Kumanovo Zebrnjak Memorial

Kumanovo is town in northeastern part of North Macedonia, on both banks of the Lipkovka and Kumanovska rivers, in the medieval time known as the Žegligovo area. The Žegligovo is located in the Kumanovo-Preševo Valley within the low watershed of 450 meters, between courses of the South Morava and the Vardar rivers. Legend has it that the name of the town of Kumanovo comes from the Kumani warrior tribe which appears in this area in 1094 and during the reign of King Milutin it creates the core of the royal army.

The Zebrnjak is memorial monument dedicated to the heroic fallen soldiers of the Kumanovo Battle – the major Battle of the First Balkan War that symbolizes heroic Serbian sacrifices and victims fall for freedom which marked the beginning of the liberation of Stara Srbija – Old Serbia and Macedonia from the long-lasting Turkish rule. Zebrnjak Monument is located on 511 meters hill in the center of the vast Kumanovo plain, at the edge of Mlado Nagoricane village, 6 km away from town of Kumanovo, in then Vardar Banovina – the province of then Kingdom of Yugoslavia, today in North Macedonia. The Zebrnjak Monument with the ossuary has been erected in 1937 for the 25th anniversary of the Kumanovo Battle which took place on the 23rd and the 24th October 1912 during the First Balkan War between the Turkish Vardar Army and the First Serbian Army.

Superintendent of the Supreme Command and the Serbian Commander in Chief of the Kumanovo Battle was Radomir Putnik and his deputy was general Živojin Mišic. The objective of the Serbian army plan was to destroy the Ottoman army in a decisive battle before the Ottomans could complete the mobilization and concentration of forces. The Serbian planners assumed that the main Ottoman force would be deployed defensively in the valley of Vardar River and on the strategically important plateau of Ovce Pole. The strategic plan of the Serbian Supreme Command planned that the First army, led by the regent Aleksandar Karadjorđević, whose right wing was settled at the edges of the Skopska Crna Gora Mt and the left wing was in the Pčinja river valley, advance through Kumanovo with the aim to defeat and deter the enemy at the decisive Ovce Polje battle. The aim was to double envelop the Ottoman army by using three armies: First army under Crown Prince Alexander, comprising five infantry and one cavalry division (132,000 men), was deployed in the area around Vranje, with the task to attack the enemy frontally. Second army under Stepa Stepanovic, comprising one Serbian and one Bulgarian division (74,000 men), deployed in the area around Kyustendil, was assigned to the easternmost attack, with the objective of attacking the right flank of the enemy. Third Army, under Bozidar Jankovic, comprising four infantry divisions and one infantry brigade (76,000 men), deployed in two groups, the first one at Toplica and the second one at Medvedja, was assigned to the westernmost attack, with the task to take Kosovo and then move south to attack the left flank of the enemy.

According to the initial Ottoman plan created by Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz, the Ottoman forces in Macedonia would stay in defense and, if necessary, retreat to Albania. The decisive battle would take place in Thrace, versus the Bulgarian army. However, Nazim Pasha, the newly appointed commander-in-chief of the Ottoman army, decided to surprise the Serbs by taking an offense in Macedonia. The plan also included the offense in Thrace. His goal was to win the initial battles against the surprised allies, hoping that the Great powers would then intervene and stop the war. But the first and biggest mistake was Nazim Pasha’s decision to immediately bring the fight to the invading armies, which resulted in disaster when ill-prepared and only partially mobilized Turkish forces confronted the Serbs at Kumanovo on October 23 and 24, and the Bulgarians in the simultaneous battle of Kirk Kilisse, October 22-24. The Ottoman mobilization in Macedonia was slow, and the Ottoman Vardar Army, led by Zeki Pasha, had little more than a half of its manpower mobilized when the war started. The army comprised of the Fifth Corps, under Said Pasha, comprising 4 divisions /32000 men/, deployed in the area around Stip, Sixth Corps under Cavit Pasha, comprising two divisions /6000 men/, deployed in the area around Veles, and the Seventh Corps, under Fethi Pasha, comprising three divisions /19000 men/, deployed in the area around Kumanovo and smaller units in Kosovo area.

