August 25, 1914. As the French, British and Germans collide in bloody battles across France and Belgium, the people who started this whole mess are about to straight up botch the job. The Austro-Hungarian Army collides with the Russians at Krasnik and win their first, and basically last, victory of World War I. How badly can you screw up a war? There’s bad – and then there’s Austria in World War I bad.
It’s the next Guns of August episode, everyone! It’s August 1914, and Austria-Hungary has just entered an ass-kicking contest with no legs and an enormous ass. It wasn’t a nation, but a mish-mash of peoples and vague ideas; its government and infrastructure were catastrophically broken; worst of all, its military was more unprepared for World War I than literally anyone in August 1914. And holy crap, are they about to have a bad time.
The empire of the Habsburg Dynasty was a patchwork quilt of nations, ethnicities and peoples, almost all of whom dreamed of independence and who had no interest in making this experiment work. Austria-Hungary was a relic from the old days of Europe, when rulers didn’t have to worry about newfangled things like nationalism, socialism or self-determination. Outside of the German Austrians and Hungarians who basically controlled the Empire, the Italians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Romanians, Serbs, Bosnians, Slovenes, Croats, and Ukrainians trapped inside the Empire’s borders all dreamed of political sovereignty and independence. This, of course, was not exactly a recipe for a unified state or a strong public consciousness.
The only thing that kept these fragments of nations together was some vague loyalty to Emperor Franz Joseph, the 84-year old monarch of the Empire. It was a basic assumption in the courts of Europe that when Franz Joseph died, the Empire would fall apart. After a lifetime of personal tragedy and unbelievable strain (he had ruled for 68 YEARS, his brother Maximilian had died in Mexico, his wife was assassinated, his only son committed suicide, and finally his nephew and heir Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo) it seemed like he was honestly kinda ready for death.
The political structure of the Austro-Hungarian Empire depended on their pessimistic, ancient monarch, and a divided parliament. Ever since the Hungarians had forced the Austrians to make them equal partners in the Empire, the new Hungarian Parliament had been a rigid obstacle to any larger reform or reorganization of the government. Economic subsidies, infrastructure, civil rights and liberal ideals all died before the reactionary, nearly feudal Hungarian nobility. More than almost any country in Europe, Austria-Hungary’s government and administration was underdeveloped, and its railroads and infrastructure were hopelessly outdated. The railroads in particular would prove a major problem in 1914.
The military suffered from all of this, and more. The divided state of the Austro-Hungarian government prevented widespread reform of the armed services, so that the army in 1914 still had the same broken infrastructure it had had in 1866 when the Prussians wiped the floor with it. Due to Hungary’s hostility with Austria, military funding remained lower per capita than any other European power – even Italy. The Austrian army was poorly trained, and each half of the empire – Austrian and Hungarian – focused on its own units at the expense of the others. The reserve units, in contrast to those in France and Germany, were nearly worthless due to political corruption and lack of discipline.
The Chief of Staff of the Austro-Hungarian Army was Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf, a man with a reputation for genius that he did NOT deserve. Conrad was a firm believer in the “cult of the offensive,” the idea that energetic attacks with high morale and spirit could overcome the limits of modern weaponry. Putting aside that this had NOT worked for the Austrians in their last war of 1866, Conrad believed the solution was just to attack harder. Conrad von Hotzendorf was full of complicated and intricate plans that would win his wars, if only the men on the ground moved like the pieces on his board and weren’t made of things like flesh and bone. His plans far outstripped the actual abilities of his army, and this would cost the rank and file dearly.
Before World War I, the Austrians had some limited collaboration with the Germans as to what their joint plans would be if war broke out with Russia. Conrad proposed a double offensive into Russian Poland, with the Germans striking from the north and the Austrians striking from the south. The Germans shut this down politely, but I guess not politely enough, because Conrad decided to launch his prong of the attack anyway if Russia went to war with Austria. He did NOT, however, tell Germany about this.
When Austria-Hungary entered the war in 1914, Conrad was extremely optimistic about their chances. He had been one of the chief men pushing for war, believing that a solid military victory was the thing that could save the Empire from its imminent disintegration. This optimism was not shared by almost anyone in the Empire, and a sort of quiet, fatalistic pessimism had settled over Austria-Hungary in the last decade. Not Conrad.
