Frederick the Great and War III

Leuthen was the extremest example of Friedrich’s oblique-order attack and also his most destructive victory. He lost 6,000 men, but the Austrians lost 10,000 in killed and wounded, besides 21,000 prisoners, and two weeks later Breslau surrendered, with 17,000 more. The effect was crushing, but it was not decisive, except locally and in a temporary manner, as to who should hold Silesia until the next campaign.

Austria was unable to get another army into the field until late in the following summer, but in the meanwhile the Russians, who had thus far been trying to assure themselves of the possession of East Prussia, pushed a column into the home counties as far as Frankfurt an der Oder, and Friedrich had to go fight it. He beat it at Zorndorf in a slaughtering battle in August, but by October the Austrians were on foot again, now under Daun, and at Hochkirch they beat the king.

They beat him in the way one would have least expected against so acute a commander, by leaving their watch fires burning while they made a night march and surprised him at dawn. That is, they caught him being careless. And in the following summer, 1759, a combined Austro-Russian army inflicted a paralyzing defeat on Friedrich at Kunersdorf, one in which he lost over 20,000 men–again through his own fault, for he sent his troops into action after two days without sleep, up a steep hill in broiling sun. “Will not some curst bullet strike me?” he cried afterward, and, “I believe everything is lost,” he wrote.

But he had done better than he thought and everything was not lost; neither after Hochkirch nor Kunersdorf did his enemies make any follow-up. They could not; they were too disorganized in terms of lost officers, mingling of regiments, breakdown of supply. They had no such solid basis as the Prussian army; when any of them lost a battle, that particular campaign was over, when they won, it merely went on.

A realization that their sole real asset was numerical penetrated allied minds in 1761, and they adopted a plan of campaign to make numbers count. There were to be three columns, one operating through Saxony under Daun, one through Silesia under the Austrian General Loudon, and a Russian column through Poland. Each was to deplete Friedrich’s resources by eating up the towns. He could maintain only one army large enough to deal with any of the three; whenever he turned against one, the others would keep moving stolidly toward Berlin.

This plan was modified by events. The Russians came slowly through northern Silesia. Daun also was slow, and when Friedrich turned against Loudon, the Austrian marshal thought he saw an opportunity to repeat the surprise of Hochkirch. He swung around toward the northwest of Friedrich’s position at Liegnitz while Loudon marched by a circuit to close him in from the northeast, with the Russians under General Czernicheff pushing up from behind.

But Daun did some careful scouting from the heights above Liegnitz, which not only slowed his march, but attracted Friedrich’s attention. On the night of August 14, 1761, the king turned the Austrians’ trick right around on them, leaving a group of campfires burning and making a fast march along the road Loudon was to occupy. Loudon reached it cross country in the morning; was received by musketry fire, and being already too deeply committed to get out without battle, fought one that cost him 10,000 men and eighty-one guns. Daun reached Friedrich’s former camp only just in time to see the column of smoke rising over the defeat to the north; his pursuit was not a success.

As for the Russians, Friedrich supplied a peasant with a message addressed to his brother, Prince Henri, who was facing them: “Austrians totally defeated today, now for the Russians. Do what we agreed upon.” The peasant was to let himself be taken by Czernicheff and give up the paper to save his own life. There is something peculiarly pleasing about these devices of Friedrich the king; they are so firmly rooted in understanding of the men he was dealing with and so unexpected. This one worked precisely according to prescription. Czernicheff, beset by nameless terrors, marched right away from the area of action and the Russians were next heard of besieging Kolberg on the Baltic coast, which would be more use to them than another victory over Friedrich, anyway.

Two of the three attacking columns were thus eliminated, for Loudon had been so badly knocked about as to be out of it. Friedrich spent some weeks maneuvering in Silesia, but was recalled by the news that Berlin had been taken. He rushed north with his army; it turned out not to be a serious occupation, but a handful of Cossack raiders and a wing of Austrian light cavalry, who dispersed at once. But it was now evident that something would have to be done about the Daun column, which had taken nearly all Saxony and established itself at Torgau, 64,000 strong. By whittling down garrisons Friedrich managed to assemble 45,000 men, and approached the place at the end of October.


It was not Daun’s intention to fight, except as he had done at Kolin, long ago, on terms that would force the king to attack under every disadvantage. He chose his position very well for the purpose, along a certain Siptitz Hill that runs roughly westward from Torgau. Its southern edge was covered by a deep, wide, muddy brook, the Röhrgraben, a good military obstacle; all around the height were sparse forests of pine, growing out of sand. The lines were so good that Prince Henri had previously held them against this same Daun with much inferior forces, and the Austrians now had no less than 400 guns.

Friedrich moved up toward the installation from the south. It struck him at once that the place was unduly cramped for as many men as Austria had and offered poor opportunities for mounting a counterattack, and he determined to assault it from front and rear simultaneously. Ziethen, with nearly half the army, would take the southern side, across the brook; Friedrich himself would swing by a circuit through the woods in three columns, the outermost one of cavalry.


The king marched fairly early; it was nearly two in the afternoon when Friedrich, leading the innermost column, reached the edge of the woods, just in time to hear the boom-boom of guns from the southward. To him this meant that Ziethen was already engaged; there was no sign yet of his second column or his third, but he immediately hurled 6,000 grenadiers straight at the Austrian position.

The trouble with any converging-column arrangement is that it is impossible for the commander of one wing to know precisely what is happening to the other. Ziethen’s engagement, in fact, was with some outposts of light troops, who had a few guns south of the Röhrgraben. These retired slowly eastward, in the Torgau direction, drawing the Prussians out of their true line of advance during hours, which caused Friedrich later to rate Ziethen roundly for his stupidity. But this was no help at the moment to the 6,000 grenadiers, who were met by the fire of nearly all the 400 Austrian cannon. Friedrich himself said he never saw anything like it; the Prussian artillery was smashed before it had a chance to load, the grenadiers were cut to pieces. Enough of them survived to reach the Austrian line for some deadly close work, but Daun brought up infantry, drove them out, and even tried a counterattack, which came to considerable grief in a heavy shower of rain. At the end of it not 600 of the 6,000 were left; it was three o’clock and the attack had failed.

