Belgrade Ghosts

While the UK was imploding, I was enjoying a very sunny weekend in Belgrade and trying not to think about the political situation. I’ve often wondered what it felt like to be a member of the public during such a momentous, disastrous occasion as a declaration of war. In the course of little over a week, the world as you know it seems to crumble, and yet everyday life carries on very much the same. Okay, so hopefully (I’m not ruling anything out here) Brexit (or the threat thereof) doesn’t precipitate total war in Europe. But uncertainty over the political situation has me paralyzed with anxiety, and the news from distant climes (many of which places I’ve never heard of) is almost unbearably tragic. I feel helpless; I want to do something, but I don’t know what. And I’m a historian, so I see parallels everywhere.

It’s been ten years since I first heard the call and made my way to Serbia, following the footsteps of my heroines from ninety years earlier. A lot has changed over those ten years. The hipsters have arrived, and more tourists, too. Belgrade looks cleaner, tidier, more commercial. Memories of the “NATO aggression” seem more firmly relegated to the past, less a part of the living memories of the city. But I can’t be the only one seeing ghosts of European wars everywhere I go. Walking beside me through the streets of Belgrade are not only figures from history but characters of my own imagination, as they lived, loved, and (some of them) died. And a lot of things feel the same to me. I love the monument to France in the Kalemegdan fortress, though it’s looking a bit worse for the wear. Whatever else has changed, I’m drawn to it every time I go to Belgrade.


Also relatively unchanged in the military museum, a dungeon full of relics in Kalemegdan. Though some parts of the museum have been updated here and there (a poorly functioning app invites us to step inside Serbian military history for ourselves), it begins with a dusty, practically indecipherable display on Belgrade in pre-historic times and stops rather abruptly after the Second World War, with an added, modern bit on the so-called “aggression” (offset by a section on Serbia’s military contributions to the UN; passive-aggression at its best).  So much to read into, with the museum’s communist undertones showing through the more modern “lick of paint” interpretations and spotty English translations. Excellent value at 150 RSD.

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I can’t help but love the museum. Studying such an obscure part of history, it’s rare to find someone else who cares as much as I do, and the First World War galleries of full of interest. Here are some of my favourites:

Ooh, what’s that, in the far right of the last picture? American flags? Could this be the US diplomatic mission, in Belgrade 1919?

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The story goes on, as ever, and I wonder what will happen next.


Not in my name: Hackney’s FWW Conscientious Objectors

On Saturday I went to visit a little exhibition at the Hackney Archives on local Conscientious Objectors. There’s been a lot of interest in COs lately; possibly because the politics motivating many of them are coming into fashion.
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Hackney had a history of radical political and much of the population were Jewish refugees from Russia who refused to be allied with the country that has persecuted them. Others were motivated by their Christian belief in the commandant “thou shalt not kill.” As always at these local history exhibits, I found it fascinating to see the streets and buildings I’m familiar with taking an active role in a history I’ve also studied.

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I was especially pleased to see featured one William Knott, who also pops up in my research! Though this placard doesn’t mention his service in Salonika…
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“Not in my name” is running until October at Hackney Archives in Dalston. It’s a great little exhibition to pop to during your lunch break if you work nearby, or it’s open on Saturdays for those with a special interest in Hackney history or Conscientious Objectors.

“A worse situation”: Winston Churchill, the Dardanelles debate and its effect on policy towards Serbia

I’ve been following the Sky News twitter account that tweets news from World War I 100 years on, and a couple of recent tweets reminded me of the situation in southeastern Europe in 1915, referred to by a volunteer air worker as “muddling diplomacy.”

Britain loans £5 million to Romania to try and secure support in the war. Romania strategically placed between Germany and Ottoman Empire


British government agrees plan for naval attack on the Dardanelles.

What does the Dardanelles have to do with Serbia? Well, quite. In 1915, members of the War Council were torn between two ways of helping Allied interests in southeastern Europe: an expeditionary force to Serbia to help defend against the Austro-Hungarian and German armies attempting to join with Turkey (for example via the Berlin-Baghdad railway which ran through Serbia), or ground forces to back up the naval bombardment at the Dardanelles. There was political will to send one expeditionary force away from the Western front, but not both. For the politicians on the war cabinet, it was a choice between the two, although many, including Winston Churchill, favoured both.

My MA thesis includes a section about the political debate over sending British military aid to Serbia, which I’m including below. One thing that struck me while reviewing this (and I remember being equally surprised when I undertook the research initially) is the degree to which members of the War Council were personally concerned with the situation in Serbia. It shouldn’t be surprising, though: it was a world war, after all. The contemporary British public and their leaders were interested in all aspects of the war on all fronts. Serbia, like Belgium, was an important ideological ally for Britain. It’s only the “memory” of the war that seems to have forgotten this.

This was one aspect of the “muddling diplomacy” that prevented military aid being sent to Serbia in 1915 until it was too late;  the obsession with Bulgaria and (to a lesser extent) Romania was another. British volunteers and officials in on the ground in Serbia were the ones who dealt with the reactions and results of  the War Council’s decisions (or lack thereof).

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