Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

The Siege of Przemyśl

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One hundred years ago, on 22 March 1915, the fortified city of Przemyśl surrendered to the Russians. Over 110,000 Austro-Hungarian soldiers went into captivity. It was both a material and symbolic defeat for Austria-Hungary, the capstone of an eight-month period of incompetence and futility. When informed of the surrender, Emperor Franz Joseph broke into crying fits.

Why Was Przemyśl Fortified?

Galicia showing topography and some Carpathian passes.

Galicia showing topography and some Carpathian passes.

Przemyśl sits at the point where the San River descends from the Carpathians into a broad valley. If you had to march through the Carpathians from Galicia south, dragging your equipment behind you, you would want to follow the rivers to get as close to the passes as you could before having to go over mountains. Therefore, in 1850, Przemyśl was a logical place to fortify in order to block a likely route of invasion.

However, by 1914, the whole concept of fortified cities was of questionable military effectiveness. The invader would not bring one army up the valley of the San, but several armies in line abreast on either side of the city. Without a defending army to back up the fortified city, the invader could simply surround the position and batter it with artillery. This is, in the end, what the Russians did.

Why was Przemyśl Isolated?

In 1914, Austria-Hungary was an economically backward nation, utterly unprepared for a modern total war. The Dual Monarchy was industrially underdeveloped in comparison to Britain, France or Germany. In a war with a voracious appetite for material, Austria-Hungary had neither sufficient plowshares nor the means to beat them into swords quickly enough.

1906 Military expenditures
In 1906 Austrian kronen per capita for each nation
Great Britain 36.0
France 23.8
Germany 22.0
Italy 11.6
Russia 9.8
Austria-Hungary 9.6

Source: Herwig, p. 12.

The Austrian Chief of General Staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, had suggested in all seriousness that Austria-Hungary abstain from attending the 1907 Hague Conference on Disarmament because his nation’s comparative spending already constituted a constructive disarmament. However, this did not prevent Conrad’s eyes from growing bigger than his stomach; every year he generated alternate plans of aggression against various combinations of the neighbors, particularly Serbia. In the crisis of July 1914, Foreign Minister Berchtold summarized Conrad’s contributed advice as, “War, war, war.”

The Austro-Hungarian Army was optimized to be a men’s club for the ruling class and to hold down centrifugal ethnic forces in the empire, not to defend the country in a major power conflict. While ethnic Germans made up 24% of the total population in 1914, 76% of the total officer corps was German.

Since the Compromise of 1867, the Kingdom of Hungary had its own reserve formations — the Honvéd — having Magyar as the command language; many Hungarian political leaders viewed these formations first and foremost as the embryo of a future national defense force for a breakaway Magyar nation, rather than a reserve for the defense of the Dual Monarchy. Some were even prepared to watch the House of Habsburg slide to ruin, then scoot for the exit with the Honvéd and the borders of Royal Hungary intact. This was naïve on their part, as the Entente considered Hungary a full belligerent member of the Central Powers (you know, Austria-Hungary, right?) and would in the future view Hungary not as an oppressed people yearning for freedom but as a defeated hostile power.

Austria-Hungary committed its forces against Russia in August 1914, meeting prompt and comprehensive defeat. The military collapse cost Austria-Hungary not only over 300,000 men, but over 300,000 horses and 15,000 railroad cars, the latter more than the country produced in a year. By 1916 Austria’s ability to supply its own forces in the field with food and ammunition or to move war materials around the country were by no means certain. In 1915, over 5,000 railroad cars full of rice rotted on sidings at Trieste, because the motive power to move it did not exist.

On 24 September, the Russians had surrounded Przemyśl. At first, the Russians launched ill-advised frontal assaults against the fortified positions that obtained them nothing but 40,000 dead Russians. Then they settled down for a siege. The siege was broken on 11 October by an Austrian relief force. However, the Austrians were beaten back and the siege resumed on  9 November and continued through the winter.

The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.
— Military axiom

Many of the defensive artillery pieces in Przemyśl were antiquated; some were even iron guns dating back to 1861. The Russians made jokes about the “decoy guns” of the fortress. Austro-Hungarian artillery batteries had entered the war with about one-third as many practice rounds as their French and German counterparts, with commensurate reductions in effectiveness as a result.

