This subtraction of strength on the eastern side allowed Conrad to hope for victory on the northern one. Here there was, in Conrad’s words, ‘a happy beginning’. The three corps of the Russian IV Army advanced onto Austrian territory. Their cavalry-screen failed to reconnoitre; the army’s passage was obscured by woods, hills, and marshy country; one of its corps, 14., was stretched out over twenty miles. Its two divisions ran, in a tactically disadvantageous way, into five Austrian divisions of I Army, lost liaison with Russian groups further west, and on 23rd August one of the divisions lost half of its strength. Disorderly attempts were made to restore the position, a further division receiving contradictory orders from different corps commands, losing 1,500 men in one regiment, 900 in another. The Austrians took first the eastern flank, then the western flank, of the Russian IV Army, and by 25th August, having lost 6,000 men as prisoners and twenty-eight guns, the army retired to the Kraśnik positions south of Lublin. This gave misplaced confidence to Conrad. More importantly, it caused trouble among the Russian commanders. IV Army commander, Salza, and a corps commander, Geysmans, complained at the behaviour of 14. corps commander, Voyshin-Murdas-Zhilinski, whom Yanushkevitch dismissed. Ivanov intervened to dismiss Salza and Geysmans for daring to complain about Voyshin. General Evert was summoned from Siberia to take over IV Army; Voyshin was given Geysmans’s corps—by no means the last time such phenomena occurred. In the confusions, Ivanov supposed that he would have to fall back a long way, ordering IV Army to protect ‘the sector Drogiczyn—Brest-Litovsk’. He also demanded from Stavka that the new IX Army should be used on the Austro-Hungarian front. Stavka felt there was an emergency, that Austrian cavalry could even ride up to raid the rear of the north-western front; IX Army was therefore diverted against the Austrians—in succession the Guard Corps, 18th Corps, 3rd Caucasus Corps as well as three reserve divisions and more cavalry. These were due to arrive by the end of August. In the meantime, a series of flanking operations pushed the Russians back towards Lublin, and the railheads at which these new troops could arrive. Now, the natural forces of 1914–18 began to tell. The Austrians outran their supply-lines, could not bring in reserves as quickly as the Russians, exhausted themselves in marching, and fought a purely frontal battle. By 1st September, they had fifteen and a half infantry and four cavalry divisions in the area; the Russians, with their new forces, having twenty-six and a half infantry and nine and a half cavalry divisions.
Both sides looked to armies further east—the Russian IV appealing to its neighbour, V (Plehve), with four corps, and the Austrian I appealing in turn to IV (Auffenberg), also with four corps. Plehve was ‘to collect his corps and strike against the flank and rear of the enemy attacking IV Army’. These corps were strung out on a long front, moving south across Russian territory. They were to be diverted towards the south-west, with poor liaison to either side, and a gap of thirty miles to one neighbour, fifty miles to the other. As they moved south-west, they collided with Austro-Hungarian corps moving due north, of a strength the Russians had not been led to expect: 144 battalions and 526 guns on the Russian side, 156 and 470 on the Austro-Hungarian. Neither commander quite appreciated the extent of the flanking manoeuvres being carried out. On 26th August, there was a first collision: a Russian corps, marching south-west, brushed past an Austrian one marching north, and suffered from Austrian artillery; one of its divisions had marched for several days, had only four-fifths of its strength, and 120 rounds per gun. It retired in bewilderment and the left wing of the Austrian IV Army advanced to Zamość, between the two Russian armies, on 27th August. But further east it was the Russians who had the advantage. Their two central corps came up against Austro-Hungarian flanks; on 27th August an Austro-Hungarian cavalry division, acting with more bravura than sense, was broken up and fled to the south. In the night of 27th–28th August, the same fate overtook an isolated infantry division (near Laszczów) which lost almost all of its guns and 4,000 men as prisoners. In the centre, near the town of Komarów, a ‘soldiers’ battle’ developed, frontal attacks being exchanged.
