Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Monarchist Profile: Generaloberst Viktor Graf Dankl von Krasnik
The studious, bespectacled general was given command of the Imperial & Royal First Army, made up largely of Slovak and Polish troops; a prestigious assignment. He would be on the flank of a massive offensive planned by the then-renowned strategist and chief of staff Graf Conrad von Hotzendorf to punch through the Russian frontier and cut off the so-called Polish salient. It was an ambitious plan but if successful it would have been a stunning blow to the Russians and the end of the Russian presence in Poland. At first, everything went as planned. Dankl and his troops pushed forward to the Galician frontier and met the Russians at the town of Krasnik (in what is now Poland but which was then Austria-Hungary). The Russians fought fiercely but the Austro-Hungarian troops were relentless and after three days of hard fighting the Russians retreated. Dankl had just won the first major victory for Austria-Hungary in the war and he was almost immediately catapulted to the status of a celebrity and war hero across the empire. With other victories by forces farther down the line, the Imperial & Royal Armies advanced as planned and Dankl was in the lead, pursuing the retreating Russians.
The next major action came in the spring of 1915 with the launching of the Gorlice-Tarnow offensive, again in cooperation with the Germans. Hotzendorf came up with the plan which was initially rejected by the German chief of staff, Erich von Falkenhayn but later Germany agreed to go along with it with the German General August von Mackensen in overall command. It proved to be a major success with the Russians suffering much higher losses and only ending due to a combination of bad weather and logistical strain. Dankl, once again, led his First Army forward with much success but this initial success was later halted by stiff Russian resistance in his sector of the front and Dankl was sidelined for the rest of the offensive. It was more frustration for Dankl who had been so celebrated for his victory at Krasnik and from whom everyone always expected better. Because Krasnik had been the first great victory of the war, Dankl had been celebrated to an extent that many were expecting things from him that were almost impossible. He was a competent commander but, of course, could not work miracles. In any event, after the Gorlice-Tarnow offensive he was transferred away from the Galician front and assigned to defend the Tyrol.
Hotzendorf planned an offensive in Trentino on the Asiago plateau. The goal was to punch through to the Po River plain and cut off three Italian armies in the process, crippling their war effort. This time the Italians would be outnumbered, almost 3-to-1 in manpower and much more outmatched in artillery. German support was requested but refused, still, it seemed Austria-Hungary had sufficient forces for the attack to be a success. Dankl and his army were assigned the crucial responsibility of making the initial breakthrough after which more troops could be poured in to exploit the breach and split the Italian armies. On May 15 the offensive commenced and despite stiff resistance, Dankl and his troops succeeded in breaking through the Italian center. Once again, everything seemed to go as planned, but once again problems soon arose. The artillery could not be moved forward fast enough to support the continued attack and so the Austrian forces had to halt. By the time the guns were brought up the opportunity had passed. The Italians had reformed and strengthened their lines plus a new Russian offensive was wreaking havoc on the Eastern Front and forced the transfer of Austro-Hungarian units to head off a potential disaster there.
In any event, the unpleasant episode of the Asiago offensive, combined with poor health, prompted Dankl to hand in his resignation. He was relieved of his command and after undergoing medical treatment was posted to the Imperial Guard, eventually becoming the commander until being replaced by his former superior Hotzendorf. He remained with the Life Guard until the end of the war and the collapse of Austria-Hungary when he retired to Innsbruck. In the last years of the war his service was, thankfully, rewarded with his elevation to the aristocracy, first as Baron von Dankl and then as Count Dankl of Krasnik in recognition of his most famous victory. He was also awarded the Maria Theresia Order and, long after the war in 1925, became its chancellor. Other honors he received included the Order of Leopold, Marianer Cross of the Teutonic Order and the Prussian Iron Cross from Germany. After the war, Dankl showed what a man of great character he was.