German Chief of the German General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn had always been reluctant to help the Austrians. Both he and Austro-Hungarian Chief of the General Staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf thought that Italian intervention, especially if, as both felt likely, it came together with Romanian intervention, would mean the end of the war—the Italian army in Zagreb within three weeks, in Vienna in six. They disagreed altogether as to what should be done. Conrad wanted the Germans to send troops, to brow-beat the Italians. Falkenhayn thought that he could not spare them, and that Austria should concede bits of land the Italians coveted—they could, after all, be taken back at the end of a victorious war. Conrad replied that this would only whet Italian appetites still more, and the government shrank from the extreme unpopularity that such cessions would have involved in the Germanic heartland of the Monarchy. Perhaps a generous offer would have taken the wind from Italian interventionists’ sails; perhaps it would merely have made them increase their demands. At all events, Vienna conceded ungenerously and slowly; and Falkenhayn would not send support to Austria-Hungary for her eastern front in case it stiffened her will not to give way to Italy. By March, the Austrians were exasperated, and they hit upon the one argument that a weak ally always has against a stronger. If the Germans withheld support, then they would collapse. There were persistent rumours that Austria-Hungary would make a separate peace; Conrad—usually the soul of honour—complained to Bolfras, Franz Joseph’s military secretary, that the Germans were ‘unscrupulous, brutally selfish’ and added, ‘We can always threaten a separate peace with Russia, as a counter-weight’. On 1st April he told Falkenhayn that he would rather lose Galicia, in separate peace with Russia, than Trieste to Italy.
Falkenhayn’s position was difficult. If he sent help to the Austrians, they might turn round and refuse to concede anything to Italy; if he failed to send help, they would disintegrate. Gradually, as the Carpathian disasters went ahead, he came round to Conrad’s plan of limited attack on the Russian front. Characteristically, he proceeded with extreme stealth: for he had little faith in Austrian generals, and none at all in their ability to keep secrets. As early as 31st March he commissioned Groener to study the railways of Silesia and western Galicia; on 5th April, ostensibly as a private gesture, Cramon, the German liaison officer, asked the Austro-Hungarian railway-chief, Straub, what railway-facilities would exist south of Cracow for transport of German troops. But it was not until 13th April that Falkenhayn officially asked for the Kaiser’s permission to go ahead with an offensive in the east. After some discussion with the chiefs of the western front, eight divisions were made free for an offensive in the east, to be commanded by Mackensen, with Seeckt as his chief of staff. After some futile warring over prestige-questions, Mackensen’s force was established as XI Army, and Mackensen, while commanding the Austro-Hungarian IV Army, himself took orders from the Austro-Hungarian high command, ‘after due consultation’ with the German one. This, to make sure that consultation went on. was moved from its western headquarters in Mézières to new ones in the east, in Pless, only a few hours’ journey from Austrian headquarters in Teschen.
Afterwards, a quarrel developed as to whether Conrad or Falkenhayn had first put forward the scheme for an offensive in western Galicia, south of Cracow. But it was not a very original scheme. An attack from south of Cracow could proceed along the northern slopes of the Carpathians, dislodging Russian troops in the mountains, until the river San was reached. Conrad had attempted the operation in March, when his IV Army had failed to break-through to relieve Przemyśl. Falkenhayn had certainly been first to propose the operation as a joint offensive, and, as Conrad later said, the whole thing had been dependent on his willingness to supply German troops. Both men had in mind a limited success: maybe the Russians would be forced back to the San, and the Austrians’ position in the Carpathians would correspondingly be easier, so that they could, if need be, divert troops to the south if Italy intervened or a Balkan campaign—which Falkenhayn always sought—became necessary. Troops were moved between 21st April and the end of the month to the Austrian lines south of Cracow.
The Central Powers’ May offensive attained much greater results than Ludendorff’s and Conrad’s enterprises in February, although the forces allotted were not greatly different. It was partly a matter of weather: by 2nd May, when Mackensen’s attack began, the roads were everywhere passable, which had not been the case in February. It was partly a matter of Russian weakness in matériel, though this—certainly for the initial break-through—was exaggerated. The factor that lent Falkenhayn’s May offensive such dimensions of success was above all strategic. The Russian III Army, defending the front south of Cracow and in the western Carpathians, was strategically isolated and lacked reserves, because of the quarrelling seemingly endemic to Stavka and the two front commands.
