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Fall of Przemyśl

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.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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15 Heartwarming Facts About Mister Rogers
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Though Mister Rogers' Neighborhood premiered 50 years ago, Fred Rogers remains an icon of kindness for the ages. An innovator of children’s television, his salt-of-the-earth demeanor and genuinely gentle nature taught a generation of kids the value of kindness. In celebration of the groundbreaking children's series' 50th anniversary, here are 15 things you might not have known about everyone’s favorite “neighbor.”

1. HE WAS BULLIED AS A CHILD.

According to Benjamin Wagner, who directed the 2010 documentary Mister Rogers & Me—and was, in fact, Rogers’s neighbor on Nantucket—Rogers was overweight and shy as a child, and often taunted by his classmates when he walked home from school. “I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” Rogers said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.” It was this experience that led Rogers to want to look below the surface of everyone he met to what he called the “essential invisible” within them.

2. HE WAS AN ORDAINED MINISTER.

Rogers was an ordained minister and, as such, a man of tremendous faith who preached tolerance wherever he went. When Amy Melder, a six-year-old Christian viewer, sent Rogers a drawing she made for him with a letter that promised “he was going to heaven,” Rogers wrote back to his young fan:

“You told me that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. It means a lot to me to know that. And, I appreciated the scripture verse that you sent. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I want you to know that Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

3. HE RESPONDED TO ALL HIS FAN MAIL.

Responding to fan mail was part of Rogers’s very regimented daily routine, which began at 5 a.m. with a prayer and included time for studying, writing, making phone calls, swimming, weighing himself, and responding to every fan who had taken the time to reach out to him.

“He respected the kids who wrote [those letters],” Heather Arnet, an assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005. “He never thought about throwing out a drawing or letter. They were sacred."

According to Arnet, the fan mail he received wasn’t just a bunch of young kids gushing to their idol. Kids would tell Rogers about a pet or family member who died, or other issues with which they were grappling. “No child ever received a form letter from Mister Rogers," Arnet said, noting that he received between 50 and 100 letters per day.

4. ANIMALS LOVED HIM AS MUCH AS PEOPLE DID.

It wasn’t just kids and their parents who loved Mister Rogers. Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla who understands 2000 English words and can also converse in American Sign Language, was an avid Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watcher, too. When Rogers visited her, she immediately gave him a hug—and took his shoes off.

5. HE WAS AN ACCOMPLISHED MUSICIAN.

Though Rogers began his education in the Ivy League, at Dartmouth, he transferred to Rollins College following his freshman year in order to pursue a degree in music (he graduated Magna cum laude). In addition to being a talented piano player, he was also a wonderful songwriter and wrote all the songs for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—plus hundreds more.

6. HIS INTEREST IN TELEVISION WAS BORN OUT OF A DISDAIN FOR THE MEDIUM.

Rogers’s decision to enter into the television world wasn’t out of a passion for the medium—far from it. "When I first saw children's television, I thought it was perfectly horrible," Rogers told Pittsburgh Magazine. "And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous medium to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."

7. KIDS WHO WATCHED MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD RETAINED MORE THAN THOSE WHO WATCHED SESAME STREET.

A Yale study pitted fans of Sesame Street against Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watchers and found that kids who watched Mister Rogers tended to remember more of the story lines, and had a much higher “tolerance of delay,” meaning they were more patient.

8. ROGERS’S MOM KNIT ALL OF HIS SWEATERS.

If watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gives you sweater envy, we’ve got bad news: You’d never be able to find his sweaters in a store. All of those comfy-looking cardigans were knitted by Fred’s mom, Nancy. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Rogers explained how his mother would knit sweaters for all of her loved ones every year as Christmas gifts. “And so until she died, those zippered sweaters I wear on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother,” he explained.

9. HE WAS COLORBLIND.

Those brightly colored sweaters were a trademark of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but the colorblind host might not have always noticed. In a 2003 article, just a few days after his passing, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that:

Among the forgotten details about Fred Rogers is that he was so colorblind he could not distinguish between tomato soup and pea soup.

He liked both, but at lunch one day 50 years ago, he asked his television partner Josie Carey to taste it for him and tell him which it was.

Why did he need her to do this, Carey asked him. Rogers liked both, so why not just dip in?

"If it's tomato soup, I'll put sugar in it," he told her.

10. HE WORE SNEAKERS AS A PRODUCTION CONSIDERATION.

According to Wagner, Rogers’s decision to change into sneakers for each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was about production, not comfort. “His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set,” wrote Wagner.

11. MICHAEL KEATON GOT HIS START ON THE SHOW.

Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton's first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.

12. ROGERS GAVE GEORGE ROMERO HIS FIRST PAYING GIG, TOO.

It's hard to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken, children's education advocate like Rogers sitting down to enjoy a gory, violent zombie movie like Dawn of the Dead, but it actually aligns perfectly with Rogers's brand of thoughtfulness. He checked out the horror flick to show his support for then-up-and-coming filmmaker George Romero, whose first paying job was with everyone's favorite neighbor.

“Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,” Romero said. As a young man just out of college, Romero honed his filmmaking skills making a series of short segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, creating a dozen or so titles such as “How Lightbulbs Are Made” and “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” The zombie king, who passed away in 2017, considered the latter his first big production, shot in a working hospital: “I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made. What I really mean is that I was scared sh*tless while I was trying to pull it off.”