The morning of 23 October 1912 was foggy and reconnaissance could not be performed properly. On the Serbian left flank, the observers noticed the troops of the 17th Infantry Division in movement, but mistook them for the Ottoman battery withdrawing from Stracin. Troops of the 18th regiment of Danube Division I, which moved forward to capture it, were pushed back, as well as the reconnaissance forces of Cavalry Division. Observing the retreat of these Serbian units, Zeki Pasha concluded that the Serbian left wing was weak. Since there were no actions of the Second Army from Stracin, he decided to attack. Around 11:00, with artillery support, 5th and the 6th Corps attacked the positions of the Danube Division I. Soon, 13th and 17th Infantry Division forced the 18th regiment to retreat in disorder, but, instead of continuing the attack, Zeki Pasha waited for the arrival of Štip Infantry Division from the rear to use this division for attack on the Serbian flank and rear. That enabled the Serbian 7th regiment to aid the wavering 18th regiment and to consolidate a defense. Soon after that, the Serbian 8th regiment arrived, and the 7th regiment was able to move to the left flank and reinforce the defense of Srtevica, which was endangered by an attack of Štip Infantry Division. On the right flank of the Danube Division I, its 9th regiment halted the advance of the weakened Monastir – Bitola – Infantry Division. Around 12:00, the 7th Corps started its attack on the positions held by Morava Division I. However, Serbian infantry and artillery were already deployed for combat, as the artillery fire from the east suggested that the battle has started. After the initial Ottoman progress, Serbs counterattacked and pushed them back to their starting positions. After the Serbian counterattack, Ottoman units were kept at bay by the well organized Serbian artillery fire until the end of day. The Serbian rear echelon divisions (Danube Division II on the left, Drina Division I in the center and Timok Division II on the right) and the army artillery were not informed about the combat operations. They remained in the rear, without participating in the first day of the Kumanovo battle. The First Army command did not receive precise information about the battle and did not have any influence on the actual combat. Despite these facts, the Ottoman attack of the 23 October was not successful, mostly thanks to “the high devotion of (Serbian) troops and lower officers”.

Uninformed about the situation in the field, the Serbian First Army command did not realize that the attack of the main Ottoman forces had occurred, as those forces were expected on Ovče Pole. Assuming that the Ottoman units north of Kumanovo were merely forward detachments, it was ordered to the Ottoman troops to continue their advance towards south, as previously planned. After midnight, it received a report from Danube Division I which stated that the division was attacked by the strong enemy forces and suffered heavy casualties, but at that moment it was too late for any change of orders. On the other side, Zeki Pasha decided to continue the attack with the hope that his forces would be able to achieve victory on the following day. The Ottoman attack on their right wing started around 5:30. VI Corps was assigned to tie up as many enemy forces as possible by attacking from the front, while Štip Infantry Division was again assigned to flank attack. Danube Division I again had to withstand heavy pressure, but around 10:00 parts of Danube Division II arrived from the rear and strengthened the defense. At the same time, Cavalry Division moved to the left bank of Pčinja and slowed the advance of Ottoman forces towards Srtevica. Around 12:00, parts of Danube Division II reinforced the defense of Srtevica, definitely stopping the advance of the Ottoman right wing.

On the left Ottoman wing, a lot of reservists from Üsküb Infantry Division had deserted during the night, upon hearing that the Third Army had captured Pristina and that it is marching towards Skopje. Still, at 5:30, VII Corps started the attack. However, Morava Division I counterattacked at 6:00 and with the arrival of Timok Division II from the rear they forced the entire Ottoman left wing to retreat. Around 9:30, Drina Division II from the rear echelon of the First Army arrived to the front and attacked the Ottoman center. Around 11:00, Monastir Infantry Division started to retreat. The commander of VI Corps managed to temporarily halt the Serbian advance by using his last reserves, but in the repeated attack around 13:00, Drina Division I captured Zebrnjak hill, the main object in Ottoman defense and forced 17th Infantry Division to retreat. With Üsküb /Skopje/ Infantry Division and Monastir Infantry Division already retreating, the battle was resolved. At 15:00, Morava Division I entered Kumanovo. Ottoman forces retreated in disorder: VII and parts of VI Corps towards Skopje and V and parts of VI Corps towards Stip and Veles. Serbian troops missed the chance to pursue them.