These engagements pinned the two central corps of Plehve’s army. His right-hand group had also been forced back—divided, now, between IV and V Armies, tired and confused to the point of losing the cross-roads at Krasnostaw and allowing the left-hand Austro-Hungarian corps to threaten Plehve’s centre. No doubt the reinforcements due to arrive from IX Army in this area would help; but in the meantime the Russian situation would be difficult. It was further endangered by events on the other flank, to the east. This flank was ‘in the air’—unconnected with III Army, operating some way to the east under Ruzski’s prudent control. It contained one corps, the commander of which had been given control of the two central corps, and spent his time with them; its chief of staff, Stremoukhov, had no plan and no way of communicating it, had he had one. The divisions marched south-west. The Austrian commander recognised this: that if he attacked them in flank, he would be able to surround Plehve’s forces. He asked Conrad for permission to use the left-hand corps of the Austrian III Army, which was then thirty miles away. Conrad knew that safety in the east might depend on this corps’s remaining under III Army command. But Auffenberg’s entreaties swung him the other way: he sanctioned use of this corps, 14., under Archduke Joseph Ferdinand, by Auffenberg. The corps moved towards the Russian left on 28th August, and on the 29th and 30th did well against disorganised Russian divisions—taking a third of their troops prisoner, and sixty guns. This brought the right of Auffenberg’s army far into the rear of the two central corps of Plehve’s—separated only by two days’ march from the left of the army, near Zamość. An encirclement of the Russian V Army seemed possible. But Plehve did not behave as Samsonov had done— advancing into an enemy ring. On the contrary, he gave orders for retreat. In any case the Austrians did not act with Prussian resolution. The two flanking groups did not appreciate what they had achieved, and were tired. The left-hand group, under Archduke Peter Ferdinand, dimly appreciated the strength of Russian reinforcements building up to its left; the right-hand one, under his brother Joseph Ferdinand, noted Cossack divisions in the great spaces to the east. Neither dared move too far forward. On 30th and 31st August first one, then the other, pulled back; and the central corps of Plehve’s army withdrew to the north. This battle—Zamość-Komarów—was an Austrian victory. IV Army took 20,000 prisoners and nearly 100 guns; Plehve’s army had lost forty per cent of its complement. Auffenberg and Soós, his chief of staff, said they had won a great victory; there must now be a pursuit into Russian Poland. For the moment, Ivanov and Alexeyev almost agreed with this.
In response to the increasingly menacing news from the northern sector, Ivanov and Alexeyev spurred on their III and VIII Armies, to advance with all speed from eastern Galicia. They were to move north-west, to the direct help of Plehve. But Ruzski behaved with almost psychotic prudence. His army had crossed the border on 2th–21st August, and moved slowly forward thereafter, expecting that most Austrian troops would be concentrated against it. Indeed, the close concentration and slow advance of these four corps were such that Brudermann felt he had only ‘an isolated corps’ to deal with, advancing ahead of the main Russian force; with Conrad’s encouragement, he marched his troops against it. East and south-east of Lwów, there was, between 26th and 28th August, a first collision, on the river Zlóta Lipa. It was a disaster for the Austrians. With 91 battalions and 300 guns to 192 and 685, they advanced in close order, down hills and across rivers, against the four Russian corps. The break-down of their attacks was followed by Russian counter-attacks, and losses of up to two-thirds in many of Brudermann’s eight divisions. Many of the Austrians fled in panic as far back as Lwów; and III Army could not restore the situation easily, since its left-hand corps, the Archduke’s 14., had already been detached to help IV Army.
A swift follow-up by Ruzski would have helped Plehve at once, and Ivanov ordered him again and again to swing III Army to the north-west. Ruzski would not do this—his right-hand corps delayed, to Plehve inexplicably, and the other three did not much better, since Ruzski had exaggerated the strength of the Austrians who had attacked him, and even managed to congratulate his own commanders on ‘a fine defensive success’. He did not even notice the Austro-Hungarian retreat until 28th August, worried endlessly for his southern flank, and was maybe more concerned to capture Lwów than to help Plehve. Ivanov protested; but as Golovin said, he was like a pianist with a badly-tuned instrument-never knowing quite what sound would result when he touched a chord. Ruzski’s headquarters, as Ivanov and later commanders discovered, had a habit of making everything sound like a dirge. The Austrian III Army was able to withdraw in some order, to the river Gnila Lipa. Here it received reinforcements from the Balkans, while the command of II Army arrived to take over the southern sector of the line. By 30th August the Austrians, here, had increased to fourteen infantry divisions and 828 guns—though still facing a considerable superiority—twenty-two infantry divisions and 1,304 guns. Brudermann had told Conrad that he had had to face greatly superior numbers—at least 400,000 men. But since the Russians did not follow up, Conrad disbelieved him. The commander of II Army was told to attack the Russians; and on 29th–30th August, on the Gnila Lipa, there was a repeat performance of the Zlóta Lipa action—tired Austro-Hungarian troops stumbling forward with inadequate artillery preparation against an enemy nearly double their numbers. There was a further disaster, and this time it reached such dimensions—20,000 men and seventy guns captured—that even Conrad could judge he was facing an immeasurably superior enemy. On the other hand, on 30th August, he believed he had won a great victory on the northern side. He decided that he must let the Russian III and VIII Armies advance, if necessary as far as Lwów, and then turn his IV Army from the north into their open flank.