Shortly later Friedrich’s second column arrived; there was a pause for reorganization, and at about three-thirty it and the remnants of the first attack went forward again. This was the hardest fighting of the day, along the northwest portion of Daun’s line; the Prussian infantry got in among the guns, and there was hot hand-to-hand work on Siptitz Hill, but Daun summoned his reserves from every quarter and after a long struggle drove the Prussians back again, the king himself wounded.

Not until four-thirty, with the sun down, was the coming of the cavalry, which had gone astray in the woods. Friedrich dauntlessly organized a third attack through gathering dark and smoke, cavalry and infantry together. This storm was at least a partial success: four whole regiments of Austrians were taken, with many of the guns; Daun’s whole left wing was reduced to a jelly-like consistency, and there was confusion all through his lines, but the thing could not be carried forward. Friedrich gave orders to bivouac on the field and try again next day if possible; Daun, himself wounded, sent off a courier of victory that caused all the windows of Vienna to be illuminated.

But at six, under a night grown wet and very cold, there was a sudden glare of red in the sky southward. It was Ziethen, free at last of his preoccupation with the Austrian light forces, trying to close the sound of the king’s guns, and he had taken the village of Siptitz, south of the Röhrgraben, and set the place afire. His men could not cross the stream through the blazing village, but an intelligent officer named Möllendorf found a bridge beyond it, and Ziethen poured through, up a saddle at the southwest angle of the ridge and down on the Austrians, his drums beating the Prussian march, muskets all in line blazing across the dark.


There is a famous picture of Friedrich, wrapped in his cloak, chin on chest and stick across his knees, waiting in deepest discouragement for the dawn at Torgau. The dawn came before the day, it is said, in the person of Ziethen himself, to tell the king he had won after all, the Austrians were driven through Torgau with a loss of 10,000 men and most of their guns. Daun’s army was a wreck and the allied campaign with it.


There was some bickering and some maneuvering the next year, with Friedrich on the defensive and neither Austrians nor Russians daring to besiege or attack; and early in 1762 the Tsarina Elizabeth died and Tsar Peter, her successor, made peace with Friedrich and sent a Russian corps to his help, while France could no longer pay subsidies to Austria, and Maria Theresa had to reduce her army to 20,000 men.

It may be put that Torgau ended it. It did not decide the war–probably the one battle that went furthest in that direction was Rossbach–but it decided that Austria could not carry the war to a successful conclusion. And in so doing it established in north Germany a new state and a new type of state, with a standing army, a centralized administration, officials who looked to the building of dams, canals, roads, bridges, internal communications, and who promoted agriculture and internal colonization. Before Friedrich the Great’s death he had settled 200,000 people on previously unoccupied lands; and the efficiency of his administration was such that the other nations of Europe were forced to imitate him if they wished to remain level in the complex game of the balance of power. “It appears,” he said once, “that God has created me, pack horses, Doric columns, and us kings generally to carry the burdens of the world in order that others may enjoy its fruits.” His ideal of peace was to have the government help every citizen; his ideal of war was not to have the civil population know that a war was going on. His seizure of Silesia was doubtless anything but moral; but when he made it stick on the field of battle, he forced the rest of Europe into a new sense of the responsibility of government.


Battle of Lodi, ( 10 May 1796 )


General Bonaparte gives his orders, in The Battle of Lodi, by Louis-François, Baron Lejeune


A relatively minor engagement against the Austrian rear guard defending the bridge over the Adda River in the Italian village of Lodi, this battle was nevertheless instrumental in the development of Bonaparte’s self-perception and of his public image as a great commander.

After defeating the Piedmontese in his first Italian campaign, Bonaparte turned his attention to the pursuit of the Austrians under Feldzeugmeister Johann Peter Freiherr von Beaulieu. It was necessary to cross the river Adda on a 170-yard-long wooden bridge at Lodi, in defense of which Beaulieu had left a rear guard of some 12,000 men and 14 cannon.

Bonaparte decided to storm the bridge, even though the Austrian guns completely dominated it. He sent a cavalry contingent up the river to cross and then sweep down on the Austrian right flank. He formed his grenadiers into columns in the shelter of the city walls and gave them an inspirational speech. Then, to the cries of “Vive la République,” they stormed the bridge. This attack faltered, but generals André Masséna and Louis- Alexandre Berthier soon led another attack across the bridge. In light of the heavy Austrian fusillade on the bridge, many French troops jumped off and opened fire from the shallow part of the river. A counterattack by the Austrians was foiled as French cavalry arrived just as more French infantry attacked the bridge. The cavalry sabered the enemy gun crews and routed the Austrian forces, which left behind their artillery, several hundred dead, and almost 2,000 prisoners.

Bonaparte was a whirlwind of action. Observing from close range and from a church tower, he took personal charge of every detail. He even positioned the can- non along the river, earning for himself the sobriquet “the little corporal” for doing work normally assigned to a soldier of that rank. Bonaparte’s strength lay not just in his military skills but in emotional leadership, something that had not been particularly necessary in his previous engagements. He had inspired his men to undertake the rather daunting task of running across a bridge into concentrated Austrian fire.

The Austrian retreat from Lodi opened the road to Milan and gave the French troops new confidence. Lodi was far more important than simply a battle that opened the way to Milan. Beyond its somewhat limited military significance, the battle created a change in Bonaparte’s attitude toward his future: He now knew he was a leader. In exile at St. Helena he wrote that it was at Lodi that he first saw himself as able to achieve great things.

