Opening Round in the East (6)

Contemporary colored prints depicting Austro-Hungarian infantrymen circa 1914

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For clarity, Austro-Hungarian units are rendered in italics.

The Russian forces facing the Austrians along the Galician frontier consisted of four armies under an army group headquarters, Southwestern Front, commanded by General of Artillery Nikolay Ivanov. Fourth Army (General of Infantry Aleksei Evert) and Fifth Army (General of Cavalry Pavel Pleve) stood opposite the Austrian First and Fourth Armies; Third Army (General of Infantry Nikolai Ruzsky) and Eighth Army (General of Cavalry Aleksei Brusilov) faced Third Army. There was no Austrian army group headquarters; the high command (Armeeoberkommando or AOK) controlled operations directly. The nominal Austrian Commander-in-Chief was General of Cavalry Archduke Friedrich, but actual command was exercised by the Chief of Staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf.

After some preliminary cavalry skirmishing, the main Austrian offensive commenced on 22 August 1914. Because Stavka (the Russian high command) had expected the enemy’s main effort to be made farther south, the Austrians enjoyed numerical superiority in the northern sector. First Army had ten infantry divisions, one infantry brigade and two cavalry divisions against Fourth Army’s six infantry divisions, one infantry brigade and three cavalry divisions; Fourth Army and Fifth Army were about equal in strength, though the former with its high proportion of regular officers and NCOs was of superior quality.

August 1914: Austrian infantry on the march in Galicia (Heeresgeschichtliches Museum)

Farther south, Third Army and the Kövess Group were detailed to screen the right flank of Fourth Army. The latter was an ad hoc formation under the commander of Third Army’s XII Corps, consisting of that corps plus the few units of Second Army that had reached Galicia from the Serbian front. They were heavily outnumbered by the Russian forces in this sector: Third and Eighth Armies between them had sixteen infantry division and eight cavalry divisions to the Austrians’ eleven infantry divisions and five cavalry divisions. Nor would the belated arrival of the bulk of Second Army improve matters substantially for the Austrians. With its mobilization complete, the Russian Army’s margin of superiority would continue to widen in the weeks ahead.

Conrad was well aware, therefore, that unless his forces gained a quick victory in the northern sector success was unlikely. And indeed, there was, as he later said, “a happy beginning.” First Army scored a considerable victory over Fourth Army in the Battle of Krasnik (23-25 August), inflicting some 25,000 casualties and driving the Russians back in disorder. Fourth Army enjoyed similar success against Fifth Army in the Battle of Komarów (26 August-2 September). This was a hard-fought affair, as the Austrians enjoyed no superiority of numbers. But Fifth Army had been shaken by the defeat of Fourth Army on its right flank and its resistance collapsed. Casualties, including 20,000 men made prisoner, were extremely heavy. Had it not been for prompt action by Plehve, the army commander, who ordered an immediate retreat, Fifth Army might well have been encircled and destroyed.

The Eastern Front 1914: Initial operations in East Prussia and Galicia (Department of History, USMA West Point)

But these Austrian successes in the north were more than offset by the increasingly ominous situation farther south. Despite his success at Komarów Auffenberg, the Fourth Army commander, fretted about the security of his right flank, which was supposed to be covered by Brundermann’s Third Army and the Kövess Group. “We’re not in a good position,” he remarked to his chief of staff, and he pointed out to Conrad that Brudermann lacked sufficient forces to carry out his mission.

Brudermann, however, was full of fight. He implored Conrad for permission to go over to the offensive against the Russians in his sector. Hitherto, Third Army and the Kövess Group had remained echeloned to the rear of Fourth Army, in line with their task of flank protection—a task that was becoming more and more difficult thanks to the non-appearance of Second Army and the Russians’ growing strength. But scenting victory after the “happy beginning” in the north, Conrad yielded to his pugnacious subordinate’s entreaties: Third Army was given permission to attack.

Seldom has a military action been worse timed. Beginning on 26 August, Third Army advanced with three corps—some nine divisions—against Third and Eighth Armies, which between them had some twenty divisions in eight corps. Third Army collided with this greatly superior force on the line of the Zlota Lipa River, received a thorough drubbing and was driven from the field. Near Brzezany, the Kövess Group was also thrown back, narrowly escaping encirclement in the process. Conrad ordered a new line to be formed on the Gnila Lipa River, which was possible only because the Russians took two days to sort themselves out before resuming their advance. Desperate to maintain the initiative, Conrad ordered III Corps of Third Army to counterattack on 29 August. It was a fiasco. Overall, the Russians had 292 infantry battalions and 1,304 guns against the Austrians’ 115 infantry battalions and 376 guns. The Austrians were stopped dead in their tracks, then driven back amid scenes of panic and rout. In a single day of fighting III Corps lost 20,000 men and almost 100 guns, effectively knocking it out as a fighting force.

Tsar Nicholas II models the Russian Army infantry field uniform introduced in 1912 and worn in 1914 (Imperial War Museum)

Having been soundly defeated, Third Army and the Kövess Group fled to the west. The fortress of Lemberg fell to the Russians on 3 September. Only the arrival from Serbia of Second Army’s VII Corps prevented a complete collapse. Brudermann, once touted as the “boy wonder” of the Habsburg Army, was ignominiously dismissed from his command.

And worse followed. Brundemann’s stinging defeat fatally undermined the position of the hitherto successful First and Fourth Armies. Imagining that the Russians in the northern sector no longer constituted a major threat, Conrad ordered Auffenberg’s Fourth Army to sidestep to its right so as to succor the shattered Third Army. This move had the unfortunate result of creating a gap between First and Fourth Armies, with nothing to fill it but some cavalry. Nor were the Russians in the north down for the count. Reinforcements had been flowing to Southwest Front and Plehve’s Fifth Army was practically back up to strength. He was ordered to attack and did so on 3 September. By 11 September the left flank of Fourth Army had been smashed, compelling both it and First Army to commence a retreat that only ended on the line of the Carpathian Alps.

By 26 September almost all of Austrian Galicia had fallen under Russian occupation. The fortress city of Przemysl with its garrison of 100,000 Austrian troops was surrounded and besieged. In all, the armies of Austria-Hungary had suffered some 500,000 casualties, including many irreplaceable professional officers and long-service NCOs. Conrad von Hötzendorf’s Galician debacle had inflicted a wound from which the Austro-Hungarian Army was never to recover.

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

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