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The Highway of Death

The Highway of Death

Автором Earl Bishop Downer

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The Highway of Death

Автором Earl Bishop Downer

184 pages
2 hours
Feb 25, 2020


The Highway of Death, first published in 1916, is the chilling account of the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia (a tragic, largely forgotten aspect of the First World War) as viewed by American Red Cross surgeon Earl Bishop Downer. Based in Belgrade, he describes the bitter back-and-forth fighting for control of this capitol city, the devastating artillery barrages, the doctors and nurses trying to treat the endless stream of wounded combatants, and a typhus epidemic that ravaged soldiers and civilians alike. Included are 34 pages of illustrations.
Feb 25, 2020

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The Highway of Death - Earl Bishop Downer

© Burtyrki Books 2020, all rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted by any means, electrical, mechanical or otherwise without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Publisher’s Note

Although in most cases we have retained the Author’s original spelling and grammar to authentically reproduce the work of the Author and the original intent of such material, some additional notes and clarifications have been added for the modern reader’s benefit.

We have also made every effort to include all maps and illustrations of the original edition the limitations of formatting do not allow of including larger maps, we will upload as many of these maps as possible.




American Red-Cross Surgeon to Serbia, 1915;

Director of Special Private Mission in Russia;

Surgeon to Hospital Militaire, Belgrade, Serbia;

Member American Medical Association, Columbus, Ohio;

Academy of Medicine, etc.




Preface 5

1. Ocean Travel in War Times 7

2. Typhus and its Frightful Ravages 10

3. What War and Pestilence Does to a City 14

4. Death’s Hill 19

5. The Most Besieged Town of the World 22

6. Peasant Soldiers of Serbia 30

7. Committadjii, The Bandit Heroes of the Balkans 38

8. Mistaken for an Austrian Spy 43

9. Pastimes of the Wounded 48

10. Preparation for a Great Battle 52

11. The Fall of Belgrade 55

12. The Aftermath 61

13. Why Did the Teutons Invade Serbia? 67

14. Travel Through Various War Zones 73

Illustrations 80



The author of this book wishes to convey to its readers a graphic description of his experiences in Serbia during its frightful epidemic of typhus fever and the thrilling events which befell the thrice-captured city of Belgrade.

In Belgrade the writer spent a period of nine months directly upon the firing line, serving in the capacity of a surgeon with the American Red Cross, so close to the Hungarian border that very frequently in the lull of battle it was possible to converse with the Austro-Teutonic forces, which were stationed directly across the Rivers Save and Danube, not over three hundred yards distant.

The Hospital Militaire, occupied by Units Nos. 1, 2, and 3 of the American Red Cross, was situated in the center of the city, in a commanding position, upon a high hill, so that it was possible for the doctors and nurses to witness every movement of either side while the battles raged.

This little band of Americans saw the city of Belgrade pass like a shuttle, first from the hands of the Serbians to those of the Austrians, later to be retaken by the Serbians, and, lastly, to again be retaken by the combined Austro-Teutonic forces. During this time the tide of battle raged most fiercely about the American hospital; in fact, centered in that particular vicinity in which heavy infantry and hand-to-hand fighting played an important part.

Perhaps never in the world’s history has so splendid a spectacle been staged for the spectator as the fall of Belgrade. From our vantage point we could witness every move in the desperate undertaking. Across the river the combined Austro-Hungarian and German heavy artillery were hurling their great projectiles against the city. The city all around us was ploughed by the monster shells searching for the Allies’ artillery positions. Allied artillery were dropping shells into Semlin, trying vainly to reach the guns that were slowly battering down their defenses. As night fell the city took fire, from which we could see the dull, angry glow reflected in the heavens.

It is commonly thought by the laity that Red Cross surgeons and nurses do not run the dangerous risks that are encountered by the average soldier in the trenches. Such, however, is not the case; for the Red Cross worker nowadays must be directly upon the firing line, and not only do they suffer a fearful mortality from gunshot wounds, but they have an added danger to face in the form of epidemics, from which the average soldier is practically exempt.

During the typhus epidemic which swept over Serbia in the early months of 1915, through which the author successfully passed, at the beginning there were three hundred doctors in all Serbia, but before the epidemic was overcome it had claimed as victims two hundred and forty of the three hundred—a fearfully high mortality of 80 per cent.

In presenting this picture of modern warfare the author has exhibited facts as they came before his vision with kaleidoscopic vividness. If this narration of events does not come up to the reader’s expectations it will be because words fail to express the conditions as they exist in the land of blood and death.

To further add to the value of the book, the author has profusely illustrated it with original photographs taken mostly by himself. For the balance he is deeply indebted to Drs. Shadworth O. Beasley, W. A. Jolley, Morton P. Lane, and John Zymanski, former members of the Red Cross mission in Serbia.

E. B. D.

1. Ocean Travel in War Times

Imagination is a poor artist and dimly portrays the unprecedented situation as it exists in the land of blood and death. It is necessary that the senses be stirred by the smell of smoke and the shock of mighty guns, the rocking of the earth under the measured tread of grim legions of warriors as they trundle along like mighty machines, with a single purpose—to bleed, to die, or to vanquish.

