Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Monarchist Military: The Austro-Hungarian Army of World War I

Anytime the good name of brave soldiers who fought, endured and sacrificed is insulted or belittled is a tragedy. One group that has continually been overlooked, downplayed and underappreciated is the armed forces of the Dual-Empire of Austria-Hungary during the First World War. Some regrettable mistakes and setbacks have, over the years, been so often repeated by lazy historians that they have been overblown and exaggerated out of all proportion so that the military contribution of Austria-Hungary is completely misunderstood. This injustice is all the more severe in regards of the soldiers of the Hapsburg realm because, unlike other similar cases, there was no country after the war to defend their reputation. After the defeat of the First World War, Germany, Bulgaria and Turkey remained at least on the map but “Austria-Hungary” had been completely erased. Even for some of the highest ranking officers, the end of the war sometimes left such men without a country. This had made it all too easy for post-war historians to denigrate the accomplishments of the Austro-Hungarian armed forces without being challenged. When one considers the tremendous and unique difficulties the soldiers of Austria-Hungary faced, it is nothing short of remarkable that they did so comparatively well.

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
Those who scoff at the Imperial-Royal military also often pay scant notice to the great number of fronts Austria-Hungary had to manage. At one point there was the Serbian front, the Italian front, the Russian front and the Romanian front to deal with and there were also Austro-Hungarian contingents fighting on the western front and in Palestine before it was all over. This factor alone would have been enough to test the strength and organizational capacity of even the most advanced and homogeneous powers. Additionally, despite what some think, the diversity of Austria-Hungary was not, in every case, a weakness. Polish forces, for example, rallied to the promise of the liberation of their homeland and Bosnian Muslim forces made up the bulk of the Hapsburg forces sent to the Middle East to support the Ottoman Turks. Of course, the religious diversity is not often remarked upon either. Most of the leadership were Catholics but the rank and file were Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish and there were never any major problems because of that. It is still a bit controversial today, but there is also the point that Russia had a highly placed spy in the Austro-Hungarian army and so much of the planning for the war was already known in St Petersburg when the fighting started. Given that, the fact that the Imperial-Royal forces won any battles at all is rather remarkable.

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.

In 1915 a renewed offensive saw Serbia successfully conquered and after Italy joined the war the Austro-Hungarian forces held their own against superior numbers, giving ground grudgingly and taken a heavy toll on the Italian armies. 1915 also saw the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive which resulted in a stunning defeat for the Russian forces and yet, all too often, the Austro-Hungarian contribution to this success is often ignored. The same could be said for many other victories won when German and Austro-Hungarian forces were working together, such as in the Balkans, Romania and the big victory in Italy at Caporetto. However, important though the German assistance undeniably was, the Germans did not win all these victories all on their own and the Austro-Hungarian forces deserve just as much of the credit for the part they played in all of them, many times shouldering most of the burden. It is also worth pointing out the other armed services of Austria-Hungary which likewise seldom get the attention or credit that they justly deserve. On the naval front, for example, there may not have been any big clash of fleets in the Adriatic but the Imperial-Royal Navy was successful just as a threat in keeping enemy forces at a distance. They also carried out several very damaging raids on Allied naval forces. Few also realize that the tiny Austrian submarine force actually had a greater percentage of hits per torpedoes fired than their German allies did. In the air, despite having a rather late start and being often outmatched, the Austro-Hungarian air forces had quite an impressive record with no less than 20 flying “aces” with some shooting down more than 30 Allied aircraft.

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
Still, even in those last years of the war, despite immense problems, professionalism was still on display. The Emperor Charles (Kaiser Karl) took personal control of the army and continued with a reorganization already planned by Count Conrad von Hoetzendorf. Austro-Hungarian units also developed their own storm troops and their mountain specialists likewise gained an elite status for themselves and rightly so. These units, and the army as a whole, were also quite cohesive and, again, only saw widespread disobedience at the very end of the war when Austria-Hungary was coming apart. Even then, the troops behaved, by and large, in an orderly fashion, following the instructions of their newly proclaimed governments to stop fighting, put down their weapons and go home. Given the odds against them and the immense difficulties they faced, what the soldiers, sailors and airmen of Austria-Hungary accomplished is really quite remarkable and in a one-on-one scenario, any of their enemies would have found them a formidable foe. Which is also worth keeping in mind; the original plan of Austria-Hungary had always been to fight a war limited to the Balkans and had that been the case there is every reason to believe they would have been victorious.


  1. Great article. It was only last year that I found out there were Austro-Hungarian troops on the Western front and I don't think I've ever seen anything written about the other Royal-Imperial battlefronts.

  2. Large numbers of the Czech troops surrendered rather than fight against their fellow Slavs, the Russians. These defections helped the Russians win many of their victories during the Brusilov offensive. And then, there is the famous quote about the German Army being handcuffed to the corpse of the Austrian Army which got a bad reputation in spite of the tremendous effort it put forth.


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