increasing rapidity, their will and cohesion apparently shattered. The
3rd Army had similar success, routing the 36th Infantry Division and
forcing it to retreat in considerable disorder. The Serbs then moved
to pursue the fleeing Austro-Hungarians all along the front. By 20
August, Austro-Hungarian forces were fleeing across the
still being pursued by the Serbs back into Bosnia, with the entire 5th
Army being forced across the Austro-Hungarian side of the river.
Many Austro-Hungarian soldiers drowned in the water as they fled in
panic. Serbian military reports announced that "the enemy is
withdrawing in the greatest disorder." Putnik then notified King Peter
in a telegram, saying "the main enemy has been defeated in Jadar and
on Mount Cer, and our troops are in hot pursuit." Upon their
triumph at Cer Mountain, the Serbs sought to recapture the heavily
fortified town of Šabac. Violent clashes occurred on 21 and 22
August, during which Serb forces fought their way to the western
approaches of the town. By 23 August, the Serbs had encircled the town
and that evening they brought up their siege artillery. On 24 August,
Serbian forces entered
Šabac and discovered that the
Austro-Hungarians had decamped the previous night. By 16:00, the
Serbs reached the banks of the
Sava River, bringing the first
Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia to an end.
Both sides suffered heavy casualties in the battles. Estimates of
the number of Austro-Hungarian casualties vary. Jordan states that the
Austro-Hungarians suffered a total of 37,000 casualties in the battle,
of whom 7,000 were fatalities.
Misha Glenny states that almost
30,000 Austro-Hungarian soldiers were wounded and 6,000–10,000 were
killed. Horne writes that the Austro-Hungarians had 8,000 soldiers
killed and 30,000 wounded in the battle, compounded by the loss of 46
cannons, 30 machine guns and 140 ammunition wagons. Historian
David Stevenson states that 4,500 Austro-Hungarian soldiers were taken
Estimates of the number of Serbian casualties also vary. Horne and
Jordan both agree that approximately 3,000 Serbian soldiers were
killed and 15,000 were wounded in the battle. Glenny counters that
3,000–5,000 Serb soldiers were killed in the battle.
Nevertheless, the number of fatalities suffered by both sides heralded
the massive cost in human lives of the First World War. French
journalist Henry Barby reported:
The area between Cer and the river Jadar where this tremendous battle
took place was nothing but mass graves and putrefying flesh ...
From the shadow of the woods emerged a stench so foul that it rendered
the approach to the summit of Cer impossible. The number of corpses
there was so enormous that the Second Army was constrained to abandon
their burial due to a lack of time.
Atrocities were committed by both the Austro-Hungarians and Serbs,
although, according to author Lawrence Sondhaus, the majority were
committed by the Austro-Hungarians. The Austro-Hungarians charged
Serb civilians with mutilating Austro-Hungarian soldiers, while
undisciplined Austro-Hungarian troops summarily executed hundreds
of Serb men and raped and murdered numerous women and children during
the battle, which Songhaus ascribes to their hatred towards Serbs
for starting the war. Many of those murdered by the
Austro-Hungarians were the victims of fellow
South Slavs (Serbs,
Croats and Bosnian Muslims) serving in the Austro-Hungarian army.
Serbian commanders noted that the Austro-Hungarians had committed
numerous reprisal killings over the course of the battle. General
Pavle Jurišić Šturm recounted:
The Austrian army has committed frightful atrocities in our
territories. A group of nineteen (men, women and children) has been
found by the Krivajica tavern. They had been roped together and then
horribly massacred. Such a group of fifteen people was found in
Zavlaka. Small groups of slaughtered and disfigured people, mostly
women and children, are to be found throughout the villages. One woman
had belts of skin cut off and another had had her breasts cut
off ... Another group of twelve women and children has been found
who had been tied together and massacred. Peasants say such sights are
to be seen everywhere.
