Austro-Hungarian Army’s Task



Corps areas in the Austro-Hungarian Army.

The Austro-Hungarian army’s task in a European war was at first glance straightforward: during the six weeks in which its ally defeated France, it was to bear the main burden of holding the Russians in the east. However, Conrad, unlike Moltke, could not simply plan for one major conflict. The predators that surrounded the Empire could plausibly attack in a number of combinations, and so unlike their German allies, with their obsessive focus on one single scheme, the Austro-Hungarians had stacks of war plans. There were plans for conflict with Russia (War Case ‘R’), in the Balkans (War Case ‘B’) and, although formally an ally, with Italy (War Case ‘I’). The army also prepared to deploy against combinations of these enemies and, a case considered hopeless even by the optimists in the Habsburg General Staff, against all three in alliance. In order to meet all eventualities, Conrad divided his operational force into three groups. A-Echelon, the strongest group with nine corps containing twenty-seven of the army’s forty-eight infantry divisions, was intended to provide protection against Russia. The Balkan Minimal Group of three corps (with nine divisions) had the task of defending against Serbia and Montenegro. Finally, there was a swing group, B-Echelon, which comprised twelve divisions that could be sent wherever needed. The circumstances of July 1914 presented two possibilities for this echelon. Habsburg leaders had to decide whether they faced ‘War Case B’, a conflict solely against Serbia, or whether Russia would intervene, bringing about ‘War Case B+R’. In the former case, B-Echelon was to be sent to the southern border for an offensive. In the latter, it would urgently be required in Galicia, where, with the units of A-Echelon, it would take part in an attack intended to disrupt the Tsarist Empire’s mobilization.

Conrad’s plans comfortingly appeared to deal with all eventualities. Yet there were fatal flaws which, combined with indecision and wishful thinking on the part of the Chief of the General Staff, disrupted mobilization and severely damaged Habsburg hopes of any early victory. First, the railway plan was geared to flexibility, when what was really needed was speed. The four corps allocated to the swing B-Echelon all lay far from Galicia but had access to good railways. The Budapest IV Corps could travel to the eastern fortress-city of Przemyśl on a double-tracked line. The Prague VIII and Leitmeritz IX Corps were on the Monarchy’s most modern rail artery, the Nordbahn. If speed had been the priority, then it would have been optimal to transport these distant units first and then start moving the divisions of A-Echelon, most of which were based closer to the battlefront. However, Conrad’s demand for flexibility meant that the army’s rail experts did the opposite. B-Echelon was to be held stationary, while A-Echelon was loaded into the first transports. Worse still, the delay was compounded by the military rail technicians’ ridiculously cautious timetabling. The regulation speed for Habsburg military transports on single tracks was just 11 kilometres per hour. On double-tracked lines they were expected to reach a heady 18 kilometres per hour. The trains themselves were permitted to be no more than forty-nine wagons’ long, comparable to other armies’ transports but just half the length of the civilian trains that usually travelled the Nordbahn. Stops of six in every twenty-four hours for fuel and feeding were calculated into the deployment programme. How slow all this was is clear from comparison with the French and German armies, which assumed basic speeds of 30 kilometres per hour for their mobilization transports. The result was that even under the best circumstances, a Habsburg general mobilization against the Tsarist Empire would be tardy. The Russians expected their enemy to complete concentration against them in fifteen days. However, under the Austro-Hungarian military rail plan the final units of B-Echelon deployed only on the twenty-fourth day of mobilization. The prioritization of flexibility over speed in Conrad’s plans therefore negated the one real advantage that the Habsburg army possessed. The Russians planned by the twenty-fourth day of their mobilization to have thirty-seven and a half infantry divisions on the Galician Front, just two fewer than their enemy. By the thirtieth day, they would enjoy a significant numerical superiority, with forty-five infantry and more than eighteen cavalry divisions.