Lodi also had an important effect on Bonaparte’s troops. It was there that they first observed him in action and finally gained complete confidence in him. It was the beginning of the special relationship between Bonaparte and his men; indeed, Lodi marked the beginning of their personal devotion to him that would last some twenty years.

References and further reading

Boycott-Brown, Martin. 2001. The Road to Rivoli: Napoleon’s First Campaign. London: Cassell. Chandler, David G. 1995. The Campaigns of Napoleon. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Wilkinson, Spenser. 1930. The Rise of General Bonaparte. Oxford: Clarendon.

Przemyśl, Austria’s Bulwark in the East



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.



In May 1915, as war approached there were orchestrated pro-war demonstrations. On 13 May 1915, parliamentary opposition to the war led to the resignation of Salandra’s cabinet. Three days later the King re-instated Salandra when it was found impossible to appoint a neutralist administration. Salandra’s re-appointment gave him the mandate for war and, although 74 left-wing deputies opposed war, the Italian army was mobilised and war declared against Austria-Hungary on 23 May 1915 (Italy did not declare war against Germany until 1916). Once in the war, military policy passed almost entirely to the Chief of Staff, Luigi Cadorna, who led the Italian army from 1915 to 1917 on eleven costly and disastrous offensives against Austria-Hungary along the river Isonzo Map below. Italy’s lacklustre military performance in the war adversely affected her post-war efforts to secure all of the territorial demands of the Treaty of London and she finished the war feeling that she had been short-changed territorially.


From June 1915 to September 1917, Italy’s supreme commander, Luigi Cadorna, fought eleven Isonzo battles, to capture the Austro-Hungarian port of Trieste before pushing on to Vienna. He poured the bulk of Italy’s men and matériel into the attritional Isonzo battles, all fought in roughly the same area, which exceeded the western front in terms of high casualties for minimal ground gained.


The Battle of Caporetto, or the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, in October 1917 was a spectacularly successful Austro-Hungarian/German offensive against Italian forces on the upper reaches of the river Isonzo. It led to the collapse and retreat of Italian forces across the whole of north-eastern Italy. The origin of the Battle of Caporetto lay in the eleven Italian offensives led by Luigi Cadorna along the Isonzo river from May 1915 to September 1917, that threatened to break Austro-Hungarian resistance. Had Austro-Hungarian units broken, as seemed possible in August 1917, Italy could have captured the port of Trieste. Austria-Hungary appealed to Germany for help. In response, Germany sent six divisions, grouped with nine Austro-Hungarian divisions into the Fourteenth Army commanded by the German general, Otto von Below, and planning began for an assault against the Italians.

Italy’s position and conduct in the conflict were somewhat ambivalent. Although it was ostensibly an ally of both Austria-Hungary and Germany when war broke out at the end of July 1914, Italy declared its neutrality on 3 August. However, ten months later, on 23 May 1915, the Italian government abandoned this stance and declared war on Austria-Hungary – no declaration of war against Germany was issued. Subsequently, Italy and Austria conducted a vigorous but often indecisive series of battles, mainly centred upon the Austro–Italian Alpine region and the River Isonzo to the south-east towards Trieste, between June 1915 and September 1917. By the conclusion of their eleventh major battle in this area in September 1917 the Italians had forced an Austrian withdrawal, which prompted Kaiser Franz Josef to ask Kaiser Wilhelm for military assistance in the form of a counteroffensive to forestall a possible Austrian collapse. This request was initially resisted by Ludendorff, who viewed it as an unwelcome distraction; he later relented once fully apprised of the Austrians’ parlous situation. As a result, in mid-September 1917 the German Fourteenth Army was formed, comprising seven German and eight Austrian divisions, under the command of General der Infanterie Otto von Below. In addition to a number of high-quality infantry regiments and divisions, special stormtrooper units, and an abundance of artillery and other support, the Fourteenth Army included German and Austrian mountain infantry regiments, together with the requisite mountain artillery and pack animals to support them.

On 24 October 1917 German forces entered the fray in strength when the Central Powers launched a major offensive aimed at relieving the pressure on the hard-pressed Austrian forces and inflicting a significant defeat on the Italians, thereby releasing much-needed men and resources for the Western Front and elsewhere. This was the first occasion on which units of German troops were in combat against Italian forces. Although a direct response to the Austrian emperor’s request, this offensive was in many ways a logical extension of the Central Powers’ action against Serbia in October 1915, when a German army, an Austrian army and two Bulgarian armies had together overwhelmed Serbia. It also attracted some risks – it threatened to prejudice an early conclusion of the German campaign that had all but crushed Romania by 1917. In the event, the aim of the German intervention against Italy was largely accomplished: the Italian forces suffered a devastating blow at the hands of German and Austrian troops at Caporetto between 24 October and 7 November 1917. The Battle of Caporetto demonstrated the effective use by the Germans of the stormtrooper tactics and poison gas previously identified primarily with the fighting on the Western Front in France and Belgium.

Benefiting from the early morning mist that wreathed the river valleys and surrounding mountains, at 02.00 hours on 24 October, the German and Austro-Hungarian forces commenced their attack with an artillery bombardment of high-explosive, gas and smoke shells. The lack of a protracted preliminary bombardment produced complete surprise, the main assault closely following the initial artillery fire. Specialist assault troops using flamethrowers and grenades created breaches in the Italian army’s front line and infiltrated between its forward positions, where many of the defenders were badly affected by the poison gas due to the poor quality and obsolescence of their protective respirators. The stormtroopers then moved on to assault headquarters, communications sites, artillery and machine-gun positions and bunkers set behind the front line. Meanwhile the main attacking force quickly rolled over and through the Italian Second Army’s defences. So great was the surprise achieved by the attackers that virtually no Italian artillery fire was directed against them.

