The history of Croatian involvement in World War 1 is unfortunately still a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma and it has been in that condition for a long time. Every historical period has his heroes, notable persons of the era and the forgotten ones who are wrongfully discharged from the historical textbooks. One of them is Emil Uzelac, the man who managed to go from a poor life growing up with his family in his village of Svarca near Karlovac to the rank of generalmajor of the Austro-Hungarian forces and to become a founder of the Austro-Hungarian air force. As it tends to be, his story has been forgotten, so for the sake of history and himself as a historical figure, he deserves his story to be told once more.

Born on 26 July 1867 in Komarno (present-day Slovakia), he grew up in the village of Svarca, near Karlovac. His father was the officer of the Croatian Home Defense (domobranstvo) in the wars of the revolutionary years 1848/1849. In Karlovac, he finished high-school; then he went to military school in Vienna, which he graduated in 1888 and, with the rank of lieutenant, he entered the 2nd engineering regiment within which he worked being stationed in Pula and Trst. After that, he worked in Zadar, where he became known for building forts. Soon he graduated from the Naval academy in Trst, where he got the rank of lieutenant of the merchant navy. As a yachtsman and, after that, as an officer, he sailed the Adriatic and the Atlantic. His career started to progress at a faster pace when he was promoted on 1st November 1898 to the rank of captain (Hauptman). In 1900, he gained the command of the enginery in Klagenfurt, in 1908 he was promoted to the rank of major and a year later he entered the Austro-Hungarian baloon corps (Militar Aeronautische Anstalt) where he realized that aeroplanes have wider possibilities by using this aircraft for the army. He had a lot of contacts with the early aviation pioneers like Franz Hinterstoisser and learned to fly in a short period of time. (5) (2)

When progressive and modern thinking officers, centered around archduke (Erzherzog) Franz Ferdinand and Conrad von Hotzendorf,  started the old army’s reform they made on 24 april 1912, a 45-year-old technical engineer commander of the Austro-Hungarian aviation (Luftschiffer-Abteilung); that man was Emil Uzelac. He set off without any money, planes and personel except a handful of young and enthusiastic, privately trained officers and without any understanding from the majority of the higher commanders. Immediately Uzelac, in 4 weeks’ time, finished his pilot training and, just after 3 months, he became a field pilot. Given the fact that Austria-Hungary, at that time, allocated only 62 992 $ for aviation, unlike Germany (2 387 364 $), France (6 390 727 $) and Great Britain (1 142 857 $), who had given aviation much greater attention, in the summer of 1912, Conrad von Hotzendorf and archduke Franz Ferdinand managed to arrange The Kaiser’s visit to an aviation-show at Wiener Neustadt. The Kaiser was impressed and the Luftschifferabteilung received greater funding. In the same year, Uzelac was promoted to the rank of lieutant colonel (Oberstleutnant). Organized pilot training NCO was financed and allowed for Uzelac, but not until the start of 1914, so it was only then that he could get the appropriate qualified officers because, up until then, only the wealthiest people could go to pilot training schools. (2) (3)

During World War 1, Uzelac was banned from flying aeroplanes, but during all that time he remained a flying enthusiast and, according to one anecdote, he flew all types of aircraft ever used by the Austro-Hungarian Fliegertruppe. During the war, he was promoted two more times: in 1914 to the rank of colonel (Oberst) and in 1918 to the rank of general-major (Major General). When we sum up the statistics, we can see that, during the four years of war, Austria-Hungary produced 5 000 aeroplanes and 4 000 aeroplane engines with the help 12 000 workers. (5) (4)

After the end of World War 1, he retired and settled in Petrinja, but by 1920 his pension was deactivated. He was appointed commander of the Department of aviation and he had to slavenize his name from Emil to Milan to suit the will of the new authorities. He managed to succesfully restructure and establish the aviation domain and to impose general order; among other things, he wanted to make aviation an independent branch of the army, but his ideas and his statement that he was an Orthodox Croat weren’t approved by the government, so he was forced to retire again in 1923.(1)

Right after the proclamation of the Independent State of Croatia, Emil Uzelac was appointed commander of the Croatian air force; with the help of his experience and authority, he made a considerable contribution to the building of the air force of the young state. At the end of that same year he finally retired, but his reputation in Croatia and in other countries was enormous. During his 75th birthday, a major festivity was held in Zagreb in the presence of Hungarian, Croatian and German military officials. He was one of the ten generals in Croatia who were members of the Orthodox Christian Church. After the war, he was imprisoned and tortured and later on he lived in Zagreb and Petrinja. Interesting thing is that despite his high rank in the previous state, the Yugoslav authorities allowed him to go to Austria and assemble the veterans of Austro-Hungarian aviation. He died in Zagreb at age of 87 and remained the only person to hold the title of the the founder and “father” of three different air forces. (5)

All his efforts in establishing the military aviation of Austria-Hungary were acknowledged through many awards. He received the commanders’ cross 2nd class of the Saxon-Ernestine house order in January 1913, the 2nd class of the Prussian crown order in May 1914 and the Orden der Eisernen Krone dritte klasse (order of the Iron Crown, 3rd class) in August 1914. On the 6th of July 1915, he received the knights cross order of Leopold with war decoration and, in May 1916, the 2nd class of the Ottoman Medjidie Order and the Iron Cross 2nd class. The new emperor Karl awarded Uzelac with the neck badge of the Order of the iron Crown with war decoration; on the 27th of December 1917, he received the Prussian Iron Cross 1st class. In the opinion of the military historians of World War 1, Uzelac is considered to be one of the best or, according to some of them, the best military commander during World War 1, in general.

Cited works

Aralica, T., Čopec, R., Jeras, M., Kinjerovac, Z., Haraminčić, T. (2012) Sto godina ratnog zrakoplovstva u Hrvatskoj, Despot Infinitus d. o. o., Zagreb Eleršek, L. (2009) Homo Volans. Rani Hrvatski avijatičari 1554. – 1927., FG-Grafika, Zadar Gross, P. M., Shadow, G., Scheimer, P. (1993) Austro-Hhungarian Army Aircraft of World War One, Boulder, Colorado, USA O’Connor, M., (1986) Air aces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire 1914-1918, Champlin fighter museum press, Falcon field, Mesa, Arizona http:/

1 – photo source

2 – photo source – Aralica, T., Čopec, R., Jeras, M., Kinjerovac, Z., Haraminčić, T. (2012) Sto godina ratnog zrakoplovstva u Hrvatskoj, Despot Infinitus d. o. o., Zagreb