ITALY AND THE ALPINE CAMPAIGN 1915–1918

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

Submarine Warfare – Central Powers II

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Now converted to Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, Holtzendorff produced a memorandum of December 22, 1916, based on statistics and projections from a group of economic experts (Department B1). The report, which predicted the demise of Britain by unrestricted submarine warfare, held that wheat imports were the Achilles’ heel of the British economy and estimated that in December 1916 Britain had but 15 weeks of wheat remaining. Holtzendorff held that if during the first two months of unrestricted submarine warfare the Germans could sink 600,000 tons of shipping a month and about 500,000 tons each of the next four months, the tonnage available for food imports would decline by an “irreplaceable” 40 percent. Britain would be starved into surrender.

Holtzendorff and Tirpitz recognized that a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare would likely bring the United States into the war, but they were also convinced that they could knock Britain out of the war before U.S. military assets could be made to count. They also denigrated U.S. military capability. German U-boats would prevent the Americans from sending troops to Europe. Holtzendorff reportedly told the kaiser, “I give your Majesty my word as an officer, that not one American will land on the continent.” Warnings from German envoys in neutral countries that an unrestricted submarine warfare campaign would cause these countries to curtail food shipments to Germany were dismissed as “defeatist rubbish.”

German Army chief of staff Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and first quartermaster general of the army General of Infantry Erich Ludendorff supported Holtzendorff’s view, overcoming the arguments against it advanced by Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg and Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow, both of whom hoped for a negotiated peace. On January 9, 1917, the government decided that an unrestricted campaign would begin on February 1. This decision was announced on January 31.

The predicted diplomatic consequences of launching the new unrestricted campaign were not long in coming. On February 3, 1917, President Wilson severed diplomatic relations with Germany. The Zimmermann Telegram—containing a proposal for a German-Mexican and even a German-Japanese alliance against the United States—also surfaced, exacerbating tensions between the two nations. A series of almost inevitable sinkings of U.S. vessels carrying American citizens as passengers hastened matters, and on April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany.

The renewal of the German unrestricted submarine warfare campaign commenced on schedule, with some 120 U-boats deployed. Shipping losses rose dramatically to 520,412 tons in February, 564,497 tons in March, and 860,334 tons in April, at the cost of only 9 U-boats. From this peak, shipping losses fell to 616,316 tons in May and 696,725 tons in June. As the British gradually expanded the scope of convoy from mid-May, losses declined still further to 555,514 tons in July, 472,372 tons in August, 353,602 tons in September, 466,542 tons in October, 302,599 tons in November, and 411,766 tons in December. Forty-three U-boats were sunk in the same six-month period, more than three times the number lost in the first six months of the year.

During the first six months of 1918, U-boats sank more than 1.8 million tons of shipping and a further 889,442 tons up to the armistice on November 11. German losses were high, with more than 120 U-boats sunk. Furthermore, as the U-boats sought out weak links—areas in which ships sailed without the benefit of convoy—the Allies extended the scope of the system until the vast majority of shipping was covered. The German unrestricted submarine campaign against shipping had not only failed but had also, by forcing the United States into the war, cost Germany victory. The U-boats were not able to interrupt the flow of American troops to Europe, despite Holtzendorff’s pledge to the kaiser. All damage inflicted by U-boats to the transport fleet was done in European waters. Six transports were sunk, 4 of them on the home voyage, but the total loss was fewer than 300 lives. U.S. forces were thus able to intervene in sufficient numbers in time to affect the outcome.

The small number of Austrian submarines in operational service at the beginning of the war and their limited range effectively confined their use to the Adriatic. After France declared war on Austria-Hungary on August 13, 1914, elements of its Mediterranean fleet commenced operations in the Adriatic, conducting sweeps with heavy ships and undertaking minor landings, all in the hope of influencing Italy to join the Allies. Austrian submarines always were a threat that became a reality on December 21, when its U-12 torpedoed the French flagship dreadnought Jean Bart without, however, sinking it. This incident convinced the French to give up offensive operations in the Adriatic and focus on a distant blockade of the Strait of Otranto.