Even so, the fighting was particularly heavy in the centre, at the Italian strong-points of Mount Matajur and along the adjacent Colovrat and Stol ridge-lines. On the flanks the rugged terrain combined with a resolute defence by some Italian units to repel or stall the German and Austrian advance by the Tenth Army to the north-west and Second Army to the south. However, the particular success of von Below’s Fourteenth Army at the centre of the offensive allowed the Germans to strike 25 kilometres into the Italian defences by the morning of 25 October, which in turn destabilized the whole Italian line as defending units were forced to redeploy to counter this threat, simultaneously weakening their own positions. It was during the fighting at Longarone and for Mount Matajur that the then Oberleutnant Erwin Rommel, serving in the Württembergisches Gebirgs- und Schneeschuh-Bataillon with the German Alpenkorps, distinguished himself by his actions and leadership in the field, subsequently receiving the Pour le Mérite award. Although a general withdrawal was already inevitable (and the River Tagliamento offered an obvious natural line of defence), the Italian commander General Luigi Cadorna delayed this decision until 30 October, by which stage it was too late. While the Italians took some four days to cross the river, by 2 November a German division had already established a bridgehead. However, the now much-extended German and Austrian supply lines – together with the wider supply difficulties attributable to the ongoing Allied naval blockade – forced a pause in their offensive, which allowed the Italians to retreat farther, to the River Piave, by 10 November.

Despite their inability to follow through and exploit their success, Caporetto was a significant victory for the German and Austrian troops. Some 20,000 German and Austrian soldiers were killed or wounded, but no fewer than 13,000 Italians were killed, 30,000 wounded and 265,000 captured by mid-November. More tellingly, a further 350,000 Italian soldiers deserted between 24 October and 19 November 1917. A bonus of the Central Powers’ victory was the capture of 2,000 Italian mortars and at least 3,000 guns and 3,000 machine-guns during the battle.

Maria Theresa and Austria-Hungary



In 1749 the final peace with Prussia was one year old, and Maria Theresa had still not reconciled herself to the loss of Silesia. Her gloom was somewhat relieved and her hope revived when the man who had argued the Habsburg case at peace talks in Aachen, Count Wenzel Anton Kaunitz-Rietber, was first introduced to her. Kaunitz presented to the queen his foreign policy assessment, arguing that the Turkish threat had largely passed and Bourbon hostility too was abating; the only dangerous enemy of Austria was Prussia. The chief goal of the empire’s foreign policy therefore had to be to undermine Prussia’s position. That could best be achieved if Austria managed to range her traditional enemy, France, to her side. Once that was accomplished, a number of other states that had fought against Austria in the previous war would follow France’s lead. The queen, partly under the influence of her husband, whose home province, Lorraine, had been a pawn in so many of France’s skirmishes with the Holy Roman Emperor, at first treated the idea with skepticism; she nevertheless appointed Kaunitz ambassador to Paris and allowed him wide latitude in pursuing his plan. During his assignment Kaunitz never really passed beyond sounding out several of the king’s favorites, male and female; however, upon his appointment to state chancellor (foreign minister) in 1753, he gave his successor in Paris, Starhemberg, instructions to further promote his own initiatives. His main argument was that France’s alliance with Prussia, concluded in the first year of the War of the Austrian Succession, was insincere because Frederick II was at the same time actively seeking an alignment with France’s arch enemy, England. Proof of this came in January 1756, when England and Prussia agreed on mutually advantageous terms should they fight as allies in a new war. When Starhemberg saw to it that the news was conveyed to Versailles, it at last persuaded the French to switch alliances. Since Austro-French antagonism over Italian possessions had been largely resolved, the decision was easier to take. On May 1, 1756, the two countries signed at Versailles a preliminary agreement, and in August the specifics were worked out: in case of an Austrian war against Prussia, France would provide mercenaries, would not object to the drastic truncation of Prussia, and would receive territorial rewards in Italy or the Netherlands. Meanwhile, Kaunitz ensured Russian cooperation: the czarina Elizabeth nursed as deep an antipathy for Frederick II as did Maria Theresa. All was ready for a war of revanche.

Prussia was actually the first state to assume belligerency as Frederick sought to overcome material odds by taking quick and forceful action. Soon all the states that had undertaken obligations were involved in battle. The Prussian king faced a formidable coalition in what against all expectations became a seven-year-long conflict; with sheer persistence, astounding military skills, and some good luck, he avoided the worst. He was able to extricate his armies from the most perilous situations. Once, for a three-day period, even his capital Berlin was occupied by Russian armies, but they could not maintain themselves in the face of Prussian counterattacks. The decisive stroke of good luck came with the death of Elizabeth of Russia on December 25, 1761. Her successor, Peter III, a German by birth and an admirer of Frederick II, had neither the stomach nor the inclination to continue the struggle. By the time he had with- drawn his troops from battle, a palace revolution unconnected with the shameful change of sides had overthrown him, but Catherine II, his wife who succeeded him on the throne, was herself German and had no more enthusiasm than Peter had for the war against Prussia. Throughout the conflict England and France fought on opposite sides, mainly in America, and, as in the first Silesian war, the original cause was nearly lost from sight. In November 1762 England and France concluded a preliminary peace, which they finalized the following February in Paris. By now Maria Theresa realized that the recovery of Silesia was no longer a viable project and, on February 15, she made peace with Frederick at Hubertusburg, with all territorial arrangements returning to the status quo ante.

