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

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Written in Blood: The Battles for Fortress Przemysl
reviewed by Michael P. Kihntopf

Written in Blood: The Battles for Fortress Przemysl

by Graydon A. Tunstall
Indiana University Press, 2016

Austrian Prisoners 
Dr. Graydon Tunstall, longtime member of the Western Front Association, Eastern Branch, as well as the World War 1 Historical Association, has given the world another gem about the Great War's Eastern Front. His previous work, Blood in the Snow: The Carpathian Winter War of 1915, was a groundbreaker in exploring the struggles of the Austro-Hungarian Army. This new work adds more to the story of the Dual Monarchy's efforts to at first win the war against a numerically superior Russian Army, then to survive the war for a few more months and, later, to spend years as a dependent of the German Army.

As many of us know, the powers that went to war in August 1914 did not have a clear idea of what their political objectives in fighting the war were. Nowhere was the confusion more evident than with the chief of the Austro-Hungarian General Staff, General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf. Tunstall reminds us in the opening chapter how Conrad's vacillation in determining which mobilization plan to implement quickly led to his armies meeting defeat in Russian Poland and on the Galician frontier. As the armies retreated into Galicia hotly persuaded by the Russians, Conrad saw Fortress Przemysl as a rallying point for the defeated; however, the fortress was more plaster than concrete.

Strategically placed between the San and Dniester Rivers and the Carpathian Mountains' Dukla Pass, which opened to the Hungarian plain, the fortress should have merited adequate funds since its inception in the early 1800s as a defensive position against Russian invasion. However, upgrades to armaments as those weapons changed and strengthening its forts in response to stronger besieging armaments were greatly neglected in favor of fortifications along the Serbian and Italian borders. The author very adequately lays out the fortress's armaments, some cannon dated to the mid-1860s which used black powder, as well as the condition of its walls, left un-reinforced by concrete.

A Russian Column Entering Przemysl 

Not until war was declared in August 1914 and invasion was imminent were measures taken to improve its inadequacies. It is a wonder that the fortress held out as it was surrounded by the enemy in October 1914 and remained so with only a brief respite until March 1915. Its tenacious stand was due not to Conrad's leadership but rather to that of General Hermann Kusmanek, the fortress's commander, who clearly saw that the installation's purpose was to tie down as many Russian divisions it could until the shattered army reorganized itself for a new, winning offensive.

Tunstall minutely lays out Kusmanek's efforts to make Przemysl a thorn in the side of the tsarist soldiers as they chased the Dual Monarchy's men deeper into Galicia. His sorties from the fortress and the defense of its old and newly constructed works tied down nearly two whole armies that Russian generals could have used to tackle the fortress at Krakow and invade Germany's resource-rich Silesian province. The author also revisits Conrad's efforts, which border on obsession, to relieve the fortress. Hundreds of thousands of men were lost in the Carpathian Mountains in winter campaigns that lacked adequate planning or compassion for the men, who had to endure all the inhospitable conditions that exist in the mountains in the middle of winter. As a result of such losses, the Austro-Hungarian Army grew more and more dependent on German battalions to shore up its defenses against the Russians.

Written in Blood is a must-have reference to an often neglected Great War front and to the inner workings of the Austro-Hungarian Army. It is rich with well-researched information arising from primary archival documents about siege conditions, military units in the fighting, and conditions endured by soldiers and civilians who shared their hardships.

Michael P. Kihntopf


  1. Thanks for this post - I will add this book to my list.

  2. These reviews always alert me to new volumes for my library. Because of them, i've gotten Handcuffed to a Corpse which explores the German reaction to having to continually shore up the Austro-Hungarian lines; Breakthrough about the Tarnow-Gorlice 1915 campaign; and Dark Invasion about the hunt for German saboteurs in the months before the United States went to war. Keep the reviews coming!

  3. Nice review michael! I am in my condo in Pensacola and really need to get a hold of Graydon concerning our next book. The society of Military history meets in Jacksonville next year.

  4. Very intriguing book. It's good to see more eastern front scholarship appear.

  5. How do you pronounce Przemysl?

    1. prismishl. Although some may have different ideas depending on which language they know best. Cheers

  6. I've been waiting for an English language treatment of the fortress Przemyśl. Thank you for the review!