Siege of Przemysl, 24 September-11 October and 6 November 1914-22 March 1915

Siege of Przemysl, 24 September-11 October and 6 November 1914-22 March 1915

Przemysl was a major fortified city on the Austro-Hungarian border with Russia, north of the Carpathian Mountains. In 1914 it had recently been modified. Its defences were similar to those of similar places in Western Europe, with a circuit of modern forts surrounding the city. At the start of the war, Przemysl was used to support the Austro-Hungarian armies as they launched their first invasion of Russian Poland. The Austrian Fourth Army had moved north from Przemysl, defeating the Russian Fifth Army at the battle of Komarow (26 August-1 September 1914).

The Austrian offensive soon ended in failure and retreat. By mid-September Austrian troops were streaming south past Przemysl towards the Carpathians, where a new Austrian line would soon be formed. One army corps joined the garrison of Przemysl within the defences of the fortress, a total of 150,000 men.

The first part of the siege began on 24 September, when the Russians cut off the last route out. The Russians did not have the same strength in heavy artillery as the Germans or Austrians, and the siege developed into a lengthy blockade.

The first phase of the siege was short lived. October 1914 saw a German attack on Warsaw, which forced the Russians to withdraw troops from the Carpathian front. This allowed the Austrians to advance back towards their original border, and on 11 October the siege was lifted. The last action of the first siege was a costly Russian assault that failed to threaten the city.

This would be a short lived reprieve. The German attack on Warsaw failed, and the Austrians were once again forced to retreat back towards the Carpathians. The siege was renewed on 9 November, this time by the Russian Eleventh Army. This time there were 110,000 Austro-Hungarian troops in the fortress, with enough supplies for three months.

The fate of Przemysl was decided by the failure of the Austro-Hungarian winter offensive of 1915. One minor aim of this offensive had been the relief of Przemysl, while the wider aims including a massive pincer operation in coordination with the Germans in East Prussia that would result in the capture of all of Russian Poland. Neither objective succeeded.

Once it was clear that the relief effort had failed, the Austrians launched a final sortie from Przemysl, and then on 22 March surrendered. 2,500 officers, 117,000 men and 1,000 guns were captured by the Russians.

The Russians were soon forced back out of Przemysl. A combined German-Austrian offensive ended with the great victory of Gorlice-Tarnów, which forced the Russians to abandon the entire Polish salient. On 3 June, less than three months after it had surrendered, the Austrians recaptured Przemysl.

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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.

Trial by fire: how a fortress siege changed the course of World War One

At the start of the First World War, hundreds of thousands of Russian troops surged west towards the heart of Europe. In their way stood a 19th-century fortress, manned by a ragbag of old, overweight and terrified Habsburg troops. What happened next, writes Alexander Watson, would change the course of the war on the eastern front

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Published: November 1, 2019 at 7:00 am

The invaders “swept away everything that was in their path: affluence and order, peace and civilisation”, wrote one horrified Pole as a Russian army surged west in September 1914. “Their way was marked by destruction and despoilment, arson and rape.”

In the opening months of the First World War, the Russian and Habsburg armies fought immense and bloody battles to determine the future of eastern Europe. Their main arena was the Habsburg empire’s borderland of Galicia, a region today in southern Poland and western Ukraine. At the start of September 1914, after frantic manoeuvring and fierce fighting, Galicia’s capital Lemberg (today Lviv) fell. Habsburg forces fled in headlong retreat. The Russians followed slowly. The tsarist military leadership, nationalistic and virulently anti-Semitic, hoped not only to conquer but also to cleanse the region. As the words of the Polish witness attest, the consequences for the inhabitants of their newly conquered territory were often cataclysmic.

Broken regiments

The Habsburg fortress of Przemyśl, standing in the centre of Galicia, became at this moment of military crisis the decisive point on the eastern front. As Przemyśl’s residents despairingly watched their field army’s broken regiments streaming west through their city, the fortress garrison prepared for action. The fortress’s defences were outmoded. Its soldiers were middle-aged reservists drawn from across central Europe, whose military training was nearly two decades in the past. Yet that disastrous autumn, they alone barred the Russians’ way. On their desperate resistance hung the fate of the Habsburg empire.

The Habsburgs’ most important bastion in the east was built at Przemyśl for good reason. The city sat in the Carpathian foothills, the last high ground before the Russian frontier 30 miles to the north. It blocked access to the passes south over the Carpathian mountains into Hungary. Crucially, it also straddled and controlled the empire’s main northerly east-west railway line, possession of which would be essential for Russian invaders seeking to break into the heart of the Habsburg empire.

The fortress’s construction began in the 1870s, at a time of rocky relations with Russia. Up to 1906, when funding was largely cut off, the cash-strapped empire spent the enormous sum of 32 million crowns on it – around £158m in today’s money. In and around the city, barracks, storehouses, headquarters, a hospital, a radio station, an airfield and a manoeuvre ground were erected. So too were imposing defences. On hills outside the city centre stood, by 1914, a ring of 17 main and 18 smaller intermediate or forward forts. After war’s outbreak, trenches were hurriedly dug between the forts, creating a continuous defensive perimeter 30 miles in circumference.

Nevertheless, by 1914 the fortress was obsolete. The Habsburg High Command had ceased to invest, and regarded it as a glorified military warehouse. The forts’ designs had been overtaken by rapid advances in artillery technology. Their high profiles made them sitting ducks for long-range guns, and their brick and concrete was mostly too thin to withstand modern siege ordinance. Much of their armament was ancient.

The fortress’s 130,000-strong garrison also inspired no confidence. Soldiers from across the astonishingly diverse empire – Austrian Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Ukrainians, Romanians, Slovaks, Czechs, Serbs and Italians – served together in September 1914, making Przemyśl less a bulwark than a Babel. The backbone of the defence were four Landsturm Brigades, poorly armed and filled with the empire’s oldest conscripts, men aged 37-42 years old. There were few professional officers. Instead, these units were led by businessmen, academics and civil servants with reserve commissions. In the words of one lieutenant, worried about how his colleagues would fare against the Russians, they were “well-past-their-prime fatties”.

The advancing army – commanded by General Aleksei Brusilov, Russia’s finest soldier – reached the fortress in the second half of September. Cossack cavalry heralded its arrival. These warriors, mounted on agile steppe horses, were first sighted by garrison lookouts on the 17th. Infantry soon followed, lapping around the edges of the fortress. The last railway line into the city, running south, was cut on the 19th. By 23 September, Przemyśl was encircled.

While Stavka, the myopic Russian High Command, wished to screen the fortress and concentrate on a new offensive further north against Germany, Brusilov recognised its capture could have a decisive impact. However, the general had only limited forces for an assault on the fortress. He committed 483 artillery pieces, eight and a half infantry divisions, and a cavalry division – in all, around 150,000 soldiers. The force had no specialised siege artillery – a weapon the Russians had neglected to develop in peace.

A threat from the west

Brusilov’s assault force would have to win quickly. There was little time for reconnaissance, and none for a lengthy bombardment. The Habsburg field army had retreated 90 miles to the west, but already by the end of September it had restored discipline and was refilling its ranks. It would soon return to battle and its resurgence would pose a grave threat, because Stavka had transferred much of Russian strength away from Galicia for its own northern offensive.

Nevertheless, Brusilov was supremely confident. Peacetime espionage had delivered into Russian hands detailed plans of the fortress’s defences. Tsarist military intelligence assessed the forts to “belong to the realm of history”. From deserters’ testimony and their first clashes with the garrison, the attackers were also aware that the multi-ethnic Habsburg soldiers manning the defences were old, poorly trained and very frightened.

So feeble did the fortress appear that the Russians hoped it might not even be necessary to fight. On 2 October, an emissary was dispatched bearing a letter for the fortress commander, Lieutenant-General Hermann Kusmanek von Burgneustädten. “Fortune has abandoned the Austrian army,” it warned. “Any help for you from outside [is] impossible. To avoid needless bloodshed… now is the time to propose that your excellency surrender the fortress.”

For two days after Kusmanek had rejected the Russians’ parley, all remained quiet. Then, during the night of 4-5 October, alerts that the enemy was approaching suddenly started to flood in from the perimeter.

The blockade army’s plan of attack was to take the fortress from three sides. North of Przemyśl, around a third of the army was to conduct a diversionary operation. A small force in the south with around 6,000 infantryman acted as a flank guard for the main attack. The primary penetration was to be achieved against the fortress’s south-east, where all the Russians’ heaviest guns – 23 French-designed howitzers – were deployed, along with 16 medium artillery pieces, 232 field guns and 65 infantry battalions.

On 5 October, the first day of the assault, this main force in the south-east made stunning progress. Vindicating Brusilov’s confidence, its troops captured all the fortress’s forward positions in the sector. The forts’ ancient artillery was impotent. Only a decade earlier, the Russian army had fought a modern war against Japan, and the experience had instilled a healthy respect for firepower. Its green-clad assault troops presented no good target. They moved rapidly, trickling forward in small groups and then quickly digging in. By evening, they had entrenched just a mile from the forts.

The following day, 6 October, was a day of bombardment. On the south-eastern front, the Russians’ heavy guns attempted to batter the forts into submission, while lighter field artillery raked interval trenches with shrapnel. To Kusmanek’s relief, the shellfire was ineffective against Przemyśl’s fortifications. Even the heaviest projectiles failed to penetrate the forts.

But the Russian bombardment shook the garrison psychologically. Within the forts’ claustrophobic confines, Landsturm soldiers huddled in fear at the piercing howl of incoming shellfire. “The building resounds and shudders down to its foundations,” wrote one terrified officer, describing a direct hit. “Dust and gasses from the explosion… make the air heavy and suffocating.” In the interval trenches outside the forts, the shells’ effect was even worse. Soldiers watched with horror as shrapnel eviscerated their comrades. “Lacerated human limbs… bloody shreds of flesh, intestine and brain parts” hung surreally from surrounding trees.

