Russians take Austrian garrison at Przemysl

After six months of battle, the Austrian garrison at Przemysl (now in Poland), the citadel guarding the northeastern-most point of the Austro-Hungarian empire, falls to the Russians on March 22, 1915.

During the first weeks of World War I in August 1914, Russia had been able to mobilize more quickly than the Central Powers had expected, sending two armies into East Prussia and four into the Austrian province of Galicia, along the northern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains (now southeast Poland and western Ukraine). In Galicia, two armies moved in from the east and two from the west, both steadily advancing through the region, scoring victories over inferior numbers of Austrian troops, including at Lemberg (now Lvov) in early September.

Franz Conrad von Hotzendorff, chief of the Austrian general staff, had set up headquarters in Przemysl in accordance with his growing conviction that Galicia was a crucial front in the war, and that Russia—not Serbia, as Austrian military commanders had originally intended—had become the Austrian army’s central opponent. Przemysl became a rallying point for the Austrians. As Conrad’s headquarters, the city had been given seven new defensive fortifications—consisting of trenches and barbed wire—and proved surprisingly resilient against the Russian onslaught. On September 16, 1914, its garrison was ordered to hold out until the end. Five days later, Russia’s 8th Army, commanded by A.A. Brusilov, began their siege. Austria’s 3rd Army fought forward and reinforced the garrison, where provisions soon began to dwindle among a growing number of troops. In mid-October, the Austrians managed to rebuild one of the nearby railway lines (previously destroyed by the Russians) and keep it open long enough to bring in supplies for the 130,000 soldiers—and 30,000 civilians—now in Przemysl.

The stalwart Austrian resistance at Przemysl tied up the Russian army, buying Austria-Hungary time to recoup its strength and slowing the Russians on their advance across the Carpathian Mountains toward the plains of Hungary. As the siege continued into the winter, neither side was prepared for the worsening conditions. Brusilov wrote of his army that they were literally unclad. Their summer clothing was worn outmy men, up to their knees in snow and enduring the most severe frosts had not yet received their winter kit. As for the men within Przemysl’s walls, they too were severely under-supplied and were forced to ration their food beginning in mid-November.

During the final days of battle at Przemysl, fierce blizzards raged, and hundreds of wounded men froze to death on the battlefield before they could be treated. As Alexander von Krobatin, Austria’s minister of war, wrote of the surrender, which finally took place on March 22, 1915: the food supply grew daily more and more scanty, until on the morning of the 22nd there was not a particle of bread in the stores, not a pound of meat or flour available, so that the commander of the fortress decided to surrender. Among the spoils of victory for the exhausted Russian forces were 700 heavy guns captured along with 120,000 Austrian solders (including nine generals).

By the end of March, then, Russia’s armies were poised to move into Hungary. The loss of Przemysl and the seeming weakness of their Austrian ally against the Russians disheartened the Germans, a mood tempered only by the British navy’s spectacular failure against the Turks at the Dardanelles that same month. As Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz wrote: Everywhere the Russians are attacking ruthlessly and the Austrians are always beaten, and we too are getting nervous. Hindenburg is coming to the end of his resources. Germany would now be forced to turn its attention and resources to shoring up its Austrian ally in the east. For his part, Conrad complained that his German allies had won their victories at our expense; they have left us in the lurch.

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