Internal reforms had continued even during the war under the guiding concept of centralization, ending what the queen regarded as the ruinous fragmentation of her realms. In the Austrian and Bohemian lands, largely through the creation of the Staatsrat, a six-member council of state, of which three members came from the ranks of the high aristocracy and the other three from the lesser nobility, this goal was at least superficially accomplished. However, Hungary once again proved intractable, even though it benefited most from Maria Theresa’s efforts to settle the areas that the long Turkish occupation had left depopulated. Food production had fallen sharply and the sparse population provided consistently low tax revenues. Already Maria Theresa’s father had begun a program inviting foreigners into the country to establish themselves, mainly in the regions east of the Tisza River and in the broad strip of land between the Tisza and the Danube. Here Hungary possessed some of the richest agricultural land anywhere in Europe, but methods of production practiced by the indigenous population were still primitive and the yield was well below that derived from soil of the same quality in western Europe; many of the newcomers brought modern agrarian skills, as well as manufacturing expertise, with them. The queen’s consort, Francis, showed particular interest in industrial enterprise and his investments proved most felicitous. They were by no means limited to Hungary and by the end of Maria Theresa’s reign in the suburbs of Vienna alone 75 manufacturing concerns were active. The greatest industrial growth occurred in Bohemia, where the loss of Silesia created new opportunities for start-ups and where the necessary raw materials were present in adequate quantities.

The paucity of international commerce had long constituted the great weakness of the Austrian economy. A number of treaties for exchange of goods had been concluded with the Ottoman Empire, but they resulted in a continuously negative trade balance. Maria Theresa ordered that Turkish merchants doing business in her empire had to settle permanently and be subject to its taxation and laws. The upswing in the Austrian economy after the Seven Years’ War, however, had much broader and more complex causes. There was an increased market for a variety of goods and a more sophisticated monetary policy facilitated their exchange. In 1769 the Vienna stock market opened (there already was one in Trieste), and in 1771 paper money supplemented the silver thalers that acquired a solid reputation in European money markets. Growing prosperity was not equally evident in all provinces of the empire, but the general indicators pointed upward.

Although the queen’s concern with the welfare of her subjects was spotty and inconstant, she undeniably felt a religious obligation to protect those who could not fend for themselves, and among these the peasants were in greatest need of royal attention. The core of their problem was that their holdings were not clearly defined in extent and they could never regard the land they worked as their own; their obligations to the landlord were also ill-defined, leading to endless disputes. The queen issued a series of urbariums, first in Croatia and then in other provinces, regulating the relationship between landlord and peas- ant and firmly separating the former’s landholding from the latter’s. The system had a negative aspect, too; as the peasant family grew, its landholding did not. However, knowing the land was permanently his inspired the peasant to cul- tivate it with much greater care. Production increased, as did the taxes paid, and peasant boys inducted into the army were consequently better fed, stronger, and healthier.

This last consideration was of particular importance because an empire located in so many areas of Europe always faced the possibility of war. Alliances were shifting, and there was no overriding issue, no ideological bond, that tied Austria to any of the powers, every new crisis necessitated an opportunistic alignment of forces. This became amply evident when the question of Polish succession, temporarily solved by the war of 1733, which had placed the Saxon Augustus III on the Polish throne with Russian-Austrian backing, still left open the question of who had legitimate claim to that throne. The result was a weakness of royal power which could not stand up to noble pretensions; this in turn fatally undermined the power position of Poland itself.

Augustus III died in 1763. He had spent little time in Poland and in any case would have been powerless to counteract growing Russian influence there. Maria Theresa would have preferred the continuation of the Saxon line, but Catherine II of Russia promoted her favorite, Stanislaus Poniatowski, and by now there was little that other powers could do to limit Russia’s dominant influence in Poland. In 1764 Stanislaus was duly elected. By then religious questions with ulterior political motives complicated the picture. Poland was a Catholic country with small Protestant and Greek Orthodox minorities. Catherine and Frederick II of Prussia, having their eyes on Polish lands adjoining their own, decided to demand equal rights with Catholics for the two minorities. Expectably, this raised a storm of protest in Poland and an association, the Confederation of Bar, was formed, determined to lessen or exclude Russian influence. The resulting civil war of extraordinary ferocity practically invited foreign intervention. The first intervention occurred on the part of Turkey, which, encouraged by France, declared war on Russia, ostensibly in defense of “Polish liberties” but really because of Russian incursions into her Moldavian provinces in pursuit of Polish insurrectionists who had fled there. In the war the Russians earned several victories, causing acute concern in Austria that Russia rather than Turkey was the main menace to the Habsburgs’ Balkan position. For his part, Frederick II of Prussia perceived the opportunity to preserve the balance among the powers at Poland’s expense. He proposed a partition of Polish lands. An agreement to this effect was worked out by Austria, Prussia, and Russia on August 5, 1772. Russia received White Russia to the Dvina and Dnieper Rivers with 1.8 million inhabitants, Austria got Galicia and western Posolia, with 2.7 million people, and Prussia the land separating Brandenburg from East Prussia, with 416,000 inhabitants. In the closing years of her reign Maria Theresa had the satisfaction of seeing her empire, which had been diminished by the loss of Silesia, enlarged by extensive Polish territories. Nor was this the only accretion of land. Although the queen had resisted the arguments of her son Joseph and her chancellor Kaunitz, who had urged her to enter the war Russia fought against Turkey, she took advantage of the loss of Turkish control over Moldavia when that war ended in 1774, and in 1775 made a deal with the prince of that province for the cession of one part of it, Bukovina. Thus a new province was added to the Danubian monarchy.

Two years before her death Maria Theresa faced another war scare; her restless son and designated successor, Joseph, Holy Roman Emperor since his father’s death in 1765, wished to realize an old ambition: he proposed that the Austrian Netherlands be joined to Bavaria, and these united provinces be added to the Habsburg Empire. The opportunity came with the death of the Bavarian elector in 1778. Joseph was ready to risk war over the issue, because he knew that Frederick of Prussia would never consent to such an augmentation of Habsburg power. Maria Theresa, no longer confident of decisive influence over her son, turned directly to Frederick to prevent the emerging conflict. She was able to conclude, with French and Russian mediation, the Peace of Teschen, which left Bavaria in its current position, with a small border region going to Austria.

