A century ago today commenced one of the most successful offensives of the Great War. The words “successful” and “offensive” are not part of the popular lexicon in discussing that epic conflict, with the public being accustomed to mud, blood, and futility: in short, The Horror. Yet the Gorlice–Tarnów Offensive of May 1915 was by any standards a great success, achieving strategic effects at modest cost to the attackers, even though it’s fallen down the memory hole, remembered only by specialist historians.
The offensive takes its name from two towns, today in southeast Poland, where the attack came. It was the product, not of confidence, but fear. By the spring of 1915, Berlin was deeply worried that Austria-Hungary, its only major ally, was on the verge of collapse. The Prussians were right: reeling from the loss of three-quarters of a million soldiers in the first four months of the new year, in a series of failed offensives in the Carpathian mountains, Vienna’s forces were indeed nearing their breaking point. The fall of Fortress Przemyśl to the Russians in late March, with its garrison of 120,000 Austro-Hungarian troops, after months of painful siege, convinced Berlin that action had to be taken.
Erich von Falkenhayn (right), Germany’s top general, like most Prussian officers took a dim view of their Habsburg ally — “we’re shackled to a corpse” was a common refrain in Berlin — yet the Austro-Hungarians, for all their battlefield under-performance, had to be saved since for Germany, the only thing worse than having a weak ally was having no real allies at all. The Ottoman Empire was far away and fighting off attacks by the Russians and, soon, by the Western allies at Gallipoli, and could offer Berlin no aid: the opposite was the case. Thus Vienna had to be kept in the war.
Falkenhayn had long been a member of what we might call the “reality-based community” in Berlin and never felt that prewar plans for quick, decisive victories were more than fantasy, as the events of the summer of 1914 proved correct, when everybody’s battle plans failed to deliver as promised, bequeathing a protracted conflict to Europe. Falkenhayn, seeing that the fighting in the West had become hopelessly static by the end of 1914, favored operations in the East, where the vast frontages meant that maneuver might still be possible. Under the guise of what Falkenhayn termed a strategy of attrition (Ermattungsstrategie), Germany planned to punish the Russians while hitting Britain back for her blockade of the Central Powers with unrestricted submarine warfare. This was a high-stakes game.
First, the Russians had to be bloodied and the Austrians saved. To that end, in late April Berlin dispatched its 11th Army to the East in secret, equipped with the latest weaponry, including mortars and heavy artillery in calibers never seen by the Russians or Austrians. Led by the energetic General August von Mackensen, the 11th Army would form the spearhead of the attack, which aimed at splitting the Russians’ overextended front in the foothills of the Carpathians.
The artillery barrage, when it came before dawn on May 2, crushed the Russians before it, with the Tsar’s 3rd Army barely getting in the fight on that fateful and sunny spring morning. Although the attacking force was roughly the same size as the defender (the Prussian 11th and Austro-Hungarian 4th Armies together had nineteen divisions, versus the defender’s twenty-four), the Russians were tired and, more important, the Prussian advantage in heavy artillery was decisive. In the main attack sector, over 1,600 artillery pieces including more than 300 heavy guns — this being the greatest barrage in the war to date — silenced Russian artillery, blasted command posts, and slaughtered any infantry caught in the open.
Intelligence played a decisive role here. Guided by excellent Austro-Hungarian signals intelligence, code-breaking being one of the few areas where Vienna had a big lead over Berlin, the attackers knew the enemy’s order of battle in detail, as well as how tired and depleted many Russian units were. Supplemented by aerial reconnaissance that located enemy batteries and command posts, Prussians gunners assembled a fire plan that would defeat the Russians with precise artillery barrages, delivered quickly, before the attacking infantry went “over the top.”
So it was. Despite valiant efforts to resist by certain Russian units — some simply melted under the hammer-blows of Prussian guns — the 3rd Army fell to pieces in the first couple days of the Gorlice–Tarnów Offensive. As Tsarist troops surrendered by the battalion, many without putting up much of a fight, it was clear that a major breakthrough had been achieved. In the six weeks after the May 2 assault, retreating Russian forces were unable to form a coherent defensive line anywhere in Galicia for very long.
