1912-1913 marks the centenary of the First and the Second Balkan Wars, a spot of local trouble that would lead to the killing fields of the First World War. They’re not much remembered outside the area except by specialists and presumably relatives. Certainly they didn’t kick up any household names.
Which is not to say that there were not people with good stories. People like Milunka Savic.
She was a village girl, and either from boredom or patriotism (or possibly because her brother was to ill to go), in 1912 she cut off her hair and presented herself to the recruiting sergeant. Induction was presumably a cursory affair, and she was soon toting gun and bayonet to the front lines. No further record of the brother, but the army got their money’s worth. In fact she was a little late for action in the first war which ended just before she got there, but the second broke out in short order, and she came into her own. Within weeks she was quickly decorated for bravery and after a few assaults at the Battle of Bregalnica (June 30 – July 8, 1913), she was promoted to corporal.
Her tenth assault in that battle was a bit too far. She was severely wounded by a grenade in the attack and it was only in the hospital room that the doctors discovered she was not who she had claimed.
That was awkward, and her commanding officer said she could transfer to the Nursing Corp.
She said she would rather carry a gun.
He said he would think about it
She said she would wait.
He cracked after about an hour, and promoted her to Sergeant. She was simply too famous, too intrepid, too good at what she did.
The second Balkan war ended in 1913, but the First World War started the following year, and as it had begun in Serbia, no surprise that the country was invaded. She was ready
The first war saw her wracking up medals for valor. There was the Serbia’s own Order of Star of Karadjordje with Swords, the highest award the country could give. She got it twice. Once at the battle of Battle of Kolubara where she captured twenty German soldiers, the second time at the Battle of the Crna Bend (Crna Reka) for capturing 23 Bulgarian soldiers single handed.
Despite her best efforts, the war was not going well for Serbia and her army was forced to retreat, ending up in Corfu where it was reformed as part of the French army (some readers will recall that France wanted to do the same thing with the American Expeditionary Force, but that General Pershing wouldn’t have it.)
The French were not about to mess with a winner, though French General Maurice Sarrail was not totally convinced that she was as good as promised, and wagered a case of 1880 cognac that she could not hit a bottle of same at 40 meters.
He lost, and she split 19 bottles with the rest of her company.
By the time the war was over, France had given her the Legion d’Honeur (twice) , Russian the Cross of St.George, British the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael, Serbia the Milos Obilic medal. She was the only woman to be awarded the Croix de Guerre in the First World War, which may have figured in France’s offer of a pension if she chose to move to that country.
She did not. After seven years of almost continual warfare, she returned to Serbia, married, had a child, divorced, raised two adopted children.
During the Second World War she operated a small hospital to treat wounded partisans, which was enough for the Germans to put her in a prison camp. She remained there for ten months, and was slated to be executed when a German officer saw her name on the list of prisoners, confirmed her identity, and ordered that she be released immediately. Chivalry comes out in the oddest places.
After the war she fell into official disfavor in Tito’s Yugoslavia and worked as a cleaning woman for the Hipotekarna Bank, generally forgotten until late in life. Died of a stroke in 1973 and was buried in Novo groblje cemetery in the Alley of the Meritorious with full the state and military honors.