The shocking, black-and-white photograph, taken on the edge of a Serbian village just days after it was invaded by the massed forces of the Austro-Hungarian army in the late summer of 1914, is not the only one of its kind. In this one, a line of Serbian men in civilian clothes are attached to posts: possibly dead already, possibly awaiting execution by firing squad.
There are others. In one, three women in colourful peasant costumes and four men in dark suits are trussed up like helpless game birds on crucifix-shaped poles, their faces covered with white blindfolds, while soldiers stand nearby, rifles in hand. In a third, the civilians, also blindfolded, are kneeling in a semi-circle, each tied to a small post, while the firing squad takes aim.
These photographs were almost certainly taken by members of the Austro-Hungarian army. They allow only fleeting glimpses of the horror experienced by civilians almost immediately after the invasion of Serbia began on 12 August 1914.
The military justification for the massacre of civilians was that many were “partisans” engaged in a guerrilla war against the invading forces. As early as 17 August, the Austro-Hungarian general, Lothar vonHortstein, complained that it was impossible to send reconnaissance patrols into Serb territory because “all were killed by the rural people”. But it is also certain that popular anti-Serb sentiment gave the military the impression it had been given carte blanche to commit atrocities. A popular song in Vienna in August of that year was entitled “Alle Serben müssen sterben” (“All Serbs must die”).
In pictures: First World War
In pictures: First World War
1/30 Victoria station, London
1914: A soldier saying goodbye to a loved one in the rain at Victoria station, London, as he leaves for the front
2/30 Trafalgar Square, London
1914: In Trafalgar Square, London street urchins dressed as soldiers with paper hats and canes as guns stand to attention watched by a small crowd. Behind them is a notice declaring ' The Need for Fighting Men is Urgent'
3/30 Marylebone Grammar School, London
1914: Two men conscripted to the British Army undergoing a medical check-up at Marylebone Grammar School, London
4/30 Victoria station, London
1914: Two soldiers on the concourse at Victoria station, London, about to leave for the front line. They are carrying parcels full of food and other provisions
5/30 British Army
1914: A group of new recruits in training for service in the British Army during World War I
6/30 Aisne, France
1914: A lone soldier with a bicycle stands amid the remains of a German motor convoy which lines a country lane after an attack by French field guns in the battle of the Aisne in France
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
7/30 Aisne River, France
1914: German sharpshooters move to a position near the front line, during the fighting near the Aisne River
8/30 German naval zeppelin
1914: The L2, a German naval zeppelin during World War I
1914: French officers dining in style in a trench near the front line
10/30 Anzac Cove in the Dardanelles
1915: Troops landing at Anzac Cove in the Dardanelles during the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War
1915: Soldiers arriving at a station in London to travel home for Christmas
12/30 German Army
1915: A wounded German soldier
13/30 British Army
1915: A wounded British soldier is stretchered back to camp past a carnage-strewn trench, during the World War I
14/30 Brighton Pavilion
1915: Injured Indian soldiers of the British Army at the Brighton Pavilion, converted into a military hospital
15/30 Fort Vaux, France
1916: A German rifleman beside the corpse of a French soldier in a trench at Fort Vaux, France
1916: Private F.E Henningham leaves for service in the British Army during World War I
1916: The British soldier, Drummer Bent, wearing his Victoria Cross
18/30 Somme, France
1916: Gas-masked men of the British Machine Gun Corps with a Vickers machine gun during the first battle of the Somme
19/30 British Army
1916: British soldiers sitting around a lamp in their trench
20/30 Austrian Army
1916: Austrian soldiers in the trenches demonstrating their gas masks
21/30 German Army
1916: Three German soldiers display rats killed in their trench the previous night
22/30 German Army
1916: A German officer leads his men through a cloud of phosphene gas set off by themselves for cover, as they run toward the British trenches
1916: A dog finds a wounded soldier lying under a tree in Austria during World War I
24/30 Royal Air Force
1916: Pilots from the Royal Air Force ready to drop bombs by hand over Germany from their aeroplane, a development as in the first stages of the war planes were thought of only as reconnaissance machines
25/30 WWI aircraft
1916: A group of World War I aircraft flying in formation
26/30 French and British troops
1916: French and British troops in a trench on the Western Front during World War I
27/30 Cross Farm, Shackleton, Surrey
1917: Women war workers, at Cross Farm, Shackleton, Surrey
28/30 American Army in London
1918: American soldiers sightseeing in London from the top of an open-decked omnibus at the end of WW I
29/30 American Army
1918: A US Army cinematographer filming a US Nieuport 28 biplane taking off during the summer counter-offensive
30/30 American Army
1918: An American cinematographer sets up his camera in a water-filled trench
Anti-Serb propaganda postcards on sale in the Austrian capital depicted Serbs as backward “Untermenschen” or “Sub humans” – a term later used by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to describe Jews and Slavs. Some advocated that Serbs should be boiled alive in cauldrons or stuck on forks and eaten.
The Austrian empire was bent on avenging the Serb nationalist assassination of its heir to throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, with brutality on a scale so far unprecedented in modern war. Much has been written about the German massacre of Belgian civilians during the opening stages of the Great War. Far less has been told about Austro-Hungary’s treatment of Serbia’s civilian population.
The anti-civilian offensive has been described as the beginning of a type of warfare dubbed “Vernichtungskrieg”, or “war of destruction”, ruthlessly practised by Nazi Germany on civilian populations across Europe just over a quarter of a century later. Anton Holzer, an Austrian historian and expert on the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia in 1914, wrote: “There were countless and systematic massacres carried out against the Serbian population.
“The soldiers invaded villages and rounded up unarmed men, women and children. They were either shot dead, bayoneted to death or hanged. The victims were locked into barns and burned alive. Women were sent up to the front lines and mass-raped. The inhabitants of whole villages were taken as hostages and humiliated and tortured. The perpetrators were the soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian army.”
Much of the evidence of Austro-Hungarian war crimes against Serbia’s civilian population was collected by the Swiss criminology professor, Rodolphe Archibald Reiss, who as a neutral observer was asked by the Serbian government to investigate. Reiss reported in 1916 that countless Austro-Hungarian troops confirmed having received orders to attack and massacre the Serbian civilian population and that “everything was permissible”.
Serbia’s civilian population did not have to wait long for a repeat performance. In 1941, Hitler’s troops invaded Serbia and set about massacring members of the civilian population. As in 1914, some were alleged to be partisans. Others were shot in reprisal executions to avenge the deaths of German troops. Some German soldiers were equipped with home cine-cameras. They filmed the hapless Serb civilians being shot or strung up and hanged en masse from makeshift gallows. Photography had moved on since 1914 – this time the pictures were moving and in colour.
Tomorrow: The Battle of Tannenberg ‘A History of the Great War in 100 Moments’ continues daily, in The Independent and The Independent on Sunday, until 12 July