Today, as in his own lifetime, King Peter I of Serbia is regarded as one of the great Balkan leaders, both for his personal qualities as a leader, and his role in introducing democracy and reform to Serbia. Born in Belgrade in 1844, he was just 14 when he followed his father Prince Alexander into exile and he would not return to his homeland for over 50 years. He spent much of the intervening years in France, serving as a French army officer during the Franco-Prussian war. In 1903, he returned to Serbia to ascend to the throne in the wake of the coup d'etat and assassination of King Alexander, in which he played no part. Having spent much of his life living in the West, King Peter was responsible for introducing democracy to Serbia, including the constitution of 1903, which restored freedom of the press, and reforms to education, agriculture and the army. Peter was a popular leader, however, ill health meant that in 1914 he delegated some of his royal duties to his son, Crown Prince Alexander.
In that same year, Arch-Duke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated in Sarajevo by the terrorist group, the Black Hand. Formed in the early 20th Century, the Black Hand was predominantly made up of Serbian Army officers who wished to liberate Serbians living within in the Austro-Hungarian empire and unite Serb inhabited territories to create a Greater Serbia. The assassination provided the Austro-Hungarian with an excuse to check growing Serbian nationalism and they accused Serbia of culpability for the assassination, demanding that Austrian officials be allowed to come to Serbia and lead the investigation into the assassination. Serbia refused, and as a consequence a state of war was established.
Despite repelling two Austro-Hungarian invasions, by autumn 1915, when Bulgaria mobilized its forces against Serbia, the country and army had been weakened by a typhus pandemic and could not withstand a third invasion by Germany and Austro-Hungary in October. With the Serbian army outnumbered two to one, the outcome was inevitable and Belgrade fell. The remainder of the Serbian army, with the aged King Peter and Crown Prince Alexander, retreated through Montenegro and the mountains of northern Albania in freezing conditions. Over 100,000 soldiers were lost in this terrible march. Those surviving made it to Corfu, where they were evacuated by Allied forces. The story ends more happily however; Corfu became the seat of the Serbian government in exile and from Greece, the remaining Serbian army reorganized and joined with her allies, in 1918 forcing the Austrian and German forces out of Serbia. In his last public appearance that same year, Peter I was proclaimed King of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in Belgrade. He died there in 1921.
Frank Salisbury was asked to paint this work by the Serbian Legation. We see the King, with his distinctive moustache, seated round a campfire with the Royal standard fluttering nearby. His Generals pore over a map behind him and near to them lies a wooden trunk bearing the royal seal. King Peter gazes into the middle distance, lost in thought and perhaps contemplating the fate of the country he has just been forced to flee a second time.