Przemyśl Pt. 1



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium Episode number 39. This episode comes to you due to the fact that back in November, when I attended the National World War 1 Museum and Memorial’s annual symposium in Kansas City Missouri one of the speakers was Dr. Gradon Tunstall. He had written a book titled Written in Blood: The Battles for Fortress Przemyl in WWI which I found to be be very interesting, and so it spun out into this episode. This is going to be a bit different than normal because we are going to take just one very specific area of fighting during the war, in this case the Przemsyl fortress, and follow it from its prewar history and the creation of the fortress all the way through the three different sieges that the fortress would experience during the first year of the war. Just of front here I want to say that the story of this fortress if one of those side stories in the war that we rarely think about today. Before I started the podcast I did not know what or where Przemsyl was, and even during the early episodes of the podcast I did not do a great job of covering it in the detail that it deserved. However, it was incredibly important to the leaders on both sides during the first year of the conflict. Concern about the fortress basically determined Austro-Hungarian strategy for all of 1914. Many of those really ill-advised attacks in the Carpathians during the winter? Those were to try and relieve the siege of the fortress. Hopefully, when this episode is over you will have a better understanding of what Fortress Przemsyl was, why it was so important, how it influenced the course of the war in the east, and what it was like to be a part of the three sieges that the fortress was put under. In the decades before the war the fortress complex at Przemsyl became a very important piece of Austro-Hungarian war plans, especially when it became clear that Russia was the most likely enemy. However, much like in other countries the tactical doctrine of the Austro-Hungarian army swung decisively to the cult of the offensive in the years before the war. This meant that while huge sums of money had bee spent on the fortress in the 1800s by the time that the war started, due to the advances in artillery technology, the fortress was mostly out of date. This did not prevent it from being seen as a very important area, especially after the opening Austro-Hungarian attacks in 1914 failed. From the autumn of 1914 until the spring of 1915 when the second siege was over and when the garrison surrendered, it would control Austro-Hungarian military strategy in a way that was very unhealthy. It would cause the army to launch attack after attack even though they were constantly unsuccessful. It had been tempting for historians over the years to compare the events at Przemsyl to the most famous fortress of the war, Verdun. While the events in the east share some similarity, like for example the fact that the fighting over the two fortresses became a far larger political and psychological necessity rather than a military one, that is mostly where the similarities end. To understand all of these events, we have to go back to the beginning, far before the town of Przemsyl even became the fortress that it would be in 1914.

The first permanent fortification at Przemsyl was erected in the year 981, at that time it was just a wooden walled fort constructed on the orders of a Polish prince. This was mostly how it stayed until the Third Partition of Poland which took place in the last years of the 18th century. At that point Western Galicia was given to the Austrian Empire and to try and control this new area the Austrians wanted to create a large fortress both as a bulwark against foreign invasion but also just to control the local population. They settled on Przemsyl due to its ability to protect the areas around the Dniester and San rivers. From about 1804 under the middle of the 19th century there were varying degrees of importance put on the construction of fortifications in the area. Over this time the fortress was slowly built up as walls, embankments, trenches, strongpoints, and forts were slowly added. These were not continuous efforts, construction might stop for years at a time, then there would be a flurry of activity, and then it would die down again. These changes in construction tempo were mostly driven by relations with Russia. Sometimes there were concerns that fortress construction might antagonize Russia too much, especially during the middle decades of the century and so construction was slowed or even halted, at other times construction was greatly accelerated out of concern for a Russian attack. This on again and off again period of construction would end after the Crimean war, with only a little more than half of the planned fortifications complete.

After the unification of Germany, and the growing alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary the role of the fortress shifted slightly. At this point the Austrian war plan was to launch an offensive into Russian territory as quickly as possible. Because of this new plan the fortress was no set up to resist Russian advances as long as possible so that the Austrian army could hopefully strike the killing blow elsewhere. In this role the fortress would be joined by the Polish city of Krakow, which was also home to a large fortress complex. These two fortresses would also act as forward deployment areas and depots, and it was expected that the field armies would pull from the fortress stores to replenish their supplies while on the march. The fortresses would also be used to shield the armies during the period between when the war began, or when mobilization began, and when the armies were actually ready to attack. This role slowly dwindled in importance as the mobilization times for all of the armies dropped precipitously with the large scale introduction of railroads.