In the period leading to the entry of Italy into the war on the Allied side, the French moved their blockading squadron farther north into the Adriatic. Ship-of-the-Line Lieutenant Georg Ritter von Trapp, commanding the U-5, succeeded on the night of April 26, 1915, in torpedoing and sinking the French armored cruiser Léon Gambetta with heavy loss of life, demonstrating once again the vulnerability of surface vessels in these confined waters. After Italy entered the war in May, the situation remained much the same. In the face of the threat posed by submarines, heavy ships could not operate effectively in the Adriatic, and operations became largely a quasi-guerrilla war in which the Austrian submarines, reinforced by small German U-boats transferred overland, played a major role.

Germany began transferring submarines to the Mediterranean theater in May 1915 when it became clear that the limited Austrian submarine force could do little to affect operations in the area, despite their effectiveness in the Adriatic. These U-boats had considerable success on arrival. Captain Lieutenant Otto Hersing’s U-21 torpedoed and sank the British predreadnought battleship Triumph at the Dardanelles on May 25 and sent to the bottom another British battleship, the Majestic, two days later. Two smaller submarines, however, proved much less effective, and subsequent German submarine operations during the Dardanelles Campaign were largely inconsequential.

The German Navy continued to send U-boats to the Mediterranean, dispatching the smaller boats overland by rail for assembly at Pola and passing the larger boats through the Strait of Gibraltar. One early arrival, Lieutenant Heino von Heimburg’s UB-15, sank the Italian submarine Medusa in the Adriatic on June 1, 1915. On July 7 Heimburg, now commanding the UB-14, sank the Italian armored cruiser Amalfi before sailing into the Mediterranean.

The Mediterranean theater was attractive because there were clearly defined choke points through which much traffic had to pass. The Mediterranean was also obviously crucial for French and Italian ship traffic, and much British shipping also sailed through the sea before or after transiting the Suez Canal. The weather also permitted operations during the autumn and winter when it could hamper Atlantic operations, and operations there were also far less likely to acerbate tensions with the United States, since fewer U.S. ships or American passengers sailed in that sea.

The German submarine campaign in the Mediterranean began in earnest in October 1915. The submarines used Austrian bases at Pola and Cattaro for their operations. During this month five large U-boats sank 63,848 tons of shipping, more than three-quarters of all merchant vessel sinkings in all theaters combined. More large and small boats reinforced the Mediterranean flotilla, with merchant shipping losses reaching 152,882 tons in November and 76,693 tons in December.

During 1916 the Central Powers’ U-boat campaign in the Mediterranean continued to enjoy success. The first quarter of the year saw Allied shipping losses decline as the U-boats underwent refits, contended with winter weather conditions, and were subject to the restrictions on attacking passenger liners. Nevertheless, losses were high enough to lead the Allies to strengthen their patrol systems and divert as much shipping as possible from sailing through the Mediterranean, even though this extended voyages and tied up vessel capacity. New U-boats arriving from Germany and existing boats returning to service pushed merchant shipping losses for the second quarter of 1916 in the Mediterranean to 192,225 tons, about half of all losses in all theaters. These successes continued into the summer and autumn as German U-boats sank 321,542 tons of shipping between July and September. Nor was there any real relief in the autumn and early winter, since a further 427,999 tons of shipping went down by the end of the year. In aggregate, German U-boats sank well over 1 million tons of shipping in the Mediterranean during 1916 while losing only two submarines, one of which sank after running into one of its own mines.

The year 1917 brought the illusion of calm, for most of the German U-boats were refitting. Losses fell to 78,541 tons in January before rising again to 105,670 tons in February and then dropping to 61,917 tons in March. The Germans reinforced their Mediterranean flotilla, and new Austrian boats, based on the German UB-II class, joined the German submarines in operations in the central Mediterranean. Together they sank 277,948 tons of shipping in April. The Allies were then forced to reappraise their system of trade protection and began introducing the convoying of merchant shipping in late May, whereupon losses fell to 180,896 tons in May and 170,473 tons in June. Even though the Germans increased their U-boat force by more than 25 percent, losses continued to decline in July and August to 107,303 tons and 118,372 tons, respectively. An unprofitable diversion of U-boats in the autumn to support operations in Syria against the Allied offensive netted a few small warships but relieved the pressure on merchant shipping. Success returned when the U-boats resumed their effort against merchant shipping in December, with losses rising to 148,331 tons. Once again, Germany’s total U-boat loss for the year was two boats, while the German and Austrian submarines sank well over 1.25 million tons of shipping.

