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

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Fall of the Double Eagle: The Battle for Galicia and the Demise of Austria-Hungary, Part 1
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

Austrian Troops En Route to Galicia, 1914

Part 1

When most people think of the First World War they envision the Western Front, with its trenches, horror, and deadlock. The rest of this truly global war usually receives little attention, or is simply forgotten. A series of recent books have challenged that skewed view, especially those published during WWI's centenary. They have expanded our horizon to include fighting in the Middle East, central and southern Europe, and the Eastern Front.

John Schindler's Fall of the Double Eagle (2015) is a welcome contribution to this new historiography. The book's topic is the epic battle between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires in fall 1914, sometimes labeled the Battle of Galicia. Schindler narrates this struggle with intensity and storytelling flair, arguing for its enormous historical importance. Not only does the battle feature "the last major mounted cavalry engagement in world history" (168), it also dealt the fatal wound to one of Europe's largest and most ancient empires.

That battle actually takes place in the second half of Double Eagle. Schindler spends the first half setting the scene, and this is very welcome. We learn of the Austro-Hungarian political and cultural situation leading up to WWI's outbreak, focused on a rickety governmental framework struggling to keep together an extraordinarily diverse set of nationalities, ethnicities, religions, and languages. The author is skeptical about how well this works, repeatedly turning to the German word schlamperei (slackness) to describe a shambling administrative ethos (8). Yet Schindler writes with some sympathy for the MacGyvered state, perhaps from considering its wartime demolition.

With that political context Schindler explores the Dual Monarchy's unusual military force. From 1867, following Austria's defeat at the hands of Prussia, the empire maintained several formations. There was a main military, the kaiserlich und königliche Armee (k.u.k.). This force developed practices for communicating across multiple languages, including teaching officers and some soldiers a stripped-down form of military German. Due to the politics of competing nationalities, the empire also hosted a separate Hungarian force, the Honved, as well as an Austrian one, the Landwehr (32ff). These last two were less professional than the k.u.k., being closer to militias in quality and structure. All three were putatively led by a central staff command, the armeeoberkommando (AOK). Schindler's assessment of this arrangement is clear: "the three-part army constituted the major liability of the Ausgleich [post-1867 political settlement]" (34).

Schindler is scathing about how up to 1914 this complex military force was supported and led. He finds it grossly underfunded, especially due to Hungarian intransigence ("Hungarian elites… desired a joint army that was undermanned and underfunded, which would pose a diminishing threat to Hungary's ambitions inside the Dual Monarchy. They got what they wanted–and more" (40). Artillery was especially ill served, being out of date, lacking in ammunition, and few in numbers. The number of men serving in the armed forces was relatively low, compared to other European nations. Cavalry's role was overstated and unclear (78-9). Air power was neglected (82). Intelligence was catastrophic, especially after a leading spy, Alfred Redl, was found to be selling secrets to Russia (84-9).

Moreover, the k.u.k., Honved, and Landwehr were sapped by anachronistic doctrine emphasizing massive bayonet charges (74ff). This would not turn out well in the machine gun age, as students of WWI know. At the strategic level the k.u.k. command planned on a two-front war with Serbia and Russia (actually, General Conrad also longed for a campaign against Italy!), far beyond the empire's capacities. Making things even worse, the Dual Monarchy under-planned operations against Russia (105ff), which turned out to be disastrous, as Moscow would throw the balance of its forces against Vienna.

Fall of the Double Eagle doesn't spend much time on the causes and outbreak of the war, which isn't a problem, since that ground has been so widely covered elsewhere. Instead the book starts the war with a welcome sketch of its first military events—the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia. This turns out to be a disaster for Vienna, as their forces are defeated, notably at the Battle of Cer, and thrown back. Shortly afterwards the Serbs actually launch invasions of their supposedly far more powerful neighbor. "There was no escaping the fact that the ancient Habsburg Monarchy had been humiliated by the peasant regiments of a small Balkan kingdom" (142). That would be bad enough, but things devolved into catastrophe.

On page 149 the book at last turns to the battle or campaign of Galicia itself, and things begin with surprising Austria-Hungarian successes. In initial battles, imperial forces use outmoded tactics, outrace their artillery, incur horrendous casualties, and yet somehow manage to beat back parts of the Russian armies in western Poland (170ff). These gains were rapidly blotted out when the major Russian forces, moving in from the east, hit under-prepared and outnumbered Dual Monarchy units in eastern Galicia. At the battles of Gnila Lipa and Rawa, Austria-Hungarian forces are massively defeated and driven back against the Carpathian Mountains. Russian Cossacks terrified imperial troops, and Russian artillery wreaked terrible casualties (pp.187–8 and 258, for example). Major Austro-Hungarian units at the corps level were accidentally kept from battle as the AOK confusedly shuttled them between Serbian and Russian fronts.

Only hastily staffed mountain passes and their own armies' exhaustion kept Moscow's troops from entering Hungary. By campaign's end casualties were nightmarish:

From the approximately 900,000 Austro-Hungarian troops committed to the battle against Russia in late August, only slightly over half of them reached the safety of the San [River] in mid-September. In three weeks of fighting, Conrad had lost approximately 420,000 men, including over 100,000 killed, about 100,000 in Russian captivity, and some 220,000 wounded. The overall loss was equal to the size of Austria-Hungary's prewar standing army (2534–).

Russian Troops Preparing for the Assault on the Carpathian Mountain Passes

In the book's final chapter Schindler sketches out events following Galicia. To stave off the Russian advance Conrad threw desperate assaults in winter over the Carpathians, awful attacks which Schindler describes as "[T]his horror, little understood beyond specialist historians and known to Austro-Hungarian troops as the Karpathenwinter, must rank among the cruelest follies of the Great War" (273). The massive fortress of Przemyśl would fall, opening the Russian way into the empire's heartland. After rebuilding the armies, Conrad launches the massive Schwarz-Gelbe offensive, which, after initial progress, falls apart.

It was apparent to AOK that something had gone dreadfully wrong, and the campaign… became known as Conrad's "autumn swinery." (Herbstsau) among cynical staff officers who saw that the army was simply incapable of generating sufficient combat power against the Russians to win (279).

End of Part 1, Bryan Alexander's review of Fall of the Double Eagle continues tomorrow.

Bryan Alexander

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