By the evening, Kusmanek was certain that the Russians’ main assault would come in the south-east. The fortress’s defences were still intact. Its garrison, however, was severely demoralised. Senior officers feared the forts were under fire from 18 or 21cm siege artillery – calibres that would smash the old walls. The bombardment had triggered many nervous breakdowns. Even the soldiers who had endured were close to panic. A rumour spread that the Russians would soon break into Przemyśl, and “make goulash out of the inhabitants”.

That same evening, the Russian command ordered the storming of the fortress perimeter. All units were to attack simultaneously at 2 o’clock the following morning, 7 October, under cover of darkness. The fortress’s defences had not been neutralised, but the blockade army’s leadership could wait no longer. Intelligence had arrived warning that the Habsburg field army was on the move. The weak Russian screening forces in its path would not be able to stop it. At most, just 24 hours remained to capture Przemyśl.

The Russian command’s attention was fixed on its main assault on the south-east of the fortress perimeter. The Russians’ primary target was a crescent of six small forward forts in the middle of this sector, outside the village of Siedliska. The heavy artillery had bombarded these all day on 6 October, and, against the north of the crescent, the blockade army had deployed its best formation, the elite 19th Division. Its storm on the crescent’s northernmost fort, Fort I/1, would produce the major crisis of the day.

Fort I/1 had been built at the turn of the century. By Przemyśl’s low standards, it was tough and modern. It was defended by a diverse Habsburg garrison. Forty-six young Austrian artillerymen from Vienna manned the fort’s two turret guns and flanking cannon. The fort’s 112 middle-aged Landsturm infantrymen hailed from Munkács in north-east Hungary. Most were Magyars, Ukrainians and Orthodox Jews. Divided by generation, language and upbringing, the gunners from the imperial metropolis and the foot soldiers from the Hungarian backwater did not get on.

The silent enemy

By the small hours of 7 October, Fort I/1’s garrison was exhausted. On the fort’s forward wall, sentries dozed in darkness. The fort’s searchlight for illuminating the forward terrain had been smashed by shellfire, but the men felt safe, believing there to be a friendly listening post ahead, beyond the fort’s ditch and barbed wire. In fact, those soldiers were already dead, their throats cut silently by Russian assault troops now creeping up the fort’s glacis.

Shortly after 3am, the Russians switched on a powerful searchlight and a bombardment suddenly came crashing down, dazzling and deafening the infantry on Fort I/1’s wall. The 19th Division’s assault troops rushed the fort’s protective ditch. They threw a bridge over and stormed onto the wall. There was a melee, but the Munkács Landsturm stood no chance. The survivors retreated into the fort, barricading its iron door.

Inside, there was panic. The senior artillery officer, the only professional soldier in Fort I/1, had collapsed with a nervous breakdown. “Oh my God… Oh my God…” he groaned, over and over. Without his orders, the fort’s artillery was silent. The Viennese gunners had done nothing to support their Hungarian comrades. With Russians on the roof and in the courtyard, a few brave soldiers manned loopholes to try to keep the enemy away from the doors. Everyone else cowered in suspense.

It was now around 5am. The Russians were on the verge of a spectacular victory. They had crossed no-man’s land, dodging minefields and cutting through barbed wire. They had overcome Fort I/1’s ditch and chased its defenders from their firing positions. Yet, as the assault troops realised with shock, they had no means of breaking into the fort. The guncotton they had brought to blow in the doors was wet. It hissed and fizzled, but it would not explode.

The standoff was broken when, at 7.30am, Hungarian reinforcements came to Fort I/1’s rescue. Hurrying from the flanks, they picked off the enemy on the roof and then broke into the courtyard. Hand-to-hand fighting began, but was abruptly abandoned when the Russian artillery (trying to repel the Hungarians) and Habsburg gunners (who believed the fort had fallen to the enemy) both opened fire. Soldiers in blue and green beat frantically on the fort’s door to escape the shellfire, but the frightened garrison was taking no chances. Only after much cursing were the heavy beams removed and the Hungarians allowed in, along with 149 Russian prisoners. The relief was messy, but Fort I/1 was free.

Disciplined fighters

The Russians’ failure to seize Fort I/1 ended their best chance of breaking the defensive perimeter and capturing the fortress of Przemyśl. Nowhere else did their offensive come so close to success. Now, they were out of time. The Habsburg field army was dangerously close. Over the following 24 hours, the blockade army disengaged. When garrison troops peered over no-man’s land at dawn on 9 October, they found it empty. The first cavalry patrol from the Habsburg field army arrived in the west of the perimeter at midday. Soon, thousands of Habsburg soldiers were again marching through the city, this time eastward and, once more, as an organised, disciplined fighting force.

The fortress’s resistance had a profound effect on the war in eastern Europe. Most importantly, it won desperately needed respite for the dissolving Habsburg field army, permitting the army to rest, regroup and then return to battle. By forcing the Russians to lap around, and by denying them control of the main transport artery in Galicia, the fortress had significantly slowed their advance. It had also pinned well over 100,000 Russian troops, who otherwise would have been beating their way westwards. Some 10,000 had died or were injured storming the fortress. The defenders’ casualties were, by contrast, light: 1,885, of whom barely over 300 were killed.

The whole Habsburg empire had cause to be grateful to the fortress. The siege became a major propaganda coup for the hard-pressed state, for it proved that the Russian steamroller could be halted. The garrison was celebrated as an icon of imperial heroism. Newspapers waxed lyrical about the old soldiers’ “glorious success” and the “grave peril” they had averted. In Galicia, too, Polish, Ukrainian and especially Jewish inhabitants could feel thankful. The tsar’s ambition of conquering the region to create a “Great Russia to the Carpathians” had been stalled.

Yet the war continued. Przemyśl would be encircled again in November. A brutal attritional siege opened, with more fighting, the aerial bombing of the city and the starvation of its inhabitants. Outside the walls, anti-Semitic Russian invaders persecuted and drove out the land’s Jews. When in March 1915 the garrison capitulated, the fortress was largely destroyed. The Russians’ victory would be fleeting, but the legacy of violence and hatred lived on, and within decades, pitiless ideological conflict would again ravage east-central Europe’s ‘Bloodlands’.

War on the move

The fast-paced struggle for supremacy on the eastern front, 1914–17

In the summer of 1914, eastern Europe’s fate hung on a razor’s edge as the powers that ruled the region went to war, with Russia pitted against Germany and the Habsburg empire (Austria-Hungary). The battlefront stretched 600 miles, from Bukovina up to the Baltic.

The Russian army, numbering a colossal 3.5 million soldiers, concentrated on the front’s flanks. In the north, 22 infantry and 11½ cavalry divisions – around 485,000 troops – invaded Germany. The defenders were few, just 11 divisions, but they quickly won a stunning victory at the battle of Tannenberg, smashing the invasion.

On the eastern front’s southern flank, in and around the Habsburg province of Galicia, much larger forces deployed. There, 53½ Russian infantry and 18 cavalry divisions faced 37 Habsburg infantry divisions and 10 cavalry. After Habsburg strikes north into Russian-ruled Poland, the tsar’s army invaded eastern Galicia, routing its enemy in early September. The fortress of Przemyśl stalled their advance.

Unlike the infamous western front, where static trench warfare soon prevailed, the eastern front was characterised by mobility and dramatic shifts of fortune. Though pushed back at the start of October 1914, one month later the Russian army again encircled Przemyśl. The fortress-city’s siege – the longest of the First World War – lasted 181 days, before it capitulated through hunger in March 1915.

The Russians had little chance to savour their victory. That summer of 1915, the Germans counterattacked, liberating Przemyśl and overrunning Russian-ruled Poland. Although in mid-1916, General Brusilov – who had failed against Przemyśl in October 1914 – redeemed himself by beating the Habsburg army outside Lutsk, the Russians were approaching total exhaustion. Revolution flared in the spring of 1917. The tsar abdicated and his army collapsed, leaving Germany and its Habsburg ally dominating all eastern Europe.

Alexander Watson is professor of history at Goldsmiths, University of London, and a winner of the Wolfson History Prize. His new book, The Fortress: The Great Siege of Przemysl, was published by Allen Lane in October


On September 24, 1914, the Russian 3rd Army under General Dimitriev began the first siege of Przemysl . Meanwhile, General Paul von Hindenburg launched an offensive against the Vistula from Silesia , so that Dimitriev lifted the siege on October 11 and retreated behind the San. On November 9, 1914, the Russians were able to continue the siege of Przemyśl , albeit not with Dimitriev's units, which operated northwards against Krakow, but with the newly established 11th Army. The newly formed siege army initially consisted of six reserve and three cavalry divisions:

  • XXVIII. Army corps under General of Inf. Kashtalinsky - 58th and 60th Reserve Divisions
  • XXIX. Army Corps under General der. Inf. Zujew - 69th and 80th Reserve Divisions
  • XXX. Army corps under General of Inf. Ferdinand Wewel - 75th and 81st Reserve Divisions
  • Velev Cavalry Corps - 9th and 11th Cavalry Divisions, 2nd Kuban Cossack Division

General Selivanov, entrusted with the supreme command, no longer carried out frontal attacks, but instead relied on starving the garrison through a blockade. The 11th Army maintained the siege in the hinterland of the Russian 8th Army during the winter battle in the Carpathians .