During the 1880s new effort was put into upgrading the fortress. This was spurred by an increase in the tensions between the Austrians and the Russians and so a large amount of money was spent on updating the fortifications. This period of construction created many of the strongest positions that would be occupied by the defenders during 1914. Along with various defensive upgrades, mostly on the perimeter, stationary artillery would also be added to the various strongpoints and in the areas between. During this period these improvements were very expensive, similar to how the improvements made to the French, Belgian, and German forts during this period were very expensive, and so it was challenging for the Austrians to be able to afford them. Eventually they would decide to stop providing the financial means to continue the constructions, and just like after the Crimean war this decision would be made with only a fraction of the planned construction actually complete. One reason that the funds were not available is because they were being invested in other areas of the Austro-Hungarian military. In the 20 years leading up to 1910 good portions of the Austrian military budget was put into a massive naval expansion, well massive on the Austrian scale although it would be dwarfed by German and British naval expenditures during this time. The Austrian naval expansion was mostly to keep pace with Italian naval construction. The growing Italian navy also prompted the Austrians to create coastal fortifications, even though technically Austria-Hungary and Italy were allies. While these expenditures reduced the amount of construction happening at Przemsyl it also had other, and during the war more impactful ramifications. It was always known that the fortress would not be on a full war time footing all of the time. This meant that there was always a long list of things that would have to be completed as soon as the war began. Some of this was simple and very obvious, more food had to be brought in, ammunition had to be stockpiled, and there would be a flurry of activity and construction on some of the fortifications both in the form of improvements and repairs. The problem was that the budget shortfalls for the fortress continued to grow and so more and more work go thrown into this category. Food, ammunition, and supplies were kept at a lower level because it was cheaper, and it was just assumed that there would be time during the early stages of a war to bring the stockpiles up to the required levels. As this list of to-dos grew longer and longer, it eventually got a point where it was too long for all of the items to be completed when the war started, although the Austro-Hungarian leaders did not fully recognize this danger at the time.

When the war did arrive in 1914 the fortress would have a garrison of 131,000 troops, which was actually almost 50,000 more than what was planned. While on the surface level having more troops seems to always be a good thing, and in some respects it was, it also caused many logistical problems in the case of a siege. Basically more soldiers meant more mouths to feed, and there was a finite amount of supplies within the fortress. The fortifications that these men would men would occupy were, in general, less than inspiring. Most of the defenses, which were arranged in three major defensive lines, were pretty old. There were a lot of them, 19 large and 23 small forts on a perimeter of about 45 miles, but the quality of most of them was far less than what was needed. The artillery within the fortifications was also quite old. Some of the guns dated back to the 1860s and only about 500 of them could be considered long range guns, but even most of the long range guns were very old and out of date. The only truly new artillery that was present was a set of four 30.5 centimeter mortars, but there were only four of them and they only had a few hundred rounds of ammunition. This artillery situation was a problem because it meant that the fortifications could be shelled by enemy artillery without being able to actually fire back.

When war was declared that massive to-do list that had accumulated before the war was the top priority for the men within the fortress. They would have about a month to prepare, and to try and get as much done as possible 27,000 workers were brought in. These workers focused on improving the defenses, building new defensive strong points, trenches to be used by the infantry, and new fortified artillery positions. They also put down almost 1 million meters of barbed wire and they created several mine fields to protect the approaches to the fortress. There were also preparations for the civilians in the fortress, after all this was a living breathing city before the war, and in his work Lives of Przemysl: War and the Population of a Fortress Town in Galicia, Austrian Poland, 1914-1923 Keven Stapleton gives this account of what it was like in the city during these days of preparations “An Austrian Sister of Mercy, Ilka Künigl Ehrenburg, who worked in one of the hospitals, wrote in her diary that the banks and court had been closed and that some merchants had been ordered to stay in Przemyśl to provide essential services. She also noted the presence of the Red Cross in the town. She spoke of shortages of milk, bread and coffee and much confusion in the streets. The crowds were like a “swarm of locusts in town”.76 Two days before the onset of the second siege, Ilka reported that only officers were able to get milk. She said that the civilian population had been unable to find milk for the last fourteen days; in fact, there was little to buy in the town at all”