Conrad von Hotzendorf both lived in a world of his own, and couldn’t make up his damn mind even in that world. In Conrad’s world, you see, Austria was going to attack Serbia and Russia wasn’t going to do anything about it. So Conrad diverted the bulk of his troops to the Serbian Front at first. Enormous trains full of horses and men crawled down the insufficient Austrian rail system to the Serbian border. By the middle of August 1914, though, it became abundantly clear that Russia was not just planning to fight Austria, but that Austria was Russia’s primary target in their initial series of attacks. This was a problem, because Serbia, which was expected to roll over and die…did not roll over and die.
Most accounts of World War I REALLY gloss over the Serbian front, and that’s a shame. It’s like we get the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and then the declaration of war, and everyone forgets about Serbia and the attention goes somewhere else. Well, in August 1914, the Serbs are preparing for the hammer blow they know is coming. And it was coming. Conrad and the Austro-Hungarian government wanted to punish Serbia for its impudence. So the bulk of the Austro-Hungarian Army crawled down to Serbia to make it pay for the death of Archduke Ferdinand.
On August 15, 1914, the Austrians attacked into northern Serbia, with the main focus of their attack being Cer Mountain south of Belgrade. The Serbs resisted like maniacs. Despite being underequipped and underfed because they were a tiny little Balkan state, the Serbs had one thing the poor Austro-Hungarian troops didn’t have: motivation. Within a few days, Austro-Hungarian morale collapsed, and by August 19 they were streaming back to the Drina River in disarray, the Serbs hot on their heels. Many Austrian soldiers drowned in the river as they struggled to escape their enemies, and by August 24 the Serbs had thrown the Austrians back out of their territory. For the loss of about 20,000 men, the Serbs inflicted almost 50,000 casualties and captured many guns and weapons. The Battle of Cer was both dramatic and humiliating – the enormous Austro-Hungarian Empire had utterly failed its first test of modern war, and against SERBIA of all countries.
And then things got worse. See, Russia was forming a massive army in Poland to invade Austrian-held Galicia. Galicia is a strip of Eastern Europe currently in the Ukraine, home to the ancient city of Lvov, and it was full of…Ukrainians, who had NO love for the Habsburgs. Conrad had amassed his own army in Galicia, but had sent a critical part of the attack force – the 2nd Army – sought to support the attack into Serbia. As the Austrian army in Serbia was getting its ass handed to it, 2nd Army sat on its hands and watched. When the Austrian commander asked to use these forces to finish off the Serbs, Conrad said no, they were needed for the Russian Front. But he kept changing his mind – one day he wanted to use 2nd Army in Serbia, the next day in Russia. 2nd Army sat and did nothing for 15 critical days before Conrad finally sent them off to Galicia. By then it was too late.
If Austria had invested in its infrastructure, the trip could have been quicker, but it wasn’t; in some places, the Austrian trains literally moved slower than a walking pace due to the poor state of the tracks. If any political figure had exerted control over Conrad, they could have curbed his mismanagement, but they couldn’t; Franz Joseph was oh so slowly dying, and Franz Ferdinand – who would have been Commander-in-Chief of the Army otherwise – was dead of an assassin’s bullet in Sarajevo. If the Austro-Hungarian army hadn’t been so tragically outdated, badly led and divided by class and ethnic tensions, it could have put up a good fight.
And then things got worse. Conrad had planned to be on the defensive up in Galicia against Russia. But then he changed his mind and decided he wanted to attack. Then he changed his mind multiple times about which direction he wanted to attack in. The upshot of this was that 400,000 Austrian soldiers marched back and forth across the plains of Ukraine in the August heat, tiring themselves out, before Conrad finally settled on an attack northeastward into the heart of Russian Poland.
They could have used the railroads for all these movements, which consumed valuable time – if the railroads hadn’t been such crap, oh and if Conrad hadn’t sent all the trains south to pick up 2nd Army, which could have already BEEN here had he not changed his mind. The 2nd Army was necessary, because it was supposed to guard the right flank of the Austrian forces as they advanced north. Conrad figured it was fine, they’d get there when they got there, with trains travelling at a snail’s pace and with the Army high command constantly changing its mind. This will be important later.
The Austrians finally started out into Poland along a front of 170 miles, flags waving and bands playing, on August 23, 1914. This was preceded by a massive cavalry raid that got massacred by Russian infantry pretty much immediately, as the Austrian hussars – still in bright red jackets and wielding sabers – got mown down by Russian infantry, artillery and machine guns. Off to a great start, guys.