The Ottoman Vardar Army fought the Kumanovo battle according to plan, but despite it suffered a heavy defeat. Although Zeki Pasha operationally surprised the Serbian command by his sudden attack, the decision to act offensively against the superior enemy was a grave error which determined the outcome of Battle of Kumanovo. On the other side, the Serbian command started the battle without plans and preparations, and missed the chance to pursue the defeated enemy and effectively end the operations in Vardar Macedonia, although it had the fresh troops of the rear echelon available for such action. Even after the end of the Kumanovo battle, the Serbs still believed that it was fought against weaker Ottoman units and that main enemy forces were on Ovce Pole. Nevertheless, the Battle of Kumanovo was a decisive factor in the outcome of the war in Macedonia. The Ottoman plan for an offensive war had failed, and the Vardar Army was forced to abandon much territory and lost a significant number of artillery pieces without the possibility to reinforce, because the supply routes from Anatolia were cut. The Vardar Army was not able to organize the defense on Vardar River and was forced to abandon Skopje, retreating all the way to Prilep. The First Army advanced slowly and entered Skopje on 26 October. Two days later, it was strengthened by Morava Division II, while the rest of the Third Army was sent to Metohija and then through northern Albania to the Adriatic coast. The Second Army was sent to aid the Bulgarians in the Siege of Adrianople – Edirne, while the First Army was preparing for an offense towards Prilep and Bitola.

The end of the long-lasting Turkish administration in the Balkans is connected with the Serb victory during the Kumanovo Battle near Kumanovo in 1912 in the First Balkan War, and the merits for the brilliantly achieved outcome should be granted to Ahmed Ademovic, the Roma soldier and trumpeter from Leskovac. In the moment when the outcome of the Kumanovo Battle was uncertain, Ahmed secretly approached the back of the Turkish Army and played on his trumpet tones for retreat according to his skills and knowledge. The confused Turkish Army which was at that moment in fierce rush, and started to retreat. Then Ahmed also secretly left the position of the Turkish army and played on his trumpet a signal for the Serb attack. His gesture was one of the crucial factors for the Serb victory in this battle. This behavior of Ahmed was studied in the military academies. The victory of Serbian Army was mortifying discomfiture for the Turks which provided space for the future Serb advancing along the Vardar River valley. Particularly for this action, Ahmed received a honorable Order of Karađorđe’s Star which is the highest civilian and military decoration of Serbia. And his simple deed ended and remains in books on the French and Russian military academies as the positive example of trickery of an ordinary soldier. 

Kumanovo Battle was an important Serbian victory over the Ottoman Army in Vardar Macedonia, shortly after the outbreak of the First Balkan war which marked the beginning of the liberation of South East Europe from the Ottoman Empire. The Balkan alliance preceded the liberation war against the Ottoman Empire, as well as the correlated agreements between the Balkans countries – Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece. The First Balkan war made end to the long lasting process in Europe – suppression of the Osman Empire from Europe, which started by the defeat of Kara Mustafa in Vienna in 1683. Kumanovo Battle was the significant historical moment for Serbia and the Serbian people in general, probably for Europe also, as its outcome was liberation of the Stara Srbija – Old Serbia areas, which comprise the Stara Raška, Kosovo and Metohija and Skopje-Tetovo domains. After the defeat in the Kumanovo Battle, the Ottoman army abandoned the major part of Vardar Macedonia, suffering heavy losses in manpower and in war material. During the Kumanovo battle two days of fierce combat, with extensive bloody affairs in Nagoricane villages and around the Zebrnjak hill, the First army experienced 687 casualties, 3208 wounded and 597 missing officers and soldiers. The entire troop of the Dunav Division – its soldiers of the 1st Troop of the 2nd Battalion all got killed in the campaigns during the Kumanovo Battle on the Zebrnjak site, on 23rd October 1912. This troop was mostly formed by population of the Drmno village near Kostolac who all gave their lives for the Fatherland in the Kumanovo Battle. It was estimated that the Turkish loss in Kumanovo Battle counted 12000 soldiers, of which 2000 men were imprisoned.