This decision belongs, as the Austro-Hungarian official historians said, ‘to the most finely-balanced of the world war’. In real terms, it was almost lunatic. IV Army had been exhausted by a fortnight’s marching and heavy fighting. III Army had been badly beaten already. But Conrad was not a man to take such things into account. He had learned that VIII Army in East Prussia had won a great victory; he must emulate the feat, perhaps exploit it for his own ends. III and II Armies would retire west of Lwów to a good line on the river Wereszyca, and when the Russians had followed, IV Army would intervene on their flank, by marching south-east across Rawa Ruska. Orders for this went out on 1st September. Meanwhile, Ruzski advanced towards Lwów, spent two days reconnoitring its empty and ancient forts, and finally made a ceremonial entry on 3rd September. Now, belatedly, he responded to suggestions that he might help V Army; the incessant proddings of Ivanov were reinforced by religious literature from Stavka, which made Ruzski transport one of his corps to his northern flank, and orientate the march of III Army towards the north-west. In this way, he met head-on the Austrian IV Army, marching south-east. These troops were exhausted, and had suffered heavy loss; they could no longer be moved around in Conrad’s fashion like so many coloured pins on a staff-map. After a few tactical successes of no great importance, they became locked west of Lwów in a frontal battle of no issue. By a curious twist, the out-flanking effect sought by Conrad was to some extent achieved further south, by III, and particularly by II Army—now reinforced by 4. Corps from the Balkans. Between 7th and 9th September the Austrians here won some considerable tactical successes, which encouraged Conrad to go on trying up to the last moment.
In the event, he had to retreat. Now, on the eastern side, he had built up at least equality of forces with the Russian III and VIII Armies. But he had done so, inevitably, at the expense of his northern side. His I Army had arrived before Lublin by 1st September, but it had to face a constant inflow of Russian reserves, as IX Army arrived to buttress this front. IV Army alone rose from six and a half to fourteen divisions, facing the Austrians’ thirteen; and the only fresh force on which the Austrians could count was a weak German Landwehr Corps which had just marched 200 miles from Silesia, had only eight machine-guns, one aeroplane, no field-kitchens. The Austrians had now 558 guns, the Russians 900. As new Russian troops arrived, they pressed the Austrians back towards Krasnik, with a series of embarrassments on the flanks. Worse still, the Russian V Army—reported to have been destroyed—recovered quickly enough, and sent two further corps against the Austrian northern side. Against them, the Austrian IV Army had left a single corps, such that, on this northern side, there were twenty-six and a half Russian divisions to fifteen and a half Austrian ones; and the other two corps of the reviving V Army moved into the rear of Auffenberg’s forces attacking III Army at Rawa Ruska. The northern side began to crumble. To defend Auffenberg’s rear, there was only one corps—again, Archduke Joseph Ferdinand’s. It had lost all but 10,000 of its 50,000 men, and was rudely pushed aside by the reviving Russian divisions—one regiment, with Franz Ferdinand’s military secretary at its head, being cut to pieces in a marsh. Further west, I Army’s front also collapsed. At Sukhodoly, an Austrian corps lost two-thirds of its guns and men as it stood up to the attack of three Russian corps. On the left, the Russians attacked along the Vistula, and broke up the Germans’ Landwehrkorps on 8th September, which lost 8,000 men and fell back over the Vistula. By 9th September, the Russians were threatening Conrad’s western communications his line of retreat towards the Germans
Conrad appealed to the Germans for help. He was told that, for the moment, nothing could be done—the Kaiser remarking, ‘You surely can’t ask any more of VIII Army than it has already achieved’. Stubbornly, he urged the troops of III and II Armies into a further attack over the Wereszyca—even, uniquely, turning up himself, with the nominal commander-in-chief, Archduke Friedrich, to watch the armies’ doings. By 11th September, with Russian cavalry raiding even the headquarters of his divisions, Conrad elected to retreat. The retreat itself was extremely disorderly. Nothing had been prepared in anticipation of it—it was thought that preparations for retreat would demoralise the troops still attacking on the eastern side. Consequently, the few roads were taken up with two-way traffic—men and guns moving west, hospital-carts and munitions-carts moving up to the front. A steady downpour went on, turning the roads into marshes. Inside the San fortress of Przemyśl, narrow streets were blocked by military carts, standing axle-to-axle. The only thing that saved Conrad from even greater collapse was the sluggardly Russian advance. Ivanov took the view that ‘the Austrians’ retreat will secure for our army the chance of an essential break in operations’. Rest-days were lavishly distributed. Ruzski ordered fortification of Lwów. Cavalry, unfamiliar with the terrain, caused some panic in the Austro-Hungarian baggage-trains, but was less effective in this than men had hoped. With some speed, Conrad withdrew his stricken armies to the San, then to the rivers east of Cracow—the Dunajec and Biala, which were reached in mid-September. Both armies were exhausted. The Austro-Hungarians had suffered casualties of nearly fifty per cent—400,000, of which the Russians took 100,000, with 300 guns; the Russians had lost 250,000 men, 40,000 as prisoners, with 100 guns. Conrad could now only wait for German help; and the two operations of August-September 1914 now came together in their consequences, if not their course, as Ludendorff himself arrived to discuss matters.