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Book Review: The Fortress: The Great Siege of Przemysl

The Fortress_Book cover

Reviewed by Major Andrew Maher

By Alexander Watson, Penguin Random House, UK, 2019, ISBN 9780241309063, 246pp

Australian audiences tend to associate the military challenges of the First World War with Gallipoli, Belgium and France but, a century on, a broader aperture is necessary. On the Eastern Front, the Habsberg army was meant to hold the Russians at bay, allowing the German army to shift its weight of effort to achieving decisive victory through the Schifflen Plan in the west, before rebalancing its forces to the east. To achieve this plan, fortifications in Galacia (today, southern Poland) were critical to this defensive strategy to check this expected Russian advance.

Alexander Watson’s work, The Fortress: The Great Siege of Przemysl, documents the trials of one of these Galacian fortified cities, and in so doing, illuminates the strategic errors of the Habsberg campaign against the Russians of 1914-15. Watson’s narrative also paints a cautionary tale of what Cathal Nolan has described as The Allure of Battle. Both major belligerents in the siege of Przemysl ultimately exhausted themselves to the point of the collapse of empire; the Russians in 1917, the Habsberg empire in 1918. The moral of Watson’s book might well be that the pursuit of decisive battle may very well result in decision – just not the one that was envisaged. The Fortress thus demonstrates to the reader the linkage between tactical actions at a little-known piece of ground in southern Poland, to the strategic effect of the collapse of empire.  

Watson describes to the reader the antithesis of the German efficiency of the Schiefflen plan on the western front, with the ‘breathtaking incompetence’ of the Austro-Hungarian high command on the eastern front. Field Marshall Conrad, Chief of the General Staff of the Habsberg military, effectively squandered any chance of attaining local superiority against the slow-moving Tsarist army by focussing initially on Serbia – the battle he wanted to fight – to the detriment of the battle that had to be fought once Russia’s intentions became undeniable. That Germany depended upon her ally to have more rationally understood this strategic calculus, serving to unhinge the execution of Germany’s western advances while driving a wedge between military leadership of the Central Powers.

Watson’s narrative explains the significant investment made in the fortress of Przemysl, akin to $US 208 million in today’s finances, to create a rough ellipse 48 kilometres in circumference around the city. This ring of trenchworks, steel, rocks and mortar included seventeen main and eighteen subsidiary forts from which command and control, logistics, artillery support and cavalry forays would be provided. As military technology rapidly evolved, so too did the fortress architects and engineers, in an effort to counter new military innovations within their design. The result was less than the fortress military commanders had hoped, and that their government propaganda had led them to believe. Lessons with regard to Defence preparedness echo forward to today as Habsberg leaders struggled to adapt outdated concepts in response to new fielded technologies.

Mistakes continued apace verifying time-honoured military maxims. One such example illuminates the importance of attention to detail with regard to military acquisitions:

‘Conrad sent his ten cavalry divisions on a disaster-strewn reconnaissance mission 100 kilometers inside Russian territory. A new saddle, designed to keep soldiers sitting erect on parade, turned out to rub the skin off the horses’ backs… Negligible information about enemy dispositions was gained, but the exertion broke the famous Habsburg cavalry, once the pride of the empire.’

As the Russian army advanced and encircled Przemysl, rational decision-making by commanders was forfeited to vanity. Habsberg relief operations were attempted through the Carpathian mountains in January-February 1915, with almost no hope of success, but with the cost of a further 670,000 men. By March 1915, Przemysl’s fortress defenders had been decimated with one in every eight soldiers hospitalised. Watson’s narrative paints a rapidly deteriorating situation as evident, but was particularly notable in that the setbacks were primarily self-imposed by the Habsberg Army’s leadership.

The second-order effects to the Austro-Hungarian empire were severe. Przemysl had held out for 133 days but was forced into inevitable surrender in March 1915. A month subsequently, and clearly influenced by tactical action at Przemysl, Italy entered the First World War on the side of the Entente, ‘in return for lands stretching through southern Austria deep into modern-day Croatia and Slovenia.’ Italy’s entrance into the war thus interdicted the Habsberg’s coastal possessions, inhibiting the broader wartime economy. Ultimately, the Austro-Hungarian Empire fragmented and formally surrendered on the third of November, 1918.

Nor was the Russian Army considerably better off from its military conquest of Przemysl. Attrition, frigid conditions and inept leadership here, and elsewhere along the German eastern front had eroded the Russian army’s integrity. Watson illuminates the privations felt on both sides of the conflict. In particular, his account explores the built-up frustration of the advance upon Russian soldiers that manifest in forced deportations of the Galacian Jewish community to towns such as Lwow in present-day Ukraine. By early 1917, discipline had eroded to an irrecoverable state; veterans featured prominently in the leadership of a number of Soviets, Russian soldiers mutinied or refused orders, and Russian women protested against frivolous loss of life, abusive working conditions, and exploitative bread prices. With the conduct of strikes organised for International Women’s Day, the Csarist regime lost control, and with the October Revolution, lost power to the Bolsheviks and the Russian empire came to an end.

Alexander Watson’s examination of the Siege of Przemysl serves to fill a void in Australian military studies and our understanding of the breadth of conflict during World War I. It paints a narrative of personal privation and frustration on both sides of the conflict, in a battlefield somewhat unknown to Australian audiences, but which finds itself again at the cross-roads of competition. Watson’s account illuminates the existential risks inherent in engaging in great power competition; a timely reminder for military strategists today.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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