Today marks the centenary of the capture of the Austro-Hungarian fortress at Przemyśl by Russian forces, marking the end of the greatest siege of the First World War. Never a household word outside Central Europe, the siege of Przemyśl has fallen into the memory hole of the Great War’s Eastern Front, which Winston Churchill termed the Unknown War in 1931, and which it sadly mostly remains. The reasons for this historical amnesia are not difficult to detect, beyond the century-long general obsession with the Western Front in the English-speaking world. Przemyśl is someplace most people have never heard of, plus is Polishly unpronounceable.
A hundred years ago, however, the name of Przemyśl was all over the world media. A market town turned into a fortress by the Austro-Hungarian military, it stood astride the river San, in the center of the Habsburg province of Galicia. It was, in every sense, a midpoint: of geography, of roads and rail lines, and a dividing line of sorts between Galicia’s Polish and Ukrainian populations.
Przemyśl was never intended to be a major factor in the coming war against Russia. In the first place, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (right), Vienna’s top general, planned to carry the war to the enemy. Like virtually every generalissimo in Europe a century ago, Conrad was a devout believer in the cult of the offensive and saw little use in spending scarce Austro-Hungarian defense funds on fortresses. Thus when Przemyśl’s role on the world stage commenced, unexpectedly, it was ready for a siege in 1884, not 1914.
How the Great War’s Eastern Front came to focus on Przemyśl for several critical months is a saga of Habsburgian tragicomedy. In response to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne, and his wife Sophie at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, an act of terrorism that Conrad and most security officials in Austria-Hungary — correctly — believed was the handiwork of the Serbian government in Belgrade, with Russian backing, Vienna consciously decided for war. Most Habsburg generals and many diplomats had expected this war for years, with Conrad and others welcoming it, and there was something approaching relief when, after years of rising tensions, war finally came.
However, the two-front-war that Austria-Hungary got from that decision, since there was no chance that Russia would stand idly by while its “brother Slav” proxy in Serbia was crushed by Habsburg forces, was a conflict for which Vienna’s military, starved of funds for decades, was simply too small and ill-equipped to win. Unconcerned with such details of strategy and logistics, Conrad — a lonely widower who had the distressing habit of spending hours daily writing long, anguished love letters to his married mistress rather than planning for war — plunged his country into a war that it stood no real chance of winning.
The magical thinking that drove Conrad’s war plans was quickly laid bare by a disaster on the Drina river. In the second week of August, the Habsburg 5th and 6th Armies invaded Serbia, expecting a quick victory over the “murder boys” in Belgrade. Nothing of the sort happened. The Serbian Army, blooded in two Balkan Wars in 1912-13, proved skilled and tenacious in defense of their own soil, and missteps by the untried Habsburg 21st Division at Cer mountain, overlooking the Drina valley, led to a rout. By August 19, Habsburg forces were back in Austria-Hungary, humbled and weary, their effort to subdue Serbia having turned into a historic debacle. Serbia had unexpectedly given the Allies their first victory of the Great War.
Worse was soon to come on the Eastern Front. Just days after Vienna’s failed invasion of Serbia wound down in humiliation, the bulk of Austria-Hungary’s field forces kicked off their grand offensive into Russian territory. At first, Conrad’s army made impressive local gains, moving northward from Przemyśl, with the 1st and 4th Armies scoring noteworthy local victories over the Russians at Kraśnik and Komarów respectively. But the real drama was playing out in East Galicia, around Lemberg, where the bulk of the Tsar’s armies were marshaling.
Lemberg was not only the major city in East Galicia but the “capital” of Ukrainian nationalism — just as it is now, a century later, as L’viv — and was therefore the prize that Russian armies sought to take. It was given to the invader too easily, thanks to deeply flawed Habsburg planning. Conrad ordered his 3rd Army to attack eastward out of Lemberg, but the Austro-Hungarian high command really had no idea how many Russians lurked out there, in the rolling hills and river valleys of easternmost Galicia, and they advanced blindly until they collided with the enemy. Vast encounter battles ensued, of a size never recorded in warfare. Regrettably for Vienna, its 3rd Army was outnumbered three-to-one east of Lemberg and within days the Russians had steamrollered Conrad’s forces in East Galicia and a panicky retreat ensued.
