Serbian military uniforms 1808 - 1918

1808/1918 Serbian Military Uniforms

Excerpts from the book: "1808/1918 Serbian Military Uniforms"

By Pavle Vasic

A uniformed Serbian militia is mentioned at the end of the seventeenth century after the siege of Vienna in 1683, but no details are known of its dress. It can be supposed that it is derived from national costumes like the uniform introduced at the end of the first half of the eighteenth century. In the thirties on the initiative of the metropolitan Vikentije Jovanovic, a Serbian Hussar Regiment (1735) was formed which did not survive long. Nevertheless, there are references to their dress: saber, carbine, and two pistols with green dolman and red breeches. Frontier regiments were uniformed in 1744 and this uniform had certain Hungarian traits until 1767 when it was tailored in the style of the Austrian infantry. This is retained until the Military frontier was abolished in 1873.


During the wars with Turkey, Freycorps (voluntary corps) of Serbian refugees were organized on several occasions. These were Serbo-banat Freycorps, Mihaljevic's Freycorps 1788, and later Wurmzer's Freycorps 1793. The first wore the uniform of the Austrian infantry but with a brown tunic and a stove-pipe shako without a peak. Mihaljevic's Freycorps had a similar cap, brawn dolman to the waist with red laces, and wide blue trousers. The volunteers carried a handjar and pistols as well as guns and sabers. The soldiers of Wurmzer's Freycorps wore the national costume as well as a type of blue uniform of national cut with red cuffs and white braid on the back of the trouser-legs. Officers wore shako and jabot and the coat was tucked into the breeches or rather a belt into which a handjar and two pistols were shoved. They carried as well a saber, carbine, and a baton of command.

The last Freycorps of Serbian refugees organized in 1813 was known as the Serbisches Frey Bataillon. They wore a red and blue cap, brown dolman with laces, and wide Cossack trousers, perhaps inspired by the uniforms of the regular Serbian Army at the time of the Insurrection. The Freycorps uniforms were very modern for this period: short dolman with tails, wide trousers, and a handjar, and they derived from the Serbian national costume.

This Freycorps is of interest when reconstructing the uniforms from the Serbian Revolution period because Serbian names were used for parts of the dress in the Austrian official nomenclature.

There is no doubt that the military organization with which the Serbs in the Freycorps were familiar, was of great help to the Insurgents when organizing their army. On account of this, the Austrian influence was strongest in the first moment. In the beginning, the Serbian Army had no uniform but wore their own clothing. The French consul David in Travnik gives this description in 1806: "The leaders of the rebels wear a magnificent suit and other valuable objects which they took from the Turks. Their cavalry has marvelous horses and the regular soldiers or peasants, dressed in a rough white homespun woolen fabric, fight with bitterness bordering on madness". Another contemporary Petar Jokic says in his memoirs that the Insurgents disguised themselves in Janissary clothing taken from the Turks so.that they would not be recognized.

However, in the reports of Austrian agents and spies from Serbia, there are many references to a uniformed revolutionary army. In 1807 they report that the Serbs wish to form two regiments and to uniform them in the Cossack style, and with time all would be "regularized" and dressed in the same fashion. In 1808 there is mention of Russian greatcoats which should arrive for the Serbs. In 1809 a regular unit was founded which wore a shako with a red cockade and long peasant jacket (gunjac). A detailed report follows on this: "Continuous exercises are still taking place and every day more soldiers are uniformed. They have dark coffee brown blouses with red facings, dark blue breeches with red stripes, shako with a red cockade and yellow upper border, shoes with buckles and laces as is our custom. The pandours (Council guards), of whom there are only four, are dressed in green". Lazar Arsenijevic Bata Laka gives a detailed description of the uniform introduced in 1808: "In the regular units officers, drummers and buglers had Russian uniforms. The officers, cannoneers, and drummers of the people's army had the same uniform and regular infantry wore a national style uniform: a black shako with a black belt chin strap, narrow peak, and tricolor cockade; in the summer each soldier had a sleeveless embroidered jacket (jelek) of a black coarse fabric and to just below the hips a short-waisted peasant jacket with sleeves, a shirt and breeches of strong linen, leggings of white fabric, socks knitted from thick colorfully spun wool and opanci on their feet. In the winter every soldier had breeches of strong black cloth and a peasant coat to the knees, all tailored in the national style. As for arms and other ammunition, every soldier had a gun with a bayonet. Across the shoulders, he had black cross straps, from one hung a cartridge box and from the other a bayonet when it was not on the gun. Apart from the above mentioned each soldier had a string knapsack for carrying soldiers' usual requirements." These "regulars" were organized by the Russian officer Ilya Novokreshcheny who according to the same author changed his Russian uniform for tight red breeches decorated with gold lace and trimmings, waistcoat and dark blue dolman adorned across the breast with lace and braid, while on the belt he hung a saber without which he was never seen.

