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

Black and white image of Russian soldiers using a canon

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.”

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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.

One Habsburg lieutenant labelled the soldiers defending Przemyśl 'well-past-their-prime fatties'

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”.

Russian general Alexsei Brusilov recognised the importance of seizing (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Russian general Alexsei Brusilov recognised the importance of seizing Przemyśl. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

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 soldiers were already dead, their throats cut silently by Russian assault troops now creeping ever closer

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 gave the dissolving Habsburg army breathing space to rest, regroup and return to battle

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.

Map showing eastern front as war broke out in August 1914.
Tinder box: a map of the eastern front, as war broke out in August 1914. The conflict pitted Russia and its allies against Germany and the Habsburg empire (Austria-Hungary). (Map by Paul Hewitt/Battlefield design)

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

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This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine