WWI Centennial: Fall of Przemyśl

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March 22-23, 1915: Fall of Przemyśl

For 131 days from November 12, 1914 to March 23, 1915, the Austrian fortress town of Przemyśl (Puh-SHEM-ish-le) was under siege, with around 130,000 Habsburg troops trapped by a Russian force of about the same size, determined to starve the enemy into submission. The beleaguered defenders finally threw in the towel on March 22-23, 1915, when they destroyed their own fortifications and surrendered en masse.

In fact this was the second siege of Przemyśl during the war, reflecting the dramatic “seesaw” dynamic that prevailed on the Eastern Front in the opening months of the conflict: the Russians had to break off a previous siege from September 27-October 11, 1914 after Habsburg forces came to relieve the defending force. However following Hindenburg’s withdrawal from central Poland in late October, the Russians returned to the attack, capturing the nearby fortress of Jaroslav, about 20 miles northwest of Przemyśl, on October 23.

Now Austrian chief of the general staff Conrad von Hötzendorf made what was possibly the greatest mistake of his career, by ordering part of the Habsburg Third Army and the fortress garrison, numbering 130,000 men, to try to hold out in Przemyśl rather than retreat with the rest of Austria-Hungary’s forces. Conrad hoped he would once again be able to lift the siege and relieve the Third Army, while it tied down significant Russian forces in the rear in the meantime.

Conrad’s counteroffensive in early December met with some success, scoring a victory at the Battle of Limanowa-Lapanów and forcing the Russian Third Army back about 40 miles from Krakow – but then ground to a halt due to a lack of reserves and supplies. Around this time the ignominious defeat by ragged Serbian defenders at Kolubara spelled even more trouble for the beleaguered Dual Monarchy. Nonetheless, Conrad ordered two more desperate attempts to relieve the fortress in January and February 1915, which also failed at great cost, as under-supplied Habsburg soldiers fell by the thousands in Carpathian mountain passes clad in the snow and ice of midwinter. Bernard Pares, a British historian accompanying the Russians as an observer, witnessed an ill-fated assault by an Austrian unit from Tyrol in February 1915:

When the hill… had been covered with shell, a whole division of the gallant Tirolese advanced…They ensconced themselves at night in rifle pits on a lower ridge of the hill… and even occupied some disused trenches only fifty yards from the Russians… And now came the reply. Standing up under the cannonade the Russian infantry, with the support of its machine guns, poured in such volleys that everything in front of it went down… the trenches occupied by the Tirolese became a line of corpses… Russian troops on the flank passed won towards the river and took the enemy in the flank… leaving 1300 corpses in the wood and in the open… Prisoners told me they had not eaten for four days, and that enteric and typhus were rampant in their trenches, which were often full of water.

With the failure of these offensives it was only a matter of time before Przemyśl succumbed. The defenders had been subjected to bombardment by Russian artillery on a more or less daily basis for months on end, and supplies were dwindling. On March 13 the Russians captured the nearby village of Malkovise, penetrating the outer line of the town’s defenses, which allowed them to begin bombarding the inner defenses with deadly accuracy (below, wrecked fortifications).   

By March 18 the remaining provisions were finished, and discipline was breaking down as hungry soldiers desperately searched for food. The following day a final attempt to break out failed utterly in the face of Russian defenses, which included 30 miles of trenches and 650 miles of barbed wire. On March 21 Helena Jabłońska, a Polish inhabitant of Przemyśl, recorded the final hours of the besieged city in her diary as Habsburg soldiers (many of them Hungarian and ill-disposed towards Slavs and Austrians) began looting their own countrymen:

All night long I could hear the racket and din of railings, stakes, and parquet floors being ripped up. This morning my lodgers commiserate about the looting marauders. The soldiers are tearing up the stakes in our garden, they have smashed up the apple cellar, they’ve stolen everything and hacked it all to pieces… They come storming into my kitchen and take anything they like. I close the door but they hammer at it, they bang and kick it in and I have to give them my last mouthful of food.