This isolation ought not to have happened, since the army was in the central part of the Russian front and theoretically could call on help from armies to north and south. In Ludendorff’s February offensive, X Army had been isolated, to some extent, in terms of ground: other troops were some way off. On the other hand, the German advance against X Army was always weakened because its flank was extended, with in particular the Russian XII Army in position to strike that flank. In May, the Russian III Army did not have these advantages. Stavka had first decided on an East Prussian offensive, in the first three months of the year. Then it had gone for a Carpathian offensive, in April, and proposed, now, to carry it into May. A new Army, called IX, was to be assembled in the Bukovina, in the end with six army corps, withdrawn mainly from the central theatre. XI Army went from the blockade of Pszemyśl into the Carpathians, joining VIII. III Army itself had been obliged to take over a substantial part of the Carpathian front, and the gaze of its commander, Radko-Dmitriev, was fixed there. This part of his long front contained five of the seven corps staffs, and all but five and a half of the eighteen and a half infantry divisions he commanded. The need to build up a substantial force for the renewed Carpathian offensive also meant that there were few disposable reserves for III Army’s western front. This, in the first instance, was a consequence of Stavka’s decision to pursue a Carpathian offensive. More profoundly, it was a consequence of the abdication of Stavka’s responsibilities between two front commanders, north-western and south-western. The north-western front was now relatively inactive. Yet it had fifty-seven and a half infantry divisions, soon to be fifty-nine and a half, against the south-western front’s forty-one. Stavka did ask Alexeyev to part with some of these, and met obstruction after obstruction: the front was too long; it lacked 300,000 men; the Germans were going to attack; the railways were too occupied with current business; there should be an offensive, not in the Carpathians, but in the central theatre. A second-line division and 3. Caucasus Corps were wrenched from Alexeyev’s jealous clutch, but even then with great delays, as transport-officers of the north-western front put these troop-movements low in their list of priorities. Ivanov’s front, for the Carpathian offensive, had to help itself, and the result was a strategic isolation of the western part of III Army—the two corps south-east of Cracow, holding the lines of the rivers Dunajec and Biala near Gorlice. It was here that the Germans concentrated their forces. At the point of break-through, they had ten divisions of their XI Army ready, with eight Austro-Hungarian ones in IV Army to the north, against five and a half Russian ones, at that second-line troops of poor quality. On the Central Powers’ side, there were 120,000 soldiers (in XI Army alone) with 370 light, 144 medium or heavy guns and 96 Minenwerfer to 60,000, with 141 light guns and four heavy ones, which blew up when men attempted to fire them, and of course no Minenwerfer.
It was later said that German material superiority had been so crushing that even the most stoutly-led army could not have withstood it; that the only way for the Russian army to make its weight tell was for it to get some of the shell and artillery that the western Powers had begun to manufacture in such quantities. This was a refrain heard again and again from Russian representatives, and, increasingly, from the ‘easterners’ in British political circles. It was of course true that, in this period of the war, the Russian army faced a munitions-crisis. On the other hand, there was a great deal that simple strategy and tactics could do to make up for material shortages, and these possibilities were, on the whole, ignored by senior Russian commanders. In the instance of the Germans’ May offensive, for one, it was strategy and not material weakness that had gone wrong on the Russian side. The Russian III Army, as a whole, had in fact a respectable quantity of artillery and shell:
Russian III Army: 219,000 men; 18½ infantry divisions; 5½ cavalry divisions; 675 light and medium guns; 4 heavy guns.
German XI Army: 126,000 men; 10 infantry divisions; no cavalry divisions; 475 light guns; 159 medium and heavy guns.
Austro-Hungarian IV Army: 90,000 men; 8 infantry divisions; I cavalry division; 103 light guns; 150 medium and heavy guns.
Including part of the Austro-Hungarian III Army (which faced the left wing of the Russian III), the Central Powers had 733 light and light-medium, 175 larger-medium and 24 heavy guns to the Russians’ 675 and 4.14 If the Russian III Army had had its guns in the right place, there would have been much less difficulty.
