King Peter I, George Bush, World War One, Serbia, Austria, warrior kings, and the Great Retreat of 1915 etc.
Bush’s recent comments about why he doesn’t visit Iraq more often reminded me of King Peter I of Serbia. Bush has been criticized for not spending more time with the troops, and his response was that basically he would be too much of a distraction and a target. He is of course correct, and I can’t fault him. The point that is rarely made though is this: if Iraq is so unsafe that the president dare not spend more than six hours in country, isn’t that an indication that the situation there really isn’t under our control? A point I make not as a sign of US failure, as a sign that we attempted the impossible in our zeal to rid the world of a despot. And if one thinks Iraq has gone well, there are 35 other countries with suspected illicit weapons programs. We have quite a task ahead of us.
Moving right along, Bush’s visits to the front lines have been dismissed as PR stunts. Well, d’oh. Of curse they are PR stunts, they are also attempts to rally the troops and improve morale both in the battlefield and at home. Throughout human history leaders have joined their troops in the field, in fact for much of human history our leaders were not only expected to join the troops in the field, they were expected to fight along with the rest of them if need be. (Though of course surrounded by a the biggest toughest warriors they had no doubt.) Still, didn’t always work, King Harold was chopped to bits at the battle of Hastings, and other unpleasant ends can be found in history.
Oddly enough, with the advent of gunpowder weapons, the kings got a lot less enthusiastic about joining the fray. In fact in the last few centuries Kings and other leaders have pretty much “led from the rear.” The very rear in fact, from their palaces or capitals. The last big exception I can think of was Napoleon, being the great general he was, he always went to battle with his troops, though of course he stayed far enough behind the lines that his personal safety was reasonably assured. After that it was almost unknown for a head of state to act as a general, the era of the warrior king (as it were) pretty much ended with the advent of gunpowder and the rise of the modern nation state.
Still, it’s interesting that even though our leaders are no longer expected to fight, people on the whole still give more credence to leaders with military trappings. Thus Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” carrier landing, to every despot on the planet being in military uniform with tons of ribbons. (And no, I don’t mean to compare Bush to a despot, get a grip.) Many of them have military credentials that are thin at best, but wearing a uniform and visiting the troops still gives the appearance of a warrior king, and likely it will do so for centuries to come.
So we come to King Peter. An interesting fellow. He was King of Serbia before and during World War One. And an enlightened and educated man he was, he sought during his rule to turn Serbia and her Slavic neighbours into modern constitutional monarchies like the UK. Pretty impressive coming from a hereditary king, and more proof that despite all its flaws, Monarchy does occasionally result in getting someone good in charge. (The jury is still out on democracy.) King Peter I was and still is immensely popular among Serbs.
In 1914, sensing war, and in poor health, the 70 year old Peter turned the reigns of government over to his capable son. And pretty much passed out of history, or at least his active role in it. Pretty much. The Austrian invasion of Serbia is a little remembered side of World War One. And for Serbia at least, World War One was a catastrophe. In fact Serbia lost more people as a percentage of its population than any other nation in the war, about one out of four Serbians of military age were killed or maimed in the war, and civilians suffered equally. Basically the Serbs fought ferociously against hopeless odds trying to defend their nation against overwhelmingly superior attackers in both numbers and equipment.
So what did King Peter do while the terrible fighting raged between Austria and Serbia? Not much. Sometimes however he put on his old soldier’s uniform, picked up a rifle, and toured the front line trenches giving speeches to the troops. Um, to put it mildly, this was rather inspiring. I mean, the guy was seventy one years old! The first three Austrian attacks into Serbia were driven out with heavy losses on all sides. Belgrade, the Serbian capital, was captured by the Austrians three times, and each time the Serbs recaptured it. The king’s influence in bolstering Serbian morale was undeniable.
On one famous occasion, King Peter crawled to the very front line trench and shot at Austrian troops with his rifle! I mean, is that a warrior king or what? I’m not sure if there is any other example of a modern sitting monarch actually fighting for their country. Sadly though Serbia will was unable to compensate for being outgunned and outnumbered, when the Austrians attacked again in 1915 they persuaded Bulgaria to join the war as well. The Serbians were quickly overwhelmed, and the entire Serbian army and hundreds of thousands of citizens tried to flee through Albania to the Adriatic and safety. This was called “The Great Retreat.” Very very few of them made it.
Peter made it though, and lived to be proclaimed King of the Serbians, Croats, and Slovenes in 1918 after World War One. He died in 1921, having seen his dream of a independent unified democratic Slavic state (Yugoslavia) come to fruition. And maybe the unified part never stuck, but modern constitutional government in the region still is partly a result of his enlightened efforts a century ago. In a very real sense, King Peter I was a war leader who fought for democracy and freedom. Will George Bush, the first American president to don his military uniform while in office, be remembered as a great American war leader? I leave that for the gentle reader to ponder.
(The above image of King Peter I riding on an ammunition waggon during the Great Retreat of 1915 precedes 1927 and is public domain under US copyright law.)