The Austro-Hungarian army could ill afford to sacrifice this single advantage, for its multinational character made it difficult to command and the Hungarian parliament’s obstreperousness had left it undermanned and underfunded. It exhibited the structural complexity typical of Habsburg institutions. The Common Army was the main force with two-thirds of the Empire’s infantry and nearly all its artillery and cavalry. Alongside it were the Hungarian Honvéd and Austrian Landwehr, formations originally intended as second-line national guards but which through decades of Magyar parliamentary pressure had developed into first-line forces. A small Croatian-Slavonian force, the Domobran, served within the Honvéd, reflecting the autonomous position of Croatia within the Lands of St Stephen. The Common Army recruited from all parts of the Empire, while the other formations drew their soldiers exclusively from Hungary, Austria or Croatia respectively. The army was a dynastic force; all its parts owed allegiance solely to Franz Joseph as Austrian Emperor or King of Hungary and Croatia.

While the German and French conscript forces were, in the jargon of the time, ‘people’s armies’, composed of each nation’s manhood, the Austro-Hungarians fielded, as its history proudly asserted, ‘an army of peoples’. The ethnic composition of the force’s rank and file closely mirrored that of the Empire which it served and from which it was drawn.

The Habsburg army had followed other European forces and switched to territorial recruitment in 1882, raising units within sixteen corps districts, a measure that accelerated mobilization and limited the mixing of the nationalities. Even so, the force still had to overcome considerable communication challenges. These were resolved in the first instance by designating one tongue as a ‘language of command’ and ‘language of service’. This was German in the Common Army and Landwehr, Hungarian in the Honvéd and Croatian in the Domobran. Each soldier learned eighty words in this language so that he understood basic commands like ‘Attention!’, ‘At Ease!’ or ‘Fire!’ The men also memorized around a thousand technical terms, including the names for the parts of their weaponry; conversation might not be possible, but soldiers from different corners of the empire should be able to strip their rifles or service a field gun together. Additionally, to facilitate everyday communication at lower levels of the military organization, any tongue spoken by at least 20 per cent of the soldiers in a regiment (a unit of around 3,000 men) was designated a ‘regimental language’. In 1914, even though the army was territorially raised, only 142 regiments, fewer than half the total, were sufficiently ethnically homogeneous to be considered monolingual. Some 162 regiments officially had two languages, twenty-four used three, and there were even a few regiments raised from areas so mixed that four languages had to be recognized. Any new officer arriving at a regiment had three years to learn its languages. The duty was taken seriously, for the men had the right to speak in their own tongues to their superiors up to company commander, and failure meant delayed promotion or even dismissal. Most Habsburg professional officers were therefore proficient in at least two tongues. The corps’ high-flyers usually spoke more: Conrad, for example, had mastered seven.

The officer corps, which numbered 18,506 professionals and 13,293 reserve officers, was the army’s greatest asset. The corps shared its Prussian ally’s aristocratic ethos and honour credo, but its social profile was less exalted: two decades before the war, the share of nobles among career officers had been 28.6 per cent, but it had fallen by 1914. Most professional officers were of Austrian German stock, although the four-fifths suggested in the official figures (see Table 4) is probably an exaggeration. Perhaps one-sixth were from Slavic backgrounds. Whatever their origins, the vast majority were anational, identifying only with the Austrian state idea and their feudal lord, the Emperor. Recruitment for both the professional and reserve corps was blind to ethnicity and confession. One of the consequences was that Jews, who were informally but totally barred from commissions in the pre-war Prussian army, were four times over-represented in the Habsburg reserve corps, making up no less than 17 per cent of its officers. Although the Common Army was a conscript force, its professional officers held aloof from civilian society. The corps resented its lack of prestige in that society and was hostile to the rising nationalism. These attitudes, combined with Habsburg officers’ lesser social status, and education and pay comparing poorly with those of their German counterparts, influenced its command style and performance. Inter-rank relations in the Habsburg army were indifferent; better than those in its Russian enemy, for sure, but not so trusting as in Germany’s military, even though its officers had to spend more time than German officers instructing their men because their companies usually had only between one and three professional NCOs. This was not merely a matter of communication difficulties. Whereas the liberal reform of Prussian discipline had taken place at the start of the nineteenth century, not until 1873 had the more socially detached Habsburg force finally instructed its commanders to ‘show sympathy’ and ‘get to know and understand’ their subordinates. On the other hand, the corps’ self-isolation and rejection of civil society probably reinforced its intense devotion to the Emperor. The sacrifice that it made during the war was astonishingly high: 31.3 per cent of professional officers and 16.5 per cent of reserve officers fell in imperial service.

