Settling Affairs Past & Present – Lemberg 1914, Lviv 2014

In the early hours of a chill winter morning last December I made my way by taxi to the train station in Lviv, Ukraine. I was bleary eyed, with a dull headache from a restless night’s sleep. It is always this way when I have an early departure. In this case my train, headed non-stop towards Budapest, was to leave the station at 5:45 a.m. I could not miss this train since it was the lone non-stop express into Hungary that day. My taxi surged through empty streets. The city was in a deep sleep, with dawn still hours away. Arriving at the station, I exited the cab. My attention was suddenly taken by all the activity in and around the station. Glancing about, I noticed groups of soldiers in fatigues, walking slowly towards the station. They were toting packed duffel bags. These soldiers were headed to the Ukraine’s far eastern reaches, to the war zone of the Donbas.

Lviv's Famous Railway Station

Lviv’s Famous Railway Station – since 1991 the flag of Ukraine has flown atop its dome (Credit: Benhaburg)

The War At Home
The fact that these soldiers were disembarking from the most “Ukrainian city in the Ukraine” to points east should not have been that surprising. Here in the most nationalistic part of Ukraine soldiers were heading off to combat, fighting to save a distant part of their country. The war was on the other side of the country, but if a separatist onslaught was not stopped in the Donbas Region now, it might conceivably reach the doorsteps of Kiev or Lviv in due course. I looked at these men, wondering to myself, how many had seen combat before? Were they conscripts, professionals or volunteers? How many would come back alive? How could they look so calm and nonchalant? Surely they must have known the same things as I did.

The war against Russian backed separatists was a terrible mess. Ukrainian forces were barely holding on to Donetsk. Men were wounded or dying every day. I looked at these soldiers and thought will courage and luck be with them. They were stocky, well built, but otherwise regular men. I wanted to reach out and touch them. Just to see if they were real, because their presence made the war real for me. The war was suddenly no longer lines on a map, news stories from the Kyiv Post or International New York Times or grainy YouTube videos with muffled explosions and shouts of Slavic words. No these were real men, leaving a real place, heading off to a real war. I would travel back to Hungary on that day and a little later fly home. These soldiers might never come home. This could be the last time they would see their hometown. Here I was walking only a few yards apart from men who a month from now might no longer exist, be badly wounded or left with psychological scars for life. Suddenly the war felt very close.

Hours before dawn - the Lviv Railway Station on a cold December morning

Hours before dawn – the Hours before dawn – the Lviv Railway Station on a cold December morning

A Russian Front – Unsettling Affairs
Lviv has a majestic, eclectically elegant domed train station. It is so grand and imperial that it is hard to believe that the building would ever have anything to do with war, especially in 21st century Europe. The station looks more like the type of place eternally waiting to greet the ghost of Franz Josef or some other important administrator, arriving to survey the far flung reaches of empires lost long ago. If such a dignitary were to have somehow traveled forward in time to that chilly December morning, they might not have been so shocked by the sight of soldiers at the station speaking in a Slavic tongue. After all, a century before exactly this same situation had occurred. There had even been an American witness. The only difference was that the soldiers were not Ukrainians going to fight Russians, but Russians occupying what was to eventually become part of Ukraine.

The surreal symmetry of this history came home to me when I stumbled across “Field Notes From The Russian Front” by Stanley Washburn, an American journalist working as a correspondent for the London Times on the Eastern Front during the First World War. One of the chapters deals with his experiences in Lemberg (as Lviv was then known). Following the Russian takeover of the city after the Austro-Hungarian retreat, Washburn arrives at the train station to find soldiers everywhere.  “We arrived at three in the morning. The great waiting-room was packed with sleeping soldiers, while the dim light revealed the various baggage-rooms crammed with scores of coated figures sleeping beside their stacked rifles. The first-class dining-room is a hospital, and filled to the doors with stretchers and cots on which the wounded are waiting to be transferred from one train to another, or else to be removed to one of the local hospitals in the town. From the second-class waiting-room all benches have been removed, and there only remains one big table, used for hurried operations that cannot be delayed. At every door and in every passage sentries stand with fixed bayonets.”

