A departure from our usual BSF focus this time. The Austro-Hungarian Army has not come up before although they were active in Macedonia, albeit at the other end of the line from the BSF. I am pleased though, to be able to remember František Štěrba, who lies in Northern Macedonia, a long way from home.
Back in June we were contacted by Zuzka, his great-great-granddaughter, who was planning a family trip to Northern Macedonia to find his grave. Information from the archives in Vienna had confirmed that František – a Czech soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Army – died and was buried in Hotesovo, Resna District, on 17 March 1917. Resna (now Resen) is still to be found in Northern Macedonia but Zuzka could find no sign of Hotesovo.
My first thought was to try the SCS trench maps but these only stretch as far as Resna, missing out much of the surrounding district. Fortunately, a search on Google brought up a French news report from late 1916 describing Hotesovo as being on the west shore of Lake Prespa. This sent me to my recently purchased tourist map of Northern Macedonia, where I soon found Oteševo, a deserted village with a name that is surely a modern rendition of Hotesovo.
Zuzka and her family have now returned from their holiday in Northern Macedonia and she has kindly shared her experiences and some photos with us.
We were successful in our quest and found the graveyard in Oteshevo where the soldiers were buried. The village itself is abandoned with only one or two houses still inhabited but on the shore of Lake Prespa is one camp and one restaurant with a beach. We went to the restaurant to ask people and were very lucky as they knew the local history, a younger girl there spoke English too, and were able to help us locate the old graveyard up a hill behind their place. It is a forest now with a couple of gravestones, but there’s still a little “chapel” to light candles in. On the best preserved stone [see photos below] we could read ‘here rest, 1917’ and below were some names which were illegible without better equipment and knowledge. So we’ve decided to claim it and were very happy that we even found the place!The locals were very helpful and interested, apparently we were the first people they could remember in 30 years to come looking for someone. They mentioned something about prisoners also being held there and that they’ve built the stone steps leading to the graveyard, but we were not able to find out more detail from them. They did say there are local archives etc. so if we were there for longer, we could find more information and dig deeper.
It is possible that František was a prisoner and died in captivity. The French newspaper I found online (Journal de la Meurthe et des Vosges, 25 November 1916) has this to say in its report from ‘The War in the East’:
… on the west bank of Lake Prespa, we made it as far as Hotesovo …
Was František captured as the French took Hotesovo? There is more research to be done! The excellent IWM photo collection includes this fine image of an Austro-Hungarian soldier in Macedonia.
An Austro-Hungarian soldier shaking hands with Bulgarian reservists, 1917. THE CENTRAL POWERS IN THE MACEDONIAN CAMPAIGN, 1915-1918 (click on the photo to see full size) © IWM (Q 86492)
I must admit to knowing very little about the Austro-Hungarian Army, but Zuzka’s story put me in mind of a book I read many years ago about a fictional Czech comrade of František – The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War by Jaroslav Hašek. It is a comic and deeply satirical novel – which sadly went unfinished – and I heartily recommend it. I was even prompted to dig out my souvenir Švejk beer mat taken from his local pub in Prague over thirty years ago. Cheers!