The year 1918 saw Allied efforts to protect trade bear fruit. During the first six months of the year German and Austrian submarines sank about 600,000 tons of shipping, but their losses rose to 10 boats, twice the total in the three previous years of operations. Submarine successes fell dramatically in the months before the armistice; they sank fewer than 250,000 tons of shipping and lost a further 4 boats in the process. Moreover, these diminished accomplishments came about despite the fact that almost twice as many submarines were operational as in 1917.

Between 1915 and 1917 the German Navy also operated a small number of submarines in the Black Sea. The first boats arrived in May 1915 as part of Germany’s support for Turkey during the Dardanelles Campaign. Most of the boats deployed were small UB- or UC-type coastal submarines, and success was limited, although their operations did cause the Russians to deploy their own hunting squadrons of destroyers. The few larger submarines dispatched to the Black Sea had no greater success. In all, Germany sent three large and about a dozen small submarines to the Black Sea and lost almost half of them, chiefly to mines.

Overall, the most important campaign in which the submarines of the Central Powers engaged—their operations against merchant shipping—came close to total success in April 1917, only to fail completely to overcome the effectiveness of the convoy system. In the process, however, the Central Powers permanently redefined the place of the submarine in warfare.

Further Reading

Abbatiello, John. Anti-Submarine Warfare in World War I: British Naval Aviation and the Defeat of the U-Boats. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Fayle, C. Ernest. Seaborne Trade. 3 vols. London: Murray, 1920–1924.

Gardiner, Robert, and Randal Gray, eds. Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906–1921. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1985.

Gibson, Richard H., and Maurice Prendergast. The German Submarine War, 1914–1918. New York: Richard Smith, 1931.

Halpern, Paul G. A Naval History of World War I. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994.

Herwig, Holger H. “Luxury” Fleet: The Imperial German Navy, 1888–1918. London: Allen and Unwin, 1980.

Sokol, Anthony E. The Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Navy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1968.

Austrian-Hungarian Chiefs of the Army Command

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Conrad von Hötzendorf, Franz

Birth Date: November 11, 1852

Death Date: August 25, 1925

Austro-Hungarian general and chief of the General Staff (1906–1917). Born on November 11, 1852, at Penzing near Vienna, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf entered the Cadet Institute at Hainburg at age 11 and then during 1867–1871 attended the Maria Theresa Akademie at Wiener-Neustadt, being commissioned a lieutenant. After three years with the 11th Feldjäger (light infantry) Battalion, he attended the Kriegsschule (Imperial Staff College) in Vienna. Conrad was attached to the General Staff in 1876. He distinguished himself in the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878 and took part in crushing a rebellion in southern Dalmatia in 1882. Conrad was an instructor in tactics at the Kriegsschule during 1888–1892, when he wrote extensively on military affairs. Promoted to colonel in May 1893, he commanded the 1st Infantry Regiment during 1894–1899.

Promoted to major general on May 1, 1899, Conrad commanded the 55th Infantry Brigade during 1899–1903. Promoted to lieutenant field marshal on November 1, 1903, he commanded the 8th Infantry Division from 1903 to 1906. Conrad came to be regarded as a brilliant strategist because of his numerous military publications. With the strong support of heir apparent to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Emperor Franz Joseph appointed Conrad chief of the General Staff on November 18, 1906. Conrad was promoted to field train master on November 1, 1908, and to general of infantry two weeks later on November 15. He favored preventive war with both Serbia and Italy, a position that brought the strong opposition of Foreign Minister Count Lexza von Aehrenthal and led to Conrad’s departure from the post of chief of the General Staff at the end of 1911. Conrad served as army inspector during 1911–1912. He returned to the position of chief of staff on December 12, 1912, holding it until March 1, 1917.