13. ROGERS HELPED SAVE PUBLIC TELEVISION.

In 1969, Rogers—who was relatively unknown at the time—went before the Senate to plead for a $20 million grant for public broadcasting, which had been proposed by President Johnson but was in danger of being sliced in half by Richard Nixon. His passionate plea about how television had the potential to turn kids into productive citizens worked; instead of cutting the budget, funding for public TV increased from $9 million to $22 million.

14. HE ALSO SAVED THE VCR.

Years later, Rogers also managed to convince the Supreme Court that using VCRs to record TV shows at home shouldn’t be considered a form of copyright infringement (which was the argument of some in this contentious debate). Rogers argued that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family. Again, he was convincing.

15. ONE OF HIS SWEATERS WAS DONATED TO THE SMITHSONIAN.

In 1984, Rogers donated one of his iconic sweaters to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

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15 Fun Facts About Army of Darkness
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On February 19, 1993, Army of Darkness—the third installment in Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell's Evil Dead franchise—made its way into U.S. theaters. You probably know all about Ash’s boomstick, but on the occasion of the hilarious horror comedy's 25th anniversary, it's worth a closer look.

1. ARMY OF DARKNESS ISN'T THE ENTIRE TITLE.

The film’s title is stylized onscreen as Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness. This phrasing was Sam Raimi’s homage to the defunct Hollywood tradition of putting stars’ names in movie titles (like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein)—but the studio feared the long title would confuse moviegoers, so it was shortened for official purposes to just Army of Darkness.

2. EVEN THE SHORTER TITLE WASN'T RAIMI'S FIRST CHOICE.

Army of Darkness is the third installment of the Evil Dead series and the first to take place during the Middle Ages. Raimi’s original title for Army of Darkness was The Medieval Dead.

3. BRIDGET FONDA FINALLY GOT TO WORK WITH RAIMI.

Bridget Fonda makes a cameoas Ash’s girlfriend Linda during the beginning flashback sequence. She is the third actress in three films to play Linda (following actresses Betsy Baker and Denise Bixler). Fonda—a huge Evil Dead II fan—had originally auditioned to be in Raimi’s previous film, Darkman, but didn’t get the part.

4. ASH'S CAR HAD A LOT OF SCREEN EXPERIENCE.

The 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 allegedly appears in all of Sam Raimi’s films.

5. DARKMAN MADE ARMY OF DARKNESS POSSIBLE.

Raimi wanted to make Army of Darkness immediately following 1987’s Evil Dead II, but he struggled to find funding to finish his trilogy. The financial success of Raimi’s 1990 film, Darkman, eventually convinced Universal Studios to split the $12 million budget with executive producer Dino De Laurentiis.

6. A SUBTLE SCIENCE FICTION REFERENCE PLAYS A KEY ROLE.

The words Ash must utter to safely retrieve the Necronomicon (“Klaatu verata nikto”) are actually a variation on a phrase from the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. In that film, “Klaatu barada nitko” is the phrase one must say to stop the robot Gort from destroying Earth.

7. THE SKELETON DEADITES WERE AN HOMAGE.

Their design is a tribute to visual effects legend Ray Harryhausen.

8. THE STAY PUFT MARSHMALLOW MAN MAKES AN APPEARANCE.

Billy Bryan, the actor who portrays the second monster in the medieval pit, also portrayed the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters.

9. SAM RAIMI'S BROTHER WORE A LOT OF HATS.

Ted Raimi—who makes cameos in all of his brother’s films—appears as three different background characters in Army of Darkness. He is first seen as a sympathetic villager, then as a dying soldier during the final battle, and, finally, as an S-Mart employee in the last scene.

10. RAIMI HAD TO FIGHT FOR AN R-RATING.

In keeping with the gory first two films in the series, Army of Darkness received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. It was subsequently bumped down to an R rating after the filmmakers pointed out that the ostensible gore in the film was happening to skeletons.

11. PLAYING EVIL ASH WAS TOUGH FOR CAMPBELL.

It took makeup artists three hours to get Campbell ready for shooting.

12. RAIMI STORYBOARDED EVERY SINGLE SHOT IN THE MOVIE HIMSELF.

About 25 shots in the final battle are taken from storyboards originally used in the 1948 Victor Fleming film Joan of Arc, which were brought to Raimi’s attention by visual effects supervisor William Mesa. Mesa got them from a friend, who got them from Fleming himself.

13. THERE'S AN EASTER EGG FOR TREKKIES.

Star Trek fans will recognize the location where Ash learns the “Klaatu verata nikto” incantation. The scene was shot at the iconic Vasquez Rocks in Agua Dulce, California, where the famous “Arena” episode from Star Trek was also shot. The movie also shot in the Bronson Canyon area of Griffith Park in Los Angeles that served as the Batcave for the 1960s Batman television show.

14. THE STUDIO CHANGED THE ENDING.

Bruce Campbell stars in 'Army of Darkness' (1992)
Universal Pictures

The original conclusion of the film—which Universal Studios deemed too negative—featured Ash taking too much potion to get back to the present day and waking up in a future, post-apocalyptic London. The ending can be seen on subsequent director’s cuts of home video versions of Army of Darkness.

15. EVEN AFTER YEARS OF TRYING, A SEQUEL NEVER MATERIALIZED.

Beginning in 2015, Bruce Campbell reprised his role as Ash in the Ash vs Evil Dead TV series. While fans of the Evil Dead franchise love it, Raimi spent years trying to get a sequel to Army of Darkness off the ground. On the commentary track for the first season of Ash vs. Evil Dead, Raimi even shared a few of the discarded ideas he had for the film.

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