Maria Theresa died on November 29, 1790. She left a legacy of political realism and secured a hitherto unaccomplished unity for her multinational realm. While by no means a champion of the Enlightenment, which was suspect in her eyes because of its pronounced antireligious bias, many of her policies reflected a shrewd understanding of the fact that medieval notions of social relations and principles of governance had seen their day and, even in religious matters, had to be modernized. Under her rule, politics in the empire became truly the art of the possible; even though she introduced many startling innovations, she did not find herself forced to retract any of them. Although she marched in step with the progress of history, she had reason to fear in her last years that the virtue of restraint would cease when her son and successor, Joseph II, took the throne.

Bismarck and Sadowa 1866


Informed military opinion then expected Austria to win and several distinguished military historians can show convincingly that they ought to have done so. In spite of Moltke’s calm certainties, he too had reason to worry. He had to divide his forces with an army in the West which would have to deal with the Hanoverian and Hessian forces, three armies toward the East, one of which would need to subdue the Saxons and the other two had moved into Austrian territory to carry out the encircling movement on which his plans for victory rested. His armies had commanders of varying degrees of quality and equally varying amounts of esteem from the King. Fortunately two of the royal commanders, Prince Frederick Charles, the King’s nephew, and the Crown Prince Frederick proved to be outstanding field commanders. The Austrians had similar problems but with unfortunately reversed consequences. The commander-in-chief of the Austrian ‘North Army’ in Bohemia, Feldzeugmeister Ludwig von Benedek (1804–81), ‘the lion of Solferino’, had gained a reputation for boldness as one of the few Austrian commanders to come out of the 1859 war with credit. ‘The mere name Benedek means that he will come quickly, dealing blows left and right,’ Moltke said. Had he done so and caught the Prussian columns one by one, the outcome would have been different, but Benedek, who had done so well as corps commander, proved unable to control an entire army and hesitated at several crucial points. Whereas Moltke had to let the mediocre Eduard Vogel von Fackenstein command the West army because the King liked him, he had good commanders in Bohemia. Franz Joseph chose an obscure, near-sighted Archduke, the Archduke Albrecht, to command the Austrian ‘South Army’, who proved to be an outstanding and versatile commander. Aided by an accomplished chief of staff, a competent bourgeois officer, Franz John, the Archduke Albrecht achieved victory over the Italians.

Moltke faced another threat which he could not control: the problem of communications. The railroads made it possible to move large numbers of men and the telegraph made control of such movements significantly easier. In effect strategic mobility had greatly improved but once away from the railhead and especially in battle commanders had no way to contact each other. Moltke frequently had no idea where his troops were and no way of finding out. The age of the mobile telephone has so spoiled us that we tend to forget how impossible communications were for most of the nineteenth century.

‘Weaponry was the basic evil’, claims Frank Zimmer. The Prussian ‘needle gun’ was much superior to the Austria ‘Lorenz’ gun.

That the Austrian Army set its hopes on an obsolete model must rank as one of the most disastrous miscalculations in the history of the armaments industry … The Prussian model was simply the best. Oddly enough its very virtues made it suspect in Austrian eyes and a reason not to adopt it. Kaiser Franz Joseph and many officers thought that its rapid fire power would mislead the ordinary soldier into wasting ammunition.

Gordon Craig adds: ‘the Zündnagelgewehr … [was] a breech-loading rifle that was capable of firing five rounds a minute with 43 percent accuracy at seven hundred paces’ and quotes ‘the plaintive cry in the letter of an Austria Landser, “Dear Peppi, I guess I won’t see you anymore for the Prussians are shooting everyone dead”.’ In the main engagement the Austrians lost three times as many men on average as the Prussians. The Austrian tactics of bayonet charge simply made certain that, as General von Blumenthal, Chief of Staff of the Prussian I Army, put it, ‘we just shoot the poor sods dead.’

Both Bismarck and Moltke had become desperate. Their generals moved in a relaxed manner to their tasks. In exasperation Bismarck asked Roon on 17 June, ‘Is Manteuffel in Harburg nailed down by any sort of military order? I hoped, he would fly.’ Vogel von Falckenstein was worse. He had settled into the comfortable Hotel Zur Krone in Göttingen and seemed to be taking his time in dispatching the small and ill-organized Hanoverian army. He had a reputation for eccentricity and had once court-martialled a soldier for presenting him a glass of water without the serving tray. Moltke saw that his plan made the Prussian forces terribly vulnerable, deployed in relatively small contingents across hundred of kilometres, as one critic put it, ‘like beads on a string’.

After the war Stosch complained that many commanders had been too old and lacked inventiveness but the General Staff was:

fresh, active and, what was best of all, did not stick to formalities but to substance. General von Moltke is one of the most talented and sharp-thinking of generals and has the inclination to grand operations … There is a story that during the difficult hours at Königgrätz somebody asked Moltke what he had decided about retreat to which Moltke answered, ‘here it is a question of the entire future of Prussia, here there will be no retreat.’

If Benedek, who enjoyed the advantage of compactness, had launched an attack on the First Army alone before it combined with the two columns of the Elbe and Second Armies, the whole plan would have collapsed. If the Hanoverians or Saxons had fought more tenaciously then the West Army under Vogel and the Elbe Army under Karl Herwarth von Bittenfeld, who, as Wawro writes, ‘vied with Falckenstein for the distinction of most mediocre general in the Prussian army’, would not have arrived in time to join the other two columns. On 28 June General Vogel von Falckenstein and the Prussian Army of the Main defeated the Hanoverian army at Langensalza and Hanover capitulated. The first defeat prompted Franz Joseph to change his ministers. On 30 June a new government, the ‘Three Counts’ government—Belcredi, Esterhazy, and Mendsdorff—was formed in Vienna, which promised to be more resolute.

