Austria’s decision for war against Serbia was not a product of fatalism, fecklessness, or incompetence. Whether to preempt any possibility of a solution to the south Slavic question within Habsburg borders, or from murkier motives with domestic roots, Serbia, by not repudiating the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, had offered the Dual Monarchy a mortal challenge. Serbia had also overplayed its military hand. The state was still assimilating the territories acquired in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, while the army was recovering from the costs and losses of those conflicts. The Austrians even had the advantage of tactical surprise, putting elements of two armies across the Sava and the Danube Rivers on August 12 and compelling the evacuation of Belgrade without a fight.
At the outbreak of hostilities Serbia’s chief of staff, Radomir Putnik, was taking the waters at an Austrian spa, and had taken with him the keys to the safe containing Serbia’s war plans. Briefly interned, he was released – policy in 1914 was still implemented by gentlemen – and returned to find his subordinates had blown open the safe and begun mobilization without him. All the advantages, moral and military, seemed to lie with Austria. But Putnik was a shrewd planner and a ruthless fighting man. Willing to sacrifice territory for the sake of position, he drew the invaders deep into a Serbia whose broken terrain and undeveloped road network played havoc with Habsburg logistics and coordination. The Serbs held, then counterattacked, driving the Austrians back to the frontier and reoccupying Belgrade in a week of fighting as heavy as anything experienced in the Balkan Wars.
Conrad’s decision to allow the use of his reserve in Serbia only until August 20, when it began disengaging for transportation to Russia, compounded the initial tactical misjudgments of Austrian theater commander Oskar Potiorek. Those in turn were balanced by Putnik’s decision to invade Bosnia in the hopes of inspiring revolt among the province’s Slavic elements. The revolt failed to materialize, and Potiorek slowly forced the now overextended Serbs back into their central mountains. On both sides disease and privation took a heavy toll of regiments already reduced by casualties as the onset of winter added to the difficulties of supply, maneuver, and combat. Belgrade fell to the Austrians on December 2. The next day Putnik, his army partly re-supplied by France and Britain, counterattacked an enemy trapped by its own advances on the wrong side of the flooded Kolubra River. It took almost two weeks for the Austrians to fight their way out and the Serbs to reoccupy their capital.
Both armies, exhausted, established winter quarters in a countryside so devastated that its recovery arguably required the rest of the twentieth century. On both sides ethnic, cultural, and religious differences were stoked into mutual hatred by the horrors of high-tech battlefields and the privations of devastated rear areas. Combat zones were constantly shifting: civilians could neither run nor hide, nor establish stable relationships with military occupiers. Material damage – burned houses, slaughtered farm animals, devastated fields – was only the tip of the resulting iceberg. A growing climate of “no quarter” on the battlefields spread to an indiscriminate use of firing squads behind the lines. Local infrastructures collapsed as labor forces disappeared and family systems disintegrated. Random violence and brutality became ways of life in an environment of everyone for themselves that had no pity on the weak and the helpless. By 1918, such conditions would encompass most of the Balkans.
Conrad’s initial commitment of his reserve against Serbia had no effect on his decision to order a general advance into Russian Poland. The war plan of March 1914, which formed the basis of Habsburg operational planning five months later, provided for an immediate attack northwards from Galicia, aimed at overrunning and destroying a substantial part of the Russian forces in that area before they could complete their concentration. Without a simultaneous German attack across the Narew River toward Warsaw, however, Conrad’s initiative invited dismissal as a voyage to nowhere in particular. Habsburg apologists have made much of Germany’s alleged failure to mount that attack, even though its general staff had urged an Austrian offensive as recently as May. In fact the initial balance of forces in the Austro-Russian sector made offensive operations imperative by the standards of 1914, no matter what the Germans did. To sacrifice the initiative, to allow Russia to complete its concentration and choose its lines of advance was, according to conventional wisdom, to create a risk approaching certainty of being overrun in the field, trapped in the fortresses of Lemberg and Przemysl, or hammered back against the Carpathian Mountains.