A tactician rather than a strategist, Conrad lacked the necessary qualifications, and his appointment came after he had passed his intellectual peak. He strongly mistrusted Austria’s non-German nationalities and the expansionist tendencies of Italy (ally of both Serbia and Austria), and he worked hard to strengthen the monarchy’s military forces for war, which he believed to be inevitable. His efforts were only partially successful, and Franz Joseph repeatedly frustrated his chief objective of a preventive war against Russia, Serbia, and Italy. Conrad became more and more pessimistic, and after 1907 his affair with Virginia von Reininghaus, then a 28-year-old married woman and mother of six children whom he finally married in 1915, caused gossip and added further complications.

After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, Conrad as head of the military party argued vigorously for war against Serbia, holding it responsible for the murders as well as for inspiring subversive Slav agitation within the Dual Monarchy. Lacking any fighting experience since 1878, Conrad shared the short-war illusions of other contemporary generals and underestimated the difficulties of warfare on two fronts against Russia and Serbia. His mobilization schemes were extremely complicated and contradictory, and no firm military agreements were reached with Germany before the summer of 1914.

When World War I began, Conrad, giving in to pressing German demands that were contrary to his prewar planning, hastily shifted troops from the Balkans to the Eastern Front and failed to carry out his strategy of concentration against one enemy. As a result, a large part of his force spent more time on trains than on the battlefield during the first decisive weeks of the war, and Austria finally suffered defeat on both fronts.

With considerable German assistance, Serbia was finally subdued by the end of 1915, but the situation on the Eastern Front in 1914 turned disastrous. Conrad’s troops suffered enormous losses that could never be overcome as far as the quality of officers and men trained under peacetime conditions. Offensives in 1915 and 1916 against Russia and Italy, respectively, again only possible with German aid, were successful, but they did not secure decisive victory. Conrad was promoted to colonel general on June 23, 1915, and to field marshal on November 25, 1916.

Austria-Hungary, obviously the weaker part of the alliance, became increasingly subordinated to Germany when Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General of Infantry Erich Ludendorff took over the German Supreme Command in 1916. The new Austrian emperor, Karl I, dismissed Conrad on March 1, 1917. Conrad then took command of the South Tirolean Army Group on the Italian front but achieved only partial successes in that post. Karl recalled Conrad from this command on July 14, 1918, raising him to count and appointing him colonel of the Royal Life Guards, an honorific position. Conrad retired after the 1918 armistice, moved to Innsbruck, and wrote his memoirs. In 1922 he moved to Vienna. Conrad died at Bad Mergentheim in Württemberg, Germany, on August 25, 1925.

Conrad was a gifted but unlucky soldier, a hard-liner advocating ruthless military solutions for domestic and foreign policy problems. Caught in his extreme right-wing, anti-Semitic, and anti-Slav ideologies, he failed in his ambitious plans because of a lack of resources and the neglect of human and political realities. A strong advocate of psychological factors, Conrad regarded well-trained, offensive-minded infantry as the key to victory. He paid little attention to the need for artillery support and maintained that infantry could overcome an entrenched enemy with its own resources. Despite his failure, his former staff members, writing as military historians after 1918, framed their argument along the lines that Conrad had been the greatest Austrian commander since Prince Eugene of Savoy, a myth that has been destroyed by more recent scholarship.

Further Reading

Conrad von Hötzendorf, Franz. Aus meiner Dienstzeit, 1906–1918. 5 vols. Vienna, Leipzig, and Munich: Rikola, 1921–1925.

Herwig, Holger H. The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914–1918. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997.

Sondhaus, Lawrence. Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf: Architect of the Apocalypse. Boston: Humanities Press, 2000.

