When war broke out in 1914, the armed forces of Austria-Hungary certainly seemed formidable on paper. With reserves fully mobilized, the Imperial-Royal Army was one of the largest in the world, they looked very smart on parade, had generals of high reputation and some of their weapons (particularly the artillery) were rated as some of the best in the world. Yet, as most know, the simple numbers could be deceiving and Austria-Hungary faced a great many military handicaps. Most of the soldiers lacked experience and they did come from a dizzying array of ethnic backgrounds that caused a linguistic and organizational nightmare. It was a problem, however, despite the impression many have, there were no catastrophic lapses in discipline. This is an important point considering that the nationality problem is often exaggerated to the point that many think the bulk of the Imperial-Royal Army was made up of sullen captives, yet the Hapsburg armed forces experienced nothing like the mutinies that swept the French army which had no such ethnic difficulties to deal with. Despite the best efforts of Count Conrad von Hoetzendorf to modernize the army, it still lacked behind other armies but did have superb artillery and certain groups, such as the Austrian light infantry and Hungarian cavalry were world class.
|An army at prayer
As to the war itself, it is often forgotten that the initial engagements on the Russian front were Austro-Hungarian victories. The same could not be said of Serbia but then, of course, the bulk of the military force of the empire had to be shifted away from Serbia to meet the greater danger of Russia and so it was a greatly reduced force that advanced into Serbia where the locals had the advantages of fighting a defensive war with the terrain to their advantage and they were also simply a very tough and determined foe. Yet, while much is usually made of the Imperial-Royal forces having to retreat from Serbia, many fail to mention that the Serbs were themselves defeated before Sarajevo and driven back behind their own borders. Likewise, on the Russian front, while there were costly setbacks following initial gains, Austria-Hungary did finally push the Russians back into their country as well. The war did not begin well, certainly, with heavy losses that included many of the best and brightest for little to no gain. However, the empire had been successfully defended from counter-attacks and gains would be made in the future.
Things began to go dangerously wrong in 1916 but even then it was often a problem of logistics and a lack of the basic necessities (due to the Allied blockades) rather than any lack of courage or failure in strategy on the part of the Imperial-Royal military. The South Tyrol Offensive against Italy, for example, ended in failure in large part because supplies were exhausted. In 1917 there was, with German support, the victory over the Italians at Caporetto, however, the privation that Austria-Hungary was suffering from as a whole at that time was still felt. The commandeering of supplies for the offensive meant that large parts of the empire starved and still supplies running out for the fighting men also played a part in that offensive coming to a halt. The winter of 1917/1918 saw strikes and bread riots become a major problem in Austria-Hungary for the first time since the war began. In the years prior, the people had endured a great deal and tremendous losses with stoic determination. Yet, every people has their breaking point and 1918 saw it reached in the lands under the double-eagle. Germany, of course, eventually went through much the same. The last, bungled, offensive planned against Italy was to have been a complex and brilliant maximum effort with army-navy coordination but it began to unravel when the starting date had to be delayed because the troops simply lacked the physical strength, due to malnutrition, to carry it off and the whole thing fell apart.
|Austrian storm troops