Przemyśl Pt. 2



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the great War Premium Episode number 40. This is the second part of our discussion on the history and events at the Fortress city of Przemsyl in Austro-Hungarian controlled Galicia during the war. That episode we discussed the history of the area and how the fortress was built up over the course of the 19th century. We then looked at the preparations for the war that went on inside the fortress before the Russians arrived and surrounded the fortress in the first of two sieges in the first year of the war. An Austro-Hungarian offensive then relieved the fortress before the Russians could force the garrison to surrender. Due to the wild swings in the fighting on the Eastern Front during the early years of the war even though the Austrians were successful the first time that htey had to relieve the fortress, they would soon have to do so again because in the last months of 1914 the Russians would launch an attack that would see them once again besieging the fortress.

As the Austro-Hungarian field armies had once again started to retreat the fortress leadership ordered a precise detailing of all of the supplies that were available inside the fortress. This would result in a report which stated that there were 56 days of bread, 25 of meat, and 92 of vegetables. This information was sent to Austro-Hungarian high command on NOvember 1st and over the next three days, which were all that would prove to be available, huge quantities of food and supplies were rushed into the fortress by train. By the time that the resupply effort was halted the stocks within the fortress had been brought up to about 170 days of bread, 214 of vegetables, and 111 of meat. As I mentioned several times last episode, these numbers were all based around supplying a garrison of 85,000 troops, but during the second siege there would be far more than just 85,000 troops within the fortress. There were also upwards of 30,000 civilians that would have to be provided for. The number of civilians would have been much higher if not for the fact that in the last 48 hours before the Russians arrived there was an effort to get as many civilians as possible out of the fortress. People were moved into trains by police, taking only what they could carry with them, and they were shipped off to Moravia. The last trains would arrive with supplies on November 5th and it would be on that date that the last groups of civilians were evacuated, these efforts brought the number of cvilians down from 50,000 to 30,000, a considerable reduction that would be an important factor in the sige that would soon begin.

The Russians would reach the fortress for the second time on November 8th 1914. By the 11th they had once again fully encircled the fortress. Unlike the first siege there would be no ill-advised attacks, because this time they were unnecessary. The Russians armies had been able to push the Austrians back up into the Carpathian mountains, and with winter closing in further attacks from these positions would be very challenging. The Russians hoped that they would be able to starve the fortress into submission before the Austrians would be able to reach the garrison in the spring. During the rest of the November the only actions that the Russians would take would be to bombard the fortress from time to time. They also took the opportunity to improve and strengthen their positions to guard against any possible sorties by the garrison or the arrival of Austrian armies from the outside.

The Austrians, even though their positions were now high in the mountains and it was winter, would once again put a huge amount of effort into trying to break the siege of the fortress. Conrad believed that it was an absolute necessity that the fortress not be allowed to fall because it would bre too great of a propaganda defeat. There were serious problems with the relief offensives though. The first problem was the weather and the terrain. The second was that the Russians had an overall numerical superiority in Galicia which would make any successful offensive a challenging prospect. The Austro-Hungarian army was also nearly at the end of its tether, casualties since the beginning of the war had gutted the pre-war army and its men were simply exhausted. Even with all of these problems, the offensives would have to be launched to try and relieve the fortress, and they would be for the next 4 months.

One of the problems that the Austrian high command would have to overcome was a general lack of really good information about the situation within the fortress. A report in mid-December said that the fortress would only have enough food to last for another month, but then a later report said that there would be enough to last until mid-March. The ability to communicate with the fortress was not the problem, there were both radio links and the ability to fly aircraft in and out of the fortress which allowed for detailed communications to occur. The problem was instead that the officers within the fortress who were analyzing the food situation kept altering their calculations. Generally the more optimistic numbers that arrived meant that the full size of the garrison was not being taken into account, or they were being very optimistic about consumption rates. By mid-December the troops were already on smaller than normal rations, and they would be cut many times during the siege. This generally moved them to a point where their health was declining as food was stretched out as long as possible. At this same time there were constant sorties by the garrison troops to try and disrupt the Russian siege. This wore down the troops and reduced their number. More importantly than just the exact number of casualties though, the sorties were executed by the best troops in the fortress. As these troops were reduced in number and overall fighting effectiveness the combat capabilities of the garrison rapidly declined. To try and create more food, especially meat, in December the first mass slaughter of horses would begin. 10,000 would be killed during the month to provide meat for the garrison but also due to the fact that there was a complete lack of forage for the animals, and they would have starved to death anyway.