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Arz von Straussenburg, Artur

Birth Date: June 11, 1857

Death Date: July 1, 1935

Austro-Hungarian Army general and chief of the General Staff. Born in Hermannstadt, Transylvania, on June 11, 1857, Artur Arz von Straussenburg graduated with honors from the gymnasium in Hermannstadt and commenced the study of law but then volunteered for a year’s enlistment in a Hungarian feldjäger battalion during 1876–1877. Having completed this service, Arz sat for and passed the officer’s examination and on May 1, 1878, was commissioned a lieutenant.

Promoted to first lieutenant, Arz attended the Kriegsschule (War Academy) in Vienna during 1885–1887 and the next year was assigned to the General Staff. Promoted to captain, he was assigned to the staff of II Corps in Vienna. Having been promoted to major, in 1898 he was reassigned to the General Staff and then returned to the staff of II Corps. Promoted to lieutenant colonel, he briefly commanded the 34th Infantry Regiment at Kaschau. Promoted to colonel in May 1902, he returned to the General Staff and during 1903–1908 was its chief of personnel.

In 1908 Arz was promoted to major general and assumed command of the 61st Infantry Brigade at Budapest. In 1912 he received command of the 15th Infantry Division at Miskolc. That May he was promoted to lieutenant field marshal. In 1913 he was assigned to the Ministry of War in Vienna as section chief of the military departments.

On the commencement of World War I, Arz immediately requested a field assignment, again commanding the 15th Infantry Division and fighting in the Battle of Komorów (August 26–September 2). On September 7 Arz assumed command of VI Corps, distinguishing himself in the defeat of the Russian Third Army during the Battle of Limanowa-Lapanów (December 1–13). He also played a major role in the successful Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive (May–December 1915).

Promoted to general of infantry in September 1915, Arz received command of the newly re-formed First Army. When Romania declared war on August 26, 1916, Arz fought a successful delaying action against numerically far superior Romanian forces. His army then cooperated with the German Ninth Army in pushing back the invaders to their own borders and effectively ending Romanian active participation in the war, in the process earning the great respect of his army group commander, the future Emperor Karl I, who acceded to the throne that November.

On March 1, 1917, Karl I named Arz to replace Field Marshal Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf as chief of the Austro-Hungarian Army General Staff. Loyal, tactful, and personally unambitious, Arz accepted Karl’s desire to serve as the de facto military commander. Unlike his predecessor, Arz saw his role as advising the emperor rather than actively pushing his own views. Arz has thus has been accused of being more an adjutant than a true chief of staff, but loyalty to the emperor and to the Germans was his guiding principle. Perhaps it was inevitable given the decline in the Dual Monarchy’s military resources, but Arz’s tenure saw increasing German control of the Dual Monarchy’s military affairs.

In 1917 Arz began to implement a radical reorganization of the army, proposed earlier under Conrad, that restructured divisions and envisioned significantly increased levels of equipment and support. The broader changes stalled amid renewed disagreement with the Hungarian leaders, however, resulting in concessions that significantly eroded the unified nature of the Habsburg Army. In addition, Arz created the Enemy Propaganda Defense Agency in an unsuccessful effort to ward off morale problems posed by Entente propaganda and the diminishing resources of the Dual Monarchy.

Promoted to colonel general on February 9, 1918, Arz played his most active role in shaping the Habsburg military effort that spring. With German leaders requesting a Habsburg offensive against Italy, Conrad (now an army commander on the Italian front) proposed a massive offensive aimed at defeating Italy decisively. Unconvinced, Arz vetoed these proposals.

Overruled by Emperor Karl, Arz worked successfully behind the scenes to divert resources away from Conrad. The resulting offensive lacked focus and numerical superiority and was quickly beaten back by Italy. Arz, sensing his responsibility, offered to resign, but Karl refused, opting to sacrifice Conrad instead.

Recognizing that the Dual Monarchy was on the verge of collapse, Arz tried to intervene in politics in October 1918, instructing the Supreme Headquarters to draft a proposal for the reconstruction of the monarchy. When Karl beat him to the punch with his own proposal, Arz kept the manifesto secret from the troops for several days.

