About the only thing the French people know concerning Yugoslavia, and the only thing, to tell the truth, that interests them, is that she possesses one of the best armies in the world and that they can count on her support in case of a European conflict.
This military entente between France and Yugoslavia has been the corner-stone of French foreign politics in Europe ever since the first convention was signed right after the War between the general staffs of Paris and Belgrade.
The French have not ceased to give financial aid to Belgrade since then, either directly in the form of authorised loans and advances by the Treasury, or indirectly by aiding the Yugoslav government with purchases of military supplies; and the financing by Parisian banks of greta public works, railroads, fortifications, ports, and telegraph lines, all destined to reinforce its war potentialities. This uninterrupted aid, amounting to billions of francks, the French explain and justify to themselves by the fact that in arming the Yugoslavs they are increasing their own security.
The Yugoslav army has become an extension of France's might. In the event of a European war, the two would act in concert. Because of this fact the military power of Yugoslavia appears to Frenchmen as an essential factor of peace, supporting and complementing each other, the armies of France and Yugoslavia stand at the two extremes of Europe, like the jaws of a great pair of pincers. In this strategic position they doom all trouble-makers to destruction.
At least, this is how the Man-in-The-Street in France reasons. He is acquainted with international problems only as presented by his daily paper. It is the point of view of the French technicians who have contributed to the construction of the Yugoslav military machine: they know every cog, every bolt in the machine, and they are certain of the returns which they can expect from it.
In so far as they go, the Man-in-the-Street and the technicians are both right, for there exists nowhere in Europe, considering the population, a more numerous and effective force, a more abundant technical equipment, or more considerable resources of supplies than is possessed by Yugoslavia. Neither is there any nation whose peace effectives, in proportion to the number and resources of the population, attain a like level. For a total population of a little under 15 million, there are nearly 170,000 peace-time effectives. No country, with the exception of Soviet Russia, has since the War made a military effort comparable to that of Yugoslavia.
The troops are splendid. A Yugoslav infantry regiment returning from a practice march or a manouvre is one of the finest sights in the world.The men march with their heads high, looking straight in front of them, shoulder to shoulder, marching with the same rhythmic step. They are, one would say, a steel machine; but a determined, thinking machine. Their step and their carriage recall the best shock troops of old Imperial Germany.
The officers are worthy of their men. They can well be a little proud, as they are not loth to show when one encounters them on Maihailovska, at Kalemeigdan, or at the Casino, conscious of the effect which they produce upon the women. But this concern for their appearance, this determination to be an honour to the army, even in the shine of their boots or the freshness of their gloves, they do not carry only on the promenade or at the ball. At Nisch, at Belgrade, at Veles, and at Ljubljana, I have seen officers, who were re-entering the city after a march of several hours afoot, who were yet as clean as if they had just left the hands of their orderly. Those one encounters in the remote frontier posts situated in the mountains, during any day of the week, are just as elegant, just as immaculate, as their comrades posted in the great cities.
Ontside of France or England, they are the best dressed, the most eager to learn, of all officers I have seen. They are full of esprit de corps and national pride, and most thoughtful of the welfare and efficiency of their men. A colonel of our French general staff said to me last summer on his return from the garrisons of Croatia, "For them the army is a religion. They are possessed with fanaticism of their mission. They are soldiers as some men are priests. They live in a sort of mystic obsession for their duty to their country. They are overwhelmed with work, and I return to France with the certitude that they are ready, if more is asked of them, to do still more. They are miserably paid, even though they enjoy all sorts of socila privilages and advantages. Well! I am sure that most of them would accept still less if the interest of the country demanded it. They are proud soldiers!"
One of the most unforgettable memories of my journey was offered to me by Yugoslav air-force officers on the 14th July, 1932, at Skoplje.
