Doctrine Pt. 5



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium episode number 21. This is our fifth episode on the development of military doctrine both before and during the war. This episode was originally envisioned as sort of an overview, summary, and comparison between the various armies in Europe. That will still happen in another episode released soon after this one, this episode will be spent looking at the Austro-Hungarian empire and their military plans for the war. If I am honest, this content should have been earlier in this series, somewhere around when we talked about the French and their build up for the war. The issue is, I did not find the main source for this information until I was already done with the episode on the French and German doctrine so it just sort of got pushed here until the end. I find the information interesting, and I think it is always worth looking at information outside of the French, German, and British triangle which has been such a focus of the Patreon episodes due to the ease of finding sources pertaining to those countries. With all of that in mind, let’s jump in. The Austro-Hungarian situation is great to talk about if only because nobody ever seems to discuss it in much detail. The first thing to understand is that the Empire had some serious issues when it came to a possible future war in the early 20th century. First of all, they would always be at a numerical disadvantage when confronting any of the major powers of Europe, this included most importantly Russia which was the Great Power with the greatest chance of being on the other side of a war with the Empire. This numerical inferiority would be true even if the conscription system within the Empire ran perfectly smoothly and efficiently, which was absolutely not the case. Theoretically every male in the Austro-Hungarian empire was supposed to serve some time in the army during their life, however there were any number of exemptions that they could get that would keep them from having to do this service. In a study that was released before the war the conscription system of the Empire would be described like this “Universal conscription exists among us only in theory, but not in reality, because the claims for exception by the available able-bodied people liable for conscription are completely heterogeneous.” Because of these exceptions the burden of military service often fell on the lowest classes and smallest minorities, with many of the best and brightest, and most importantly richest, Austro-Hungarians able to find ways out of doing their time. With the understanding that their armies would always be smaller many inside of Austrian high command focused on studying history to find instances where smaller forces had been victorious against more powerful foes. This then led them down two paths of somewhat mutually exclusive thought that roughly mirror similar divisions that were happening in the French army at the time. The first was that since the Austrian army would be smaller it had to rely on superior leadership, equipment, and luck to win the day. On the other side it was thought that the bravery of the infantry was the most important factor that would see them to victory.

With these facts in mind it might not surprise you to learn that much like in France the cult of the offensive had definitively taken hold of the country, even before Conrad became the Chief of the General Staff, at which point that belief would just be reinforced from the highest level. One of the Conrad’s most important works on military tactics, called Zum Studium der Taktik devoted 105 pages to the offensive and only 45 to the defensive. Most of this focus on the offensive manifested in similar ways to that of the French, a huge emphasis on the courage of the infantry and a belief that through their courage, and an overflowing offensive spirit, they could overcome any numerical or technological obstacles in their path. The Austrians looked at the Prussian victories of 1866 and 1870 as inspiration for their plans for the next war. These involved daring offensive thrusts and high-risk high-reward maneuvers deep into enemy territory to obtain an advantage. Should a war with their larger eastern neighbor begin the Austrians planned to start the war with large attacks into Russian territory, instead of holding on the defensive on the frontier. There were even a few suggestions that the army could live off the land while it moved, lessening the need for a logistical train which would never be an Austrian specialty. This was of course a preposterous idea for armies on the 1914 scale. In planning there was a certain level of detail that was ignored for these attacks, and these kinds of details would end up being very important when it came to launching a large offensive into Russian territory. Even when faced with these problems the Austrians adamantly refused to even entertain the option of standing on the strategic defensive for any reason, it was just not considered a viable option. In Austrian high command it was believed that armies on the defensive simply did not win wars. Much like in other countries the cult of the offensive would move to a point beyond all reason, with the 1913 maneuvers featuring massed cavalry charges against fully entrenched infantry units, something that would suicidal on any battlefield of the early 20th century.

