Przemyśl, Austria’s Bulwark in the East

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In 1914, Festung Przemyśl was among the strongest and most modern of the Austrian fortresses and played a key role in the defence of Galicia. Austria’s first attempt to fortify the city took place early in the Crimean War even though it remained neutral despite efforts to draw it into the war. The old Turkish threat had receded for decades as Russia had advanced towards the Danube. In 1853, Turkish forces fell back and the Russian forces occupied Walachia and Moldavia in 1854 and started driving into Bulgaria. The Austrian Army took up positions in Transylvania, threatening the Russians, considering the Turks to be a buffer rather than a threat. The Turks finally pushed the Russians back and the Austrians administered a neutral Walachia and Moldavia from 1854 until early 1857. During this period of rising tensions, the Austrians had to protect their relatively open frontier with Russia in Galicia. The process began with the construction of seven-sided artillery earthen positions of the FS type. By 1855, a total of nineteen of these positions were completed before construction was interrupted due to improved relations with Russia. With the passing of years, these works deteriorated and no further effort at fortification was undertaken until 1878 except for the construction of an enceinte in 1873, which dragged out into the 1880s. During the 1877 Russo-Turkish War, a number of octagonal FS type positions were placed several kilometres from the city to create a fortified camp.

In 1877, Russia again went to war with the Turks. Austria had agreed to remain neutral in exchange for being allowed to move into Bosnia-Herzegovina. At the end of the war, the Turks lost control over additional territory in the Balkans and Austria-Hungary formalized its right to occupy Bosnia-Herzegovina. Even though the Imperial Fortifications Committee had decided to fortify Przemyśl in 1868, nothing was built there until Russia threatened Galicia once more and Vienna authorized new construction. Construction of an enceinte began in 1873. Building began on nine detached earthen forts in June 1878 and most neared completion by the end of September 1878. After 1880 the army began new work that included rebuilding some of these forts as permanent structures. If a new fort built nearby replaced the old one, the old one became an earthen artillery position. These 1878 forts were on the southern fronts (southeast and southwest front) and on the northern fronts – Fort X ‘Orzechowce’ in the northwest and XIII ‘San Rideau’ in the northeast. Wooden palisades in the moat functioned as obstacles rather than Carnot Walls.

Fort VIII ‘Łętownia’ begun in 1881 was the first permanent artillery fort at Przemyśl. It was built on an old seven-sided FS-type fort from 1854 located on the western front. ‘Łętownia’ was a single-rampart artillery fort with five sides, two caponiers covering the two side ditches, and a double caponier covering the two frontal ditches. A brick wall without embrasures, not a Carnot Wall, stood at the base of the scarp to serve only as an obstacle. Late in the 1880s, Carnot Walls were no longer built. The earth-covered concrete caserne was part of the gorge wall, which also included embrasures for defensive weapons. The central courtyard was occupied by a large shelter built like the barracks and used as the main magazine. The six traverses included munitions and troop shelters adjacent to the ramps that led to the artillery positions between them. There were 120mm M-61 cannons in the open position facing the front, and 90mm M-75 guns on the flanks. Access to the caponiers was by posterns that went through the rampart. Not all of the forts followed this precise design, so each was unique in its own way.

In 1882, construction began on additional single-rampart forts, but it was not completed until 1886. The additional forts included V ‘Grochowce’, VII ‘Pralkowce’, and XII ‘Werner’. They were similar to Fort VIII, but larger. Fort V and VII were on the southwest front and XII on the northeast front. Exact details on all the forts are still being researched since some of their components were very likely incomplete, but the destruction of the forts during the war makes it difficult to know for sure.

The army planned to build several forts into the enceinte, but lack of funding prevented the realization of the project until about 1887. The forts that were eventually built were of a temporary nature, intended to deter enemy cavalry raids, and most had no caserne. During the 1880s, the wooden barracks of the forts and those of the enceinte were covered with a concrete layer. However, these positions were removed during the next decade. In 1887, the shelters used in the forts and other positions were of the Wellbach style in which curved iron sheets formed the interior leaving two open ends like a tunnel that were closed with brick walls. The larger forts included the three double-rampart forts of X ‘Orzechowce’, XI ‘Duńkowiczki’ and XIV ‘Hurko’, and the unusual Fort I ‘Salis-Soglio’ of a non-standard design created by its namesake. This large and unique fort was never outfitted with armoured turrets and had only open positions for its artillery on the ramparts. It had been intended to be the first Panzerwerk in the fortress and was to mount two large Grüson turrets with 120mm guns. However, the armour was cancelled because the War Ministry deemed it too expensive. Most of the forts built in the 1880s became Einheitsforts and became Panzerwerke when armour was added to them in the 1890s. After 1880, concrete roofs were built on all new, renovated, or rebuilt forts.