At ten o'clock in the morning, in a temperature of 120 degrees in the shade, the city drowsed at the foot of the high mountains which push it towards the Vardar, and awaited the gathering thunderstorm. The valley between the old Turkish citadel and the hazy peaks was a burning furnace. In this furnace, indifferent to the "air pockets" which tossed their 'planes like frail boats in a heavy sea, indiffernet to the storm which pressed down upon them with deafening peals of thunder, young aviators were trying out some new battle-'planes. In wild-duck formation, in attack formation, isolated or in groups, zooming into the sky, diving towards the river, gliding, falling like dead leaves, turning and twisting, they filled the valley with their triumpahant flight.
They are callously barve, these young airmen of Yugoslavia. "All your bravery would be useless against the formidable 'planes of the Italians," I said the same evening to one of these officers. "You wouldbe able to do nothing against airplanes carrying four or five men and armoured like forts. They would crush you!"
The young man looked at me pityingly and replied:
"We would bring them down by locking our propeller with theirs, and that is what we would do if we saw that it were impossible to get them in any other manner. The Italians would get tired of losing five men to our one."
And this phrase is not an idle boast made after drinking, but the expression of a deliberate will, of an unanimous decision that all the young soldiers have taken who will be called upon to take part in aerial warfare for Yugoslavia.
Such is the army upon Frenchmen count when the supreme hour sounds. It is worth the sacrifices of money that France has made, it is worth all the sacrifices that it will demand of us even yet.
But if this were all there is to it then this book would never have been writtn. If this great war-machine of Yugoslavia were really no more than an adjunct of France's legions, directed by the same pacific and civilised intentions as those which control the destiny of France, then it would not be necessary for me to say a word. But the truth is quite otherwise. The sword of Yugoslavia, though bright and tempered it be, is a two-edged weapon which may well stike in a way we have not altogether forseen. Instead of being a shield of France it may prove a menace to France, and this because it is in the hands of men who have no abiding desire for peace, but who live in the spell of a lust of conquest and ambition by which they may reap rich rewards, and as a result of which, incidentally, they may maintain themselves in power against the will of the immmense majority of the people whom they exploit and oppress.
In a reasonable hands, the Yugoslav army would be a factor of peace, by the respect which it inspires, by the security which it guarantees its country against all attack. But in the hands of ambitious men whose only thought is to extend their will to other territories, it constitutes, on the contrary, a tremendous danger of war in Eastern Europe.
And the peril will become daily moe pressing and grave so long as the Pan-Serb imperialists are the masters of Yugoslavia.
I have already said this in substance twenty times! I permit myself to say it again only because it is the truth, and because the ignorance of this truth by the French public is leading France directly to the risk of seeing herself engaged in the near future in a clash with Italy. All the political thought, all the diplomatic activity, all the preparations of the military force at Belgarde tend, in fact, towards a Serbo-Italian conflict. The strenghtening of the Little Entente had no other aim.
I have talked these things over with Frenchmen in France, and I find that there is a sense of mystery pervading everywhere. The fact is France is tied to Yugoslavia by her need of military support against her enemies and the fact is that subsconsciously she does not want to realise the danger of the alliance.
This tends to put me in a difficult position because all that I say against the present state of affairs will be interpreted either as treachery against France or enmity towards Yugoslavia. It is neither. It is merely the voice of a man who has seen the danger ahead, and the voice condemns no man except those madmem at the head of things in Belgrade. The peoples of Yugoslavia, the army of Yugoslavia- they are exonerated. They are men like ourselves.
What alarms me, and what surely must alarm anyone who knows the facts, is that Yugoslavia is preparing not for defence but for aggression. The excuses of Belgrade that she is arming fro protection against Bulgaria or Hungary are ridiculous. Yugolslavia alone could crush Bulgaria and Hungary as easily as France could annihilate Belgium.
Why, in view of this fact, are the Pan-Serbs arming their country without consideration for their budget? What is the feverish preparation designed to achieve? What are they aiming at? Whom do they fear? Of what are they dreaming?