The Common Army’s biggest problem with its men was that it simply did not have enough. Its 1,687,000-strong Field Army was dwarfed by the 3,400,000 soldiers of the mobilized Russian force. Additionally, the low proportion of the male population drafted in peace meant there was a relatively small pool of trained reserves to act as casualty replacements in war. The manpower pool from which the army recruited was very mixed. In the west of the Empire, educational standards and the acceptance of state power were little different from that of western nations. In peacetime, just 3 per cent of German-speaking Austrians had attempted to dodge the three-year (from 1912 two-year) military conscription. In the disgruntled but well-educated Czech lands, 6–7.3 per cent of men ignored the summons to the colours. By contrast Hungarians, who still bore a grudge for Habsburg soldiers’ brutal suppression of their 1848 revolution and disliked the Common Army, had an absentee rate before the war of a little over 25 per cent. Worst of all were Galicia and the South Slav lands, areas with much illiteracy and irredentist movements as well as high emigration, where resistance in the last decade of peace had risen to the point that over one-third of those mustered failed to present themselves. Of course, war was a very different situation. Punishment for disobedience was more severe and a wave of patriotism did sweep the Empire as hostilities broke out. Nonetheless, it was inevitable that units raised in different parts of the Empire would in war display wildly differing capabilities and performance. Scepticism about the loyalty of some peoples also prevailed. As the Habsburg War Minister’s aide-de-camp remarked of South Slav reservists on the eve of war, ‘they will arrive at the depots all confident, but they’ll already be less willing when the time comes to march. Whether they attack over the last 1,000 metres, no one can give any sure guarantee.’

The army’s main deficiencies in 1914 nonetheless lay not, contrary to what is often claimed, in the loyalty or willingness of its Slav soldiers, but rather in inadequate support, poor training and, as the campaigns would reveal, spectacularly incompetent higher leadership. Its gravest materiel shortage was in modern artillery, a consequence both of inadequate funding and indecision and infighting about the specifications for the new weaponry among the army’s senior commanders. Habsburg Common Army divisions had forty-two field artillery pieces; eight to ten more than first-line Serbian divisions but far fewer than the sixty supporting Russian divisions. Worse still, only two-thirds of these guns were modern 05/08 80mm cannon. The others were obsolete 100mm field howitzers without recoil mechanisms for quick aiming and firing or armoured shields for the gun teams’ protection. The heavy artillery, which comprised eight 99/04 150mm howitzers in each corps, was similarly old-fashioned. All Habsburg gun barrels were cast of bronze, rather than stronger steel, which made them heavy and limited their range. Even in Serbia, the 150mm howitzers, which could fire 5,000 metres, found that the enemy’s heavy artillery could outrange them by no less than 3,000 metres. The Common Army had some excellent specialist artillery. The force had designed a superb mountain artillery gun, although only four of fifty-two mountain batteries had received it by 1914. The army was also equipped with some state-of-the-art fortress-busting 305mm Skoda super-heavy mortars. Neither weapon compensated for deficiencies elsewhere, however, nor for the army’s inadequate ammunition stocks. Just 330 rounds per howitzer and 550 rounds per field gun were available, around half that stockpiled by the other great powers.