Superiority in artillery certainly did exist on the Central Powers’ side. But the superiority—both here and in the later, similar, campaign on the Narev—was much less than the superiority which the western Powers enjoyed over the Germans in France, a superiority that, in the offensives of 1915–17, was turned to remarkably little account. In the Allied offensive of May 1915, the attackers’ superiority was considerably greater than the Central Powers’ superiority in their May offensive against Russia: 664 guns of up to 149 mm. calibre on the German side, to 1,554 on the Allied, and respectively 119 and 203 in larger calibres (i.e. larger medium and heavy). In 1916 and 1917, the attackers’ superiority in artillery was sometimes vast. At Verdun, the Germans had 488 light field guns to the French 242; 254 light-medium to 57; 939 larger-medium to sixty-nine; 170 heavy to ten, and the proportions are still more in the Germans’ favour when age and type of gun (trajectory) are considered. On the Somme, the British IV and French IV Armies had 1,655 light guns to the German II Army’s 454; 510 light-medium to 206; 423 larger-medium to 166; 393 heavy to eighteen; and when it came to Haig’s Flanders offensive of July 1917, he had 2,112 light to 612, 1,295 heavy to 536 and 128 very heavy guns to fourteen. Despite these enormous superiorities, the western Powers’ offensives in France and Flanders made much less progress than did German offensives in the east in 1915, based on incomparably smaller superiority in artillery, which strongly suggests that there was a great deal more to the Russian army’s poor performance in that year, and overall, than simple inferiority of matériel.
Shell provided a rather similar story. It was undoubtedly true that the Russian army lacked munitions in this period of the war; but it was not the case that lack of shell led to loss of defensive battles, provided they were properly-waged. As a matter of fact, the shell-reserve of III Army in the battle of western Galicia in May was far from trivial. According to Tarachkov, director of the Army’s artillery, the various corps had an average of 400 rounds per gun in their depots, front and rear, and if the army s own reserve is included, 500. Langlois, a French observer, asserted that III Army was rather better-off for shell than other armies, since it had been inactive for much of the time, and he cited this an instance of mismanagement’s complicating shell-shortage. Rerberg, who was chief of staff in 10. Corps—one of those attacked at Gorlice—asserted that ‘not once, in my nine months’ service as chief of staff, was there a shortage of shell. But of course the delivery of this shell was another matter. Everyone in the rear suspected that, if it were delivered to the front, it would be wasted. Corps artillery chiefs held shell back from batteries, army artillery chiefs from corps, and the front artillery managers from the armies. Huge quantities were stock-piled in the fortresses, and then frequently concealed from inspection by commanders worried that they might have to give it up. Thus, although the quantities of shell were probably sufficient for a well-managed defensive operation, deliveries to the front were so irregular as to compromise the best tactician’s plans.
In any case, even a sizeable German local superiority in this war, need not have produced the wholesale collapse of the Russian army that followed from the May offensive. A break-through was, of course, always possible provided that the local superiority were great enough. In this early period of the war, trenches were not usually very complex or deep, and defence-tactics were not subtle. Assembly of sufficient weight could usually procure a break-through, in the sense that nothing living would be left on a given stretch of enemy line. One reason why the western generals continued with their attempts at break-through was that success always seemed to dance before their eyes: one more effort, and victory would be there. The British did, technically, break through in May 1915; the French did break through on 25th September, in Champagne, when they took many thousand prisoners and ninety guns; again, the British did break through on 13th–14th July, in the Battle of the Somme, near Thiepval, when their cavalry made a rare appearance on the field. The difficulty came, not with the initial break-through—provided preparations had been good—but with exploitation of it. The defenders’ reserves would arrive by rail and road; the attackers would be moving up through mud, pitted with shell-holes, and their every movement could be painful. Hence, the defender would have time to construct a new line, and the process would have to begin again. When the British broke through in Artois, their reserves were far from this new German line; and when the French broke through in Champagne, they lost 100,000 men in ‘grignotage’ against it. The defenders reserves were the key to the problem of break-through.