During January the offensive capabilities of the garrison mostly collapsed. There had been one large sortie launched on January 5th but it did not have the sucess that was hoped, or really the success that was necessary to accomplish anything other than wasting away even more garrison strength. With the nutrition situation sorties were greatly reduced in number and rations were further cut. For the civilians left inside the fortress mandatory rationing was also in place. For poorer civilians two meals a day were provided by the military authority, for those who were able to afford it they had to pay for their food, at prices dictated by the military, although those prices were fixed at a level that many could afford. One interesting feature of the siege, that would alter the military and civilian experience were the newspapers that were printed during the siege. These were printed in multiple different languages, with different colors of paper used to denote the different editions. During February the military authorities organized groups of soldiers to move through the civilian houses requisitioning any extra food and warm clothing that was available, they did not find very much. It was also at the same time that the military ration was cut down to just 9 ounces of bread, 2 cups of watery soup, and a spoonful of rice per day. The bread was also very different than what the troops were used to, and much of its nutritional value was removed due to the substitution of less nourishing ingredients. With the state of the fortress garrison continuing to decline, Conrad ordered General Kusmanek to begin to plan a massive sortie that would be launched in an effort to break as many troops as possible out of the fortress.

This sortie would be launched by most of the units that were fit to attack, these were Hoved units which had been part of the pre-war Hungarian army. They were also the best troops that the garrison still possessed. At the same time that this attack was launched the field armies would launch an attack out of the Carpathians. Neither the sortie or the field army attack were very successful and after only a short attack the garrison troops made their way back into the fortress. This was basically the end of offensive actions by the troops inside the fortress and for the rest of the siege they would be almost entirely inactive while waiting for the Russians to attack. They did not really have the strength to do anything else, they were starving and exhausted. All that they could do was hope that the Austro-Hungarian armies would arrive in time to relief them before they were forced to surrender. After the failure of the sortie the Russians would launch a strong attack on February 20th, which would capture a few positions but not greatly change the overall situation. During February the garrison would begin to seriously suffer due to various illnesses that found their starved bodies to be easy prey. A large number of horses were once again killed, providing valuable meat for rations, this boosted the food available for a short time but basically removed the possibility of any large scale breakout operations due to the fact that without horses the garrison would not be mobile enough. These problematic conditions continued into March. The Russians increased their efforts to wear down the fortress with more artillery fire and more aggressive raids. By the end of the first week of March it also became clear that the field armies would not arrive in time for the fortress which left the garrison with two choices either surrender or break out.

With no help on the way Kusmanek decided to launch an attack to try and break the siege. He did not have much faith that it could be successful, but he felt obligated to try. There was one twist in his plan, instead of attacking west which was in the direction of friendly troops he planned to instead attack towards the southeast. This would be unexpected, even if the attack was successful he would be marching his troops in the wrong direction, but the hope was that the Russians would not be prepared for an attack in the wrong direction, and their defenses to the east were known to be much weaker than their defenses to the west. Kusmanek knew that if the troops knew that they would be attacking towards the east they might not launch the attack at all and so he did not put the direction of the attack in the order that was given to the units. While the garrison was making its final preparations for its attack one last attack was launched to try and break through to the fortress, but it got about as far as all of the previous attempts, which was basically nowhere. With this final offensive resulting in a failure the final sortie order was given. On March 16th the troops were issued their March and April pay, and then the remaining paper money was burned. On the night of March 19th they would start their march to their assembly points carrying what food was available. They were actually provided with extra rations and told to save them until after the attack had been launch, however many of the men were so hungry that they ate everything that was issued to them immediately and their officers were powerless to stop them. Given their conditions the officers found it difficult to get them into position in time, and this meant that they were late in arriving at their jumping off points. By midnight of the 19th most of the troops were still in the central fortress area, far from the perimeter where they were supposed to start their attack. When they did eventually arrive at the perimeter they found that they were on the southeast side of the fortress, when they realized this positioning they were incredulous and the realization did nothing to bolster their resolve.