The combined Prussian-Austrian march eastward continued. There was joy in Vienna on June 3, when the black-yellow standard of the Habsburgs again flew over Przemyśl. Elation followed on June 22 when Lemberg, Galicia’s capital and the fourth-largest city in the Habsburg Empire, returned to Austrian hands after several months of Tsarist occupation. The population was joyful too, as tactless, heavy-handed Russian methods had alienated all but the most dedicated Russophiles among the Ukrainians of Galicia.
By the time Lemberg was recaptured, the Central Powers had lost less than 90,000 troops, while Russian casualties were staggering, probably eight times higher, with at least a quarter-million of those prisoners. Worse was to come for the Russians, who kept retreating into the depths of their empire, losing men every step of the way. By the time the front stabilized in late September, hundreds of miles east of where it had been in early May, bringing what they called the Great Retreat to an end, the Tsar’s armies had lost more than a million men as prisoners alone.
Russia had been severely bloodied but she was still in the war. While morale had taken a beating, the Great Retreat concentrated many minds in St. Petersburg too. Frederick the Great had counseled that it wasn’t enough to beat the Russians, you had to beat them dead, and this lesson was relearned by the Prussians and Austrians in 1915. The vast depths of the Motherland offered the Russians seemingly limitless strategic depth to retreat into and, no matter how many of them you killed or captured, there always seemed to be more Russians.
Falkenhayn’s offensive at Gorlice-Tarnów delivered beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. The Russians were crushed and the Austrians were saved, with nearly all of the Habsburg province of Galicia being retaken — all at a casualty ratio that enormously favored the attacker, thus violating nearly all the “rules” of the Great War. But it was not all good news for the Central Powers. The scope of the victory was a mixed blessing for the Austrians, who resented the dependence they now had on the Prussians to just survive. Talk of the Prussians as “our secret enemy” was heard at the Habsburg high command, not always in hushed tones, and relations between Berlin and Vienna, never easy, soured through 1915 due to Habsburg resentments at becoming less an ally of Germany and more a satellite. They would stick together down to final defeat in autumn 1918, but the relationship between the key members of the Central Powers was never smooth or particularly effective.
Yet the biggest loser of the Gorlice–Tarnów Offensive turned out to be Italy, which played no part in it. Italy sat out the Great War when it broke out, earning the undying enmity of Germany and Austria-Hungary, its ostensible allies. Britain and France wanted to get Italy in the war on their side, particularly because that would add a third front to Vienna’s war when neither of its first two, against Russia and Serbia, were going well. Sitting out the war was popular with most Italians, who watched the bloodbath engulfing their neighbors, but some Italian politicos couldn’t help their cravings for Habsburg lands, while certain prominent agitators pushed for war on the Allied side during the winter of 1915. One such was Benito Mussolini, a Socialist rabble-rouser who had a sudden — and to many of his comrades suspicious — conversion to the cause of joining the Allies (they were right: Mussolini was acting on behalf of British intelligence, for cash).
Rome was gradually swayed to enter the war, as the offers of Austrian land across the Adriatic being made by London and Paris were generous, since it was another country’s territory they were offering, and on April 26, 1915 Italy signed the secret Treaty of London that promised Rome extensive tracts of Habsburg territory for entering the conflict on the Allied side. This looked like a no-brainer for Italy since Austria-Hungary on the date the London pact was signed appeared to be on its last legs, bleeding to death in the Carpathian mountains, amidst rumors of ethnic turmoil about to engulf the entire shaky Habsburg edifice. Generals in Rome were confident that they would meet hardly any resistance at all when they marched across the Alpine frontier into all-but-defeated Austria.
The Gorlice–Tarnów Offensive kicked off a few days later, however, and the situation changed completely almost overnight. By the time Rome officially declared war on Vienna on May 23, Austria-Hungary was still quite alive and its forces were advancing deep into Russian territory alongside the Prussians. On the heels of victory in Galicia, Vienna was able to scrape together just enough forces to hold its border against Italy. Instead of a victory march, the Italians met a bloodbath on the Isonzo river that formed the mountainous border with Austria, and eleven major offensives there failed to crack the Habsburg defensive line, though they did result in the Great War’s biggest bloodbath. War, as life, is filled with unintended consequences.