While the leaders in the fortress were focused on improving and preparing their immediate surroundings, further afield events were occurring that would very soon result in the first siege of the fortress. In mid-August Conrad had moved his army command into the fortress to allow for closer contact with his armies in Galicia that were pushing into Russian territory, but these battles would go very poorly for the Austrians and they would soon be in a headlong retreat. With the defeat of the field armies the preparations for the fortress were accelerated even more, because it was now clear that the Russians would very soon be on their way. As the Russians closed in the situation became serious indeed. The fortress was commanded by General Kusmanek who gave the order that civilians on the outskirts of the fortress had to be evacuated. Once the civilians were gone their villages and houses were destroyed to make better observation lanes for the defenders. Many other structures were also destroyed, including a few grain warehouses, which would be seen as a huge mistake during the lengthy sieges. Kusamanek also began to launch sorties out against the advancing Russians as they approached. Sorties were a long standing feature of sieges, and in this case they had the added purpose of protecting the last stages of construction that workers were racing to complete.

When the siege began, as I mentioned earlier, there were 131,000 troops in the fortress, and they were joined by 21,000 horses. This number was important because calculations were being done back at Austro-Hungarian command. They believed that the fortress had enough supplies to last at least three months, but they were doing those calculation based on the idea that there would only be 85,000 troops, and 85,000 is quite a bit less than 131,000. Added onto this larger number of soldiers there were also many wounded soldiers that had been abandoned in the fortress by the retreating Austrian field armies when the fighting with the Russians had forced them to retreat west. These armies had also requisitioned some supplies from the fortress stores. The first set of Russian troops to arrive were part of the Russian Third and Eighth armies, they would be the first to surround the fortress although they would later be replaced by the 11th Army. This was done because the 3rd and 8th were top of the line armies, while the 11th was made up of reservists, more than enough to keep the fortress surrounded. As soon as the Russians started to get into position Russian artillery started to fire on forts on the edge of the fortress. This prompted action from the garrison, both offensive action in the form of sorties to try and disrupt the Russians as well as defensive action to try and keep the forts repaired between artillery barrages. There would also be a few probing Russian attacks. These early attacks were more exploratory than anything else, they were not undertaken by enough troops to actually take the fortress, and they were mostly designed to try and determine the strength of the defenders and where they were located.

The first serious attacks would begin in early October, with almost constant attacks taking place from October 4th to the 9th. During this fighting the Russians alternated between artillery barrages and infantry assaults and with over 90,000 men at their disposal they were able to make these assault with a good number of troops. However these assaults were also rushed because the Russian army was now working against the clock. While these assaults were taking place the Austro-Hungarian armies were launching an offensive and were pushing back towards the fortress from the west. This new development forced the Russian to attack the fortress before they were ready, and they would only have a few chances to try and capture it, and they would fail. There would be many excuses used by the Russian commanders for why these attacks failed. The weather was not great, they had been a good amount of rain, the assaults had to be quickly setup and executed without the proper amount of preparation, there was not enough heavy artillery, the list went on and on. But they did fail, and this failure cost the lives of at least 10,000 Russian soldiers, although the Austrians estimated Russian casualties at 70,000, because they would of course exaggerate.

The first units to arrive to relieve the siege were part of the Austrian Second Army, and they would arrive at around noon on October 9th. The garrison was thrilled, obviously, and soon the Russians were pushed away from the fortress all together. There was something else that left the fortress at this time, a huge quantity of food. When the relieving troops came through the fortress Austrian high command had ordered the fortress to open its supplies to the new armies and to supply them with food. This was done to try and ease the logistical problems that the armies were having and it seemed appropriate, acting as a forward supply depot was part of why the fortress existed. Over the course of a month this meant that the fortress pulled what would have been three months of grain, three months of meat, and a years worth of hay from its stores. This would not have been a problem if there was not about to be a second siege of the fortress, but there was about to be a second siege of the fortress.