In February 1915 the Austro-Hungarian 3rd Army under General von Boroevic failed several times in the battle in the Carpathians with the kuk VII and X Corps when attempting to relieve the Przemyśl fortress. At the end of February, the Austro-Hungarian 2nd Army under General von Böhm-Ermolli was relocated from Russian Poland to Galicia for reinforcement . All relief attacks were successfully repulsed by the Russian 8th Army under General Brusilov. On March 19, the Przemyśl fortress commander, General Kusmanek , ordered an attempt to escape, but the attacks under Lieutenant Field Marshal Tamásy were repulsed by the 11th Army and the troops were pushed back into the fortress. On March 22, 1915, Kusmanek and the remaining garrison surrendered to the Russians. A total of 9 generals, 2,300 officers and 110,000 Austro-Hungarian soldiers were captured by Russia.

After the Great Retreat , the 11th Army was pushed in between the 8th and 9th Armies on the lower Strypa opposite the German Southern Army . After the heavy autumn fighting with the Austro-Hungarian Second Army, Brody was also lost, the new front on the eastern Galician border stabilized between the upper Ikwa via Nowy-Alexinez to Trembowla . The 11th Army was subordinate to the following major units in October 1915:

  • VII Army Corps (13th and 34th Divisions)
  • VI. Army Corps (4th and 16th Divisions)
  • XXII. Army Corps (Finnish 1st and 3rd Rifle Divisions)
  • XVIII. Army Corps (23rd and 37th Divisions)
  • Kuban Cossack Division

In order to take advantage of the success of the 8th Army at the beginning of the Brusilov offensive in June 1916 in the Lutsk area , General Brusilov now also attacked the 11th Army under General Sakharov that followed in the south. The attacks at Mlynow and Sapanow led to the capture of the Dubno traffic junction by June 10th . The Austro-Hungarian 1st Army went back from the Ikwa to the Plaszewka and the lower Lipa. The Russian attacks against the positions of the Austro-Hungarian 2nd Army east of Brody and on the upper Ikwa were unsuccessful. At the beginning of July, Sakharov's northern wing between Swiniuchy and Gorochow was close to the old Galician frontier.

After the departure of the 9th Army on the left into the section of the Romanian Front , the AOK 11 had to extend the front towards the German Southern Army on the Strypa to the south. During the Kerensky offensive in early July 1917, the 11th Army under General Erdeli was deployed between Brody and Konjuchi against Lemberg . She led the main thrust with the V Siberian Corps, the XVII., XXXXIX. as well as the VI. Army Corps. In addition, the 1st Guard Corps and the XXXXV. Army Corps available as reserve of the superior Southwest Front. In the Battle of Zborów the Austrian front was breached and large parts of the Austro-Hungarian 2nd Army were taken prisoner. German intervention divisions soon stabilized the front and, on July 19, started a counterattack from the Zloczow area . The guards under General Mai-Majewski tried in vain on August 25 to prevent the loss of Tarnopol .

Austro-German forces attack Russians at Przemysl

On June 2, 1915, Austro-Hungarian and German troops continue their attacks on the Russian soldiers holding Przemysl (now in Poland), the citadel guarding the northeastern-most point of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Used as the Austrian army headquarters during the first months of World War I, Przemysl was ordered to hold out until the end in the face of the surprisingly effective Russian advance into Austria-Hungary in the fall of 1914. After six months under siege, facing severe food shortages and heavy casualties, the last Austro-Hungarian troops at Przemysl finally relinquished control of the citadel on March 22, 1915.

With their hard-fought victory, Russia’s troops had gained a certain measure of control in the much-contested Galician region of Austria and were poised to move into Hungary. This was not to be, however, as the powerful German army stepped in to offer more help to their faltering ally. Over the course of the next several months, Austro-German forces began moving swiftly and aggressively on the Eastern Front, recapturing the passes of the Carpathian Mountains and moving steadily forward into Galicia. On May 25, the Germans announced they had taken some 21,000 Russian prisoners east of the San River the Russians were soon pushed back toward Przemysl, and battle began there once again.

On June 2, 1915, Austro-German forces were nearing victory against the exhausted Russians at Przemysl the citadel fell back into the hands of the Central Powers the following day. The recapture of Przemysl effectively marked the end of Russian control in Galicia. As a British observer wrote dismissively of the Russian troops, "This army is now a harmless mob."

Multiethnic Przemyśl in 1914

The Przemyśl municipal authorities were keen to emphasize the Polish credentials of their city. This too was a mark of modernity, for nationalism was the new, exciting, and inspirational ideology of the late nineteenth century, promising the renewal of real and imagined past glories and a better, more efficient future. The reforms of the 1860s had placed Galicia in the hands of Polish conservatives and granted considerable powers of self-government to Austria’s municipalities. As in other Galician cities, Polish Democrats—more liberal and elite than their name might today imply—ran Przemyśl in the decades before 1914. Under mayors Aleksander Dworski (1882�) and Franciszek Doliński (1901�), the expanding city not only improved its infrastructure—building wells and drains, a municipal slaughterhouse, a hospital, and an electrical power station—but also asserted the Polishness of its public spaces. The most impressive new or rebuilt main streets were named after the most revered Polish poets, Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński, or landmark events in Poland’s history, such as the May 3, 1791, constitution, or the medieval victory of Grunwald over the Teutonic Knights. Statues of Mickiewicz and the Polish warrior-king Jan Sobiecki III, funded by popular subscription, were raised by the old Market Square.

Przemyśl’s other ethnic groups were also caught by the new spirit of the late nineteenth century. The Greek Catholic minority generally had little opportunity to make much mark on the city in brick or stone beyond its historic churches. There was, however, one important exception: schools. Language issues, and the right to teach children in one’s mother tongue, were becoming central to identity and to political disputes across the Habsburg Empire, and Ukrainian-speakers—or Ruthenes, as they were known in this period—were no exceptions. In the late nineteenth century, elite boys’ and girls’ secondary schools teaching in Ukrainian were founded, augmenting existing primary provision and attracting pupils from far beyond the city limits. Ruthenes were deeply divided in their identity, and the fractures were reflected in their associations and in the press. “Ukrainian” at this time denoted a political stance: a conviction that Ukrainian-speakers were a distinct nation. The majority of the small clerical and intellectual elite adhered to this view. A lesser group, the so-called Russophiles, disagreed, regarding themselves culturally, and sometimes also politically, as a branch of the Russian nation. Though difficult to enumerate, a fairly large section of lower-class Ruthenes was mostly indifferent to the novel idea of the nation, and persisted in prioritizing the Greek Catholic faith as the foundation of their identity.

Przemyśl’s Jewish community displayed some similar divisions. Orthodox Jewry had long predominated, and though this was still true in the early twentieth century, the modern era had brought schism and change. There were four synagogues in Przemyśl by 1914. The oldest, situated in the Jewish quarter, and eight other smaller prayer houses were frequented by the traditionalist, Yiddish-speaking Hasidic Jews who so fascinated Ilka Künigl-Ehrenburg. They were instantly recognizable, especially the men, with their curly sidelocks, beards, black hats, and black kaftans. To attend synagogue with them was a profoundly spiritual experience. Künigl-Ehrenburg ducked under the low doorway of the Old Synagogue one Sabbath and climbed up to the women’s gallery to watch. The faithful filled every inch of space. Some sat, others stood, all pressed tightly together. From above, a stream of light pierced the darkness and shone onto the silver-edged Torah scroll displayed by the altar. Wrapped in their gray-and-white striped prayer shawls, the believers rocked back and forth murmuring their sacred devotions. To the Styrian countess, it was strange—“oriental”—but very moving. “Everything was full of atmosphere, harmonious,” she wrote.

Times were shifting, however. Beginning in 1901, the kehilah, Przemyśl’s Jewish communal council, dropped Yiddish and instead conducted its meetings in Polish. The city’s three other synagogues had all been built since the 1880s and catered to wealthy, educated Jews. Jews—some of them—had particularly prospered from Przemyśl’s rapid expansion, a fact that had not gone unnoticed by their Christian neighbors. The town’s credit institutions were nearly all in Jewish hands. The majority of new manufacturing concerns and almost all trading and services were as well. The most intense civic development in the final thirty years of peace had taken place to the east of the old town and in the suburb of Zasanie, north of the San River. In these districts, the housing stock had more than doubled, and it was to there that well-off Jews had moved. They had bought up property on the smartest strips it was a mild irony that on Mickiewicz Street, named for Poland’s national poet, no fewer than 74 of the 139 buildings were Jewish-owned. The synagogues serving these communities, like the people who attended them, took inspiration from modern liberalism and nationalism. The “Tempel” in the old city was home to Jewish progressives keen to integrate into Polish culture. Faced with red brick, like synagogues in the west of the empire, it celebrated Polish holidays and had sermons and prayers in the Polish language. The Zasanie synagogue was popular with Zionist youth.


In August 1914, Russian armies moved against both German East Prussia and Austria-Hungary's largest province of Eastern Galicia, straddling the present-day Poland/Ukraine border. Its advance into Germany was soon repulsed but its Galician campaign was more successful. General Nikolai Ivanov overwhelmed the Austro-Hungarian forces under Conrad von Hötzendorf [ citation needed ] during the Battle of Galicia, and the whole Austrian front fell back over 160 kilometres (100 mi) to the Carpathian Mountains. The fortress at Przemyśl was the only Austrian post that held out and by 28 September, was completely behind Russian lines. The Russians were now in a position to threaten the German industrial region of Silesia, making the defense of Przemyśl of importance to the Germans as well as the Austro-Hungarians.