The Austrians would take inspiration from two conflicts early in the 20th century, the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War. From these two conflicts they would find evidence that confirmed their military theories. For the Boer War they generally expressed admiration for the impressive defense of the Boers, but believed that the British could have been victories if they had fixed some of the errors that they had made. The Austrian General Staff believed that the British had done a poor job of reconnaissance which put them in inferior positions multiple times during the conflict. Then once they were in those positions they had not properly prepared for the attacks. If they would have not made those mistakes they would have won the war. The Austrians believed that the Boers, while being great on the defensive, had defended in far too passive of a manner. They should have been more aggressive with their counterattacks to properly capitalize on their successes. For the Austrian High command this seemed to prove that they needed to be aggressive during their next conflict. The Russo-Japanese war even more strongly confirmed these beliefs. The Japanese had one, and they had been on the offensive for basically the entire war, the Russians had lost and they had been on the defensive. The Japanese had also displayed great bravery in their attacks, often pushing attacks forward at all costs, many of which would eventually be successful. In these movements the Austrians saw everything that they believed be successful against the Russians, their greatest enemy. All of these conclusions were roughly the same as everybody else in Europe was coming to, with certain information ignored to confirm their own hypotheses that constant attacking was the only way to win.

When Conrad took over command of the Austro-Hungarian army his first order of business was to write up a new set of infantry regulations to be used by the army. These regulations clearly outlined what Conrad expected from the infantry “An infantry filled with lust for attack, physically and psychologically persevering, well-trained and well-led will fight successfully against a numerically superior enemy.” When these new regulations were put up for review with 33 of the highest ranking officers in the Austro-Hungarian army 19 of them approved the instructions as a good path forward for the army and none of the 33 reviewers would reject the new regulations. This is important to note because it would be those same 33 men who would be playing some of the most critical roles for the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War, with most holding the most important commands in the army in 1914. Conrad’s offensive obsession was definitely focused on the infantry. He believed that it would be these soldiers that were the decisive arm on the battlefield and could, in essence, when a battle single-handedly. He would write “The infantry is the main arm. Able to fight at long range or at close quarters, in defence or in attack, the infantry can use its weapons with success against any enemy, in every type of terrain, by day as well as by night. It decides battles: even without support from other arms and against a numerically superior enemy it is capable of attaining the laurels of victory, if only it has trust in itself and has the will to fight.” With so much emphasis and faith in the infantry the role of the cavalry on the battlefield was altered. Instead of focusing so much on the attack, much of the Austro-Hungarian cavalry was shifted over to a reconnaissance and security role since it was believed that the infantry would have more than enough attacking power.

You will note that we have not talked at all about artillery. Conrad’s views on artillery put it far lower in importance than in other armies at this time. The information that the Austrians gathered from the Russo-Japanese war cast some doubt about how important artillery was on the battlefield, and how critical it would be in the next war. This was because it had not made a huge difference in the war between the Russians and Japanese. However, immediately before 1914 there was some evidence to the contrary, primarily out of the Balkan Wars. In the official report to the Austrian General Staff about the two Balkan Wars 6 out of the 10 pages were focused on artillery and the fact that the power of the big guns was growing as technology advanced. Conrad mostly rejected this out of fear that too much reliance on the artillery, and its limited range and flexibility, would reduce the ability and determination of his army to attack. Part of this issue was also that that Austrian army was still using cannons from 1875 in the early 1900s, even though many other armies were rapidly updating to far more effective models. This meant that many of the discussions within the army were forced to predict the capability of artillery based on the guns that they had, not the guns that other countries had, and to put it bluntly the Austrian guns sucked. Because they were so old and ineffective this also reduced the amount of practice that they were given. The High command gave the artillery very little priority when it came to both practice time and supplies to make that practice a reality. In the years before the war the Austrian artillery would fire only about 200 shots per battery per year, which was roughly half as many as other armies in Europe at this time. This meant that they also had less practice coordinating with the infantry during exercises, which prevented the two arms from being properly tested and robbed them of the ability to improve their cooperation. As we have talked about before, and as we will soon talk about in the next Patreon episode, this cooperation would be paramount on the battlefields of the first world war.

