Living in Belgrade in the Early Days of the Great War

By July 1914, Belgrade was a cheerful city with rich and colorful squares and streets. However, this picture was changed by an Austrian dispatch that arrived in Serbia on July 28. In a very short time, many troubles befell Belgrade and its residents. In just a few days, havoc and fear struck the districts of Dorćol and Savamala; quiet shopping streets were replaced by devastated roads with damaged houses and sealed shops.

That hot day, on 28th of July, when the Austrian dispatch arrived, life flowed peacefully, just as it did days earlier. Yet some subdued nervousness and anxiety were reflected on the faces of Belgraders. After the ominous news of dispatch that brought difficult ultimatum to the Kingdom of Serbia spread through the streets, this latent concern transformed into panic. The blinds were lowered in Belgrade shops and everyone just wanted to get home as soon as possible to protect his family from danger and death.

At dusk everything looked even more uncertain. Belgraders put dark curtains or fabric they had on hand on their windows. They anxiously believed that the worst will not happen, until sometime after midnight a thunder from the guns dispersed all doubts. The first bomb fell on Belgrade between 1:00 AM and 2:00 AM, and the explosion was so strong that the windows in almost all of Dorćol houses were shattered. The blast on the railway bridge shook the whole town and symbolically announced the beginning of the horrors of war.

Old Railway Bridge, Belgrade

The very next day, the so called monitor boats sailed into the Sava river, and Serbian artillery could do nothing against them. Most of their shells hit the districts of Dorćol and Savamala, because these were on the immediate banks of the Danube and Sava river. Just four days after the start of the war, Belgrade got a completely different look. Deserted squares, closed shops, destroyed promenade, demolished buildings of the 2nd Belgrade High School, Grand Hotel and Novi Majdan; entire streets in Dorćol and Savamala anihilated…

Tasmajdan cave

However, the worst bombing of Belgrade only followed in early August and lasted for days continuously. People began to flee the city with as many assets and resources as they could carry in their hands. As the enemy constantly targeted the railway station and railroad, trains could go only to Ralje, and this created a huge demand for transportation. Wealthy people were paying large sums to buy any car by which they could drive away from the town. Having no car, many people went on foot to Ralje, where they had to wait up to two days to be admitted to a military train that went to other parts of Serbia.


The monitor boats that destroyed the town cruised Danube and Sava, while regularly receiving fire support from the guns on Bežanijska kosa. As soon as the evening falls, Belgraders would descend into shelters, into dark, dank basements or large cavern beneath Tašmajdan, carrying mattresses, palliasses, quilts, food and water. Collective fear united the citizens in these moments, and the classes ceased to exist: so, a lady from respectable family and the charwoman from Palilula could be seen lying next to each other. Since the basements were not ideal type of shelter, those who were more resourceful managed to stay with their relatives and acquaintances who lived in Čubura or on the Topčider hill.

Many buildings in Belgrade were destroyed, and most damage was suffered by Sarajevska, Knez Mihailova, Terazije and King Aleksandar Streets. Kalemegdan fortress was showered with grenades, while it was dead quite in Belgrade.

Pre-war coffeehouse in Belgrade, Bajlonov Kladenac, Source: Politika

During the intervals of ceasefire, life would surge on the streets. People would come out of hiding in order to hastily complete the most urgent tasks, and coffeehouses in the center of the town and in the suburbs would become vibrant. With a glass of brandy or wine people would collect the latest news in the coffeehouse, and hurriedly go back home to avoid being caught on the street by imminent bombing.

During this period, Belgrade was in short supply of food. There was still some foodstuffs in the town, but the markets were open only an hour or two a day at a time of ceasefire. Most shops were closed after the declaration of war, and citizens were most struck by the shortage of bread because very few bakeries were in working order.

After the first shell was unleashed, more fighting and bombing was expecting Belgraders. With several pauses, the bombardment lasted a little more than a year, until the enemy entered the city despite the brave defense of the Serbian army.

The first shell from the monitor boat fell on July 29 in Knez Mihailova Street, hitting a building across the hotel Grčka Kraljica, but there were no casualties and no major damage was done.


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