50 kilometres (30 mi) of new trenches were dug and 1,000 km (650 mi) of barbed wire were used to make seven new lines of defence around the perimeter of the town. Inside the fortress, a military garrison of 127,000, as well as 18,000 civilians, were surrounded by six Russian divisions. Przemyśl reflected the nature of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – orders of the day had to be issued in fifteen languages. Austrians, Poles, Jews and Ukrainians were together in the besieged town, that was hit constantly with artillery fire, and as the toll of dead and sick and wounded rose, and starvation threatened, so did mutual distrust and racial tension. [5]

On 24 September, General Radko Dimitriev, commander of the Russian Third Army began the siege of the fortress with six divisions. Dimitriev, after a brief artillery bombardment, ordered a full-scale assault on the fortress. The fortress was defended by 120,000 soldiers, under the command of Hermann Kusmanek von Burgneustädten. For three days the Russians attacked and accomplished nothing at the cost of 40,000 casualties. [6]

During the Battle of the Vistula River, Svetozar Boroevic von Bojna's Third Army advanced towards Przemyśl. On 5 October, Russian assaults continued, under the command of General Scherbakov, including a major one on 7 October. Yet, with Austro-Hungarian forces advancing, the Russian assault was discontinued. On 9 October, a cavalry unit from the Third Army entered the besieged fortress, and the main body on 12 Oct. [6] : 327–328

By the end of October, the German and Austro-Hungarian armies were retreating west after their reversals in the Battle of the Vistula River. On 4 November, civilians were ordered to leave Przemyśl. On 10 November, the second siege had started. [6] : 354–355

The Russian Eleventh Army under General Andrei Nikolaevich Selivanov took up the siege operations. Selivanov did not order any frontal assaults as Dimitriev had, and instead settled to starve the garrison into submission. By mid-December, the Russians were pounding the fortress with ceaseless artillery fire seeking to compel the town's surrender. During the winter 1914–1915 the Habsburg armies continued to fight their way to the fortress. Months of fighting resulted in great losses, largely from frostbite and disease, but relieving forces failed to reach the garrison at Przemysl.

In February 1915, Boroevic led another relief effort towards Przemyśl. By the end of February, all relief efforts having been defeated von Hötzendorf informed Hermann Kusmanek von Burgneustädten that no further efforts would be made. Selivanov was given sufficient artillery to reduce the fortress. The Russians overran the northern defenses on 13 March. An improvised line of defense held up the Russian attacks long enough for Kusmanek to destroy anything left in the city that could be of use to the Russians once captured. On March 19 Kusmanek ordered an attempt to break out but his sallies were repulsed and he was forced to retreat back into the city. With nothing useful left within the city, Kusmanek had no choice but to surrender. On 22 March, the remaining garrison of 117,000 surrendered to the Russians. [7] Among the captured were nine generals, ninety-three senior staff officers, and 2500 other officers. [8] [9]

Diaries and notebooks kept by various people in the town have survived. The diary of Josef Tomann, an Austrian recruited into military service as a junior doctor, reveals the results of the activities of garrison officers: "The hospitals have been recruiting teenage girls as nurses. They get 120 crowns a month and free meals. They are, with very few exceptions, utterly useless. Their main job is to satisfy the lust of the gentlemen officers and, rather shamefully, of a number of doctors, too [-] New officers are coming in almost daily with cases of syphilis, gonorrhea and soft chancre. The poor girls and women feel so flattered when they get chatted up by one of these pestilent pigs in their spotless uniforms, with their shiny boots and buttons." Other accounts reveal the pervasive presence of starvation and disease, including cholera, and the diary of Helena Jablonska, a middle-aged, quite wealthy Polish woman, reveals class and anti-semitic and racial tensions in the town " The Jewish women in basements rip you off the worst", and on March 18, 1915 – "The Jews are taking their shop signs down in a hurry, so that no one can tell who owns what. [-] They've all got so rich off the backs of those poor soldiers, and now of course they all want to run away!" Once the Russians arrived in March the fate of the Jews worsened and she noted: "The Cossacks waited until the Jews set off to the synagogue for their prayers before setting upon them with whips. There is such lamenting and despair. Some Jews are hiding in cellars, but they'll get to them there too." [10]

Airmail flights from Przemyśl during both sieges when airmail postcards, mostly military mail, were flown from the besieged city on twenty-seven flights. Following a forced landing, mail from one flight was confiscated by the Russians and sent to Saint Petersburg for postal censorship and onward transmission. Balloon mail, on some manned but mainly unmanned paper balloons, was also carried out of the city. [11] Pigeon mail was also used to send messages out of the city. [12]

The fall of Przemyśl led many to believe that Russia would now launch a major offensive into Hungary. This anticipated offensive never came, but the loss of Przemyśl was a serious blow to Austro-Hungarian morale. A further blow to Austria-Hungary was the fact that Przemyśl was only supposed to be garrisoned by 50,000, yet over 110,000 Austro-Hungarians surrendered with the fortress, a much more significant loss. The Russians held Przemyśl until the summer of 1915 when the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive pushed back the Russian front in Galicia. Przemysl stayed in Austro-Hungarian hands until October 1918, at which point Eastern Galicia left the Austro-Hungarian Empire and became part of the newly created independent state of Poland. The Austro-Hungarian army never recovered from its losses in the winter of 1914–1915 and the Habsburgs would rely henceforth on German assistance both in their sector of the Eastern Front and in the Balkans. [13]

Meanwhile Austro-Hungarian attempts to relieve the fortress ended catastrophically as the poorly supplied and outnumbered imperial forces attempted offensive after offensive through the Carpathian Mountains. Casualties for January to April 1915, in the Carpathians, were officially reported as 800,000, mostly due to weather and disease rather than combat. Russian casualties were nearly as high, but easier to replace, and balanced out more by the surrender of 117,000 Austro-Hungarian troops at the end of the siege. [14] All told, the siege and the attempts to relieve it cost the Austro-Hungarian army over a million casualties and inflicted on it significant damage from which it would never recover.


a city in Poland, situated on the San River, and the administrative center of Przemyśl Województwo. Population, 55,800 (1973).

A transportation junction and industrial center, Przemyśl produces footwear, automation equipment, electrical goods, and sewing machines. There are also wood-products (fiber-boards), food-processing, and garment enterprises.

Przemyśl was founded in the tenth century, and during the next two centuries Poland, Hungary, and Kievan Rus&rsquo contested for control over the city. In the 12th century it was included in the Galich-Volynia Principality, becoming part of Poland in 1340. As a result of the First Partition of Poland in 1772, Przemyśl passed to Austria in 1773. At the beginning of the 20th century Przemyśl was a military stronghold, with 17 turreted forts and 24 reinforced batteries within a circumference of 45 km (7-km radius). In World War I, Russian troops surrounded the city during the battle of Galicia on Sept. 4(17), 1914. Some 130,000 Austro-Hungarians with about 1,000 pieces of artillery had sought refuge in the city. The Russian attack on September 22&ndash24 (October 5&ndash7) failed for lack of siege artillery. On September 28 (October 11) the siege was lifted when the Russian troops withdrew to the eastern bank of the San River. On Oct. 26 (Nov. 8), 1914, Przemyśl was besieged for a second time, and after holding out for four months its garrison, numbering 120,000 men and more than 900 guns, surrendered on Mar. 9 (22), 1915. With the withdrawal of the Russian armies from Galicia on May 21 (June 3), 1915, Przemyśl was abandoned.

The city was part of Poland from 1918 to 1939, when it became part of the USSR as a result of the reunification of the Western Ukraine with the USSR. During the Great Patriotic War (1941&mdash45), Soviet troops fought fierce defensive battles with the fascist German troops in the Przemyśl area on June 22&ndash25,1941. The city was liberated by the Red Army on July 27, 1944, during the L&rsquovov-Sandomierz Operation. In 1945, in accordance with a Soviet-Polish agreement, Przemyśl became part of Poland.

The city&rsquos architectural landmarks include a cathedral (1460&ndash1571, rebuilt 1744) with a rotunda dating from the 12th and 13th centuries, monasteries and churches built in the 17th and 18th centuries, private homes and palaces from the 18th and 19th centuries (with sections from the 15th to 17th centuries), the ruins of a castle (after 1340, rebuilt 1612&ndash1630), and complex fortifications constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Naval and Colonial Warfare, 1914

With the entry of Great Britain into the war, the command of the seas passed into the hands of the Allies. It became no longer possible for the reservists of Germany and Austria to return from beyond the seas, and the conquest of the German colonies was an easy matter. About half of the German shipping at the declaration of war was on the high seas or in foreign and colonial ports. The destruction of German commerce and the close blockade of her ports must eventually accomplish her ruin. Her fleet, however, still commanded the Baltic and enabled her to carry on a prosperous trade with Scandinavia, and the outer world through Scandinavian ports. The main task of the British Grand Feet in the North sea was to prevent German squadrons or single ships from reaching the Atlantic or from remaining at sea any length of time without meeting a superior British force. The first encounter of any magnitude took place in the Bight of Heligoland on August 28. Three German cruisers and two torpedo boats were destroyed.

Small German squadrons made flying raids upon the English ports on two occasions. Appearing off Yarmouth on November 3, they caused some damage, and on December 16, the ports of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby were bombarded and many inhabitants killed or wounded. The German cruisers, which were then at sea, were able to inflict considerable damage on British and allied shipping. The most successful of these were the Karlsruhe, the Emden and the Koenigsberg. The Emden was finally destroyed by the Australian cruiser &ldquoSydney&rdquo at the Cocos islands on November 9, and the Koenigsberg was bottled up in the Rufigi River in German East Africa, where she was subsequently destroyed. On November 3, a British squadron of three cruisers encountered a German squadron of much superior force off the harbour of Coronel in Chile. The German Admiral von Spee skilfully taking advantage of weather conditions, succeeded in sinking the Monmouth and Good Hope, while the third British vessel escaped. When this event became known to the Admiralty, another squadron of superior strength was secretly equipped and despatched under Admiral Sturdee in search of the victors. On the morning of December 5, the German squadron of five ships was sighted off the Falkland Islands and four of them were quickly destroyed. They were gallantly fought to the last.

Several British cruisers and destroyers were sunk by submarines, and on October 27 the &ldquoAudacious,&rdquo a new super-dreadnought, was sunk by a mine off the north coast of Ireland. German merchant shipping was quickly swept from the face of the ocean, being captured or interned in neutral ports.