A French reporter from Bosnia also speaks of Serbian cavalry and infantry organized in two regiments. The infantry has Russian and the cavalry Cossack uniform. The Cossack uniform consisted of white trousers, a green close-fitting blouse, and their weapon was a lance. The informers thought that the Serbs wished to deceive the Turks in these uniforms which were however produced at a period when the military organization in Serbia had reached a high standard and its requirements were similar to those of other European armies. There is evidence that Karadorde's bodyguard had a uniform or at least a red cap richly decorated with gold piping and tassels, which came from Russia.

Jakov Jaksic, a captain in the Serbian regular army, portrayed on a miniature probably from the period between 1808 and 1810, is represented in an interesting uniform. He has a blue tunic with rose collar and lapels. Double laces for decoration over the lapels fasten with round metal buttons. His epaulet is also made from lace. Over the left shoulder, he has a black cross belt. Across his forehead his hair falls in thin locks a la Titus, he wears sideburns and a pigtail whose bow is seen behind. In the right hand, he holds a helmet with a brown fur crest and black plume. Apart from Bata Laka's there are very few descriptions of officers' uniforms from that period.

After the Second Insurrection in 1815., a long period passed before the army under prince Milos was re uniformed. Joakim Vujic who was in Serbia in 1826 mentions the first uniform. Soldiers wore a green tailcoat with red collar and cuffs, red waistcoat and blue trousers with red stripes, while the upper part of the casket on their head looked like a melon cut in slices. Drummers had a tunic decorated with red and green woolen laces on the shoulders and sleeves while corporal's tunic was more richly decorated than the private's. However, this uniform did not survive long. These soldiers carried only guns so to prince Milos they seemed poorly armed. Apart from that, the uniform reminded him of the Austrian, so he soon withdrew it from use and put it in the store. In 1828 O. Pirch saw the court guards in Kragujevac dressed in peasant costume with peaked fezzes. It seems that officers retained the green tunic with red collar and cuffs. At that time infantry was the only service in the regular army and until 1830 retained peasant clothing. At the period of the reading of Hatti-sherif, the army was again in a green uniform "that is most suitable for people who live in the forest " as a contemporary author explains. In 1831 military music was founded which it seems was dressed in a blue uniform with a fur cap. In 1832 a cavalry regiment was formed, "dressed similarly to the Cossacks with blue clothing and fur caps".

In the course of the thirties, the entire regular army was uniformed and all services included. A description of Prince Milos's army from 1838 speaks of Russian influence on uniforms: "The regular troops of Prince Milos consist of 500 infantrymen, 250 horsemen and 200 artillerymen. For the most part, the artillery is not uniformed and without horses. The infantry uniform is of Russian cut and consists of a grey greatcoat, blue-green blouse with red piping, green trousers with red stripes, peaked shako, heavy Hungarian boots, cartridge belt, and belt for bayonet. The belt is white and the guns are modeled on ours (Austrian). Officers wear gold epaulets, sword knot and silver sash. The cavalry has grey greatcoats, blue-green tailcoats with red piping and similar short spencer, green trousers with red stripes, shakoes like the infantry, and Hungarian high boots with spurs. The shabrack is of black lambskin and the belts are white. The cartridge belt and valise for the greatcoat behind the saddle are in Russian style. Their weapons consist of a lance with a red flag, saber, carbine and four pistols, two of which are carried in holsters and two from the cross belt." Musicians had a tunic with epaulets and laces for a parade and a tunic for service as well as a greatcoat of gray cloth. From archive documents of that period, one can see that this cloth was bought in Russia and was of the same quality as for the Russian guard.

In 1837 uniforms were introduced for civilian and military officials. The officer's tunic was black with red collar and facings, and sky-blue trousers with red stripes two fingers wide. Around the neck was a black scarf and on the head an otter skin or sable cap with a pouch of red velvet and a gold tassel. Epaulets were yellow and round with fringes for higher officers, while their rank was denoted by stars. Together with this dress a sash and saber were worn. Vice- the uniform was of the same cut: an overcoat to the knees, but without any decoration or fastenings, and a black peaked cap. This uniform was worn until 1841 when according to a new regulation officers got a green uniform with shako.

The uniform of the infantry and artillery was of the same cut: spencer with a double row of buttons and red piping, green trousers and a gray greatcoat. According to this regulation the shako should have had yellow trimmings, but by mistake, white was again worn as it had been up to then. The drummers' sleeves were decorated with yellow stripes and the drum major's tunic was decorated on the chest and sleeves with braid, while on the head he had a shako with officers' trimmings.