General von Brunner, Salis-Soglio’s director of fortifications at Przemyśl between 1889 and 1893, was responsible for the construction of the northwest part of the girdle of detached forts between 1892 and 1894. Most of his forts included casernes for about 300 men and some comprised traditors (flanking casemates). The gun batteries consisted of an 80mm gun with a Minimalschartenlafetten (a minimal embrasure mount) that allowed for minimum exposure of the gun, which was placed behind an armoured shield. Thus, Brunner’s Fort IX ‘Brunner’ and XIII ‘San Rideau’, built between 1892 and 1896, became the first Panzerwerke at Przemyśl. Other Panzerwerke with armoured turrets and observation cloches began to appear after these two forts. Fort XIII ‘San Rideau’ was a good example. It included a line of turrets above the caserne with an observation cloche on each end and an artillery observation cloche in the centre with three turrets for 150mm howitzers and mortars on each side of it. The ditch was protected by counterscarp casemates and there was a caponier attached to the caserne in the gorge.

On the rampart, the Panzerwerke generally included a rifle gallery with embrasures for rifles that were covered with armoured plates and sandbags between embrasures for added protection. This gallery was not a covered position although wooden planks were added for overhead protection during combat. In addition to artillery, these forts included machine-gun positions. By the turn of the century, the Austrians began adding iron fences in the gorge and in the ditch in front of caponiers and counterscarp casemates for additional protection. However, at Przemyśl, unlike some forts on the Italian Front, the fences did not cover the entire ditch where once wooden palisades had been used.

In the 1890s, infantry positions called Nahkampfort (close defence forts) were built to fill gaps between the artillery forts. In addition, nine small Panzerwerke armed with either two or four 80mm gun turrets were added. They included I/1 Łysiczka, I/2 Byków, I/5 Popowice, and I/6 Dziewieczyce in the southeast in front of Fort I. The entire complex formed the Siedlisko Group. Forts XIa and I-2, built late in the decade, are laid out according to Brunner’s designs with semicircular shape and a ‘V’-shaped ditch instead of a flat bottom. The gorge was covered by a semicircular earthwork, a centrally located two-level caserne with a combat position and a line of four 80mm gun turrets on its roof, and an observation cloche behind them. The rifle gallery was behind the turrets. Fort I-5 was similar but it had two gun turrets on each side of the block.

The larger Panzerwerke built between 1892 and 1900 included Fort IV ‘Optyń’ with four 80mm gun turrets, Fort IX ‘Brunner’, and Fort XIII ‘San Rideau’ each with three 150mm howitzers and three (four at Fort IX) 150mm mortar turrets. The double-rampart artillery forts were modernized as Panzerwerke in the last few years of the century when X Orzechowce and XI Duńkowiczki were outfitted with four 80mm gun turrets each. These two forts were the only ones at Przemyśl to receive armoured batteries and traditors. Fort IV, the last of the large forts built in 1897–1900 in the fortress girdle, had a lunette shape and included a large two-level caserne in the gorge and a gorge caponier. The barracks accommodated the 450-man garrison (including about 200 artillerymen, 230 infantrymen, and specialists and officers). A large two-level shelter and hangar for the artillery in the centre of the fort connected to the barracks. There were six positions for 150mm guns on the rampart, between the traverses. The fort had traditors – each mounting four 120mm guns – on each side of the rampart. They were located behind the rampart and peeked out of a large embrasure cut into the wall. On the two front corners of the rampart, adjacent to the traditors, there were two turrets with 80mm guns. An observation cloche stood between the turrets and the traditors. The counterscarp casemates at the two front corners mounted machine guns. Additional smaller forts were added after Fort IV.

The roofs of buildings in the last generation of forts were made of concrete poured over steel ‘I’ beams that resulted in flat ceilings rather than the arched ones made with bricks or concrete only. The infantry positions on the ramparts also included two to four positions for light field guns. In the 1900s, the army converted some of the old FS positions and older forts such as at Fort III and VI into infantry positions, some artillery emplacements. In some cases, the ramparts were strengthened with the addition of stone. In 1910, specific instructions were issued to create field fortifications to fill the gaps in the ring and link them with a continuous line of trenches. However, only two infantry strongpoints were built before the war and several after the war began. These strongpoints included wooden lined trenches and shelters designed to house forces ranging from half an infantry company to two companies.

Construction on the existing forts continued into the early twentieth century. Forts II, III, and VI were among the last to be rebuilt and modernized. By 1914, the Przemyśl was, if not the largest, at least one of the most important and modern fortresses in the Empire.

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