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The Siege That Changed WW1 In Eastern Europe

Discussion in 'Military History' started by GRW, Dec 1, 2019.

  1. GRW

    GRW Pillboxologist WW2|ORG Editor

    Oct 26, 2003
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    Stirling, Scotland
    Interesting article.
    "At the start of the First World War, hundreds of thousands of Russian troops surged west towards the heart of Europe. In their way stood a 19th-century fortress, manned by a ragbag of old, overweight and terrified Habsburg troops. What happened next, writes Alexander Watson, would change the course of the war on the eastern front.
    The invaders “swept away everything that was in their path: affluence and order, peace and civilisation”, wrote one horrified Pole as a Russian army surged west in September 1914. “Their way was marked by destruction and despoilment, arson and rape.”
    In the opening months of the First World War, the Russian and Habsburg armies fought immense and bloody battles to determine the future of eastern Europe. Their main arena was the Habsburg empire’s borderland of Galicia, a region today in southern Poland and western Ukraine. At the start of September 1914, after frantic manoeuvring and fierce fighting, Galicia’s capital Lemberg (today Lviv) fell. Habsburg forces fled in headlong retreat. The Russians followed slowly. The tsarist military leadership, nationalistic and virulently anti-Semitic, hoped not only to conquer but also to cleanse the region. As the words of the Polish witness attest, the consequences for the inhabitants of their newly conquered territory were often cataclysmic.
    The Habsburg fortress of Przemyśl, standing in the centre of Galicia, became at this moment of military crisis the decisive point on the eastern front. As Przemyśl’s residents despairingly watched their field army’s broken regiments streaming west through their city, the fortress garrison prepared for action. The fortress’s defences were outmoded. Its soldiers were middle-aged reservists drawn from across central Europe, whose military training was nearly two decades in the past. Yet that disastrous autumn, they alone barred the Russians’ way. On their desperate resistance hung the fate of the Habsburg empire.
    The Habsburgs’ most important bastion in the east was built at Przemyśl for good reason. The city sat in the Carpathian foothills, the last high ground before the Russian frontier 30 miles to the north. It blocked access to the passes south over the Carpathian mountains into Hungary. Crucially, it also straddled and controlled the empire’s main northerly east-west railway line, possession of which would be essential for Russian invaders seeking to break into the heart of the Habsburg empire.
    The fortress’s construction began in the 1870s, at a time of rocky relations with Russia. Up to 1906, when funding was largely cut off, the cash-strapped empire spent the enormous sum of 32 million crowns on it – around £158m in today’s money. In and around the city, barracks, storehouses, headquarters, a hospital, a radio station, an airfield and a manoeuvre ground were erected. So too were imposing defences. On hills outside the city centre stood, by 1914, a ring of 17 main and 18 smaller intermediate or forward forts. After war’s outbreak, trenches were hurriedly dug between the forts, creating a continuous defensive perimeter 30 miles in circumference.
    Nevertheless, by 1914 the fortress was obsolete. The Habsburg High Command had ceased to invest, and regarded it as a glorified military warehouse. The forts’ designs had been overtaken by rapid advances in artillery technology. Their high profiles made them sitting ducks for long-range guns, and their brick and concrete was mostly too thin to withstand modern siege ordinance. Much of their armament was ancient.
    The fortress’s 130,000-strong garrison also inspired no confidence. Soldiers from across the astonishingly diverse empire – Austrian Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Ukrainians, Romanians, Slovaks, Czechs, Serbs and Italians – served together in September 1914, making Przemyśl less a bulwark than a Babel. The backbone of the defence were four Landsturm Brigades, poorly armed and filled with the empire’s oldest conscripts, men aged 37-42 years old. There were few professional officers. Instead, these units were led by businessmen, academics and civil servants with reserve commissions. In the words of one lieutenant, worried about how his colleagues would fare against the Russians, they were “well-past-their-prime fatties”.
    Brusilov’s assault force would have to win quickly. There was little time for reconnaissance, and none for a lengthy bombardment. The Habsburg field army had retreated 90 miles to the west, but already by the end of September it had restored discipline and was refilling its ranks. It would soon return to battle and its resurgence would pose a grave threat, because Stavka had transferred much of Russian strength away from Galicia for its own northern offensive.
    Nevertheless, Brusilov was supremely confident. Peacetime espionage had delivered into Russian hands detailed plans of the fortress’s defences. Tsarist military intelligence assessed the forts to “belong to the realm of history”. From deserters’ testimony and their first clashes with the garrison, the attackers were also aware that the multi-ethnic Habsburg soldiers manning the defences were old, poorly trained and very frightened.
    So feeble did the fortress appear that the Russians hoped it might not even be necessary to fight. On 2 October, an emissary was dispatched bearing a letter for the fortress commander, Lieutenant-General Hermann Kusmanek von Burgneustädten. “Fortune has abandoned the Austrian army,” it warned. “Any help for you from outside [is] impossible. To avoid needless bloodshed… now is the time to propose that your excellency surrender the fortress.”
    For two days after Kusmanek had rejected the Russians’ parley, all remained quiet. Then, during the night of 4-5 October, alerts that the enemy was approaching suddenly started to flood in from the perimeter."
  2. wm.

    wm. Well-Known Member

    Mar 27, 2016
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    Silesia Inferior
    The war in Eastern Europe is mostly forgotten although certainly fascinating but really here fanboyism of the author is over the top.
    He says Russia was nationalistic (as if Germany and Austro-Hungary weren't) and virulently anti-Semitic (not true), and Austria-Hungary was "astonishingly diverse" (Russia was too).
    And it really had nothing to do with the siege anyway.

    He says "the consequences [of Russian occupation] for the inhabitants of their newly conquered territory were often cataclysmic", I don't know much about it but the fact is Austro-Hungary committed major war crimes there and established a string of concentration camps for the inhabitants (mostly Ukrainians and other minorities), including the infamous Thalerhof where mortality was greater than in Nazi Dachau.

    As to astonishingly diverse Russian Army; 1.2 million Poles served in the Army, and millions of Ukrainians, Belarusians, Balts, Finns, Asians and more.

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