Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Eyewitness: Serbians Storm Kajmakčalan, September 1916, Part II

Editor's Introduction

E.P. Stebbing (Scottish Nat. Mus.)

Edward Percy Stebbing (1872–1960) was a pioneering British forester and forest entomologist in India. He was among the first to warn of desertification and desiccation and wrote on "The encroaching Sahara". He spent 1916 on the Macedonian Front as a transportation officer for the Scottish Womens' Hospital volunteer ambulance organization supporting the Serbian Army.   He was just behind the front line at Ostrovo during the most critical operation of 1916, the capture of Kajmakčalan Peak, today  located almost precisely on the Greek-Macedonian border.  After the war he published an account of his service at the Serbian Front in Macedonia.

The Battle of Kajmakčalan resulted in a victory for the Allies against the Central Powers.  The Serbs, led by General Živojin Mišić, commander of the Serbian First Army, were victorious against the Bulgarians, finally taking the key position, but at a huge cost to the Serbs. Few battles have been fought at such heights. Kajmakčalan, with its twin peaks, is, at its highest point, 8200 feet. And once a certain height was reached, the battle was hand to hand.  (Heroes of Serbia Website)

Bulgarian Troops Counterattacking

Stebbing's Description of the Fighting, Part II

(The initial part of this account appears in the 16 September 2017 posting at Roads to the Great War.)

September 25th.—The day was quiet with intermittent artillery fire. The attack opened fiercely tonight to N.E., N., and N.W., with the usual accompaniment of star shells, flares and machine-gun, bombs, and rifle fire. It lasted for several hours and a fiercely contested battle was evidently taking place.

September 26th.—The attack of last night continued into the early hours of this morning and was especially fierce in the direction of Starkov Grob. Throughout the day there were occasional outbursts of artillery fire which increased after nightfall with fierce bursts of small arms fire.

September 27th.—The heavy firing on night of 25th-26th September was the fiercest engagement which has yet taken place. It was hand-to-hand, the Bulgarians counter-attacking the Serbians to recover lost trenches on the heights. The enemy came on four times and got into the Serbian trenches, only to be thrown out. It is rumoured, however, that the Serbians lost portions of trenches they had previously taken. The latter had 500 killed and 1000 wounded, and they say that the Bulgarian losses were far heavier, which is probable, as they were the attackers, and the ground up there is almost devoid of cover. Wounded from this fight were brought down to the hospital to-day, amongst these the Serbian colonel. Colonel Stojchitch, previously alluded to. He told me that the fighting had been of the fiercest with the bayonet and no quarter given. To make matters worse, the ammunition ran short, probably owing to the block on the railway.

I rode out to a hill a couple of miles away in the late afternoon, from which a fine view of the whole upper part of Kajmaktcalan is obtained. The Serbian batteries were firing salvoes on to the crest, whilst the bursting shells of the Bulgarian batteries dotted the slopes below, searching the Serbian lines. The night was comparatively quiet, but star shells and flares were constantly sent up, each side doubtless expecting an attack.

Heard this evening that orders had been issued to give the Serbs a couple of days' rest before the final
assault is made. The Serbian colonel told me that they are now up to the upper line of trenches very near the crest. He said that the fighting was of the deadliest. His regiment, 2500 strong, had suffered severely in these advances, numbering now only 950 ; that he had had 30 officers killed and as many wounded, including himself, he being in a forward trench at the time. I saw the place later.

The Crown Prince of Serbia Visiting the Hospital Area

September 28th.—Practically no firing to-day. The Serbs are resting and their batteries waiting for more ammunition. Heard to-day that General Wassitch has determined on a big push in two days' time to clear the Bulgars off the crest of Kajmaktcalan, and finally pierce this stronghold.

September 29th.—I went up to the Drina dressing station some five miles or so below the firing line. The guns were quiet up here, and the mountains, putting on their autumn tints, were glorious. The road up the Drina is described later.

I had heard from Captain Gooden, liaison officer, that the grand attack was to commence to-night and remained in Ostrovo to watch it. Already the shades of night had fallen on the lower parts of the mountain, but the summit was bathed in soft yellow light from the rapidly setting sun. Soon this turned to blood red, a fitting pall for the night of carnage which was so soon to take place up there on the heights. The night bid fair to remain clear and starlight. As often as not during the past fortnight the upper part of the great mountain has been enshrouded in mist. From our position we could only see the flashes of the guns and the reflected light of the star shells, flares, bombs, etc., for a swelling in the upper part of a spur below the crest hid the actual scene of the fight and deadened to some extent the noise of the rifle and machine-gun fire. The bursting of the Bulgar shells was distinctly visible, ceaselessly searching for our batteries. We sat and watched the great fight for some hours. Now and then the telephone spoke, but there was nothing definite yet. The fight continued throughout the night, but the sound decreased in the morning, possibly due, we thought, to the fact that the wind was blowing from the south up on to the crest. No news had come in to say that definite success had been attained, no news that was given out at any rate. 

Memorial Chapel Atop Kajmakčalan

Through  the day the guns waxed and waned, and in the camp, to which I had to return, as one went about the work one feverishly wondered how things were going up there. In the evening just before supper anxiety was set at rest. A telephone message came through, saying that the Serbs had captured the crest and that the Bulgarians were in full retreat down the steep northern slopes of Kajmaktcalan. We were all, Serbians and British alike, very jubilant that night, and there was great festivity in the Serbian camp and our hearty congratulations were not wanting.

The Serbians had still much hard fighting in front of them where Monastir was to fall, and that fall was to be directly attributable to their magnificent efforts and extraordinary pluck. But they never fought a better fight than when the 3rd Royal Serbian Army, to which we were so proud to belong, captured the crest of Kajmaktcalan after an Homeric contest, and once again set foot on the beloved soil of their native land.


  1. We should hire the Serbs to fight our wars now.

  2. Remarkable description. A huge and very deadly struggle for many, but all described in prose that reads as more or less artfully, calmly, detached and quite self-conscious. The writer talks about conflict and death in ways that sound like he's simultaneously sipping tea in a refined parlor. He surely knew what it was really like, and yet something motivated him to remain almost yawningly dispassionate.