The following day, with capitulation looming, in order to prevent the Russians from using the fortress themselves the Habsburg commander General von Kusmanek ordered his troops to destroy the remaining defensive works with explosive charges, even as the Russians continued to rain shells down on them. Jabłońska described the dramatic sight that greeted the remaining inhabitants:

At around 2 a.m. they began blowing up the works. Along with the throbbing and screaming of artillery this was so horrible that we were all rigid with fear… We went outside. There were crowds of panic-stricken people with trunks, bundles and children hurrying down the street, their eyes wide with fear, while we stood waiting, shivering with cold. The first ammunition dump exploded with a terrifying boom, the ground shook and the glass fell out of all the windows. Clouds of ash cascaded from chimneys and stoves, and chunks of plaster fell from the walls and ceilings. There was a second boom. As they day dawned the town looked like a glowing, smoking crater with pink flames glowing from below and morning mist floating above – an amazing, menacing sight.

On the afternoon of March 22 Kusmanek finally sent a message of surrender to the Russian commander, General Selivanoff, who ordered his troops to occupy the city the following day. Altogether the Russians captured 119,500 officers and men, along with 1,000 pieces of artillery, though much of it was obsolete (below, Austrian prisoners).

And still the fighting continued, as the Austrians and Russians grappled for control of the strategic passes through the Carpathian Mountains, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers on each side met their demise in dense forests and snow-covered slopes. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace recently transferred to the Eastern Front, recalled the battle to capture Zwinin Mountain on April 9, 1915:                      

As soon as we left the trench the Russians appeared above us and welcomed us with rapid fire… There was so much yelling and shooting that it was not possible to hear commands, or anything else. Suddenly a Russian machine gun began firing at our flank… At particularly steep places, the people who were hit tumbled quite a way back down the hill… At last, out of breath, we reached the Russian positions. Some of the Russians continued to defend themselves, and they were stabbed to death with bayonets… At some places there were deep snowdrifts. The Russians sank in them up to their waists and were unable to move quickly, so they were almost all shot dead or wounded.

By this point in 1915 the Habsburg forces had already suffered astronomical losses in their futile struggle to recapture the Carpathian passes and liberate Galicia. Indeed, out of 1.1 million Habsburg troops deployed on the Carpathian front in the first four months of 1915, over half (600,000) were killed, wounded, taken prisoner, or incapacitated by disease.

Typhus Epidemic Spreads in Serbia

As human beings were slaughtering each other by the hundreds of thousands, a microscopic killer was stalking Europe as well – Rickettsia prowazekii, the bacterium responsible for epidemic typhus spread by human body lice.

Although typhus affected soldiers on both sides and all fronts during the war, the worst outbreaks occurred in the Balkans and the Eastern Front, including Serbia, Romania, Poland, and Russia. Russia alone suffered three million deaths during the Russian Civil War from 1918-1922. However Serbia was the first and hardest hit in proportional terms, with over 200,000 deaths out of a total population of three million, including 70,000 Serbian troops – a loss which the Serbian military simply couldn’t afford. Roughly half of the 60,000 Habsburg prisoners of war held in Serbia also died of typhus.

According to Ruth Farnam, a British nurse who volunteered in Serbia, local authorities were completely unable to cope with the scale of the epidemic. In early 1915 she wrote:: “The infection quickly spread and soon the deaths were so numerous that in the smaller villages the dead could not be buried. The only way the bodies could be disposed of was by piling rubbish in the doorways of the houses where such deaths had occurred and setting fire to it.” In a measure of the Serbian government’s desperation, prisoners of war were now drafted as nurses to help care for the sick. In February 1915 Josef Šrámek, a Czech soldier in the Habsburg forces taken prisoner by the Serbs at Kolubara, wrote:

There are 5 of us nurses serving more than 80 people who are sick with typhus. I shudder to look at them. The majority of them are Serbs, thin recruits with frostbitten legs. They lie on mattresses on the ground, in dirt like I have never seen in my life. They cannot walk, and the toilets are too far anyway… It’s hell. 6 or 8 of them die every day, and others take their places. The lice seem to move the entire building. There is no medication… The Croats and Bosnians rob the dead and search them – I would not touch them even if they had thousands on them.