Obviously what I saw was very different from the scene Washburn witnessed. There were no sick or wounded. The Ukrainian soldiers were not occupying the station, they were leaving it. Yet the fact that the station was once again crowded with soldiers, shows that war still casts a long shadow over this region, as do Russian actions. The fact that men gathering at Lviv’s train station were heading off to face forces backed by Russia, shows that the Great War fought a century ago did not manage to settle, but rather unsettle affairs in Ukraine. If anything, the Battle of Galicia in 1914 inaugurated an era that threw the region into a chaotic upheaval which is still playing out today. Russian occupation was temporary at that time and later Soviet occupation lasted less than fifty years. The Russians see Ukraine as their backyard, but they are far from getting near Lviv or anywhere else in the western half of the country.

Russian soldiers on the square in front of the Lviv Railway Station in 1914

Russian soldiers on the square in front of the Lviv Railway Station in 1914 (Credit: Ihor Kotlobulatov)

Turning Enemies Into Enemies
The Russian occupation of Galicia in 1914 was heavy handed. They managed to alienate a Ukrainian populace that spoke a relatively similar language. As Alexander Watson shows in Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I The People’s War, “The Tsarist army’s attempt to retake Galicia as a Russian land was a disaster. People who had once sympathized with the Tsar’s pan-Slavic aims were alienated by his army’s brutality and religious intolerance.”  A hundred years later, the Russians have managed once again to turn the overriding majority of ethnic Ukrainians against them. Russia sees Ukraine, even the western portion as part of its sphere of influence. Yet it is hard to see any Russia influence here that has not been a bad one. Not so long ago Galicia and Lemberg were crawling with Russian soldiers. Now that region and the city at its heart are sending soldiers to fight against Russia. There are parallels with the not so distant past here, but there are also irreconcilable differences. Ukrainian men were leaving their homes behind before dawn on a dark December day to try and settle such differences. I saw it for myself that chill winter morning.

One Last Frontal Assault For Honor – Dueling In Austria- Hungary & Catastrophe on The Eastern Front

By the end of the 19th century dueling had died out across much of Europe. It was seen as a primitive throwback to a bygone era when a man’s honor was considered as important as his life. The march of progress and the rule of law sent dueling into an irreversible decline. For instance, dueling in Germany had virtually ceased to exist as the German Empire industrialized. The same could not be said for that another empire in Central and Eastern Europe, Austria-Hungary. If anything, dueling was still fashionable in the Dual Monarchy, including in its most developed regions. One journalist estimated that in 19th century Austria no less than 2,500 duels were fought. This figure did not account for other provinces in the empire such as Hungary and Galicia where dueling was much more prevalent. It was in these areas that the aristocracy still dominated. Dueling by and large was an upper class phenomenon. This was especially true for the military where dueling among officers was all but legal. Disagreements could be settled by two distinct methods of dueling, those involving pistols or swords. Officers who refused to fight a duel were socially shamed and could lose their commission.

Prewar postcard of Dual Monarchy troops displays an idealized chivalric image of military life

This prewar postcard of Dual Monarchy troops displays an idealized chivalric image of military life – such behavior would prove deadly during World War I

Ehrenkalex – The Code Of Honor
While dueling with swords sounds more primitive and painful, it was less lethal than the use of pistols. Sword duels often were proscribed by rules agreed upon ahead of time. They took on one of two forms, slashes only or both slashes and thrusts. Fights could be stopped after first blood was drawn. On occasion though, they were allowed to continue until either both participants were exhausted or someone was killed. Dueling with pistols was much more dangerous. The most deadly format involved the participants walking toward one another, stopping 15 paces apart and opening fire. Pistol duels were a regular occurrence in Austria-Hungary. Up until the turn of the 20th century civilian courts in Austria ignored laws that made dueling an offense punishable with imprisonment. In cases where an Army officer killed a civilian in a duel, Emperor Franz Josef dutifully issued a pardon. Beginning in 1901 anti-dueling leagues began to crop up in the Dual Monarchy in an attempt to put an end to the practice.