The human mind is a strange composition; it is a physiological fact that we crave excitement. One readily tires of the monotony of daily routine, and, therefore, it can easily be perceived why the laws of God and mankind are broken. We are by nature transgressive. Some of our offenses are trifling, others are grave; but, small or great, we must pay the price. So, all through the gamut of human experience this condition prevails.

Everyone thrills as the home regiment swings into the main thoroughfare to the strains of martial music. We thrill at reading the Charge of the Light Brigade, and never tire of the life history of Washington, Lincoln, or Grant; nor the glory of this or that hero who has fallen upon the field of battle. In Europe I have seen all this glory, pomp, and valor snuffed out, as the light of a candle, by the bursting of one 42-centimeter shell.

My first sensation of war came when but a short distance from the land I love, and would that it may never meet what I know to be the fate of Belgium, Poland, and Serbia. It was high noon, February the sixteenth, 1915, the good ship Critic was rolling heavily in a trough of angry waters, when, above the whirr of vicious winds, the challenge shot of His Majesty’s ship, the Chester, was hurled across our bow, causing us to heave to. We rushed on deck, a thousand questions suggesting themselves as we made our way forward to ascertain, if possible, the reason for this interruption of our voyage of mercy. Having satisfied His Majesty’s officers as to our purpose and identity, we were permitted to proceed.

After battling with a terrific storm lasting seven days, which eventually accumulated with horrible intensity into one gigantic wave, sweeping over the entire boat from bow to stern, carrying off several of the life-boats and a portion of the captain’s bridge, our mental equanimity was again disturbed. However, this proved to be a very welcome interruption, since the two cruisers that steamed alongside, we were informed, were to be our escort and guaranty of safety on our perilous journey.

Having entered the outer harbor of Gibraltar, two weeks from New York, our cruiser consorts, with cheery farewell, left us to continue to the Customs within the inner harbor. Here we found ourselves under arrest, and during seven days fretted impatiently under surveillance, practically prisoners of war.

From the decks we could see the beautiful Spanish shore, with its tree-fringed lines of tropical and semitropical foliage; could gaze up the almost perpendicular side of old Gibraltar. They told us that behind some of the innocent-looking houses, resting on the surface of this mighty fortress, lurked the great, monster guns for which Gibraltar is justly famous.

But even this deadly menace is not sufficient to keep out that treacherous shark of the deep, the submarine. To protect the vessels in the harbor against this terrible monster of the deep, long, narrow slips had been built and across the end of each are large folding gates of steel extending down into the water about twenty feet. Our ship was placed in one of these slips and the gates closed, eliminating any danger that might exist from submarines or their torpedoes.

As shore leave was not granted, we were sorely tried to overcome the monotony of the situation. I have a dim recollection of fishing over the stern of the vessel the major portion of the day.

After the contraband, which was the cause of our vessel having been placed in arrest, was removed, our personnel examined, clearance papers were given, and we were allowed to proceed with a parting warning to be on the lookout for hostile submarines that infest the Mediterranean.

So, accordingly, all the lights on board were extinguished, and, with majestic motion, the stately ship glided out on the broad bosom of the ocean, silently, stealthily, slowly steaming the rest of her way in darkness. Cautiously this giant leviathan threaded her way out of the harbor, through the mazes of mine fields, ever following the little pilot upon which her very life depended. Some of these great engines of destruction had broken their anchors and were floating about aimlessly; for these a constant lookout was kept; a sharpshooter was stationed forward with a high-powered gun, and as these floating mines came in the path of the vessel they were either sunk or exploded by a well-directed shot from the captain’s bridge.

Our journey from Gibraltar to Naples was made without escort. The cabin windows were heavily screened, so that no light could show from our vessel; there were no colors flying from the masthead, and all other marks of identification had been removed; grim facts keeping ever in the minds of the passengers the seriousness of the situation.

All the larger and better class of transatlantic merchant marines had been commandeered by their respective governments, thus leaving to the traveler only a small type of vessel such as used in coastwise shipping in time of peace, and, barring the dangers concomitant with modern warfare, are unseaworthy for a transatlantic cruise. Further, the experienced seamen have been impressed into the service of the various belligerent nations, leaving only inexperienced crews, usually boys, and these insufficient in numbers to man these small vessels.

After a voyage consuming twenty-two days, the much battered Critic put into the harbor at Naples, from which I entrained to Brindisi, knowing that I must make haste, as the situation in Serbia was fast becoming critical.

Prom Brindisi eastward, everything changes from occidental to oriental. Here it was necessary to board a Greek tramp steamer. Only those who have traveled upon such an outfit can appreciate the luxury of modern ocean travel. The Greek tramp travels slowly and puts in at every little jerkwater port in the Greek archipelago, to load and unload cargo and passengers. A wild, motley crew travels over this route, inhabitants from the mountains of Albania and Montenegro, and wild, buccaneer sort of men from lonely Greek islands. Although of forbidding aspect, they are nevertheless picturesque, as they walk about the decks, with their high-pointed hats made of sheepskin and their queer-shaped shoes, the sharp toes pointing up, surmounted with a tufted ball. Around each waist is wound yards upon yards of bright-colored cloth, serving

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