The war against the German overseas possessions was vigorously prosecuted. The German colony in Samoa was taken by an expedition from New Zealand on August 29. The Bismarck Archipelago was captured by the Australians on September 12, and King William's Land, and Yap in the Caroline Islands were occupied by them in the latter part of the same month. The colonial forces of British South Africa invaded German South West Africa. Japan declared war against Germany on August 23. In September, a Japanese army, joined by a small British force, besieged the fortress of Tsing-tau which surrendered on November 7. The Marshall Islands were occupied by the Japanese on October 6.

An insurrection in South Africa headed by Generals de Wet and Beyers was quickly suppressed by the colonial forces.

A Canadian expeditionary force was rapidly assembled in August, 1914, at the training camp of Valcartier, near Quebec, where it remained until transportation and a sufficient escort of ships of war could be provided late in the following month and on October 14, this force consisting of approximately 32,000 men arrived at Plymouth. Contingents from Australia and New Zealand were transported to Egypt. A large force of British territorial troops was despatched to India, liberating an expeditionary force of British and Indian troops for service in France. The French Nineteenth Army Corps from Algeria was conveyed across the Mediterranean unmolested, and great numbers of native troops were recruited for service in the French dominions of Africa and Asia, and brought to France. Such movements of troops would not have been practicable without absolute control of the sea.

At the end of the year, Germany had signally failed in her main purpose of destroying the French and British armies, and afterwards in a very desperate effort to reach the Channel ports. She had, however, overrun Belgium and remained in possession of a tenth of the soil of France containing its most valuable mines of coal and iron, and several of its greatest industrial towns. Austrian armies had been soundly beaten by the Russians and Serbians, and the province of Galicia had been lost.

John Byrns (aka Francis Burns), John Bennet, Daniel Cronan, John Ferguson (aka John Taylor) and John Logan* hanged in Philadelphia on this date in 1789.

The offenders were “wheelbarrow men,” which in the idiolect specific to late 1780s Pennsylvania denoted prisoners who were detailed, in order “to correct and reform offenders, and to produce such strong impressions on the minds of others as to deter them from committing the like offences,” to suffer “continued hard labour publicly and disgracefully imposed.”

As its own text declares, the 1786 statute creating this class was a part of Pennsylvania’s avant-garde move towards a penitential penal philosophy, with a corresponding reduction in capital sentences for property crimes: Pennsylvania had hanged about 40 people for mere robbery or burglary in the preceding decade. As explained by Louis Masur’s Rites of Execution: Capital Punishment and the Transformation of American Culture, 1776-1865 (which is also our source for the count of hanged thieves), “in 1786, most almanacs in Philadelphia and elsewhere included the proverb that industry promoted virtue.”

It became readily apparent, however, that the “wheelbarrow law” neither reformed the prisoners nor prevented vice. Indeed, it seemed to many that the convicts became even more licentious and that unprecedented amounts of criminal activity infested the community.

Such prisoners were “subjects of great terror, even while chained” given these walking spectacles’ notorious dissolution, and still worse their propensity for fleeing their wheelbarrows to become desperate fugitives. Pennsylvania newspapers from this era have an alarming quantity of notices published by gaolers warning of escaped wheelbarrow men … and not a few reports of actual or suspected crimes committed by them. For example …

By the time full 30 wheelbarrow-men escaped on a single night in October 1788, elite opinion had turned solidly against this disastrous experiment, and the law would be repealed by 1790 — substituting for public shaming the penitential benefits imposed solitude. But before the wheelbarrow men had disappeared into historical curiosity, our five of them in September 1789 robbed and also murdered a man named John McFarland in his home on Philadelphia’s Market Street.

On this day..

Possibly related executions:

1871: Eugen Kvaternik, for the Rakovica revolt

On this date in 1871, Eugen Kvaternik and a number of companions were shot as rebels.

A patriot who had long aspired to detach Croatia from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kvaternik (English Wikipedia entry | Croatian) found enough traction to give it a go during the late 19th century’s rise of swirling nationalist rivalries.

His Rakovica Revolt, named after the village where Kvaternik announced the Croatian People’s Republic on October 7, 1871, was speedily crushed, however. Kvaternik’s rebels routed on the 10th with the appearance of a federal army and the arrests began forthwith.

On October 11, a military tribunal sentenced Kvaternik and various comrades to death — sentences that were implemented immediately by musketry. Today, there are streets and city squares in independent Croatia named to Kvaternik’s honor.

On this day..

Possibly related executions:

1967: The Asaba Massacre

The Asaba Massacre during Nigeria’s Biafran War culminated on this date in 1967 with a horrific mass execution.

Nigeria had attained independence in 1960 but still carried the legacy of its many decades under British control. Notably, the borders bequeathed to Nigeria amalgamate a coastal, Christian population in the south to an inland, Muslim population in the north — a fissure that continues to shape Nigeria down to the present day.

The ethnicity of interest for this post is the Igbo, one of those southern and Christian populations, and also a people who had been ethnically cleansed from the north in 1966 after an exchange of Christian and Mulim coups brought Nigeria to the brink of disintegration. Their homeland in southeast Nigeria — historically known as Igboland, and called Eastern Region within Nigeria — would become from May 30, 1967 the breakaway state of Biafra.

Biafra’s bid for independence triggered a devastating war with the Nigerian federal government. By the time that it ended in early 1970, perhaps as many as two million Biafrans were dead from mass starvation.

Asaba, where our massacre takes place, is a predominantly Igbo city on the western (non-Biafran) shore of the Niger River, opposite the Biafran eastern shore city Onitsha.

In the war’s opening weeks, Biafran forces actually struck out from their homeland and into Nigeria proper, crossing the Niger River. They would re-cross it in the opposite direction days before this massacre, taking bridges from Asaba to Onitsha and then cutting those bridges to frustrate the federal troops pursuing them.

Federal soldiers reaching Asaba in the first days of October took out that frustration on the city’s Igbo population, whom they robbed and abused as rebel sympathizers. Murders/summary executions for several days together comprise the Asaba Massacre or Massacres … but the single most emblematic and traumatic event took place on Saturday the 7th.

On October 4-6, soldiers occupied the town, and some began killing boys and men, accusing them of being Biafran sympathizers. On October 7, Asaba leaders met, and then summoned everyone to gather, dancing and singing to welcome the troops, and offering a pledge to One Nigeria. People were encouraged to wear akwa ocha, the ceremonial white, embroidered clothing that signifies peace, hoping that this strategy would end the violence. Although there was much trepidation, and some refused to participate, hundreds of men, women, and children assembled for the march, walking to the village square of Ogbeosewa, one of the five quarters of Asaba. Ify Uraih, then 13 years old, describes what happened when he joined the parade with his father and three older brothers, Paul, Emmanuel (Emma), and Gabriel:

There, they separated the men from the women … I looked around and saw machine-guns being mounted all around us … Some people broke loose and tried to run away. My brother was holding me by the hand he released me and pushed me further into the crowd … They shot my brother in the back, he fell down, and I saw blood coming out of his body. And then the rest of us … just fell down on top of each other. And they continued shooting, and shooting, and shooting … I lost count of time, I don’t know how long it took … After some time there was silence. I stood up … my body was covered in blood, but I knew that I was safe. My father was lying not far away his eyes were open but he was dead.

Exactly how many died is not clear between 500 and 800 seems likely, in addition to many who died in the previous days. Most victims were buried in several mass graves, without observing requisite ceremonial practices. Along with his father, Uraih lost Emma and Paul Gabriel was shot repeatedly, but recovered. The long-term impacts were profound many extended families lost multiple breadwinners, and the town’s leadership was decimated. ()Source)

On this day..

Possibly related executions:

1973: Jose Gregorio Liendo, “Comandante Pepe”

Comandante Pepe was shot on this date in 1973.

Jose Gregorio Liendo (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish), a onetime agronomy student, had quit his studies years before to join a Marxist guerrilla organization.

From the gorgeous inaccessibility of Chile’s mountainous border with Argentina, the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) launched pinprick-level attacks on the state in the late 1960s and took land reform by the barrel of the gun by seizing farms around Panguipulli for the use of workers.

The quixotic former student turned campesino revolutionary, Liendo became one of MIR’s most visible public faces under the nom de guerre of “Comandante Pepe”, even settling down in the mountains and marrying a local.

In the early 1970s this movement enjoyed the simpatico of the socialist Salvador Allende government. (One of MIR’s co-founders was President Allende’s nephew.)

That moment ended abruptly with the September 11, 1973 coup replacing a socialist administration with a far-right military dictatorship — and the latter immediately began slaughtering leftists.

The MIRistas themselves managed a few small attacks on the Pinochet regime in the weeks following the coup but were speedily overwhelmed. Captured after an attack on a carabineros station, “Pepe” with eleven comrades — a mixture of students and lumber workers — were condemned to immediate execution by a drumhead military tribunal in Valdivia.

“A week later, on October 9, the army executed seventeen more persons in the area,” according to Mark Ensalaco. “They were loggers, farmers, and peasant activists. The following day Helicopter Squadron 3 arrested sixteen employees of the same lumber and forestry complex where Comandante Pepe had worked and agitated. The prisoners were taken to a bridge over the Tolen River and executed.”

There’s a recent historical novel about this legendary character, Lo Llamaban Comandante Pepe (They Called Him Comandante Pepe).

On this day..

Possibly related executions:

1678: Five at Tyburn

Three men and two women hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1678.

Our text here is one of the earliest of the Ordinary’s Accounts, a far shorter and less ostentatious affair than examples of the genre even a few years later from the hand of a clergyman who has scarcely begun to grasp his true calling, moving copy.