These swayed public opinion against dueling, but in Austria-Hungary the upper classes and the officer corps of the military lived by its own rules. Foremost was the idea of Ehrenkalex, a German phrase meaning “code of honor.” If someone took offense at even the most trivial of slights they could demand satisfaction. Offenses ranged from the seemingly innocuous, such as giving someone an arrogant look, to the bizarre, staring at a man while playing with a dog whip, to the serious, committing adultery.

Franz Josef who seems to have been perpetually behind the times when it came to modernity, decreed in 1911 that officers no longer had to give or accept challenges when an offense was committed. He also forbade duels except in the case of serious offenses. This still did not stop the practice. That would not occur until the latter part of World War I, when Emperor Karl I banned dueling outright in 1917. The fact that duels continued right up to the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire speaks of how much the idea of honor was valued among the upper crust of society and the army. It that ingrained belief in Ehrenkalex, which exercised great influence among the officer classes who both led and bled at the front during those first six catastrophic months of World War I when the Dual Monarchy lost officers at an unheard of rate. A linkage can conceivably be made between dueling – a primeval code of chivalrous behavior – and the suicidal frontal assaults led by officers into a hail of machine gun or artillery fire. Both threatened violence to the point of death, taking part in them was a question of honor.  Officers should have known better, but they were both part of parcel of a military ethos.

German students fighting a saber duel in 1900

German students fighting a saber duel in 1900 – by the turn of the 20th century dueling had died out in Germany but not Austria-Hungary where the image would have been more fitting (Painting: Georg Mühlberg

Leading From The Front – Honor As Madness
This linkage came to me in an incident I discovered while reading A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and The Collapse of the Habsburg Empire by Geoffrey Wawro. “Skirmishing for control of Belzec in Russian Poland on August 15, an Austrian Calvary Division leading the Fourth Army summoned a nearby battalion of Vienna’s 4th Deutschmeister Regiment, and the battalion appeared, led not by a major or a captain but by the regimental commander – Colonel Ludwig Holzhausen – and his entire staff…The Russians – Cossacks and some infantry –had prudently dismounted and taken cover in buildings, behind walls, and in trees; they watched in disbelief as Holzhausen strolled to the front of the Austrian skirmish line, drew his saber and walked the battalion forward. The official Austrian report of the colonel’s inevitable demise spoke of his ‘crazy-brave, death-defying attitude’ which ‘fired the men and drove them forward.’…Thirty-eight Deutschmeister died with him and 51 were wounded – 12 percent casualties – in a minor skirmish.”
There was worse, much worse to come for the Austro-Hungarian officer corps. In the coming weeks and months, they proved their bravery to the point of madness while facing Russian forces in the battle of Galicia. In engagement after engagement officers emulated Holzhausen as they led from the front, setting a deadly example for their soldiers. Their attitude could be summed up as death before dishonor and death is certainly what they got. The fearlessness that it must have taken to lead charges into machine gun fire without regard for one’s safety had to be motivated by a belief that went beyond tactics. To dig in, to take cover, to avoid combat until absolutely necessary was anathema. In a sense the officers were taking the idea of dueling to the most extreme degree. The Empire was at war with a hated enemy they had given offense by its mere presence in Galicia. Satisfaction must be gained no matter the odds or the cost. This was despite the fact that their Russian opponents smartly refused to participate in these reckless charges. It is a commonly held perception that the Russian officers of World War I were terrible leaders (they were), but when compared to the officer corps of Austria-Hungary during the Battle of Galicia, they look totally sensible and not so bad after all. The idea of honor was also pervasive in the Russia, but their officers refused to lead from the front.