Non-commissioned officers wore gold braid around the collar. The cavalry had a dark blue spencer with red lapels while the braids of trumpeters and non- commissioned officers were white. They had gray trousers with leather stitched between the legs for general service and blue trousers like the spencer for a parade. They wore a shako with white trimmings. Across the shoulder, they had a cross belt with a cartridge box and their weapons were lance, saber and two pistols. Musicians had a tunic with braided decorations on the chest and sleeves. This green uniform, which was certainly modeled on the Russian and maybe also on the uniform from the period of the First Insurrection, survived till 1845 when the Ruling Council (Sovjet) introduced a new blue uniform on the suggestion of Ilija Garasanin because that was "the national colour of cloth".

The proposed uniform modernized the appearance of the Serbian Army. Infantry and artillery got a tunic with tails and nine buttons, while cavalry retained their former uniform. In the beginning, they wore high peakless caps, and after 1847 infantry and artillery got spiked helmets, while cavalry received uhlan helmets with a square plate on the top ("chapkas)". Pipings remained red for all services, but the buttons became yellow, except for the cavalry who had white. This is also so of the braid and trimmings on the helmets. On parade plumes were worn on the helmets: red on the cavalry, white on the infantry, and black on the artillery. The drum major wore a grenadier fur hat (shubara) and braid on the breast and sleeves of the tunic.

Officers had a slightly longer tunic, gold or silver braid around the collar and round epaulets. The Prince's adjutants wore embroidered collars like the civilian officials instead of officers' braids and shoulder cords. Apart from this parade tunic officers had a so-called vice-tunic which had two rows of buttons with six in each row, without any braid but with red piping. A peaked cap with a white upper and red middle border was worn with this tunic. There were no epaulets on the officers' greatcoats. Auditors, army doctors, and commissaries did not wear epaulets. In 1855 the cavalry got a tunic of the same cut as the infantry except for shorter tails. Everywhere along the seams on the back and sleeves there was red piping like the uhlans while on the collar they wore silver braids with a button. At the same time, plumes on the helmets were changed to white.

Serbia introduced this uniform at the height of Romanticism under the influence of Prussia and Russia, when the European countries, except France and Belgium, introduced spiked helmets. Serbia introduced a tunic with long tails relatively early, before many European countries whose armies generally wore a Napoleonic tail-coat. The English who continued to use this tail-coat to the end of the Crimean war is a typical example. Many of our artists, Anastas Jovanovic and Stevan Todorovic in their drawings, and Arsenije Petrovic, Uros Knezevic, Jovan Popovic, and others in their portraits represented this uniform which the defenders of the constitution (ustavobranitelji) introduced, sincerely believing that it was more, "national" than that of the Obrenovic's reign.

When in 1850 the Artillery school was founded later Military academy cadets got this same blue uniform, cap and helmet.

On the return of Prince Milos Obrenovic, measures were taken to change this uniform. One of his first orders was to change the military salute; before this soldiers took off their caps to their officers and now they saluted by lifting the hand to the cap. Already in 1859 the flags which had been issued to the regular army in 1845 and 1846 were changed and at the same time, the Prince's guard was organized. This uniform consisted of a black fur cap with a red pouch, green blouse (atila) with yellow lace, red breeches and boots. The greatcoat was of dark color and their arms were a Russian saber and a Belgian type pistol.

In 1861 a new uniform was introduced, similar in cut for all services but varied in color. The tunic had two rows of six buttons. The basic color of the tunic was green for all services, except for engineers and gendarmes who had dark blue, and for the cavalry who had 1ight blue. Generals wore red tunics. All services had long gray trousers that had leather stitched on the inside of the legs in the case of the cavalry. The peaked cap had white upper piping and lower piping in the color of the service, while with the officers the entire lower part of the cap was in the service color. On parade, the entire army wore French type shakos which narrowed towards the top and were decorated with plumes of various colors. The cavalry had fur caps with the upper square part of the cloth. Army chiefs (voivodes) wore tricorns with which Prince Mihailo is frequently depicted. The color of the cap was appropriate to the tunic, except in the case of the prince's adjutants, the upper parts of whose caps were white. A uniform of the Serbian riflemen was also provided for these regulations: a dark green tunic and cap with light green collar and so-called "wings" small rolls along the seams of the shoulders and sleeves. The train in 1863 got a gray uniform with light blue collar and piping. They wore fur hats (shubara). Officers had soft epaulets, yellow and white according to the service. These were bordered with a narrow braid in the case of officers of lower rank, while for officers of higher rank they were completely covered with braid. Small stars of the opposite color to the braid, worn on the collar similar to those in the Austrian army, denoted rank. Military music wore rose collar and cuffs, and epaulets of Serbian tricolor.