The Confession & Execution of the several Prisoners that suffered on the New Gallows at Tyburn, on Friday the 6th of September 1678.

AT the last Sessions there were in all Ten persons Condemned to die Four menf or Robberies on the Highway, and Six women for Felonies here in Town, either Lifting (as they call it) of Goods out of Shops, or else Robbing those whom they pretended to serve: both which wicked Practises are become so common, and more than once followed by these incorrigible Prisoners, that it was highly necessary to make them Exemplary. Two of the before-mentioned men, viz. those concerned in that barbarous Assault and Robbery, whereof a particular Narrative hath been made publick by the unexpected Mediation of some generous Friends and the women whose Crimes had not been so great and obstinately continued in as the others, obtained his Majesties gracious Reprieve: and another woman, immediately after she stood attainted, was reprieved by the Court, in reguard she was found by a Female Jury to be quick with Childe.

The Rest came this day to suffer, being charitably indulged in pity to their Souls, so long time to sit and prepare themselves for their great and terrible Change. In order to which, on the Lords-day before, there were two Sermons on most suitable Texts preached before them in the Chappel of Newgate. That in the Forenoon on the fifth verse of the 38 Psalm — My wounds stink and are corrupt, because of my foolishness: Wherein the Minister very pathetically laid open the deplorable Condition such sinners are in by Nature, wallowing not onely in their original Depravity and Corruption, but in continued actual Transgressions against the holy Laws of God whereby they become abominable, and as a loathsome stench in the Nostrils of that pure Majesty and all good men and all this occasioned by their own foolishness, that is, their wilful rebellion and obstinacy against all the dictates of Reason, offers of Grace, and impulses of the Holy Spirit upon their Consciences. Which having, like a true Bonaerges, hereby endeavoured to awaken, and put them into a serious sense and apprehension of their lost, undone, and perishing Estate, without speedy and sincere Repentance.

In the Afternoon, as a Son of Consolation, from the 147 Psalm, vers. 3. He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds, he came to shew them the infinite Mercies of God, and Love of Jesus Christ, if they would come in and accept of Pardon and Salvation upon Gospel-terms. That although they had made their wounds to fester and rankle by their foolishness, and had Souls all over bespread with a filthy Leprosie, yet there was Balm in Gilead, an Almighty Physician, both able and willing to heal them, if they would submit to his Prescriptions. In order to which, he gave them divers most necessary and excellent Directions Not to deceive themselves with a false and palliated Cure, but to close with Christ on his own Terms, and in all his Offices, as their King to Rule them, and their Prophet to Guide them, as well as their Priest to Intercede and make Atonement for them. To hate Sin more, because it was displeasing to God, than because it brought upon them temporal or eternal Punishments. To be as desirous to be Holy as to be Happy because none can be justified until they are sanctified, Etc.

During the whole time of Religious Worship, and the Sermons, they behaved themselves very Reverently and Attentively nor was the Minister wanting afterwards, daily to visit them, with pressing Exhortations, and necessary directions to sit them for their last end especially charging them to disburthen their Consciences, and give glory to God by a free and hearty Confession of their Sins which had so good an effect, as to bring them to an Acknowledgment not only in general term, but particularly bewailing the Ill Courses of their past Lives in neglect of the publick Divine Worship, Violation of the Lords day, Drunkenness, Swearing, and continual practises of Lascivious Debauchery Two of them above the rest abounding in expressions of Penitence, and endeavouring to improve those few moments of their Lives, to work out their Salvation, and make their peace with God begging heartily forgiveness from his most holy Majesty, for their Rebellion against his Precepts, and of all those whom they had wronged, by violent taking away their Temporal Goods.

Some of the Women had been Condemned before, and would often bewail the wickedness of their Hearts, that would take no warning thereby: the Men alleadged, they were ignorantly drawn in to that ill Fact, for which they suffer’d, being their first of that kind, and rather by the unhappy operation of too much Drink, than any premeditated design yet confessed, they had more than once deserved to Dye, and freely acknowledged the justice of the punishment they were to suffer.

At the place of Execution they said little, besides those common, but too much neglected Exhortations, desiring all present to take Warning by them, and remember their Creator in the days of their youth Not to suffer themselves to be seduced by Ill Company, or sensual pleasures, which had been the means of their destruction, and would be so of all, that did not continually keep a reverent fear of God, and his Worship and Laws in their Hearts.

Thus heartily praying to God for Forgiveness, and to receive their Souls for the alone Merits of his blessed Son and desiring all good people to joyn with them and for them in those Supplications, they submitted to the Sentence, and taking their leave of all things in this world, were wasted into the unfathomable Regions of Eternity.

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T he centenary of World War I has been a significant stimulus to new research about that conflict. Like any historical era, the meaning and consequences of the war have been reinterpreted in light of our own twenty-first century concerns. The perception that in recent years the world has witnessed a ‘return to geopolitics,’ ending the relative calm of the post-Cold War period, has made the tensions that produced the Great War appear freshly relevant. It has also refocused attention on the early twentieth-century roots of present-day conflicts. In this new international environment, U.S.-China rivalry begins to look similar to Anglo-German competition in the years before 1914, and the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement and the treaties of Brest-Litovsk (1918) and Versailles (1919) seem to contain clues about contemporary conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Amidst the welter of new research, Alexander Watson’s The Fortress stands out as a singularly original study of how the war shaped East-Central Europe. Watson’s book reconstructs a forgotten chapter in the history of the war: the siege of the Galician fortress city of Przemyśl (also known as Premissel in German and Peremyshl in Ukrainian) between September 1914 and March 1915. As the most prominent fortification on the northeastern frontier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Przemyśl found itself squarely in the path of invading Russian armies at the outbreak of the war in August 1914. Over the course of the next months, the fighting in this region witnessed many of the phenomena that would mark the twentieth century ‘age of extremes’ in East-Central Europe. Ethnic cleansing, deportation, the starvation and bombing of civilians, the confiscation of property, and the erasure of cultural life began to occur in the Galician borderlands between the Habsburg and Russian empires within months of the outbreak of war. Watson first and foremost provides a more comprehensive account of the siege than any that has come before. But he also connects this work of reconstruction to a core argument: that Przemyśl’s wartime experience matters “because it reveals in microcosm a forgotten pre-history to the later, better-remembered totalitarian horrors” (3).

The story that Watson unfolds across seven chapters puts his talents as a social historian of the Great War on full display. For readers of his earlier prize-winning Ring of Steel, which provided a masterful survey of the war from the vantage point of the inhabitants of Germany and Austria-Hungary from 1914 to 1918, this will come as little surprise. [1] But in The Fortress, Watson deftly integrates illuminating explorations of daily life in the besieged city with narration of the wider political, regional, and military history in which the lives of the besieged unfolded.

Watson sets the stage with his vivid portrait of a cosmopolitan Habsburg garrison town. Przemyśl had belonged to the Habsburg Empire since the First Partition of Poland in 1772, but did not become a major frontier fortress until one century later. By the eve of World War I it was the third-largest city in Galicia after Cracow, 200 kilometers to the west, and Lwów, some 90 kilometers to the east. [2] Przemyśl’s 54,000-strong population was composed largely of Roman Catholic Poles (47 percent) but also included significant numbers of Jewish inhabitants (30 percent) and Greek Catholic Ruthenians (22 percent). Whereas under Habsburg rule the Polish population acquired a growing presence in local political life and the Jewish community enjoyed increasing prosperity, the Ruthenians were in a more fraught position. Many were suspected by Austro-Hungarian authorities of Russophilia and thus of sedition. At the same time, Ruthenians who made a claim to independent nationhood as Ukrainians were oppressed to varying degrees by both Habsburg and Russian authorities and by Polish and Hungarian nationalists. Despite these growing cultural cleavages, class politics retained its force in a region marked by labor emigration and urban industrialization. When Austria-Hungary held its first parliamentary elections through universal suffrage in 1907, the townspeople of Przemyśl voted out a Polish nationalist and sent the Polonophone Jewish socialist Herman Lieberman to Vienna instead. This relative concord came under strain in the last years before the war and was shattered by the conflict itself.

Przemyśl’s garrison consisted of troops from the Austrian and Hungarian Landsturm, the army reserve units composed of men between the ages of thirty-seven and forty-two. Most of its officers were German-speaking Austrians and Hungarian gentry, while much of the rank and file was locally recruited in Galicia. This motley crew was commanded by a Transylvanian German general with the impeccably Habsburg name Hermann Kusmanek von Burgneustädten. The Austro-Hungarian army is famous for the problems that its ethnic and linguistic diversity caused for effective command as well as unit cohesion and the maintenance of morale under pressure. [3] It is unsurprising that a garrison of middle-aged fathers who spoke at least six different languages would struggle to defend a brick fortress against the largest army in Europe. Watson follows a number of individuals through the disorientating opening of the war and uses their eyewitness accounts to illuminate the confusing experiences of mobilization, deployment, combat, retreat and encirclement.

The first military histories of the siege of Przemyśl were researched and written in German and therefore heavily Austrian in their perspective. [4] These accounts took Habsburg officers’ complaints about their largely Slavic soldiers at face value and produced the impression that subaltern nationalisms were to blame for the collapse of the Dual Monarchy’s armed forces. Watson corrects for this bias by drawing extensively on Polish-language sources, as well as first-hand accounts of the siege by Czech and Hungarian soldiers and more recent local histories. [5] For example, Watson uses the testimony of Hungarian officer István Bielek to great effect to provide a new account of the battle for Fort I/1 on the night of 9 October 1914. This battle was the apex of the first siege of Przemyśl and became a major staple of Austro-Hungarian propaganda. By retracing the dramatic battle for the fort in painstaking detail, Watson is able to show that Habsburg authorities produced a significantly doctored official version of the battle for popular consumption. The army command ignored the crucial role of Hungarian units and of the brave Jewish Austrian junior officer Altmann, and instead decorated a more senior Croatian officer as the official hero of the battle.