The tactical skill of the Habsburg infantry was unlikely to compensate for this deficiency in materiel. The army not only lacked professional NCOs; it also relied more on reservists, whose martial skills were rusty, than was wise. The German army kept its peacetime units at two-thirds strength, so that on mobilization only the two youngest and most recently trained classes of reservists needed to be called to bring them to their full complement. In Habsburg infantry companies after mobilization, by contrast, only 20–25 per cent of the complement were active soldiers undergoing peacetime military training. To fill the ranks, men who had not seen service for a decade had to be drafted. So great was the army’s need that even Ersatzreservisten, men who had received no more than an annual eight-week military training, were called up. The army, denied funding through Hungarian intransigence in the last decade of peace, also lacked the equipment and infrastructure needed for an orderly expansion on mobilization. Most continental conscript armies followed the Prussian model of organizing three main lines. The ‘active’ units that composed the standing army and had the best equipment were filled with men undergoing their peacetime service and topped up with the youngest classes of reservists. The depots also kept sufficient equipment, NCOs and officers to permit the building of a second line: reserve regiments containing trained men aged between twenty-three and thirty-two. A third line of less well-equipped Landwehr or territorial units, intended principally for rear-area duties, was formed from reservists aged twenty-eight to thirty-eight. Additionally, older men up to forty-five years of age might be allocated to Landsturm police or labour units. The Habsburg Common Army, by contrast, treated its Landwehr and Honvéd regiments as first-line by 1914 and lacked the surplus equipment and officers needed to form extra second-line reserve units on mobilization. To supplement its weak front-line strength, it instead relied upon Landsturminfanteriebrigaden, scratch-built militia composed of men aged between thirty-two and forty-two issued with obsolete rifles and easily visible peacetime uniforms or even just armbands in imperial black-yellow colours. Their artillery support amounted to no more than one gun per battalion. During 1914 and 1915, similarly poorly equipped ‘march battalions’, whose purpose was to bring drafts to front-line units, were frequently also thrown into combat. Lacking training, equipment, cohesion and leadership, the march battalions and Landsturm brigades predictably achieved little and suffered horrendous casualties.

These deficiencies were multiplied by a misguided tactical doctrine. The ‘cult of the offensive’, an overestimation of the superiority of the attack and a conviction that raw will could beat firepower, was embraced by all armies in 1914, but those that felt themselves to be behind in the technological and material race extolled it most. The French army, with its faith in the offensive à outrance, is remembered as the most fervent advocate of these attitudes, but the Austro-Hungarian military leadership was no less fanatical in its belief. This was in large measure due to Conrad, who was considered in the army to be a tactical genius. His key work ‘On the Study of Tactics’ had appeared in 1890, and a quarter of a century later he clung to the same principles. Energy, decisiveness and action were his answers to firepower. ‘The attack,’ he insisted, ‘is the action most suited to the spirit of war.’ To prepare his men for the war of manoeuvre that he expected, he put them through ferocious route marches. Disastrously, unlike his German ally, he denied the necessity for combined arms tactics. His infantry regulations of October 1911, the last issued before the outbreak of war, insisted that foot soldiers could ‘win the victor’s laurels even without support from other weapons and against enemy numerical superiority if imbued with confidence and aggression, if equipped with unbendable steadfastness of will and the greatest physical toughness’. The only concession to the destructive effects of firepower was to recommend that troops be deployed in loose skirmishing lines, and in practice even this was frequently disregarded. Time and again after pre-war manoeuvres, foreign observers criticized Habsburg troops’ slow movement in closed formations. Officers stood up behind their firing lines or even stayed on their horses, offering ideal targets. The obliviousness towards terrain, failure to reconnoitre and lack of cooperation with artillery made these soldiers, in the German military attaché’s view, mere ‘cannon fodder’.

The Central Powers’ campaign in the summer of 1914 was unrealistic in the demands that it placed on both armies. Capable though it was, the German military was asked to achieve the impossible: a victory over France in just six weeks. Even Moltke lacked confidence in the chances of success. He hoped against reason for a quick victory, yet foresaw a horrendous conflict lasting up to two years. He had even, albeit halfheartedly, pushed civil authorities to prepare financially and secure the Reich’s food supply. The Austro-Hungarian army led by Conrad, an even more vociferous advocate of preventative war, was grievously unprepared to face Serbia and Russia combined. The decade-long funding freeze imposed by the Hungarian parliament must certainly bear much responsibility. Yet Conrad and his generals were reckless in accepting the task of holding the Russian army, contributed to the delay in their force’s re-equipment with modern artillery, and imposed a tactical doctrine divorced from the reality of the twentieth-century battlefield. Fatally, neither German nor Austro-Hungarian military leaders were willing to acknowledge their forces’ limitations in their operational planning. Their soldiers would pay for these illusions.

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