With the delays in getting the attacking units to their jumping off points the start of the attack was delayed, which meant that instead of going forward in the darkness of the morning the attack would be launched in broad daylight. This made the troops easy targets for Russian artillery and machine guns. When they attacked very few of the men reached any Russian positions, and were far from being able to break through them. By the end of the day the troops were simply done and many were marched back into the fortress. Later in the day it was announced that the fortress would be surrendering, the only thing left to do was to prepare for the destruction of all military material and then to continue to resist until the details of the surrender were determined.

The attack had been doomed to fail from the start, and not just because of the state of the garrison troops, the Russians had been able to gain complete knowledge of the sortie before it even happened. At the beginning of the year there had been fears that the Russians were able to break the code used for radio messages used by the garrison, this caused all communications to shift to letters flown in and out of the fortress. However, in March it had been determined that a new Austrian code was more secure and the Russians could not intercept it which allowed radio communication to resume. The Russians were in fact still able to read these messages and so when Kusmanek informed High Command of his plans he also informed the Russians. This would have preved the attack from being successful even if the troops had not been starving and exhausted.

With the failure of the sortie the order went out to all units to destroy all military equipment like rifles and artillery. The only exception to this order were six soldiers in each company that were nominated to keep their weapons to maintain discipline and order. At 9AM on the 19th a message was sent from the radio station in the citadel saying “Food is exhausted. The works destroyed. I surrender the open city and await your command with no conditions.” With surrender on the way civilian discipline finally collapsed and groups of civilians broke into the fortress food stores and took as much as they could carry. They found far more food than they expected, and far more than they were led to believe even existed inside the fortress. With such a bounty before them many retuned multiple times and took as much as they could carry each time. When the fortress officially surrendered it would contain 117,000 soldiers that were then made into Russian prisoners. This was more prisoners than the Russians could quickly deal with and many would stay in the fortress for weeks while transportation was arranged.

For Conrad and the Austro-Hungarian high command the surrender of the fortress was a serious blow. Conrad was generally less concerned with the military consequences than the possible political and morale ramifications. There were also many questions floating around about why the fortress had been forced to surrender at all. Food shortages was the official reason that was given but the Russians and Western media reporters with the Russian army stated that there was plenty of food within the fortress. The problem, as they stated, was in how it was distributed, or more appropriately how it was not distributed to the soldiers and instead hoarded by the military officers and civilian officials. The scarceness of food was well documented by both civilian and military accounts during the siege, but it is difficult to know whether this scarceness was due to lack of food or was an artificial scarceness created by unequal distribution.

The Russians would be in control of the fortress for over a month during which the war on the Eastern Front was mostly static. Then in early May the German and Austro-Hungarian army would launch the Battle of Gorlice-Tarnov. This attack would cause a crippling Russian defeat, by far their worst of the war so far. In the north the German armies would march into Poland. In Galicia the Austro-Hungarian armies, with some assistance from the Germans would also advance. With the scale of the defeat becoming clear there were discussions about whether or not to defend the fortress at all. These discussions were inconclusive and so the Russian leaders within the fortress were indecisive. Over the course of the first three weeks of May they oscillated several times between whether or not to defend or abandon the fortress. In early May men and supplies were evacuated, then a week later they were transported back in to resist, then the decision was reversed again, then on the 29th the final decision was made when the Russian leaders decided that they should defend the fortress, and with this decision those reinforcements were once again brought back into the fortress.

What followed was an incredibly short siege, one that lasted only a few days. The Russian defenders did not even wait for one major assault but instead surrendered right before the attack would have been launched. 4 days after the Austrian army arrived they were marching into the citadel. With this surrender the war was mostly over for the fortress and the people who lived within it. If anything this final action was something of a disappointment. Given its easy nature even Austrian newspapers did not call it a great victory, which is shocking given the importance of the fortress just a few months before. After the fortress was back under Austro-Hungarian control there would be come construction done on the defensive works. Given the new strategic situation much of the fortifications would never be rebuilt. They would be worked on for most of the war, by Russian and Italian prisoners of war, but the fighting line had moved further east and would never return during the war. It would return very briefly afterwards, when Polish units arrived to taken control of the fortress as part of an effort to bring the region into their new country.