The fortunes of the soldiers fighting in Galicia constitute only a part of Watson’s narrative. Besieged cities offer an ideal setting for thick social history, since many processes that in peacetime society are conducted in separate domains suddenly become extraordinarily compressed in space. [6] The range of topics Watson accordingly examines is impressive: from expositions of the linguistic organization of the Austro-Hungarian army to explorations of Galicia’s confessional politics, and from excursions into the lives of villagers caught in no-man’s land to reconstructions of the difficult circumstances of women caught in the city. An additional boon are the colorful flourishes of late Habsburg culture under strain. Throughout the siege, Przemyśl continued to operate a movie theatre printed three different newspapers in German, Polish, and Hungarian and converted its useless railway station arrivals hall into a concert venue. Right up until the city’s surrender, Austrian and Hungarian officers continued to frequent the fancy Grand Café Stieber on the city’s Mickiewicz Street, even if it now served weak tea and horse-meat canapés instead of the usual coffee and pastries.

This glimpse of the last moments of Austro-Hungarian society at war is gripping in its own right. However, Watson not only recovers the civilian angle of the war’s eastern front, but also argues that this theater prefigured many of the horrors of interwar nationalism and totalitarianism in Europe. Promisingly, the experience of civilian suffering during WWI is increasingly being examined from new perspectives. Historians have begun to grapple with the long-ignored experience of civilians in the Greater Middle East, where Ottoman mass requisitioning, imprisonment, and genocide combined with an Allied starvation blockade by land and sea to render the Levant and Anatolia a uniquely deadly region for non-combatants. [7] As Robert Gerwarth has recently emphasized, East-Central Europe and the Mediterranean countries witnessed enormous bloodshed not just during but also after the official war ended. [8] Watson brings forward the beginnings of these escalatory processes of violence, showing how they emerged from a mixture of racialized nationalism, fears of treason and sedition, and wartime improvisation.

Following on arguments that he first advanced in Ring of Steel, Watson makes an important set of claims about mass violence against civilians in World War I. The German violence against Belgians in 1914 has occupied much political and historical attention. But these abuses pale in comparison to imperial Russian and Austro-Hungarian atrocities on the Eastern and Balkan fronts, which were not only larger in scale but much more systematic and long-lasting. Habsburg forces began mass executions of Serbian soldiers and civilians almost immediately after invading the Balkans (in Serbia at least one-sixth of the population died as a result of the war). In and around Przemyśl, Austro-Hungarian forces were equally ruthless, especially against Ruthenian peasants. In September 1914, Watson writes, ‘corpses on the roadside trees, bobbing in the wind, marked the path of the retreating Habsburg army’ (46). Entire Ruthenian villages were burned down to clear fields of fire for the defenders. Although their communities were uprooted, many locals returned to their charred hamlets, some spending the months of the siege in a harrowing no-man’s land between besiegers and besieged.

The most systematic Austro-Hungarian war crimes in Galicia, however, were committed against Ruthenians by Hungarian units. Watson presents a chilling account of the massacre of a group of Ruthenian prisoners by Hungarian soldiers and a mob of Przemyśl townspeople. This incident of gruesome slaughter shows that mass violence in East-Central Europe in these years was not a purely top-down affair, but could also be sustained and even initiated by popular outbursts of ethnic prejudice.

Russian administration of occupied territories was notoriously anti-Semitic as well as repressive towards Poles and Ruthenians. Although Russian rule over Przemyśl lasted for a mere 73 days, just two and a half months between March and June 1915, Watson insists that “around and later in the city the Russian army perpetrated the first ambitious programme of ethnic cleansing to befall East-Central Europe” (3). In April 1915 the Russian military administration of occupied Galicia deported 17,000 Jewish inhabitants of Przemyśl from the city into the Russian empire. By juxtaposing this anti-Jewish action, further instances of which are documented in the work of Eric Lohr, Marsha Rozenblit and Alexander Prusin, [9] with the religious and linguistic repression of Polish and Ruthenian inhabitants of the region, Watson makes the case that there was a violent program of Russification behind tsarist policies. In this regard, Watson is concerned first and foremost with description rather than explanation. He notes the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism in the Russian army as well as disagreements between army commanders and civilian authorities over whether Galician Jews had to be deported to Russia or driven across the frontline into Austria-Hungary. However, the precise forces that drove Russian occupation policies, and the degree to which they formed a coherent whole, merit further systematic study. [10]

The need to understand this violence is only heightened by the fact that, as Watson acknowledges, the ranks of the imperial Russian army were ethnically “hardly less diverse than those of its Habsburg enemy” (243). Besides numerous Baltic German as well as Finnish and Bulgarian commanders, the imperial Russian army deployed hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian, Georgian, Armenian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Tatar, and Jewish soldiers between 1914 and 1917. [11] How do we explain atrocities committed by and among such diverse imperial formations? Watson sums up the litany of depredations in Galicia as “the warring Habsburg and Romanov Empires’ racialized fantasies of treason and brutal reprisals interlocking and spiralling” (122). The timing and pattern of these campaigns of violence has not been fully absorbed by mainstream historical narratives of the twentieth century because the empires that committed them ceased to exist a century ago. Watson’s emphasis on how early these atrocities took place, and how intense they were, now stands as an important finding that future historians of Europe’s twentieth century must reckon with.

The story told in The Fortress also enables a fresh look at the military history of the Eastern Front during the Great War. Conventionally, the war in the east is construed as a much more dynamic affair than the more static trench warfare on the Western Front. This was not because military mobility was exceptional. Rather, as Norman Stone’s classic 1975 study of this front showed, it was the inability of defenders to quickly move up reserves via railroad that allowed for major offensives to break through and move the frontline across distances unimaginable on the Western Front. [12] Yet Watson has constructed a fascinating narrative around an important exception to this trend Przemyśl was the longest siege battle on the Eastern Front between 1914 and 1917, pitting entrenched Russian troops against an Austro-Hungarian garrison ensconced in elaborate nineteenth-century fortifications. This was in large part due to the Austro-Hungarian decision to build up Przemyśl as one of the main border forts on the Galician frontier, together with Cracow and Lwów. Eighteen forts and dozens of ancillary fortifications were constructed between the 1880s and early 1900s. As a result of this protective carapace, and the Russian lack of heavy siege artillery that could destroy the forts, as the Germans did at Antwerp and Liège in August 1914, the frontlines around the city barely moved for the duration of the siege.

In fact, there were not one but two sieges of Przemyśl. The initial attempt by the Habsburg high command to bring the war to the Russians in late August and early September 1914 backfired spectacularly. Owing to inconsistent mobilization plans and a flawed deployment pattern, as well as ill-chosen equipment and antiquated tactics, the Austrian offensive into eastern Galicia was beaten back. Habsburg forces retreated to the western part of the province in a state of disorder. This left Przemyśl as the only bulwark guarding the Carpathian Mountain passes. From late September until mid-October 1914, the fortress pinned down a significant Russian force that otherwise would have been able to cross the Carpathians and probably invade the Danubian plain of Hungary. A German-Austrian counteroffensive in October relieved the fortress, and a narrative of heroic resistance was quickly constructed in Austro-Hungarian official discourse around Festung Premissel.

A renewed Russian offensive in November 1914 inaugurated another Austro-Hungarian withdrawal. This time, the city was in a much worse state to resist. Its supplies had been depleted by troops fighting nearby, and since the Austro-Hungarian rear had been stabilized by the arrival of German troops in western Galicia, there was no longer a compelling strategic reason to hold on to the fortress. Yet the public image of Przemyśl as an impregnable fortress now held the Habsburg high command captive. The Austrian commander in chief, Conrad von Hötzendorf, ordered Kusmanek to hold out as long as possible. [13] Since the winter was setting in, he thereby sealed its fate. The garrison managed to keep up the defense for five months by subsisting on meager supplies and the meat of its 17,000 cavalry and draught horses.

Little actual fighting took place around the city during the second siege, except for a strong sortie by the garrison in December 1914. Most of the Austro-Hungarian military effort was taking place to the south, where in January 1915 Conrad ordered a major offensive to capture the mountain passes that gave way to Przemyśl. In the winter snow and frost, these fruitless attacks wasted staggering numbers of human lives and large amounts of equipment in the space of three months the Habsburg army lost an astonishing 670,000 men dead, wounded, and missing. Przemyśl’s garrison, updated via radio transmission and connected to the Dual Monarchy by the world’s first air-mail service, followed these relief attempts with consternation and a growing sense of exhaustion. A final breakout attempt on 19 March failed, and two days later Kusmanek had the city’s fortresses, depots, and bridges blown up to prevent their capture by the Russians. An escaping pilot taking off from the city described the cascading explosions as a spectacle of “horrible and yet incomparable beauty, eternally sad and yet of such sublime greatness that the destruction of Pompeii or Herculaneum could not have offered a sight more awesome” (207). Przemyśl surrendered on 22 March, after 133 days of siege.

In comparative and historiographical terms, Watson’s book opens several interesting questions. Przemyśl was the only prolonged siege on the Eastern Front of the First World War, but it was not the only or the first siege battle to occur in East-Central Europe in the period. During the First and Second Balkan Wars, the strength of prepared fortifications had already come up against the power of modern mass armies. The possession of food supplies and sufficiently powerful and numerous artillery could decide these battles. During the First Balkan War, two Ottoman fortresses were invested in long-lasting sieges that witnessed many of the same approaches taken to conquer Przemyśl. From October 1912, Shköder (Scutari) in Albania held out for 183 days against a Serbo-Montenegrin force, while the garrison of Edirne (Adrianople) in Thrace lasted five months against a joint Bulgarian-Serbian army. Adrianople also saw the first experimental use of airplanes for the aerial bombing of besieged cities, a tactic later employed on a more significant scale by the Russians at Przemyśl.