Helena Jablonska was a Polish widow who lived in the city of Przemyśl and who kept a diary during the siege and its aftermath. During the siege, she recorded:

Vast numbers of wounded are being brought in. Many of them die form severe blood loss, but the death toll would not be half as great were it not for cholera. It is spreading so fast that the cases outnumber those wounded and killed in battle. Everything has been infected: carts, stretchers, rooms, wardens, streets, manure, mud, everything. Soldiers fall in battle, where it is impossible to remove the bodies and disinfect them. They don’t even bother.

She also observed the defenders, isolated and among people of often questionable loyalty, lashing out:

There’s execution after execution. The Austrians are hanging people by the dozen now — innocent ones, too.

The Eastern Front was a pitiless racial war. The behavior of the Germans in Belgium that was the fodder for so much propaganda among the western powers was just another day at work in Prussia, Poland or Serbia. Invading armies found themselves among people they did not like and did not trust. Officer training to handle such matters was not a priority. Just show ’em who’s boss.

Finally, the defenders reached the end of their tether. Pounded by Russian artillery, starving and disease-ridden, the Austro-Hungarian defenders of Przemyśl capitulated on 22 March, after a total siege duration of 133 days. The Russians paraded some of the prisoners through Moscow.

The Russians lost no time implementing their policies in the captured city. As much as a third of the population of Przemyśl were Jews. Less than a month after taking over, the Russians had a pogrom on full boil. Jablonska wrote in her diary:

30 March 1915: Jews are treated with no mercy. They cut the beard and sideburns off the old rabbi from Bircza, then strapped him to a horse and dragged him away. They beat his wife. Jews are not allowed to own any shops.

17 April 1915: The Cossacks waited until the Jews went off to pray, then set upon them with whips, taking them from synagogues, streets and doorsteps. Many hundreds of Jews. What will they do with them? Some of the older weaker ones couldn’t keep up and were whipped. The roundup will go on until they have caught the lot. Such lamenting and despair. Some hide in cellars, but the Russians will find them.

What Were the Consequences?

The fall of Przemyśl released another Russian Army to carry the war through the Carpathians and into Royal Hungary. By May, the Russians had taken many of the passes and had destroyed much of the village of Mezőlaborc (now Medzilaborce). The Russians were threatening to descend from the Carpatians and fan out across the Hungarian Plain.

The Russian invasion of Hungary, 1915. From The Story of the Great War, Leonard Wood, et al., 1916.

The Russian invasion of Hungary, 1915. From The Story of the Great War, Leonard Wood, et al., 1916.

The Germans had to send whole units to the Carpathians to shore up the defenses, as well as sending sergeants to act as “corset staves” in Austro-Hungarian units to stiffen them up. Fence-sitters such as Italy were embolden by the obvious weakness of Austria-Hungary. One German officer said of the alliance, “We are shackled to a corpse.”

While conditions in Berlin are serious but not hopeless, in Vienna they are hopeless but not serious.
— attributed to the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus

The Austrians continued in their ways, rejecting serious attempts to reform the army. When told of the German practice of having officers eat the same meal as the ordinary soldiers, General Arthur Arz von Strassenburg, Conrad’s successor as Chief of Staff, pronounced the notion “insufferable” and asked who would want to be an officer if he had to eat the same food as the men?

So What?

One of the reasons we study history is to learn from it. The cheapest mistakes to learn from are the mistakes made by others. And Austria-Hungary made plenty of mistakes from which to learn.

For over one hundred years, the country had failed to keep up with economic development in other countries. This not only depressed living standards for the citizens but impaired the ability of the nation to project military power, thus providing yet further evidence of Orwell’s principle that losable wars are the ultimate guarantee of the civil rights of the citizen.

The Dual Monarchy was excessively inward-looking. Even the military was excessively preoccupied with internal threats and forces rather than prepared for external threats.

When war came, it was not possible to remediate the deficiencies in time. Industrial capacity could not be purchased and set up in a matter of days. Cultural norms and habits were ingrained and change was all but impossible.

The traditional historical view of Austria-Hungary was that it was an anachronism, a dynastic piece of Habsburg personal property in a world increasingly given over to ethnic folk nationalism. This is certainly a factor, but not the dominant and inevitable driver of the outcome. Had Austria-Hungary been a modern nation able to hold its own on the international stage and provide its citizens with security and prosperity, it would have been much less likely to seek resolution of its problems in war and much more able to hold its own in a Great War.

 

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Written by srojak

March 22, 2015 at 8:27 am

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