Monument to Serbian soldiers killed in the battle
Although they succeeded in repelling the Austro-Hungarian attack, the
Serbs used up much of their ammunition during the battle, needing 6.5
million cartridges and 35,000 shells to prevail. The commander of
the Serbian 2nd Army, General Stepa Stepanović, was promoted to the
rank of field marshal (Serbian: војвода, vojvoda) for his
successful command. In contrast, Austro-Hungarian commander Oskar
Potiorek was humiliated in defeat and determined to launch a second
invasion of Serbia. In September, he was given permission to launch
such an invasion provided that he "not risk anything that might lead
to a further fiasco." Defeat at Cer Mountain also affected the
morale of the Austro-Hungarian troops. The first aerial dogfight of
the war occurred during the battle, when Serbian aviator Miodrag
Tomić encountered an Austro-Hungarian plane while performing a
reconnaissance mission over enemy positions. The Austro-Hungarian
pilot fired at Tomić with his revolver. Tomić managed to escape,
and, within several weeks, all Serbian and Austro-Hungarian planes
were fitted with machine-guns.
The battle was the first Allied victory over the
Central Powers in the
First World War. Serbia's triumph on the battlefield drew
worldwide attention to the country and won the Serbs sympathy from
both neutral and Allied countries. A number of foreigners flocked
to Serbia in late 1914, offering financial, political, humanitarian
and military aid. Articles in defence of Serbia became more frequent
in the British press. Certain cultural circles in Italy advocated
entering the war on the Allied side, citing Serbian and Montenegrin
The Serbian patriotic song March on the
Drina was written by Serbian
Stanislav Binički shortly after the battle to commemorate
the victory. Binički dedicated the march to his favourite commander
in the army, Colonel Stojanović, who was killed during the
fighting. A Yugoslav war film also titled March on the
released in 1964 and is loosely based on the battle.
^ This range takes into account that the first clashes between Serb
and Austro-Hungarian forces over Cer Mountain occurred on 15 August,
and that the first Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia ended on 24
August. Sources present a differing range of dates during which the
battle was fought. All historians and analysts agree that the first
Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia began on 12 August. Neiberg
indicates that the battle of Cer was fought from 16–23 August.
Mitrović contends that it was fought from 15–20 August, while
Glenny reports that the battle began on 15 August and lasted for three
days before Austro-Hungarian lines collapsed.
^ Serbian: Церска битка, Cerska bitka; German: Schlacht von
Cer; Hungarian: Ceri csata. Also known as the Battle of the Jadar
River (Јадарска битка, Jadarska bitka; Schlacht von
Jadar; Jadar csata).
^ Neiberg 2006, p. 55.
^ a b c Mitrović 2007, p. 69.
^ a b c d Glenny 2012, p. 315.
^ a b Pavlowitch 2002, p. 94.
^ a b c d e f Jordan 2008, p. 28.
^ Tucker & Roberts 2005, pp. 604–605.
^ a b Hickey 2002, p. 38.
^ Mulligan 2010, p. 64.
^ Fischer 2011, p. 8.
^ a b Bideleux & Jeffries 2007, p. 236.
^ a b Strachan 2001, p. 335.
^ Jordan 2008, p. 16.
^ Pavlowitch 2002, p. 93.
^ Jordan 2008, p. 17.
^ Palmer 2010, p. 93.
^ a b c Stevenson 2004, p. 60.
^ a b Jordan 2008, p. 20.
^ a b Stevenson 2004, p. 59.
^ Tucker & Roberts 2005, p. 605.
^ a b c Glenny 2012, p. 314.
^ Neiberg 2006, p. 54.
^ Griffiths 2003, p. 57.
^ Hall 2010, p. 28.
^ Jordan 2008, p. 21.
^ Horne 2005, pp. 4–5.
^ a b Horne 2005, p. 5.
^ Thomas 2001, p. 4.
^ Jordan 2008, p. 26.
^ a b Jordan 2008, p. 27.
^ a b c d Horne 2005, p. 7.
^ a b c d e f g Glenny 2012, p. 316.
^ Glenny 2012, pp. 315–316.
^ Sondhaus 2011, p. 81.
^ Horne & Kramer 2001, p. 79.
^ Sondhaus 2011, p. 82.
^ Mitrović 2007, pp. 73–74.
^ Mitrović 2007, p. 73.
^ Radan & Pavković 1997, p. 126.
^ Jordan 2008, p. 29.
^ Buttar 2014, p. 298.
^ a b Mitrović 2007, p. 104.
^ Mitrović 2007, p. 105.
^ Glas Javnosti & 3 March 2003.
^ B92 & 28 June 2011.
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