Unsurprisingly in early March Šrámek himself fell sick. On March 22 and 25 he finally updated his diary after a three-week gap:

Finally I came around again. I don’t know what was going on with me for 20 days. They say I could not accept anything [to eat] for 7 days; later I could only accept tea and milk. My fever reached 41° C [105.8° F]. I got a grip on myself slowly. I did not know where I was or what my name was. I am still too weak to stand up… In the meantime someone stole my uniform and coat, so I am naked. They also stole my wallet… I saw the wallet with one of the Serbs, but when I demanded it he hit me.

Of course, typhus wasn’t the only disease threatening Europe’s militaries from the rear. Typhoid fever (not to be confused with typhus), dysentery, malaria, and cholera were also constant concerns – although with cholera at least there was the possibility of preventive vaccination. One British prisoner-of-war, Henry Mahoney, described the primitive method used by German prison doctors on their wards:

The military doctor was accompanied by a colleague carrying a small pot or basin which evidently contained the serum. The operation was performed quickly if crudely. The vaccinator stopped before a man, dipped his lance or whatever the instrument was into the jar, and gripping the arm tightly just above the elbow, made four big slashes on the muscle. The incisions were large, deep, and brutal-looking. Then he passed to the next man, repeating the process, and so on all along the line.

South African Victory at Riet

Although the Great war in Southwest Africa involved far fewer combatants than the war in Europe – around 43,000 South Africans fighting for the British, versus fewer than 10,000 German colonists – it was fully as epic in geographic terms, as these small forces ranged over thousands of miles of rugged desert, mountains, and scrubland.

After a delay caused by the Boer rebellion, finally crushed in December 1914, the basic British plan of attack on the German colony called for three expeditions – one led inland by South African prime minister Louis Botha from the camp he established after landing at Walfisch Bay in January; a second, led by General Duncan Mackenzie, from the port of Luderitzbucht, captured in October 1914; and a third, composed on various forces from the south and west, converging on the town of Keetmanshoop, where they would join forces with Mackenzie.

The first major Allied victory in the campaign came on March 20, 1915, when Botha led his troops east to attack a German force holding defensive positions on hills east of Swakopmund, where it threatened to cut the rail line and communications the South Africans would need to proceed into the interior.

Botha hoped to turn the German flanks with attacks on the right and left, but the attack on the right flank, south of the Swakop river, stumbled as the South African cavalry couldn’t negotiate the steep, rocky hills. However the attack on the left flank north of the river proved more successful, as the South Africans captured the entrance to a pass at the foot of Husab and Pforte Mountains, a key part of the German defenses. Another South African force then pushed forward along the railway, threatening the Germans from the rear and forcing them to retreat.

Needless to say, fighting in the African bush was no walk in the park. Eric Moore Ritchie, an observer with Botha’s force, described the conditions:                      

From 6.30 till 10 o'clock the desert is endurable. Then comes the change. All along the front the stark yellow sand is taking on a different hue under the climbing sun rays. It turns almost to glaring whiteness all around… And all afternoon the heat strikes up at you overpowering, like the breath of a wild animal. Then the wind rises, and the sand shifts in eddies. Veils and goggles are useless. They can't keep out that spinning curtain of grit.

A few days later, on March 26, Botha led his troops back to their base at Walfisch Bay, and Ritchie painted an eerie picture of the column proceeding through a lunar landscape without a sound:

The mist from the coast had rolled inland; through it after dawn came miles of horsemen and wagons, guns, limbers, lorries, ambulances. Every human unit in that column was covered in white dust, and every horse was weary. And except for the staccato "click-click" of bits and an occasional deep hum from a passing motor the army moved in perfect silence through the sand.

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