The group of Serbian War veterans founded in 1922 Committee with the aim of construction of the Monument to the fallen soldiers. The Zebrnjak Monument has been erected from the hardest basalt and reinforced concrete, had the form of a tower-obelisc, with the height of 48,50 meters. Without doubt, it was the highest monument in the territory of Yugoslavia, but also in the Balkan peninsula, the most monumental military memorial in the area of the middle Balkans. In the construction planns of the Monument there was striking verticalism and harmony in its structure. The final plan of the Zebrnjak Monument contains the connection of the massive bottom in the form of a fortification, featuring elegant core with egg-form top which narrows in direction of its height and the new element of the triangular basis.By such a foundation the author undoubtly achieved distinctive sculptoral effect of the whole appearance of an elegant but strong structure. Such extraordinary harmony of architecture and sculpture without a pair in the Serbian architecture makes a master piece of Momir Korunovic, who also took part in the Kumanovo Battle. This led the author to the borders of expressionism at that time not accomplished in the architecture of Serbia. Momir Korunović strived to achieve the architecture of the national style, by using decorative elements of the Serbian Medieval and sacral arhitecture. In the ground floor of the Zebrnjak Monument there were units used as the ossuary of the fallen Serbian soldiers. Above the Ossuary there was a space divided into nine units where the Museum exposition was exposed. Above the foot of the Zebrnjak Monument, on the 18th meter above the ground, there was a memorial chapel which used to be accessed by the spiral stairs. On each corner of this spiral trail there were positioned original canons from the Kumanovo Battle. On top of the structure was a cross while its highest floor was decorated with heraldic signs of the Kingdom of Serbia. Fresco decoration of the chapel and the ossuary was completed by the Serbian painter of that time, Živorad Nastasijević. Consecration of the Zebrnjak Monument was performed by the Skopje Metropolitan Josip on 31 October 1937, on the 25th Anniversary of the Kumanovo Battle. Transfer of the remains of fallen soldiers from the Church of Saint George in Staro Nagoricino to the chapel of the Zebrnjak Monument was extremely disturbing, sad and soul-stirring, with prayers for dead that started in the dawn. Mothers, sisters and wifes were standing in the church in front of bones of their most loved with crossed hands holding basil and colorful autumn flowers, waiting to cover remains of their most loved as their final gifts and mourning for their closest never to be forgotten. Bones of identified fallen solders where kept in small black coffins, while remains of non-identified solders were laid in white bags. The Bulgarian authorities destroyed with dinamite the Zebrnjak Monument on the 24 May 1942 after occupation of then Yugoslavia in 1941 when the present Macedonia and large part of the Southern Serbia were assigned to Bulgaria as gratitude for its alliance.

Present day only ruined lower part of the Zebrnjak memorial monument remained, housing in the charnel-house  /ossuary/ the bones of the 687 Serbian soldiers killed in the Kumanovo battle, which were kept in the nearby Saint George Monastery until brought here. The three sided pyramid tower of the original Zebrnjak Monument is missing which made its height of 48.5 meters. The original Zebrnjak Monument was destroyed in May 1942 by the Bulgarian army during the Second World War. By its monumental architecture and appearance, Zebrnjak Monument was one of a kind in the Balkans. Zebrnjak Monument was constructed from basalt rocks/granite cubes, according to the project designed by Momir P. Korunovich and the frescoes in the interior were painted by Zivorad Nastasijevich, on them were represented pictures from everyday life with figures wearing Serbian folklore clothing. In regard with its unique appearance, the Zebrnjak monument in Kumanovo striven to achieve the traditional style of architecture, by decorative elements of the Serbian Medieval sacral architecture. Restoration of the Zebrnjak Monument glorifying and commemorating the Kumanovo Battle is celebration of the Serbian Army victory, which does not belong only to Serbs, but to all the Balkan allies, and makes the clear sign that Belgrade and Skopje had opened new door toward the future, founding primarily on the honest faith into freedom and the common power of the mutual trust.