♦ The Austro-Hungarian Army in World War I ♦

Great War Special Studies Series


Troops of a Czech infantry regiment of the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914 (Heeresgeschichtliches Museum)

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Of the major belligerents in 1914, the Habsburg Monarchy (Austria-Hungary) was the militarily the weakest, and its army's performance in World War I was decidedly mediocre—though not quite so bad as is often alleged. Most of the Austro-Hungarian Army's problems were derivative of the polity it served, though it must also be noted that the Army’s senior commanders were, with the occasional exception, none too competent. The troops themselves were capable of fighting well if properly armed and competently led—which all too often they were not.

The Army, like the Habsburg Monarchy itself, was a salad bowl of nationalities and this presented serious problems, particularly in the area of language. Since regiments were organized along “national” lines, career Army officers had often found it necessary to learn three, four or even six languages in addition to their native tongue. Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Chief of Staff in 1914, himself spoke seven languages. But by the early twentieth century this traditional professional standard had been abandoned in practice if not in principle. The majority of officers were German Austrians and most of the rest were Hungarians. These men resented having to learn the languages of the troops they commanded—Croats, Czechs, Bosnian Muslims, Poles, Slovaks, etc.—and did their best to evade the requirement. Instead they relied on the “language of service”: the few hundred German words that the troops were made to learn so that they’d understand when their officers spoke of rifles, sabers, cannons, etc. It was a situation unlikely to foster organizational cohesion, nor did it.

A general of the Austro-Hungarian Army (left) and his staff (Heeresgeschichtliches Museum)

This fundamental problem of ethnicity was compounded by the Austro-Hungarian Army’s administrative and organizational deficiencies. The Army was small (48 infantry divisions, 8 cavalry divisions) and poorly equipped—this despite the fact that the empire had a population of 50 million and a reasonably well-developed industrial base. But the politics of "dualism"—the unstable, uneasy relationship between Vienna and Budapest—tended to stifle military reform projects. Army reform was proposed from time to time but the Hungarians, determined to maximize their autonomy, consistently refused to give the necessary money. Nor was conscription, supposedly based on a universal liability for service, very strictly enforced. Finally, both the administrative machinery of the Army and its high command were notoriously inefficient.

Thanks to dualism the Habsburg Monarchy had not one army but three: the Imperial and Royal Army (kaiserlich und önigliche or k.u.k Armee) informally called the Common Army, maintained jointly by Austria and Hungary, the Austrian Landwehr, and the Hungarian Honvéd. The Hungarians, jealous of their autonomy, persistently opposed increased funding for the k.u.k Armee, preferring to spend money on the Honvéd instead. Nor did the Army possess any real reserve divisions, conscription having been applied with insufficient rigor to build up the necessary trained manpower. Adolf Hitler was one of many Austrian subjects who found it easy to dodge the draft. So in 1914 the pool of reservists was only sufficient to bring the existing divisions up to war strength and to replace initial losses.

Command flag of a field marshal of the Austro-Hungarian Army

The tripartite nature of the Army also had the unfortunate effect of complicating the structure of the infantry division. Infantry regiments of the k.u.k Armee had four battalions, whereas those of the Landwehr and Honvéd had only three. Thus a division could have as few as twelve or as many as sixteen battalions, depending on the identity of its four regiments; the average strength was fourteen battalions. The division's artillery brigade was also variable in size and quality. Usually there were two regiments: one with field guns and one with field howitzers. The former usually had four batteries, each with six guns; the latter usually two batteries, each with six howitzers. But the number of batteries varied and some divisions had no howitzer regiment at all. Moreover, Austrian guns and howitzers were mostly outmoded, made of heavy bronze/steel alloy, with primitive recoil systems and roughly half the range and rate of fire of comparable German and Russian artillery.

In 1914, therefore, the Army as a whole was ill prepared for war. Infantry training was primitive and the artillery was armed for the most part with a miscellany of obsolete weapons. Tactically, far too much faith was placed in cavalry, which was in any case poorly trained for reconnaissance, the only useful role it still had on the modern battlefield. The result was a string of costly and humiliating defeats in the first year of the war. German assistance staved off a complete collapse but the Army’s battle capacity had been gravely undermined and it never fully recovered. By 1917 it was operating on the Eastern Front as a mere auxiliary of the German Army, often under direct German command.

Stoßtruppen (assault troops) of the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1917 (Imperial War Museum)

Though tales of mass surrender and desertion were exaggerated, the Army’s Slav troops grew increasingly unreliable as the war wore on. Czech soldiers in particular were bitterly resentful of the disdain with which their mostly German Austrian officers treated them. Often the reliability of a given unit depended on which enemy it was fighting. Croat troops, for instance, generally fought harder against Italy, the hated “hereditary enemy,” than they did against the Russians.

Still, the Austro-Hungarian Army gave a better account of itself than might have been expected. Italy entered the war in 1915 at a moment when the Habsburg Monarchy’s fortunes were at their nadir. Coveting Austrian Trentino, the city of Trieste and the eastern Adriatic litterol, the Italians anticipated a quick victory. But the Austro-Hungarian Army fended off no fewer than eleven Italian offensives between 1915 and 1917—this despite the fact that it was always outnumbered. In 1917, with a reinforcement of German divisions, the Austrians launched a counteroffensive that demolished the Italian Army and very nearly knocked Italy out of the war.

But this last victory came to nothing. The process of disintegration set in motion by the stress and strain of war had so far advanced by 1917 that nothing could save the Habsburg Monarchy and its Army. The former’s collapse in October 1918 was swiftly followed by the latter’s dissolution.

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Organizational Diagram 

Copyright © 2020 by Thomas M. Gregg. All Rights Reserved

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