On 30 June the King moved the Great Headquarters to Jicin in Bohemia, where Moltke discovered to his dismay that all three Army groups had lost complete contact with Benedek’s North Army and had no idea where it was. Time was running out because a French envoy was expected to arrive at headquarters with a demand that the hostilities be halted. The long marches and rain had exhausted the advancing Prussian troops and eroded discipline. The great battle on 3 July 1866 was fought at the village of Sadowa, north-west of the Bohemian town of Königgrätz (now Hradec Králové in the Czech Republic) on the upper Elbe River. It began with an attack by the Prussian Elbe and First Armies. The Crown Prince’s Second Army had not yet arrived to close the encirclement. At 11.30 in the morning Benedek received intelligence that along the Elbe strong Prussian forces had been spotted (the Crown Prince’s Second Army). The provisional commander of the Austrian IV Corps, Feldmarschall Lieutnant Anton Freiherr von Mollinary, demanded permission to attack to the Prussian left flank while it lay exposed. ‘There I was, standing before the extreme left wing of the Prussian army. A determined attack would have snapped off the enemy’s left wing and put us on the road to victory.’ Zimmer believes that Benedek intended to attack but only in a conventional frontal assault. The moment passed and by the early afternoon the Crown Prince’s II Army ‘within a short time broke the Austrian flank, aided by difficult terrain and fog and by exploiting the needle gun and artillery … It all went so quickly that Benedek at first would not believe the report and replied to the officer who brought it, “Nonsense, don’t babble such stupid stuff”. It was 3 pm on the afternoon of 3 July, 1866.’

Later that afternoon Prince Friedrich Karl, Commander of the First Army, suddenly to his surprise met the Austrian Field Marshall Lieutenant von Gablenz, who had come to ask for terms of armistice. ‘But why are you asking for an armistice? Does your army need one?’ Gablenz: ‘My Emperor has no army left; it is as good as destroyed.’ Friedrich Karl wrote in his diary: ‘Through meeting Gablenz it was clear to me for the first time the scale of the defeat and the breadth of the victory.’ Prince Frederick Charles, whose First Army had borne the main burden of the battle, reflected afterwards what had given Prussia the victory and concluded that it was a certain reliable ordinariness:

It is our well-trained, well-oiled mechanism in which each knows his place, a place which even mediocrity is entirely ready to fulfill its tasks (for it is calculated on mediocrity) which has taught us how to win victories. The reorganization of the army has certainly not alone contributed to this outcome, but it was in its time a necessary perfecting of the mechanism. Geniuses in the proper sense of the word have not shown themselves.

In other words, on balance the Prussians had a more modern, bureaucratic attitude to war than the Austrians. The years of war games, theory, and repeated practice had paid off—but just. Had Benedek let Mollinary attack the Prussian left at 11.30 in the morning and thrown his ample reserves against them from the oblique position his own corps had gained, the Prussians, discipline, bureaucracy and all the rest, would have crumbled as rapidly as the Austrians did in the afternoon and the whole history of Europe would have been other than it became.

Bismarck’s own reaction does him credit:

He felt that he was playing a game of cards with a million-dollar stake that he did not really possess. Now that the wager had been won, he felt depressed rather than elated. And as he rode through fields with dead and wounded, he wondered what his feelings would be if his eldest son were lying there.

Stosch, now a general officer and first Quartermaster General to the Second Army, recorded the arrival of Field Marshall Lieutenant von Gablenz to ask for terms of armistice, to which Bismarck demanded the exclusion of Austria from Germany and the unification of the largely Protestant North German states as a first stage to the full unity. Except for the King of Saxony no sovereign should be deposed. Hessen and Hanover must be reduced to assure the necessary links between the eastern and western provinces of Prussia. The Crown Prince invited Bismarck to dine with the staff of the II Army and Stosch recorded his impressions:

It was the first time I saw Bismarck personally at a social occasion and I confess gladly that the impression that I got from him nearly overwhelmed me. The clarity and grandeur of his views gave me the highest pleasure; he was secure and fresh in every direction and unfolded in each thought a whole world.

Submarine Warfare – Central Powers I



When World War I began in August 1914, both Germany and Austria-Hungary possessed small flotillas of relatively modern submarines. Germany had 31 operational U-boats, while Austria-Hungary had only 5. As with all the world’s navies at the time, the Central Powers had no clear doctrines for the employment of their submarine forces, nor did they have any real appreciation of the directions that wartime operations would take. Neither fleet’s prewar plans long survived the reality of war, since the Royal Navy adopted a strategy of distant blockade rather than the close blockade that the German Navy had anticipated, and Italy declined to join its allies in the Triple Alliance and chose to remain neutral, upsetting Austrian expectations of the situation in the Adriatic.

Germany adopted a strategy of Kleinkrieg (little war, or small engagements), seeking to draw out elements of the Grand Fleet into disadvantageous positions, both geographically and numerically, and whittle away at British naval strength with mines and submarines. During 1914 German U-boats, demonstrating considerably greater operational capabilities than prewar exercises had suggested, scored some considerable successes, most spectacularly on September 22 when Captain Lieutenant Otto Weddigen’s U-9 torpedoed and sank the three British armored cruisers Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue off the Dutch coast within little more than an hour. The Royal Navy quickly came to regard the menace of German submarines as a grave threat to its naval superiority.

Despite the early German successes, it was clear by early 1915 that the strategy of Kleinkrieg was not working. The British distant blockade was proving all too effective in cutting off Germany’s access to most foreign trade, while the Grand Fleet, far from allowing isolated elements to fall into German traps, was succeeding in cutting off detachments of the High Seas Fleet and inflicting serious damage upon them. The German Navy was under increased threat from an intensified British mining campaign and expansion of the terms of the naval blockade.

