Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Fall of the Double Eagle: The Battle for Galicia and the Demise of Austria-Hungary, Part 2
Reviewed by Bryan Alexander

Fall of the Double Eagle: The Battle for Galicia and the Demise of Austria-Hungary

by John Schindler
Potomac Books, 2015

Russian Artillery Took a Tremendous Toll on the Forces of the Dual Monarchy in Galicia

Part 2

Fall of the Double Eagle succeeds very well as narrative history. The book sticks to a clear chronology, branching out into simultaneous events only when they become too complicated to handle at once. Schindler has an eye for character sketches, be they the major players or minor ones, like proto-Nazi Blasius von Schemua (64). Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (usually known simply as Conrad) is the book's main actor and frequently appears as distracted, oblivious, and semi-competent. Hard-charging Svetozar Boroevic emerges as a fierce fellow and rare excellent player on Vienna's side (181, 225). He needs greater attention in WWI historiography.

The book offers some nice set pieces and anecdotes illustrating the madness and complexity of the war. For example, Schindler describes one unit's charge by noting not only its regimental identity, but also its ties to historical events and even the origins of its favorite song (238). Later we see an officer surprised by one of his men reading poetry (256). Or:

Conrad von Hötzendorf
The fourth day brought rain, making the soupy trenches even more intolerable, and at 10:00 a.m. one of the militiamen jumped out of his trench, stripped off all his clothes and ran amok, dancing naked before the enemy. The Russians, perhaps in awe, fired no shots at the crazed soldier, or at the two comrades who ventured out to rescue him by dragging him back to the trench (232).

The author also has a nice way with acidic statements, like "There were already indications that galloping blindly toward the Russians would end badly" (166). "[Italian commander Cadorna] was a callous incompetent who made Conrad look like Napoleon" (280). "[Y]et again [k.u.k. commander] Conrad dispatched his forces into an unequal fight" (224). "Brusilov believed the Austrians would make their stand behind the Gnila Lipa [river line], since it would be foolishness to fight before it, with the river at their backs. Which is exactly what [k.u.k. general] Brudermann proceeded to do" (191).

Most of the text is Schindler's, and his prose works very well. He studs pages with some letters and other contemporary accounts. I was moved by his inclusion of Georg Trakl's "Grodek" (216), which was new to me:

At evening the autumn woodlands ring
With deadly weapons. Over the golden plains
And lakes of blue, the sun
More darkly rolls. The night surrounds
Warriors dying and the wild lament
Of their fragmented mouths.

Yet silently there gather in the willow combe
Red clouds inhabited by an angry god,
Shed blood, and the chill of the moon.

All roads lead to black decay.

Under golden branching of the night and stars
A sister's shadow sways through the still grove
To greet the heroes' spirits, the bloodied heads.

And softly in the reeds Autumn's dark flutes resound.

O prouder mourning! - You brazen altars,
The spirit's hot flame is fed now by a tremendous pain:
The grandsons, unborn.

I do have some problems with this book, as excellent as it otherwise is. I am not an expert on Austria-Hungary in WWI, but Double Eagle at times undermines its arguments. For example, Schindler (and others) clearly despises Conrad as a lousy commander. The text, however, also notes with approval his early appreciation of air power (82) and very effective embrace of signals intelligence (226–7). After Galicia, Conrad and his staff learn some crucial lessons and apply them, including improving artillery supply. "[I]nfantry-artillery coordination had improved considerably" (278). Perhaps a more balanced assessment is due.

Moreover, if Galicia was such a disaster, how was Vienna able to keep fighting for four more years? The empire would go on to successfully quash Serbia and invade Italy for several years. Russia would try to invade Hungary and fail, then would be massively defeated and driven back. Admittedly, these efforts depended on German assistance, but Belgrade and Rome also depended heavily on allies, so the Austria-Hungarians were tackling them as well. This was, after all, a war of competing alliances. One reading of Double Eagle is that the catastrophe of Galicia did not fatally wound the old empire, but injured it, and constrained its subsequent reach.

An especially irritating problem with Double Eagle is that it lacks any maps whatsoever. This is a particular obsession of mine, but I think the absence of visuals will irk nearly any reader. A general map of central and eastern Europe would help situate the grand strategy. Maps of the Serbian and especially Galician areas are essential for grasping troop movements and command choices. Time and again, despite having read widely in this topic, I found myself going online to consult multiple digital maps. Publishers and authors cannot create hobbled books like this.

These problems aside, Fall of the Double Eagle is a welcome addition to the literature of World War I. It effectively illuminates a neglected campaign and situates it very well in context. The book succeeds in arguing for the vital importance of the Galicia battles Schindler writes engagingly and well. It's a nice complement to Prit Buttar's more Russian- and German-focused Collision of Empires. Strongly recommended for any student of WWI, or anyone interested in modern central-eastern European history.

Bryan Alexander

1 comment:

  1. I really appreciated such a fair and balanced review and learned a great deal about this part of the War. Being unfamiliar with the area, I would have needed help from maps too.