Many Serbs still guard the memory of the Battle of Kajmakcalan, in September 1916, which marked a turning point in the country’s history and is well worth visiting even today.
By Fabian Vendrig
Exactly a hundred years ago, between September 15 and 29, 1918, a fierce battle took place near Dobro Polje, a village in the south of what is now Macedonia, not far from Bitola and the border with Greece.
After a two-year standstill on the Salonika front, the Entente forces finally broke through the front lines. The central powers, led by Germany, were fatally weakened and Bulgaria withdrew from the war on September 30, 1918. Forty days later, under the supervision of French General Louis Franchet d’Espèrey, Belgrade was liberated. A street in Belgrade is named in his honour.
Turning point in Serbia’s WW1 history
The Battle of Dobro Polje is less remembered in Serbia and abroad these day, because generally people in Serbia know more about the Battle of Kajmakcalan, which took place two years earlier, between September 12 and 30, 1916, between the Serbian and Bulgarian armies.
On this 2,524 meter-high mountain on the Macedonian-Greek border, the Serbs liberated the first square meters of their occupied country; this was the Greek-Serbian border on the outbreak of WWI and thus Serbian territory. Serbia celebrated its first victory here following defeat at the hands of the Austro-Hungarian, German and Bulgarian armies in the winter of 1915/16. Therefore, it has a significant place in Serbian history.
The mountain became a symbol for the Serbs of Serbia’s resurrection from its ashes. It gave hope for the further liberation of the country, although this took another two years. Today, Kajmakcalan is still well known among Serbs and commemorations are held here each year. An organisation from Belgrade, the Udruzenje Kajmakcalan, preserves its memory and maintains the WWI graves in the wider area around the mountain (more information: www.facebook.com/udruzenje.kajmakcalan.2015
The mystery of the heartless church:
A church was built on the top of the mountain in 1917. There is some confusion about its name because most sources call it St Elias (Sveti Ilija in Serbian) while others call it St Peter’s. When the church was built, it was, in fact, dedicated to St Peter, but the confusion arose after the Second World War, when Serbia’s World War I history was neglected by the new communist authorities. They simply called it a memorial chapel.
The peak is named after St Elias, which is the reason why the name “St Elias” for the church became familiar later. The church was restored in 2016, before the 100th anniversary of the commemoration of the battle.
Above the entry, it is written in Serbian: “To my fearless and faithful giant-heroes, who opened the doors to freedom with their chest, and stayed here as guards at the threshold of the fatherland.” Inside, you can light a candle for the fallen soldiers. Under the church is a mausoleum with the remains of the fallen soldiers, but entry is now forbidden, since people took selfies with the skulls, and some bones were also stolen.
There is an interesting tale about the heart of Rudolphe Archibald Reiss (1875 to 1929), the German-Swiss criminology-pioneer, forensic scientist, professor and writer, who investigated Austro-Hungarian war crimes committed in Serbia in 1914 and 1915 together with a Dutch doctor, Arius van Tienhoven.
After Serbia’s defeat, he joined the retreat through Albania towards Corfu, together with the Serbian army, and followed them back towards the liberation of Serbia. After his death, he was buried in Topcider cemetery in Belgrade, while, on his own request, his heart was buried on Kajmakcalan.
The legend is that the urn containing his heart was later demolished, as revenge, by the Bulgarians in World War II. Another story is that the Yugoslav army, JNA, took it away when they retreated in 1991, when Macedonia became an independent country. It is unknown until this day what happened with Reiss’s heart.
Rare flower honors the fallen:
On the slopes of Kajmakcalan, you can find the Ramonda Nathaliae flower, also known as Natalie’s Ramonda. This flower can be seen on Kajmakcalan, but also in Macedonia and eastern Serbia. It is protected, and is famous for its ability to survive a harsh climate with only a few drops of water.
While Britain adopted the red poppy as its national symbol for WWI, Serbia adopted Natalie’s Ramonda as its own symbol. A pin with the flower has been worn since 2012 and represents a combination of the flower and the Albanian Retreat medal.
Visiting the mountain
As interest in Serbia’s WWI history revives, the mountain is visited by more and more people. Trenches can still be seen in the landscape and it is even possible to find some WWI relics.
Besides its importance for Serbian history, Kajmakcalan is also seen as worth visiting for its natural beauty. You can combine a trip to Kajmakcalan with a trip to Thessaloniki in Greece or to Bitola and Ohrid in Macedonia.
The distance from Belgrade is around 715 kilometres, about eight hours by car, and the mountain is best climbed from the Greek side. The climb from the Macedonian side takes more time and is more difficult. Some organisations, like the Udruzenje Kajmakcalan, organise trips, mostly in September, when the commemorations of the battle take place.
The best season to climb the mountain is in late summer, starting as early as possible, as the weather can get unstable during the day. You can reach the top in two hours from the Voras ski station from the Greek side.
No guide is needed; the way to the top is pretty straightforward. You follow the dirt path, following the ski lift, more or less. Keep in mind that the mountain is high, so the weather can change fast. Bring warm clothes and enough water and food.
Down the mountain, on the Greek side, you can stay in the village of Arnissa or Agios Athanasios, within a 30-minute drive by car from the starting point of the climb, the ski station. Accommodation can be booked via Internet sites. Bitola in Macedonia is 90 minutes away by car, which can be a good option after the climb, on the way back to Serbia.
This article I wrote earlier for Belgrade Insight, which is part of BIRN (link) and appeared in their 258th Edition from 14 September 2018.