A few days later on the night of November 2–3, Karl asked Arz to accept promotion to supreme commander. Realizing that Karl was unwilling to accept responsibility for signing an armistice, Arz refused. Karl instead nominated Field Marshal Hermann Kövess von Kövessháza, but with Kövess in the Balkans and to end the bloodshed, Arz as de facto supreme commander oversaw conclusion of the armistice on November 3, 1918.

Arz retired with the end of the war. Unwilling to return to his ancestral home, which was now in Romanian territory, and denied an Austrian military pension because he was technically a Hungarian citizen, Arz lived in Vienna in penury on funds supplied by army comrades and wrote his memoirs. In 1926 the Hungarian government granted him a pension. During a stay in Budapest required to collect his pension, Arz died of a heart attack on July 1, 1935.

Further Reading

Arz von Straussenburg, Artur. Zur Geschichte des Grossen Krieges, 1914 bis 1918. Vienna-Leipzig-Munich: Ricola, 1924.

Herwig, Holger H. The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914–1918. New York: Arnold, 1997.

Rauchensteiner, Manfried. Der Tod des Doppeladlers: Österreich-Ungarn under der Erste Weltkrieg. Graz-Vienna-Cologne: Styria, 1993.

Rothenberg, Gunther E. The Army of Francis Joseph. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1976.

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Kövess von Kövessháza, Hermann

Birth Date: March 30, 1854

Death Date: September 22, 1924

Austro-Hungarian Army field marshal. Born on March 30, 1854, in Temesvar, Hungary, Hermann Kövess von Kövessháza attended the Cadet Institute at Hainburg and the Technische Militär-Akademie (Genieabteilung) in Vienna. He was commissioned a lieutenant in the 2nd Engineer Regiment at Vienna on September 1, 1872.

Most of the army hierarchy was Roman Catholic, but the Protestant Kövess advanced rapidly in rank thanks to his hard work and ability. He was promoted to first lieutenant in May 1875 and attended the Kriegsschule (War Academy) during 1876–1878. Advanced to captain in November 1879, in 1882 he helped put down the mutiny at Krivosje in southern Dalmatia. After failing the General Staff examination, however, Kövess transferred to the infantry. His excellent performance brought promotion to major in May 1890, to lieutenant colonel in May 1894, and to colonel in November 1896. One of the youngest colonels in the army, in March 1898 he took command of the 23rd Infantry Regiment in Vienna, retaining that command until October 1902.

On November 1, 1902, Kövess was promoted to major general, and from October 1902 until November 1906 he commanded the 15th Infantry Brigade. He then commanded the 8th Infantry Division from November 1906 to April 1910, and on May 1, 1907, he was promoted to lieutenant field marshal. In June 1911 Kövess assumed command of XII Corps, and on November 1, 1911, he was promoted to general of infantry.

In August 1912, Kövess was present at a ceremony in which some 400 German-speaking Catholics converted to Protestantism. The Catholic Church condemned the event, and the ensuing religious uproar almost cost Kövess his military career. Emperor Franz Joseph remembered him favorably from the days Kövess had served in Vienna, however, and he retained his command. Regardless, there were negative effects, with Kövess’s subsequent military advancement delayed.

During the early part of World War I, Kövess served on the Eastern Front. He commanded XII Corps in the Galician and Carpathian Campaigns, followed by action at Gorlice-Tarnow in mid-1915, with his corps taking the Russian fortress of Ivangorod in August. In September 1915 Kövess assumed command of Army Group Kövess (later designated the Third Army) and a month later helped to overrun Serbia with the capture of Belgrade (October 9, 1915). His Third Army fought in and occupied Montenegro and then invaded Albania. On February 26, 1916, Kövess was promoted to colonel general. In March he and his Third Army were transferred to the Italian front.

