Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Monarchist Profile: Generaloberst Viktor Graf Dankl von Krasnik

The man who would become one of the most prominent generals in the last war and last years of life of the Dual-Empire of Austria-Hungary was born Viktor Dankl in Udine, Italy on September 18, 1854. Udine, near Venice, was at that time still being held by the Austrian Empire, as it had been ever since the Hapsburgs made a deal with the revolutionary First French Republic to divide what had been the Republic of Venice between them (after a successful campaign by an up and coming young general named Bonaparte). His father was from Venice and a captain in the Austrian Imperial Army so there was little doubt that young Viktor would one day carry on the tradition of military service to the Emperor of Austria. He attended German-language schools in Gorizia and Trieste as a boy before going off to a cadet school in Lower Austria. By that time, Prussia had surpassed Austria as leader of the German-speaking countries and the new Kingdom of Italy had regained Venice. Never before, it must have seemed, were talented military officers more needed. Young Viktor Dankl graduated and went on to study at the prestigious Theresian Military Academy (where Austrian officers are still trained today). After finishing he was posted to a dragoon regiment with the rank of sub-lieutenant.

After going back for further education in Vienna, Dankl joined the General Staff and by 1899 was head of the central office, having shown a notable dedication to duty and grasp of administrative affairs. He earned the respect of his superiors and in 1903 was given a field command, the 66th Infantry Brigade at Trieste (in what is now Italy, not far from where Dankl grew up) with a promotion to major general. After another brigade command in Trieste, Dankl was promoted to lieutenant field marshal and given command of a division in Croatia until in 1912 when he was transferred to a corps command with the rank of General of Cavalry. He had proven himself to be a dutiful officer, had performed well in command of combat units and in administrative posts but, of course, these had all been peacetime assignments. He lacked actual combat experience and would have to wait to show if his education and mastery of theory would be matched by accomplishments in battle. That opportunity was to come soon enough with the outbreak of the First World War in August of 1914. Dankl was as anxious of any of his fellow officers to see the long-standing tensions with Serbia settled and certainly there was no more loyal or ardent defender of Austria-Hungary and the Hapsburg monarchy than Dankl.

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.

However, while things were going well enough on his own front, other sectors were less fortunate and soon Dankl had to stop and even fall back for fear of opening a gap in the Austrian lines. The Russians also rallied their forces and began to launch hard-hitting counter-attacks which took a heavy toll on the armies of Austria-Hungary. Ultimately, the offensive into Poland was stopped with very heavy losses and bitter fighting in Galicia would go on for some time to come. In the autumn, Austria-Hungary launched another offensive in cooperation with the Germans but the Russians soon took back the ground they gained at the start and a stalemate, which was all too familiar in the First World War, ensued. Attacks were followed by counter-attacks, taking and re-taking the same ground with few lasting changes. The focus of the fighting shifted to the Carpathians and Dankl and his First Army were left with little to do for the rest of the year.

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.

In 1915 the Kingdom of Italy had entered the war and the Tyrol was a huge salient, plunging into Italian territory. As Austria-Hungary was fighting on so many other fronts, the Italians also had a significant numerical advantage over the Austrians. However, the Austrians did have a great advantage in the terrain. The high mountains served as natural fortifications superior to any that could be built by the hand of man. Dankl showed his talent in a string of battles as his outnumbered and poorly supplied but well placed forces repelled fierce and repeated attacks by the Italians. They had the advantage of the high ground but little else and yet Dankl was able to successfully defend his position until further reinforcements could arrive to strengthen the Austro-Hungarian lines. For most of the year his forces were on the defensive, making counter-attacks when possible but, for the most part, fending off Italian attacks and making them pay heavily for every foot of ground gained. In 1916, however, Austria-Hungary was finally prepared to go on the offensive. Dankl himself had also been given a new command, the 11th Army and a promotion to Colonel General.

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.

Many of the gains Austria-Hungary had made had to be abandoned as the troops were pulled back to more defensible positions. It was a crushing blow for Dankl and he was, perhaps unfairly, singled out for blame as to the failure of the offensive. Most of this was due to the fact that Archduke Eugen of Austria, the army group commander in the area, had ordered him to press on regardless of the lack of artillery support. Conrad von Hotzendorf took the side of the Archduke that the risk of heavy losses was acceptable if it could have meant a decisive victory over Italy. They may have been correct but rushing forward was not in the nature of an officer like Dankl. He was meticulous and methodical, perhaps a result of his experience as a staff officer and given his witnessing first hand of the horrendous losses Austria-Hungary had suffered at the beginning of the war on the Eastern Front, he may have been more careful of the lives of his men than others. Of course, sometimes a general must accept such losses to achieve victory but it is easy to sympathize with Dankl given that Austria-Hungary had already suffered losses that could not be made good and, fairly early on, was forced to work in conjunction with Germany for almost any major offensive operations for this very reason.

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.

Never losing his care and concern for the average fighting men he led into battle, Dankl worked for a number of causes to benefit veterans and took great pleasure in being given the task of decorating them for actions during the war. He defended them whenever they were criticized and rather than devote himself to justifying his own actions or trying to explain away mistakes on his part, he defended his soldiers, the army as a whole and the honor of Austria-Hungary. Despite the political changes, he remained steadfast in his loyalty to the monarchy, refused to cooperate in any way with the rising Nazi Party or the communists and never ceased to advocate for the restoration of the House of Hapsburg. He detested anti-Semitism and opposed the union with Germany, instead urging as he always did for a return to monarchy. Sadly, many came to view him as being a sort of quirky old man, out of step with the times but they were times one should have been out of step with and it is to his credit that Dankl never forgot his loyalty to his Emperor and his country. He died on January 8, 1941 (3 days after his beloved wife) at the age of 86. As he was well known for his opposition to the Nazi Party, he was denied military honors at his funeral. It is doubtful he would have wanted them from such a regime anyway.


  1. We will remember them! Lest we forget! R+I+P, Viktor, Graf von Dankl! Memory Eternal!

  2. One government that came after the end of the Monarchy was the Austrofascism that had strong Christian influences, opposed Socialism, Communism, Nazism and Anti-Semitism. Until 1938, Austria under their rule was simillar to Franco's regime (even with more religious favour), maybe it was Republic and not the great Monarchy under the Habsburgs, but without Nazism that came after and couped the country, Austria could be today under Monarchical rule like Spain. It is interesting that von Krasnik didn't want to create a 'Royal party' or something like that before 1938 and joined the Maria Theresa Order. Maybe he wanted to keep his image as Military man and not becoming a politician, although he could be the salvation of Austria and I think he would have good support even with the brainwashing of the Liberals and Pacifists that came after the war.


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