Watson’s book ends on a haunting note, which connects Przemyśl’s experience in World War I with its fate during the interwar period and World War II. Located on the river San, the city was the point where the German and Soviet occupation zones of Poland bordered each other from 1939 to 1941. The Fortress raises the question to what degree the aforementioned Austro-Hungarian and imperial Russian atrocities were precursors of the mass murder and genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany and by the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. In doing so it engages directly with Timothy Snyder’s well-known ‘bloodlands’ paradigm, which stresses the interactive and overlapping nature of Nazi and Soviet occupation of the part of Eastern Europe where 14 million people were killed between 1933 and 1945. [14] Although Watson’s argument challenges Snyder’s chronology by suggesting much earlier roots, his view of imperial Russian atrocities in 1914-1915 is located on the same moral horizon, one oriented around the crimes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. “Though the Tsarist army lacked the state direction necessary for genocide,’ he writes, ‘its occupation foreran later totalitarian projects” (124).

As a diachronic view of eastern Galicia in the early twentieth century, this framing makes sense. But violence against civilians during World War I should not be judged only in relation to the mid-century telos of totalitarian terror. Equally important and perhaps more germane is a synchronic point of reference: the Ottoman Empire’s genocide against the Armenians and Assyrians, which was initiated at the exact time that Russia instituted its brutal short-lived occupation of Galicia in the spring of 1915. [15] If the descent into mass violence is what matters, then the clash of empires along the Eurasian seam in 1915 did not prefigure anything–it already was the scene in which genocide could and did emerge, in circumstances not altogether dissimilar to those around Przemyśl.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, violent nationalism both emerged from and contributed to the collapse of imperial structures. Ethnic cleansing should be seen first and foremost in the context of these late imperial nationalizing anxieties, conducted through ‘interpenetrating’ ethnic groups spread across different states, rather than as a foreboding of a totalitarianism that did not yet exist and would only emerge twenty years later. [16] Omer Bartov and Eric Weitz’s notion of a “shatterzone of empires” is a more capacious geographical frame that seems better suited to the variegated and complex patterns of violence seen from the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 onwards than the geographical focus of the ‘bloodlands’ paradigm on East-Central Europe, which excludes the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus. [17]

Choosing juxtaposition over prefiguration would have had other advantages, too. The argumentative and narrative links that The Fortress forges between the Great War and the great dictators are fairly thin. Watson covers the entire late wartime and interwar history of Przemyśl between its recapture by the Central Powers in June 1915 and the invasion of Poland in September 1939 in just two pages. This somewhat flattens the intervening history of Polish-Ukrainian conflict and of interwar Polish governance in the region, and one wishes that Watson, as a talented social historian, had gone into greater depth about the continuities and discontinuities in state policy, civilian life, and inter-ethnic coexistence in the city and its surroundings in these crucial years. [18] After all, plenty of interesting and important things happened in the remaining three years of the war, not least the making of the territorial order of Eastern Europe as it existed for the next two decades. The values of such a longitudinal analysis can be seen in Robert Blobaum’s recent study of Warsaw in World War I, which compares Russian rule of the Polish capital with the subsequent German occupation of the city before Polish independence. [19]

Altogether, Watson has produced a gripping study of a largely forgotten battle that makes a major contribution in putting East-Central Europe at the center of our increasingly global accounts of World War I. The book advances historical debates about wartime violence against civilians by calling attention to the clash between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, even though more work remains to be done on the nature and drivers of the latter’s occupation policy, and the connection between Watson’s excellent narrative and Eastern Europe’s ‘bloodlands’ in later decades is underdeveloped. An impressive blend of social and military history that is superbly written and based on scrupulous source research, The Fortress is the kind of total history that the total war of 1914-1918 deserves.

Nicholas Mulder teaches modern European history at Cornell University and is finishing a book about the origins of economic sanctions between the world wars.

[1] Alexander Watson, Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I (London: Allen Lane, 2014).

[2] For the key role of the inhabitants of these two cities in fostering a sense of Galicia as a distinctly multiethnic territory between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, see Larry Wolff, The Idea of Galicia: History and Fantasy in Habsburg Political Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).

[3] The classic literary depiction of this is Jaroslav Hašek’s 1923 satirical novel Good Soldier Švejk. The main historical studies are Gunther E. Rothenberg, The Army of Francis Joseph (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1976) and István Déak, Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1848-1918 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

[4] In addition to the memoirs of garrison commandant Kusmanek and other officers such as Bruno Wolfgang, the Austrian staff officer Franz Stuckheil wrote a number of analytical essays about the siege in the 1920s the first book-length study was Hermann Heiden’s Bollwerk am San. Schicksal der Festung Przemysl (Oldenbourg and Berlin: Gerhard Stalling, 1940).

[5] Tomasz Pomykacz, ‘Kontrowersje wokół dowódcy obrony Fortu I/1 “Łysicka”,’ Rocznik Prezmyski 51:3 (2015), 135-148 John E. Fahey, ‘Bulwark of Empire: Imperial and Local Government in Przemyśl, Galicia (1867-1939),’ (PhD dissertation, Purdue University, 2017).

[6] Unsurprisingly, many of these histories have focused on the Eastern Front see for example Krisztian Ungvary, Die Belagerung Budapest (1999), translated into English as The Siege of Budapest: 100 Days in World War II (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) Jochen Hellbeck, Stalingrad: The City that Defeated the Third Reich (New York: Public Affairs, 2015) Alexis Peri, The War Within: Diaries from the Siege of Leningrad (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017).

[7] See especially the excellent recent study by Melanie S. Talienian, The Charity of War: Famine, Humanitarian Aid, and World War I in the Middle East (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018). The issues of food and civilian relief in northwestern Europe are the subject of Clotilde Druelle, Feeding Occupied France during World War I: Herbert Hoover and the Blockade (London: Palgrave, 2019).

[8] Robert Gerwarth, The Vanquished: How the First World War Failed to End (London: Penguin, 2016).

[9] Eric Lohr, “The Russian Army and the Jews: Mass Deportation, Hostages, and Violence during World War I,” Russian Review 3 (2001): 404-419 Marsha Rozenblit, Reconstructing a National Identity: The Jews of Habsburg Austria during World War I (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) Alexander Victor Prusin, Nationalizing a Borderland: War, Ethnicity, and Anti-Jewish Violence in East Galicia (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005).

[10] Watson writes that the motives behind the expulsion of the Jews from Przemyśl ‘were, and remain, opaque,’ (225) and that the relevant Russian files about the administration of occupied Galicia from archives in Lviv ‘must have been removed or destroyed’ (304 n63). Important in this regard is the comparative work of Peter Holquist. See his “La violence de l’armée russe à l’encontre des Juifs en 1915: Causes et limites,” in John Horne, ed., Vers la guerre totale: Le tournant de 1914/1915 (Paris: Tallandier, 2010): 191-219 as well as his forthcoming book on imperial Russian attitudes to the laws of war in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, By Right of War: Imperial Russia and the Discipline and Practice of International Law, 1868-1917.

[11] The cultural and social experience of Jewish soldiers in the Russian imperial army is examined in Olga Litvak, Conscription and the Search for Modern Russian Jewry (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2006) and Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, Jews in the Russian Army, 1827-1917: Drafted into Modernity (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009). At least 100,000 Jewish soldiers were drafted into the Russian army in 1914-1917.

[12] Stone, The Eastern Front 1914-1917 (London: Penguin, 2008 [1975]).

[13] Watson places the responsibility for Przemyśl’s second siege and for its eventual fall to the Russian army in late March 1915 squarely on the figure of Conrad. In this he follows the verdict of the military historian Graydon Tunstall, who has produced two in-depth studies of the Austro-Hungarian army in the first year of the war which emphasize how Conrad’s political and personal quest for prestige, not strategic considerations, caused the grave Austro-Hungarian losses incurred in this period. See Graydon A. Tunstall, Blood on the Snow: The Carpathian Winter War of 1915 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2010) Written in Blood: The Battles for Fortress Przemyśl in WWI (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016).

[14] Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

[15] Peter Holquist, for example, has highlighted the differences between Russian policy in Galicia and its contemporaneous occupation of Armenia, where Russian rule “produced policies that were callous and frequently brutal, yet…rarely had the purposefulness that is so often ascribed to them.” Holquist, “The Politics and Practice of the Russian Occupation of Armenia, 1915-February 1917,” in Ronald Grigor Suny, Fatma Müge Göçek, and Norman M. Naimark, eds., A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 153.

[16] See the impressive study of imperial ethnic politics on the Russian-Ottoman frontier by Michael Reynolds, who foregrounds the emergent properties of inter-imperial strife, arguing that nationalism was ‘a byproduct of interstate competition, not a stimulus of that competition,’ Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908-1918 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 18.

[17] Omer Bartov and Eric D. Weitz, Shatterzone of Empires: Coexistence and Violence in the German, Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman Borderlands (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2013). The vastness of this zone is also well captured in the newly-translated history of the war in the East written in 2014 by the historians Włodzimierz Borodziej and Maciej Górny, Die Vergessene Weltkrieg: Europas Osten 1912-1923 (2 vols.) (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2018), especially the first volume on the period from 1912 to 1916.

[18] For example, the Jewish community in Przemyśl did rather well during the decade after the war by 1928, nearly half of the representatives on the city council as well as the assistant mayor were Jewish. Similarly, Ukrainian peasants recovered some of their landholdings around the city, and the surrounding region remained distinctively multi-ethnic until the outbreak of World War II. Fahey, “Bulwark of Empire,” 285, 288.

[19] Robert Blobaum, A Minor Apocalypse: Warsaw during the First World War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017).

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