The Russians had not expected the Austrians to attack, mainly because it was a really stupid idea. So they were caught off guard when 400,000 troops in light blue uniforms came rampaging across the border, with the offensive principle in mind. The Austrians attacked in wave formations, and on Day 1 the Austrian 1st Army ran into the Russian 4th Army at the Battle of Krasnik. Granted, this was really an accidental encounter; the whole Austrian plan was “let’s march into Poland and find someone to fight.” Even though the Russian armies in Poland as a whole were much, much larger than the Austrian, the sudden advance gave the Austrian 1st Army a local superiority over the Russians.
For three days at Krasnik, the Austrians and Russians tangled. This fighting was far different from the firepower and mass infantry extravaganza going on in France and Belgium. The much larger distances and more open terrain of World War I’s Eastern Front meant that trench warfare never really became a thing; instead, the fighting was much more fluid. Both Austrians and Russians had almost five divisions of cavalry apiece, and the usual machine guns and artillery were mixed in with sudden strikes by vast bands of horsemen. As the empires collided, the blood price grew higher.
The Austrians, against all odds, won the Battle of Krasnik. The Russian 4th Army retreated, and the Austrian forces began to happily pursue the Tsar’s men deeper and deeper into Ukraine. The local commanders were awarded medals, and one Austrian general briefly became a national hero. It seemed like everything was turning up Habsburg.
And then the other shoe fell.
The Austrian attack northwards had only been fighting HALF the Russian army in Poland. The other half had been forming to the east, and as the Austrians happily moved north the Russians were moving in behind them. The 2nd Army should have been there to cover the flank – but it was still creeping north on the broken Austrian rail system. Only days after the victory at Krasnik, the Austrian armies had to stop and turn around because they were being taken from behind.
The following sequence of maneuver, counter maneuver, attack, counterattack, idiotic failure, and utter incompetence is far, far too long to get into here. Conrad and his staff, working at an isolated headquarters 200 miles from the front lines, operated in their own reality, ignorant to the facts on the ground. The Austrian armies ping-ponged back and forth between trying to fight off the encircling arms of the Russian Army, and in so doing wore themselves out and tore themselves to ribbons. The Battle of Galicia went from the heights of temporary victory to the depths of crushing defeat for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
What told the most was the performance of the troops. Poorly educated, poorly armed, and trained to attack in every situation, the Austrian troops impaled themselves on Russian artillery barrages and rifle fire. Their officers, trained to lead from the front like brave Imperial servants, died in droves – trained professionals that Austria had no reserves for. Finally, any Slavic unit facing the Russians – Czech, Slovak, Ukrainian, or Serbian – instantly defected to the enemy. They did not want to die for a German Emperor or his Hungarian politicians, especially not at the hands of their Slavic brothers. The Empire was unravelling on the plains of Galicia.
As the shattered Austrian armies streamed back in disarray, the 2nd Army finally began to arrive in driblets, only to get caught up in the panic. Soon the Russians teemed into Galicia, over a million of them, as the tattered remnants of the once-proud Austro-Hungarian Army limped across the Carpathian Mountains or into the depths of their empire. The Austrians had lost 330,000 dead and wounded, along with almost 100,000 captured – over one third of their entire armed forces – in the incompetent disaster of Galicia.
Within a few weeks in August 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s fate was sealed. Having lost dramatically against both Serbia and Russia, its army was a shadow of its former self, with a third of its rank and file and a staggering HALF of its officer corps out of action. Even though it would limp on through the rest of World War I, one thing became abundantly clear: the Austro-Hungarian military was a broken reed, and could never mount another major offensive.
As the months went on, it would be the Germans that increasingly picked up the slack on every front. It would be German forces that defeated the Serbs, Russians, and eventually the Italians. Conrad continued to blunder to defeat after defeat, and the Germans continued to bail his ruined military out of crisis after crisis, all the while draining their own military dry. The Austro-Hungarian defeat in August 1914 helped seal not only their own fate, but the fate of their ally.
By 1915, the grim humor of the German officer corps held only one opinion of its helpless, staggering ally. As one general, surveying the war situation, grimly remarked: “We are shackled to a corpse.”