In 1863 a new regulation for the clothing and equipping of the people's army was introduced which was without a doubt distinguished for its originality. It consisted of two shirts, a waistcoat, leggings (tozluci), breeches (for the winter), blouse, cloak (kabanica), shoes (opanci), boots and a fur cap. All items of the uniform were bordered with lace, the blouse was somewhat longer than the waistcoat but both had five pairs of laces on the breast. The cloak had a hood decorated with a tassel. It was so wide that a soldier could cover himself and his weapons. The fur cap was of black lambskin three and a half thumbs high and ending in a point that hung down and was decorated with a tassel of wool. The color of the coarse fabric suit depended on the national costume in individual districts, black, white and brown. The infantry had green laces, cavalry yellow, artillery red and engineers cherry red. Rank signs were worn on the sleeves and collars; these were of wool for non-commissioned officers, and of silver and gold for officers.

A new uniform was introduced in 1864 and sanctioned by the regulation of 1870. At that time all services got a dark blue tunic, apart from cadets of the Military Academy who had brown tunics with a green collar, cuffs and piping. On parade a dark blue French peaked cap was worn with plumes of various colors: red for cavalry, green for infantry, black for artillery and cherry red for engineers. For general service "the frontier cap" (shajkacha) was introduced and remained in use by the Serbian Army from that time on. The same regulation introduced a uniform for the people's army which consisted of a brown blouse with patch pockets, red petal on the collar, blue breeches with blue leggings, and peakless cap - shajkacha of the same color. The collars in the people's army were folded, while for the regular army they were upright. The regular army had the same blouses for general service while the blue tunic was worn only on parade. The Serbian Army fought in this uniform from 1876 to 1878. Stevan Sremac frequently described them in his novels and stories.

After the proclamation of Serbia as a kingdom in 1882 new regulations were issued for uniforms. Now a tunic with one row of seven buttons was introduced, blue-grey breeches, boots and a French type cap with a little upright plume. The service colors on the collars and plumes remained the same except that the cavalry had a light blue cap and tunic, and red breeches. The guard battalions had yellow braid on the collar and cuffs, similar to the Russian and Prussian guards. The general service cap was still the shajkacha and the greatcoat was dark blue. Cadets of the Military Academy had green collars and officers wore round epaulets. In this uniform, the Serbs entered the war against Bulgaria in-1885.

In 1896 uniforms were designed on the Russian model. There was a blouse without buttons which closed with fasteners on the right side, later popularly known as "koporan". With this blouse, a low lambskin cap with the upper part in the color of the service was worn on parade. Infantry and artillery had dark blue uniforms with red or black collars and piping, engineers dark blue with cherry red collar and piping, and cavalry light blue with dark blue collar and piping and red trousers which they wore already from 1878. General service headgear for officers was a peaked cap and for the parade a fur cap with laces and big white plume. At the beginning of this century, an infantry officers' tunic was light gray modeled on the tunic of an Austrian general. Later officers of all services except the cavalry had black tunics with two rows of buttons. General service clothing was a blouse with patch pockets, and collar and piping in the service colors. Generals retained the dark red tunic with light blue collar and piping. During the reign of the Obrenovic dynasty, they wore a Prussian helmet with white plume and from 1896 they had white fur caps with plumes.

Radical changes took place in 1908 when a grey-olive-green uniform was introduced for all services. In this, they followed the example of other European countries, which under the pressure of improving the war technique, looked for the least noticeable uniform. The cut of the uniform was the same as the existing officers' blouse for all services. Services were distinguished by petals in color on the front of the collar. Colors remained the same except for howitzers and fortress artillery where a rectangle was divided diagonally into two triangles of black and red color. Officer's cap was a peaked shajkacha with piping around the upper part and an oval cockade in the colors of the state flag with the ruler's initials. Infantry wore high shoes which were fastened at the side with two straps, while all other services wore boots. In wartime when there was a lack of boots they usually wore opanci as in earlier wars. The greatcoat retained the same cut but petals were added in the service colors. The Serbian Army entered the Balkan Wars and the First World War in this uniform.

After the withdrawal of the Serbian Army through Albania and its reorganization on the front of Salonica in 1916, Serbs got the uniform of the French African Troups: a simple khaki color blouse with an upright collar, fastened in front with five round buttons, as well as a French helmet with a small crest on the crown to which the Serbian coat of arms was added in front. Officers in many cases retained their old uniforms. Sometimes the blue French uniform was worn and in rarer cases the English. Such was the Serbian Army which entered Belgrade in 1918.

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