The Brusilov Offensive brought the transfer of the Third Army back to the Eastern Front, and Kövess remained there from October 1916 until the end of the war. He took command of the Seventh Army in October 1916 and commanded it until January 1918. Kövess was ordered to block the Russian drive on Hungary. After the unsuccessful Russian advance, the Seventh Army counterattacked and recaptured Czernowitz, the capital of Bukovina, at the beginning of August 1917. For this success Kövess was promoted to field marshal on August 5, 1917, and that same month was ennobled as a Freiherr (baron). In 1918 Kövess commanded both the First and Seventh Armies on the Moldavian front, but he was relieved of this command following the peace agreements of Brest Litovsk with Russia (March 3, 1918) and Bucharest with Romania (May 7).

Kövess was briefly recalled to duty in Budapest at the end of the war, and on November 3, 1918, he was appointed the last commander of the Austro-Hungarian Army. Field Marshal Baron von Kövess served in this post until December 20. He retired in early 1919. Approached in early May 1919, he refused an offer to command forces against the communist revolutionaries in Hungary. He served as the head of the Vienna chapter of the military Maria Theresa Order and was active in veterans’ meetings in Austria and Hungary. Kövess died in Vienna on September 22, 1924.

The Afternoon at the Kahlenberg

Kahlenberg Mountain near Vienna on 12 September 1683

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All reports agree that, on this day of blistering sunshine, there was a pause in the fighting at noon. It was a pause to recover breath, but the allied commanders were also determined not to weaken their position by pressing too far forward on their left before the right wing had begun to put pressure on the Ottoman defence. Concealed by the folding of the ground, and the thickness of woods, the pace of the Polish advance was difficult to estimate; it certainly appeared somewhat slow. But no one underestimated the importance of these troops, who were expected to come down the Alsbach, a tributary stream descending to the houses at Dornbach and ultimately to Hernals: a line of march which would bring the attack much closer to the main Turkish camp and to the Grand Vezir’s headquarters.

Some historians have blamed the Poles for their sluggishness, but it would be more helpful if evidence were found which explained why they were sluggish. Many Polish detachments were well behind the regiments of the left and centre already on the previous day, and can only have reached the upper ridges late in the evening, hungry and tired; there are no records which show how complete their preparations were during the night of 11th September. Even in the case of the German regiments put at John Sobieski’s disposal, it is known that they were in position on the Galitzinberg—well forward, and on the extreme right—by the time serious fighting began in this area, after midday; but it is not known whether they were already in position in the early hours of morning. Another possibility is that, when the council of war ended on the 11th Sobieski was by no means clear that the attack would begin at dawn, and therefore did not give positive instructions to his officers to make ready for action. The Turkish raids above Nussdorf, in conjunction with Lorraine’s purposeful itch to try and relieve Vienna without delay, altered the whole situation. But it took the King of Poland most of the morning, while fierce fighting continued on his left, to advance his right wing. He was already past his prime as an instinctive war-leader, a slow and very corpulent man who now lacked the energy to dominate a crisis on the battlefield; nor were the discipline and promptness of his aristocratic cavalry generals very marked, in spite of their many other military virtues.

Moreover, although it was a relatively simple matter to occupy the higher ground on both sides of the Alsbach, the descent of large numbers of men into the valley proved more arduous. Even then the greatest difficulty of all remained, to get them out of this narrow avenue of approach and reorganise them as a battle-formation, strong enough to meet a massive Turkish attack; the Turks were bound to try and interrupt and to crush the whole unwieldly manoeuvre. By one o’clock the Polish vanguard had reached Dornbach, where the woods and the slopes die away. They became visible to the forces anxiously waiting far away on their left. Shouts of joy and relief from the Germans saluted them, and dismayed the enemy. The heights on both sides of the Alsbach were in firm and friendly hands. From those on the left, the King himself directed operations, and he was in touch with the Franconian units and their leaders to his left. On the right Hetman Jablonowski commanded the Poles, some German infantry held the Galitzinberg, and a certain amount of support from artillery was assured. Fortunately the scattered Tartar forces still farther south were never a serious nuisance in this quarter. The future depended on the heroism and energy of the Polish centre under General Katski as it emerged from the narrower part of the Alsbach valley.

