Late on the night of March 18th, sleet and wet snow began to fall in eastern Galicia. At the fortress of Przemysl soldiers of the 23rd Honved Infantry Regiment as well as other units were assembling for an attempt to break through an encircling ring of Russian forces. The massive citadel placed strategically on the San River had been under siege four consecutive months. Many of the soldiers were barely able to muster enough energy to walk toward their marshalling point on the eastern edge of the fortress works. Others collapsed before they made it out of the barracks, their reserves of energy all but expended. For the past several months these soldiers had subsisted on a diet that consisted of tea for breakfast, a kilogram of meat and a bit of bread for lunch, followed by a slice of bread and more tea for dinner. An officer’s reports estimated that only 30% of one regiment due to take part in the attack was fit for duty.
Superhuman Efforts – By Force of Fear & Honor
As the soldiers emerged from a fitful sleep earlier that evening, they were wet, cold and on the verge of exhaustion. It was a miracle they could even attempt such an attack. On that same day they had been rallied by a speech from the fortress commander, General Herman Kusmanek von Burgneustadten who said: “Soldiers, for nearly half a year, in spite of cold and hunger, you have defended the fortress entrusted to you. The eyes of the world are fixed on you. Millions at home are waiting with painful eagerness to hear the news of your success. The honor of the army and our fatherland requires us to make a superhuman effort. Around us lies the iron ring of the enemy. Burst a way through it and join your comrades who have been fighting so bravely for you and are now so near. I have given you the last of our supplies of food. I charge you to go forward and sweep the foe aside. After our many gallant and glorious fights we must not fall into the hands of the Russians like sheep; we must and will break through.”
Soldiers who were not roused by these words may have been motivated by another force, fear. Their commanding officers issued threats that those who returned to the fortress would be charged with cowardice or treason. Whether it was fear or honor, the soldiers found enough courage to mount an attack. General Kusmanek knew the real truth though. Prior to the attack he had sent a message to the Supreme Warlord, Emperor Franz Josef: “Although the troops have lost most of their strength after long ordeals of all kinds, we will begin this attempt so that before our probable downfall we will perhaps render assistance to the field armies.”
From Slim To Impossible
At 5:00 a.m. buffeted by an icy wind, the 23rd Honved led the thrust forward. The Russians had been intercepting radio messages transmitted by the Austro-Hungarian command. This gave them warning of the direction from which the attack would come. The Russian artillery fire was deadly accurate. For the next nine hours the Austro-Hungarian troops made a futile attempt to break the Russian line. In the early afternoon the attack was finally called off. The result was that the 23rd Honved was utterly decimated. Two-thirds of the regiment had been killed or wounded. Kusmanek transmitted another message to Franz Josef trying to put the best face on the failure. “Because of the total exhaustion of the soldiers, any further breakthrough attempt would be completely fruitless. Therefore I will hold the fortress as long as possible; by continuing to pin down the enemy units we can still be of use to the field armies….we will persevere to the end.” The end was not far away.
The possibility of a breakout had been slim before the failed assault, now it was impossible. Now there were only two options left for the 120,000 soldiers surrounded within fortress Przemysl, either starve or surrender. With only a few days of rations left in the fortress, the latter course seemed probable.
The End of the World Arrives
On the same day that the breakout attempt failed, the decision was made by the officers to burn at least 600,000 crowns of paper money. In today’s terms this would be the equivalent of $27.5 million. Horses were slaughtered wholesale in the streets. The meat was divided among the starving soldiers. On the 20th and 21st, the garrison encountered yet another problem, they were forced to turn back Russian assaults. Then late on the night of the 21st a series of thunderous explosions began from inside the fortress walls. The artillery that had helped protect Przemysl for so many months was now packed with demolition charges or deliberately overloaded with powder. The Austro-Hungarian forces were not going to allow the Russians to get their hands on these guns. One observer in the Russian ranks was awestruck by what he saw from a distance. “The flash of the shells illuminated the hillsides in patches of blue light, giving the soldiers a ghastly appearance. It looked uncanny – almost like the Last Judgment.”
The spectacle from within the fortress was just as terrifying. A young boy by the name of Yosef Altbauer remembered how: “the policemen spread out through the city, awakened the population from its sleep, and ordered them to leave their houses, leave their windows open and to go out in the field, for they were about to blow up all of the fortifications. This was an unforgettable night of hell. When the bombing of the fortifications, the bridges, and weapons caches began all at once toward morning, we thought that the end of the world had arrived.”
The end of one world had arrived as a new day dawned over the late winter landscape of the smoldering fortress. At 9:00 a.m. on March 22nd the first Russian troops entered the city. The siege of Przemysl was at an end. A fleetingly short rule by the Russians was at its beginning.
Sources: Austria-Hungary’s Last War 1914 – 1918 .Volume 2, Austrian Federal Ministry of the Army and War Archive
Przemysl: Siege and Surrender. Christopher Duffy, Volume 2: The Marshal Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of World War I
Przemysl During the Time of the Siege (1914-1915) by Yosef Altbauer