Notwithstanding heroic efforts to hold the line, Lemberg was abandoned to the Russians and despite placing the failing 3rd Army under the command of Svetozar Boroević, Austria-Hungary’s toughest general, the enemy could not be stopped: there were simply too many of them, By the time what remained of Conrad’s armies reached the refuge of the San river, where Fortress Przemyśl stood, Vienna realized the extent of the disaster. Nearly half of the 900,000 troops Austria-Hungary committed to battle against Russia in late August were gone by mid-September: 420,000 casualties with over 100,000 dead. The loss, which had no precedent in all military history, equaled the prewar standing Habsburg Army. This was a blow from which Austria-Hungary would never recover.
The San river line, with Przemyśl in the middle, had to be held but this, too, soon proved impossible. There were simply too many Russians, and Conrad reluctantly ordered a retreat towards Cracow and into the Carpathian mountains. But Przemyśl was to hold out as long as possible, at any cost, to serve as a thorn in the side of the Russians, one that might slow down their offensive deeper into Austria-Hungary.
The actual condition of Fortress Przemyśl when the siege commenced on September 24 left a great deal to be desired. It was not a single fortress, rather an outer ring of fortresses that fully encircled the city at a distance of five to eight kilometers out, supplemented by an inner ring of forts just outside the city. On paper, Przemyśl (right) seemed well defended. It possessed forty-five kilometers of entrenchments and eleven fixed artillery batteries: a total of 714 cannons, fifty-four howitzers, ninety-five heavy mortars, and seventy-two machine guns. However, the only modern pieces were two dozen siege guns, while 299 of Przemyśl’s cannons were Model 1861! A crash program to strengthen the fortress in mid-August, involving 27,000 workers, succeeded in clearing forests around the city, creating fields of fire, and laying a million meters of barbed wire in every direction, but could do nothing to change Przemyśl’s fundamental unreadiness for the twentieth century battlefield.
Neither did the garrison’s morale inspire much confidence. Its commander, Hermann von Kusmanek, had been chosen by Conrad, but proved to be a general of no great distinction. His besieged force looked impressive on paper, with 130,000 troops, but there was only one combat division in the fortress, with 23rd, and it had been roughed up around Lemberg. To make matters worse, most of the rest of the garrison consisted of second-line troops, largely militia, of mixed reliability and combat effectiveness.
Then there was the ethnic factor. Austria-Hungary’s military, like the empire itself, consisted of a dozen different nationalities, not all of whom viewed each other affectionately. Przemyśl’s garrison consisted disproportionately of Hungarians, many of whom had no love for Slavs of any kind. Incidents of ethnic disaffection, even violence, proved difficult to ignore. Just as the siege was beginning, a column of suspected Russian spies being marched through the city under armed guard was spontaneously set upon by a crowd of angry soldiers, Hungarians armed with clubs and knives. Bloodlust against the traitorous “foreigners” exploded in rage. By the time the military police restored order, forty-five of the suspects were dead, among them the daughter of a Greek Catholic priest; none of the suspects, it turned out, were actually Russian spies.
To compensate for Habsburg problems there was Russian overconfidence. Fresh from victory at Lemberg, the Russians expected that taking the fortress on the San would be quick work. As Alexei Brusilov, the Tsar’s best general, who had thrashed Conrad’s forces in East Galicia, explained, “after such a succession of defeats and heavy losses, the Austrian Army was so demoralized and Przemyśl so little prepared to stand a siege (for its garrison, composed of beaten troops, was far from steady), that I was absolutely convinced that by the middle of October the place could have been taken by assault without any serious artillery preparation.”
Here Brusilov’s guess was off by a wide margin. The first serious Russian effort to take the fortress-city, in late September, was a rout, with the attackers losing 40,000 men over three days. A Habsburg counteroffensive pushed the Russian line back a bit in mid-October, giving Kusmanek’s forces a breather, but by early November the Russians were back and siege recommenced.
Life inside the fortress was grim. Russian barrages by heavy siege artillery took a daily toll of defenders. Food was already in short supply and backbiting between ethnic groups was a perennial concern. None of this was conveyed to the public, however, which was told stories of martial glory from besieged Przemyśl, which Conrad insisted be held up as an example of Habsburg courage and steadfastness against all odds. The high command was kept informed of goings-on inside the fortress city thanks to regular mail delivery. In a historical footnote, the siege of Przemyśl witnessed the first air mail service, as Austro-Hungarian aircraft were able to land and take off from inside the city until nearly the end of the siege.