First of all select troops of volunteer hussars advanced. After a momentary success the Turks pushed them back, and then the conflict swayed uncertainly to and fro. It cannot be stated with any certainty whether the final result was determined by the steady refusal of these Poles on the lower ground to give up the costly struggle, or by the efforts of German foot soldiers coming down from the Galitzinberg, or by the extra forces which Sobieski threw in (aided by reinforcements of Austrian and Bavarian cavalry) from the heights on the left. After a fearful tussle the Turks gave way; their horsemen fled, and took shelter with the Turkish infantry and guns on a defensive position farther back. Sobieski now began to deploy his whole force on more level ground, having swung them slightly round so that they faced south-east. They were arranged in two lines, the intervals in the first being covered by contingents in the second. As before, Habsburg and Bavarian cavalry stood behind them on their immediate left. There were more Polish horsemen and dragoons on the right.

This achievement altered the whole face of the battle. The Polish wing of the army had caught up with the left and centre. It was a strong position, won after a hard-fought day. The great question, now, was whether to stop or to launch a further attack. Undoubtedly Lorraine himself wanted to press forward; and there is probably something in the famous story that when one experienced general, the Saxon commander Goltz, was asked for his opinion, he replied: ‘I am an old man, and I want comfortable quarters in Vienna tonight.’ Waldeck agreed. Sobieski agreed. They must have all based their hopes on signs of disorder and exhaustion in the enemy troops facing them. On one wing, the relieving army was two miles away from the walls of Vienna at their nearest point. On the other, it was a little more than two miles to Kara Mustafa’s headquarters in St Ulrich.

Preparations to mount an overwhelming attack were made along the whole front. At 3.20, in the fiercest heat of the afternoon the action began again on the left. The Turkish position here ran along the Vienna side of the Krottenbach (a stream reaching the Canal near Heiligenstadt) but soon turned to the south-west, where it faced first the centre of the Christian army, and then the Poles. The Turk’s resistance was ineffectual, and they soon began to withdraw rapidly to the left wing of Kara Mustafa’s defence. Some of the Habsburg troops at once made straight towards the nearest siegeworks of the city, others swung to the right. The same thing happened on the central part of the front: the Saxons, and then the troops of the Empire, pushed forward again—and swung to the right. The Poles had meanwhile thrown everything they had into their attack on the main armament of the Turks. For a short while the battle was doubtful; but the thrust of the Bavarian troops (under Degenfeld and Max Emmanuel himself), and then of other troops coming up from the more northerly sectors, weakened the flank of the Turkish position; the Poles finally plunged forward with their cavalry to sweep southwards. Here, other Turkish units made an obstinate stand; they had their backs to the River Wien, and when they finally gave way Kara Mustafa ran a real risk of being cut off by swift cavalry movements in his rear from any possible line of retreat. Meanwhile the bodyguards of the Grand Vezir resisted desperately when the Poles began to enter his great encampment from the west. On its northern side, Janissaries and other household troops were still fighting hard; the Franconians under Waldeck, and on his initiative, seem to have given Sobieski useful support in this final phase of the struggle. The total collapse of the Turks began, and when their soldiers still in the galleries and trenches in front of the Hofburg were instructed to come to the rescue of those in the camp, they fled. Kara Mustafa himself then retreated in perilous and disorderly haste, though he succeeded in taking with him the great Moslem standard, the Flag of the Prophet so vainly displayed on this bitter occasion, and the major part of his stock of money. Many other Turkish leaders and contingents had already left the battlefield several hours before; and so ended one of the most resounding of all Christian victories, and Ottoman defeats. By five-thirty the battle was over. Vienna was saved. The plundering began.

An Irish officer summarised the events of the day in his own terse way: ‘If the victory be not so complete as we promised ourselves it should, it proceeded only from the cowardice of our enemies, whom from morning till night we drove before us, beating them from post to post, without their having the courage to look us in the face, and that through several defiles, which had they any reasonable courage we could never have forced. The combat held longest where the King of Poland was, but that only added to his glory, he having beaten them with the loss of their cannon and their men; they have left us their whole camp in general, with their tents, bag and baggage, and time will tell us more particulars.’