Austria enjoyed an initial marginal superiority in men, and only a slight inferiority in guns. To the officer corps, decisive action seemed the best way to confirm allegiance in a multiethnic, polyglot empire. Colonel Alexander Brosch, commanding a regiment of the elite Tiroler Kaiserjaeger, hyperbolically praised the “iron calm, energy, and consequence” with which Austria had gone to war. “Bismarck and Moltke together” could not have managed the affair better: “all at once one could be really proud of his fatherland and its leaders.” “Indolence, carelessness, and cowardice” had been banished; Austria had replaced America as “the land of limitless possibilities.”
On August 16 four Habsburg armies, almost 800,000 strong, began moving forward – including Colonel Brosch, whose own appointment in Samarra awaited him on September 7. To meet them the Russian high command initially deployed two armies north of Galicia and two more on the southeastern Russo-Austrian frontier, a total of around 700,000 men. As Habsburg forces advanced deeper into Galicia, the Russians sought to counter by driving forward, enveloping their flanks, and threatening or severing their lines of retreat. With cavalry and air reconnaissance providing little useful information to either side, the result was a series of brutal encounter battles. On the Austrian left, the First Army drove the Russians in front of it 20 miles back toward Lublin. The neighboring Fourth Army hammered the Russian Fifth Army at the battle of Komarow.
Determined to exploit these victories, Conrad pressed forward, ignoring his right, where the Third Army was caught in the open and crushed by 20 divisions of the Russian Third and Eighth Armies. The Second Army, Conrad’s strategic reserve, was still detraining far from the front lines. Nevertheless Conrad responded by taking the fight to the Russians. Like Adolf Hitler in 1941, he believed any retreat would turn into a rout. Better to go for the throat and hope for the best. As the armies grappled with each other the front was characterized everywhere by mutually vulnerable flanks. Victory, Conrad insisted, would go to the side first able to impose its will on events. But his tool broke in his hands. After three weeks the Austrian soldiers were exhausted and their officers bewildered. Close-order assault tactics had cost thousands of lives. There were too many Russians in too many places. By September 1, his army on the verge of dissolution, even Conrad accepted retreat as the only alternative to annihilation.
Austria’s correspondingly desperate appeals to Germany brought the Hindenburg/ Ludendorff team south. Using the superb German railway network, they deployed four corps from Prussia into Poznan, then attacked into the Russian rear, toward Warsaw, on September 28. The Germans were confident that they could easily replicate their earlier victories on a larger scale. This time, however, the Russians traded space for position, retreating, concentrating, and counterattacking as rain, then snow and bitter cold immobilized guns and supply wagons on both sides. A surrounded German corps cut its way back to its own lines, bringing out most of its wounded and 16,000 prisoners. After two months of vicious see-saw fighting the front stabilized, with the Russians holding Warsaw and most of Poland, devastated by mutual policies of scorched earth that left more than 9,000 villages destroyed and over 200,000 homeless.
For a while Austria seemed on the threshold of disaster, despite German intervention. The fortress of Lemberg surrendered without a fight. Przemyśl was left to stand a siege, with enough supplies to last until spring. But Conrad was able to match the German initiative with an offensive of his own. Mounted with what remained of the army’s prewar resources, it briefly relieved Przemyśl, sputtered, and then collapsed as a Russian counterattack drove deep into the Carpathians before outrunning its supplies. As the year ended, the combatants paused – but only to regroup. In Galicia too, a civilian economy barely above subsistence level in peacetime was devastated – and not only by the presence and the demands of the armies.
In Austrian Galicia, Russian occupying authorities sought to Russify the province by an early form of ethnic cleansing. Germans, Ukrainians, and Jews were murdered, imprisoned, driven into Russia by hundreds and thousands, their property destroyed, confiscated, or simply allowed to fall into ruin.