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

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Carpathian Winter Fiasco

K.u.K. Machine Gunners

By Graydon A. Tunstall

In mountain operations protection from the elements is often as important as protection from enemy fire. (Nato Manual)

The Carpathian winter war of 1915 presents one of the most significant—and, in terms of human sacrifice, most tragic—chapters of World War I. The mountain battles that pitted allied Austro-Hungarian and German armies against Russian troops were unprecedented in the age of total war. In the winter of 1915, the Dual Monarchy launched three separate and equally ill-conceived offensives: an initial effort on 23 January; a second uncoordinated assault on the Russians on 27 February; and a third and final effort to liberate Fortress Przemysl in late March. The Karpatenkrieg comprised three separate campaigns launched by the Habsburg Supreme Command from mid-January to April 1915. The Eastern Front operation, which ultimately engaged more than a million men on each side, could hardly have been conducted under worse conditions. The Carpathian Theater lacked the railways, roads, communication lines, and other important resources necessary for maneuvering mass armies. Moreover, the contenders soon found themselves ensnared in an inhospitable mountain environment in wintertime.

The Habsburg command had made no prewar contingency plans for a mountain campaign lasting into the winter months—one of its many failures—and this would prove to be a disastrous mistake. Infantry masses were deployed into the mountainous theater with no provision for winter uniforms or suitable equipment. Conrad's troops were sent to the mountains in winter without the most rudimentary winter provisions, including warm clothes, and saws with which to fell trees for firewood. Boots with cardboard soles, for example, quickly became unusable.

Thousands of Habsburg troops fell victim to "the white death,” living in the open in subfreezing temperatures with no shelter. Weary soldiers spent the long winter nights struggling to stay awake to avoid frostbite or freezing to death as nighttime temperatures dropped to as low as -25°F. Emotional fatigue set in amongst the living, compounded by the lack of food and sleep.

Nevertheless, Conrad's soldiers continued their attacks. Troops were expected to undertake exhausting marches through meter-deep snow to reach the battlefield, only to find no shelter awaiting them. In a cruel twist of fate, frigid conditions were interspersed with sudden periods of rising temperatures and thaw. Steady rain and melting snow turned the valley terrain into a pit of mud as troops, artillery, ammunition, animals, and supply wagons sank into the mire. Rising floodwaters swept away bridges, and soldiers were forced to lie in the waterlogged positions.

The troops had to dig out in order to go on patrol, launch an assault, or clear defensive positions and the limited roads and trails essential for the movement of supplies. The shoveling required hours, sometimes days, and the burden of these tasks contributed to the physical and moral decline of Habsburg forces. Utterly exhausted, many of the troops became apathetic or committed suicide by shooting themselves or exposing themselves to enemy fire. Tens of thousands of horses, too—critical to the Habsburg supply chain—succumbed to overexertion and starvation.

Russian Artillery in the Carpathians

Habsburg Third Army suffered immense losses during the first Carpathian offensive. Two weeks after it began, official sources listed 88,900 men as casualties. Their total losses during the offensive exceeded 75 percent, most of them resulting from severe frostbite, exposure, or illness. The Third Army commander, Svetozar Borojević, rightfully claimed that his army had not been prepared for the demands of a mountain winter campaign.

On 1 March, during the second offensive Colonel Georg Veith of Third Army wrote: "Fog and heavy snowfalls, we have lost all sense of direction; entire regiments are getting lost, resulting in catastrophic losses." Habsburg archduke Joseph August, commander of VII Corps, reported that over two days his Hungarian Honvéd Division "suffered terrible losses; its effective force numbers less than 2,000. . .and tomorrow, despite the casualties, we have to attack again. My corps losses since 1 March: 12 officers, 1,121 men killed, 46 officers and 2,121 men wounded, 2 officers and 685 men missing. This is really terrible."

With the failed third Carpathian push grinding to a halt, the army's offensive efforts ended on 23 March. When Conrad ordered the South Army commander to transfer "dispensable" units to the embattled Third Army, he declined, stating that he required them for future operations. Conrad grew despondent, with his adjutant describing the situation as hopeless. An entry in the V Corps logbook observed, "It is as though Heaven is against us. When we attack, it starts snowing and more than one meter deep. When the Russians attack, the snow freezes and movement is possible."

Austrian Troops Retreating

For the Dual Monarchy, never to be forgotten was the series of operations that opened in 1915 in the Carpathian Mountains. Conrad's flawed planning and failures in the campaign also resulted in the German military exerting greater control over the Habsburg command structure. One of the most ill-conceived campaigns of the war, the Carpathian winter war offers far too many examples of how not to conduct winter mountain battle and provides a stark lesson about the negative effects of inadequate leadership.

Religious souls visualize hell as a blazing inferno with burning embers and intense heat. The soldiers fighting in the Carpathian Mountains during that first winter of the war know otherwise.
(Colonel Georg Veith, Third Army, k.u.k)

Source:  Over the Top, February 2015


  1. Horrible. Atrocious.
    Once again, the eastern front remains underappreciated.

  2. Lousy leadership results in horrific losses. Conrad is a prime example of how not to command, especially during war.