German submarines had not conducted any coordinated campaign against Allied merchant shipping—the transport of the British Expeditionary Force to France and its subsequent continued supply had been conducted virtually without any interference from the German fleet—but had demonstrated that U-boats could be effective in this role even under the limitations of the Prize Regulations of the Declaration of London in 1909. A growing number of officers within the German Navy as well as influential politicians and businessmen began to see a counterblockade of Britain as the solution to Germany’s dilemma—in other words, to employ submarines to attack and sink without warning all British shipping and neutral vessels trading with the United Kingdom. Berlin was well aware of the potential for serious negative reaction to such policies from neutral trading nations, especially the United States, but the German leadership decided that the gains were worth the risk and on February 4, 1915, declared the waters around Great Britain and Ireland, including the whole of the English Channel and the western portion of the North Sea, to be a war zone within which any merchant ship, British or neutral, would be destroyed without it necessarily being possible to ensure the safety of its crew or passengers.

The German Navy began this first unrestricted submarine campaign against merchant shipping with limited resources. It usually had no more than about 25 operational U-boats available, of which only about one-third were deployed on station at any one time, the remainder being either in transit or refitting. The campaign began on February 28 and, despite the small number of U-boats active, achieved considerable success. A total of 29 vessels aggregating some 89,500 gross tons were sunk in March, 33 vessels totaling only 38,600 tons were sunk in April, 53 vessels totaling 126,900 tons were sunk in May, 114 vessels totaling 115,291 tons were sunk in June, 86 vessels totaling 98,005 tons were sunk in July, 107 vessels totaling 182,772 tons were sunk in August, and 58 vessels totaling 136,048 tons were sunk in September. British antisubmarine measures in this same period accounted for 15 U-boats, but the German Navy commissioned 25 new boats.

The German announcement on February 4 had almost immediate diplomatic repercussions, especially the U.S. government note warning Germany that it would be held strictly accountable for any loss of U.S. ships or lives. Consequently, the German government compromised on its initial declaration, placing some restrictions on attacks against vessels flying neutral flags much to the chagrin of German Navy officers, who envisaged that one major effect of the unrestricted campaign would be to so terrorize neutral shippers that they would cease to trade with Great Britain. A number of attacks on Dutch, Greek, Norwegian, and Swedish vessels, including some inside areas declared safe, provoked outraged diplomatic responses from these neutral governments and led the German government to offer compensation in several instances and prohibit attacks against neutral vessels.

The major blow to the unrestricted campaign was the sinking by Captain Lieutenant Walter Schwieger’s U-20 of the large Cunard transatlantic liner Lusitania without warning off the western coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. A total of 128 U.S. citizens were among the 1,201 passengers and crew who lost their lives, and the sinking caused a major diplomatic furor between the United States and Germany that was heightened by the torpedoing of the U.S. ship Nebraskan without warning on May 25. German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, despite strong opposition from the navy, forbade attacks on large passenger liners whatever flag they flew, and his efforts succeeded in mollifying President Woodrow Wilson’s government sufficiently, although Germany still suffered from a sharp drop in the American public’s estimation.

As the sinking record shows, these greater restrictions did not substantially affect the success of the campaign against merchant shipping. Nevertheless, there remained the threat of further incidents that might force Germany to terminate the campaign. Schwieger, who had sunk the Lusitania, succeeded in provoking two such incidents by sinking the British liner Arabic without warning on August 19 and the U.S. liner Hesperian on September 4. These two events provoked a further crisis between the United States and Germany and exacerbated the concerns of the German Army General Staff about increased complications with neutral nations in light of an impending shortage of troops.


Over the protests of its senior naval officers, the German government forced through a prohibition of attacks against any liners and a withdrawal of all U-boats from operations in the western approaches to the English Channel. Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff became head of the Naval Staff, and on September 18, after deciding that the submarine campaign had failed, he terminated most U-boat operations against shipping and bound all continued action to conform with the Prize Regulations, thus ending the unrestricted campaign.

The British merchant marine lost close to 1.3 million tons of shipping from all causes through the end of September 1915. New construction totaled about 1.2 million tons, and captured enemy shipping added a further 682,000 tons. Nevertheless, losses were outstripping replacements, while the sinkings in August and September were a serious concern and an omen for the future potential of a submarine campaign.

Holtzendorff continued the restricted campaign against merchant shipping. From October 1915 to February 1916, U-boats sank 209 ships totaling 506,026 gross tons, with about 75 percent of these sinkings in the Mediterranean. The campaign sharpened after attacks without warning were permitted against armed merchant vessels, beginning on February 29. During the next two months, the U-boats sank 143 ships totaling 347,843 tons, but again an incident involving U.S. citizens precipitated a diplomatic crisis. On March 24, Senior Lieutenant Herbert Pustkuchen’s UB-29 torpedoed the French cross-channel steamer Sussex without warning off Dieppe, resulting in the loss of some 50 passengers and crew, including 25 Americans. President Wilson reacted by warning Germany that any further incident would lead to the United States severing diplomatic relations. On April 24, therefore, Holtzendorff reinstated his order requiring submarines to operate within the Prize Regulations, causing commander of the High Seas Fleet Admiral Reinhard Scheer to order all submarines to cease operation. British losses fell immediately, to 64,000 tons in May and only 37,000 tons in June. Nevertheless, British shipping losses for the first half of 1916 approached 500,000 tons, well over twice the rate of new construction.

During the next few months the High Seas Fleet boats operated primarily in support of fleet operations on the North Sea, leaving attacks on merchant shipping to the Flanders boats and U-boats in the Mediterranean. The pace of the restricted campaign accelerated in September when 172 ships totaling 231,573 tons were sunk. Between October 1916 and January 1917, a further 757 ships totaling more than 1.3 million tons were sent to the bottom in all theaters. This increase reflected the larger number of operational U-boats, which reached 103 submarines in January 1917.

Despite this advance, German Navy leaders were convinced that the restricted campaign was doomed to failure as a means to bring Britain to terms. When combined with the Allied rejection of German peace proposals and successes on the Eastern Front that released additional troops, however, a consensus emerged in the high command and the German government for renewal of the unrestricted submarine warfare campaign.