As the harsh winter of 1914-15 set in, both sides froze while attempting to make ground around Przemyśl . By Christmas, it was apparent that while the Russians could not yet take the fortress, neither was a breakout by the defenders likely. They had to be relieved before the siege ended on Russian terms. For Conrad, the stakes were dire. If Przemyśl fell, the Habsburg defensive lines in the Carpathian mountains would probably give way under renewed Russian attacks, and there was nothing behind those passes but the great Hungarian plain. The fate of the Habsburg realm depended on a successful outcome of Przemyśl’s siege.
It was in this spirit that Conrad ordered his tired forces to undertake the offensive in the third week of January 1915. Przemyśl had to be relieved. Yet this was a cruel folly even by the standards of the Great War. In the first place, Conrad sent his forces into the attack in the middle of a harsh winter. Guns, supplies, and men froze in vast numbers. The mountain passes, covered in ice, proved death traps. Even the tough Boroević could not make much headway, so awful were the conditions.
To make matters worse, the Russians did not give ground easily, and enemy counterattacks soon took back what little terrain Habsburg forces had managed to seize in late January. Undeterred by endless bad news, plus casualties so severe that the army had lost count of them, Conrad ordered another Carpathian offensive in late February to relieve Przemyśl. This effort, too, petered out in a frozen bloodbath, not for want of courage, as Austro-Hungarian divisions made little progress in the hell of what the survivors remembered as the Karpathenwinter.
By the end of February, it was obvious to even Conrad that Przemyśl could not be relived. In the end, three months of failed offensives and counteroffensives in the frozen Carpathians, in the direction of the fortress, cost Vienna a staggering 800,000 men dead, wounded, captured, missing, and seriously ill, amounting to almost seven times the garrison besieged at Przemyśl. By early March, morale inside the fortress was plummeting as hunger, disease, and rising indiscipline took their toll. Ugly incidents of inter-ethnic violence had become commonplace. Kusmanek was losing control of his tired force and late efforts at a breakout never really got off the ground.
On March 22, 1915, Kusmanek accepted reality and surrendered his fortress and its garrison to the Russians. Into captivity, after 133 days under siege since early November, went nine Habsburg generals, 2,500 officers, and 117,000 men. This was a disaster of such scope that it could not be hidden from the Austro-Hungarian public. Morale took a heavy blow from the fortress’s fall, especially in Hungary, which had contributed so many troops to the siege, and where every piece of news from the fortress was followed closely.
Yet the Russian hold on the fortress, which they had bought at a great cost in blood, would prove fleeting. Witnessing the debacle at Przemyśl and in the Carpathians, Berlin reluctantly decided that its ailing ally had to be saved before the Russian bear killed off Austria-Hungary altogether. The result was the Gorlice-Tarnów offensive in early May, east of Cracow, which tore a gaping hole in Russian defenses. Exhausted from months of fighting and losses almost as vast as Austria-Hungary’s, the Tsar’s armies in Galicia collapsed under Prussian and Habsburg blows. Austro-Hungarian forces finally advanced out of the Carpathians, and by June Przemyśl was back in Habsburg hands, the Russians making no effort to renew the siege with themselves as the defenders. By summer’s end, Lemberg and nearly all of Galicia had been retaken, while the Russians lost a million men as prisoners alone. Conrad’s terrible defeats had been avenged.
But the shame of Przemyśl would never disappear for Austria-Hungary or its top general. The fall of the fortress, after months of painful siege, became for some a symbol of the ultimate failure of the Habsburg Empire itself — doomed by poor planning and flawed leadership, all the while riven by ethnic backbiting. Although the army would hold out until early November 1918, losing seven million casualties along the way to defeat, rising animosities between Austria-Hungary’s many nationalities would prove the undoing of the empire at the conclusion of the Great War.
Not much remains of the epic siege that captivated the world’s attention a century ago. Many of the shell-scarred fortifications remain, while Przemyśl has a nice museum of the siege. In Budapest there stands a monument to the siege and its many Hungarian defenders, the Przemyśl Lion (right). Today, Przemyśl again finds itself close to war, perched as it on the border with Ukraine. Again, Russian invaders are making headlines and the cast — an aggressively imperialist, eastward-looking Russia versus a westward-looking Galicia that sees itself as part of Central Europe — seems remarkably familiar. History does not repeat itself exactly, but some believe it does rhyme.
P.S. The full story of the siege of Przemyśl and the entire Galician campaign, which proved the undoing of Austria-Hungary thanks to Conrad’s flawed generalship, is told fully in my book Fall of the Double Eagle, which will be published in a few months.