The peace strength of the Yugoslav army today is 150,000 soldiers, 8,200 officers and 9,400 non-commissioned officers. Its armament comprises 2,000 light machine-guns, 800 heavy machine-guns, 250 batteries of artilery, five tank companies, and 45 air squadrons. A general field mobilisation would place at the dsiposition of its commanndant (active and reserve), 1,200,000 first line combatants thoroughly trained and admirably organised, and about 400,000 territorials, more than half of whom are war veterans. Such an army is terribly expensive.
Out of a total of 1,040 million Swiss francs, the Yugoslav budget for 1932 allotted 277 million, or about 27 per cent, to the Ministry of War.
As I say, what is particularly disquieting when one regards things closely, and when one is acquainted with the mentality and the projects of the men who decide these things, is that the equipment, the installation, the strategic facilities placed at the disposition of the Yugoslav army since the assumption of power by the dictatorship four years ago, all appear to have been calculated to support an offensive role. All the railroad lines, recently constructed or under construction, are without exception directed towards the Adriatic coast, either by the way of Zagreb and Sarajevo, or by Veles, Monastir or Prizrend. The war aims of Pan-Serbism are written in fiery letters across the chart of its new railroad lines.
When I expressed my astonishment about this to a lieutenant-colonel with whom I was holding a conversation in the train carrying me from Macedonia, he replied:
"We Serbs, when we recognise an enemy, prepare for him in such a fashion that his attack finds us ready to get a head start on him. We are certain that when war comes again it will come over the Adriatic. Either the Italians will seize the opportunity to attack us when we are occupied elsewhere, or else we ourselves, tired of fascist blustering, will decide to settle once and for all our accounts with them.
"In a word, our present military situation recalls your own before 1814: an adversary is keeping an eye on us, and his attack at some time or another is certain; so we make all our provisions for repulsing this attack, if need be by anticipating it."
The Yugoslav military organisation is completed by two great formations which constitute something like a second army side by side with the regular army, but independent of it: the Sokols and the Tchnetniki, both placed under the direct control of the War Ministry.
For half a century the Sokols have played a role in Central and Eastern europe: their task is to develop a national spirit by the physical and moral education of the young people. A strong organisation existed in Croatia and Slovenia at the time of their incorporation with Serbia, and one of the first acts of the Pan-Serb dicators was to dissolve them as independent bodies and transform them into State Sokols, destined to give to the youth an intensive military instruction, under the direction of officials designated by the Minister of War. All young men over fourteen years of age obliged to participate in this organisation, and later this obligation was extended to all young soldiers. The former Sokol organisations have thus become veritable centres of military preparation and training.
At the end of 1932, the Yugoslav military Sokols possessed 137,500 members, divided into 715 associations or local formations.
The Tchnetniki possess a special character and organisation. Differing from the Sokols, they form an integral part of the national army of which they constitute an elite corps. Recruited among former soldiers whose political opinions are trustworthy and who are distinguished for their physical vigour, they receive a special instruction and are obliged, twice a year, to undergo regular periods of training, each of three weeks.
Their duty is to spread Pan_Serb propaganda after the methods and direction of the Narodna Odbrana, of which all are obliged to be members, and to lend their assisatnce to the gendarmeries and administrative authorities and to keep themselves constantly at the disposition of the local military commander.
In case of war they are subject to mobilisation from the period of diplomatic tension, either on the spot, or at posts which have been given to them in advance. Each Tchnetnik must speak the language of the country in which he will be employed during hostilities so perfectly that no one will take him for a Serb. His role in time of war is to cut communication lines, destroy bridges and railroads, obtain by all means inforamtion necessary to the line troops. During peace time he recieves regular pay and important material advantages.
At present ther exist seven detachments of Tchnetniki. Each detachment comprises about a thousand men divided into "troykas" (three men), in "groupitzas" (three or four troykas), and "tchetas" (five or six groupitzas).
These detachments are quartered from Tzaribrod to Guevgueli; from Kratovo to Bitolj; from Ochrida to Ipek: in Bosnia and Slovenia: behind the Dalmatian and Istrian frontiers, and in Banat.
Such, in brief outline, is the Yugoslav military power at the disposal of the Dictatorship.