With all of this emphasis on the offensive and attacking it may surprise you to learn that one of the largest items in the Austrian military budget in the decades before the war was not guns, or artillery, but instead fortresses. The Austrians at this point in history were not a rich nation, their military budgets were less than any other great power in Europe for all of the years before the war. This put the Austro-Hungarian high command in a tight spot as they tried to decide how best to spend their limited funds. They knew that they would have less men, so they wanted to have better technology and they could have purchased that technology and manufactured new weapons for their soldiers. However, there were also concerns that if they did not put money into their fortifications then they would be equally worthless. If you remember, back in our Verdun episodes we talked a bit about how expensive fortification upgrades were in the last few decades before 1914. During the 40 years before the war artillery saw drastic increases in size, accuracy, and explosive power and this meant that permanent fortifications were always lagging behind, just as one upgrade would be completed another would have to be started. The Austrians ended up stuck in this cycle, and this caused them to pour hundreds of millions into their fortifications during this period. Unfortunately even all of this money was insufficient to keep pace with artillery development. An argument could be made that this was the correct move. The Austrian army would be smaller than the Russian army so they had to find a force multiplier somewhere, and fortifications are great force multipliers. Fortifications would also be critical to guard most of the frontier while most of the army was advancing deep into Russian territory. Unfortunately for the Austrians, due to their spending on fortifications their armies did not have the means to launch their planned attacks and be successful at them, so the fortifications ended up not mattering much. This was especially true in one area in which a lot of time and money was spent, coastal fortifications. There was some concern about an amphibious assault against the ports that the Austrians used to access the Mediterranean. This concern was verified and amplified when the port of Pola was successfully assaulted during maneuvers before the war. This resulted in a lot of money going into these fortifications that would not end up playing much of a role during the conflict. In fairness, it could be said that no assaults were made on the coasts, so the defenses were successful. However it is highly unlikely that the Italians, or the British and French, would have been able to stage the required amphibious assault force to make any kind of attack a success regardless of the fortifications. Unfortunately, all of this money spent on fortifications then robbed the infantry and artillery of funding and it was not the only place money was going. There was also the navy. The reasonings for building up a navy for the Empire were much the same as any other country. They wanted to be a major power, and being a major power meant having a navy and the prestige that came along with it. They also hoped to gain something else that all the great powers had, overseas territories. Even the Germans had gotten into the colonization game, and if the Austrians wanted some, they would need a navy to protect and interact with them. Once these expenditures were made on the Navy it was impossible to get the money back, and there would be no chance to see any return on the investment during the war. Much like the German Navy, bottled up in the North Sea, the Austrian navy would be bottled up in port by the combined French, British, and Italian navies. While there were ships there were never enough of them to do anything with and so they would spend most of the war in port.

Speaking of the war, lets talk a bit about the plans that were drawn up for the Austrian army once it started. Conrad planned on attacking in Galicia, with multiple army groups advancing in three different directions: north, northeast, and east. These advances would be done simultaneously and it was hoped that they would be joined by a German attack out of East Prussia. Conrad would write to Moltke that “In my decided aversion against any waiting and in my conviction of the worth of the initiative, I will seize the forward deployment and the fastest offensive possible” and this is the strategy he would pursue regardless of German participation. While these large army groups moved forward they would be joined by cavalry, and the role of the cavalry is explained in the Official Austrian History of the war in this way “The experiences of the first campaign had overturned much of what possessed troops and leaders in peace training Conrad had sent the Habsburg mounted forces on a long reconaissance ride in the spirit of the Southern cavalry in the American Civil War. The Austro-Hungarian raid extended through an area of Galicia 250 miles wide and 90 miles deep and achieving success became an almost impossible task.” When attacking the Russians, the Austrian troops would find themselves heavily outclassed. The typical Russian division had 60% more infantry, 90% more light field artillery, 230% more heavy artillery, and 33% more machine guns. And remember that the Russians were not exactly the best army in Europe, and they themselves would be heavily outclassed in these same categories by the Germans, which should give you some idea how far behind the Austrians were. Overall, Conrad’s plan was simple, he would attack and he would keep attacking as long as possible. At the beginning this would actually work out okay, at least sort of. The Russians had long believed that the Germans were their primary opponents so their first move was to attack into East Prussia, leaving the Austrians sort of to their own devices in the south. However, the Russians were able to take advantage of their greatest intrinsic strength, the massive amount of territory they had, just as they had done countless times before. The Russians were able to retreat and the Austrians overextended themselves. The Austrians did not have even remotely close to enough men to continue to advance and maintain a coherent front as that advance pushed deeper into Russian territory. As the three army groups advanced they became separated and vulnerable, and the rest, as they say, is history. So to summarize the Austrians believed in the offensive, like many other armies, they just did not have any of the tools to pull it off due to mistakes made before the war.