Austro-Hungarian infantry troops resting during the Battle of Galicia

Austro-Hungarian infantry troops resting during the Battle of Galicia – they would soon be making lethal frontal assaults

Duel To The Death
The Austro-Hungarian officer’s belief in a code of honor had fatal consequences on both an individual and empire wide level. Thousands upon thousands of officers were struck down leading foolish, sacrificial assaults. The soldiers they led followed their example to catastrophic effect. This dealt a blow to the empire that it could not afford. Honor died in the summer and fall of 1914 all over Galicia and Russian Poland in those first six months on the Eastern Front. Strangely enough, dueling did not. Even after the empire collapsed, dueling lived on in the nations of Austria, Hungary and Poland. It would only die out when the aristocratic way of life came to end due to a second and even worse World War.

The Unfinished Exhibition – Hungary & World War I at the National Military Museum

A few days prior to leaving the United States for Budapest a call was made to the National Military Museum. The question: “Was the new World War One exhibition open to the public yet?” The reply was negative. “When would the exhibition open?” The voice on the other end of the line was unsure. No potential opening dates were offered, no reason for delay given. The call took longer to dial than the length of conversation that occurred. The 100th anniversary of the Great War was already several months old, chances are this exhibition will not take place in 2014. It was a disappointment, but not  a surprise. This was just another setback in a long line of failures in what has now become a years-long effort to learn about the Hungarian experience of the Great War.

The National Military Museum in Budapest - where the long awaited new World War I exhibit will open (hopefully)

The National Military Museum in Budapest – where the long awaited new World War I exhibit will open (hopefully)

Forgotten Armies & Forgotten Fronts – The Hungarian Military In the Great War
Pursuing information on the Hungarian military during the war has always been difficult. For starters there is a major language barrier. Few Hungarian historical works on the war have been translated into English. Hungarian soldiers also did all their fighting in overlooked areas, the Eastern, Southern and Italian Fronts. To further complicate matters, Hungarian soldiers were part of more than one fighting force. They saw service in either the Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Royal Army (Kaiserlich und Koniglich) or the Royal Hungarian Honved (Royal Hungarian Army). Both of these forces fought alongside units from the Imperial Austrian Landwehr. Trying to figure out who did what is exceedingly difficult. The multicultural, polyglot nature of Austria-Hungary only exacerbates the confusion. Many units were led by ethnic Hungarians, but the rank and file might consist of Romanians, Slovaks or Croats. Or it could work the other way around, with Austrian officers leading Hungarian soldiers into battle.  All of this is enough to confound the most assisdous researchers. Historians of the Great War (English speaking and to a large extent German speaking ones) have avoided the topic. The centennial of the war has brought some hope though. There has been a once in a lifetime surge of interest in the war – even concerning the forgotten fronts – that will probably never be repeated.

Authors and publishers have calibrated the releases of popular histories to coincide with the centennial. The best time to talk about Austria-Hungary and the Great War was this past summer since June 28th marked one hundred years to the day that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Dual Monarchy’s throne was assassinated. Interest was at an all-time high and authors have looked to explore avenues of research that have been overlooked, in this regard the Austro-Hungarian military experience offers fertile ground. New books in 2014 that take a deeper at Austria-Hungary in the Great War have included Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson and Geoffery Wawro’s A Mad Catastrophe. Revised or brand new museum exhibitions have appeared in Austria, Serbia and even Russia dealing with the war. The Hungarian exhibition is supposedly still to come, better late than never but a critical opportunity to create awareness is being lost.

Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson - one of several new books that take an in-depth look at Austro-Hungarian military affairs in World War I

Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson – one of several new books that take an in-depth look at Austro-Hungarian military affairs in World War I

Separating Defeat –Assigning Blame
Whatever the reason for delay, whether due to bureaucratic inertia, bad planning or mismanagement, there is also the chance that those designing the exhibition had trouble deciding how to present the war. After all trying to explain a devastating loss has never been easy and the war had cataclysmic aftereffects on the Kingdom of Hungary that are still felt today. How to decide what to focus on? How much blame should be assigned to Hungary for the causes and consequences of military defeat? These are daunting questions.

Hungary was an autonomous, but not a sovereign entity. As a constituent part of the Dual Monarchy, Hungary gets overshadowed by Austrian military exploits and leadership during the war, to the point that Hungary’s role becomes nearly indistinguishable from that of its much more famous neighbor.  Even the most well-read armchair historians know little about what happened to Hungarians on either the battlefield or home front during World War One. The coming exhibition will hopefully shed light on these topics. In the meantime, we can ask ourselves what is already known and why does it matter?

Austro-Hungarian assault troops on the Eastern Front of World War I - Hungarians or Austrians? It is hard to tell the difference

Austro-Hungarian assault troops on the Eastern Front of World War I – Hungarians or Austrians? It is hard to tell the difference

Courage & Honor, Defeat & Destruction – The First Year of Hungary’s Great War
Answering the question of the known is nearly as difficult as what is unknown. Imagine trying to put together a puzzle that consists of thousands of pieces. You have no idea how many pieces are needed to complete this puzzle and also have no idea how many pieces are missing. At hand are hundreds of random pieces, some of these fit together to form fragments of images. A complete picture is impossible. This results in many questions with very few clear answers. For example, there is the question of Hungarian fighting qualities in the early offensives in Galicia and Serbia. The Hungarians are said to have fought with courage and honor in both. This is usually code for:  died in massive numbers while engaged in misguided and futile assaults. How many Hungarians died? How many were wounded? How does this compare to the other ethnic groups of the empire, especially the Austrians.

A little later the siege of Przemysl took place in Galicia. It was here where thousands upon thousands of Austro-Hungarian soldiers ended up surrendering, many of them Hungarians. It is said that the Hungarians were notorious for their reprisals on the local population of Galicia, accusing them of traitorous behavior. If this is true, then the question is why. Was this an offshoot of the Magyar nationalism that was so pervasive in the pre-war Kingdom? Was it caused by the stress of war? Was the prejudice worse among Hungarians than say Austrians? Did defeat exacerbate reprisals on civilians?
At the same time there were the massive losses of the Carpathian Winter Campaign in 1915. Many of Hungary’s most able officers and soldiers were all but gone by the end of yet another early war cataclysm. For those who did survive, along with scores of new recruits, how was their morale? Did the Hungarians surrender en masse as the war dragged on, like so many other ethnic minorities?

It is said that Hungarians were among the most reliable soldiers in the Dual Monarchy second only to the Austrians? Was this true all the way through the war, as radicalism and revolution crept across the Eastern Front? What about their performance on the Italian Front. This was the only front where the Dual Monarchy’s forces held their own. Did Hungarians play an outsized or lesser role in this success? Did they prefer to fight in the Alpine environment of Italy instead of the sand and swamps in Galicia? What about the Hungarian soldier’s attitude toward Germans officers and forces who were sent to stiffen the Austro-Hungarian troop’s backbone. This led to the greatest successes that any Hungarians would be part of during the war. What was the Hungarian attitude and role in all this? So many questions, but can a single exhibition supply the answers? Most likely not, but it is a starting point for awareness, dialogue and discussion or at least that is the hope.

The answer are out there, in thousands of letters and manuscripts that those World War I buffs who are deficient in the Hungarian language (a figure approaching 99.9%) cannot know. The popular histories which are now arriving at the very least do a bit of light on the darkness caused by lack of interest. Nonetheless, clear and compelling answers still await the above questions.

Post-World War One Hungarian propaganda poster stating Nem, Nem, Soha (No, No, Never) - showing the losses incurred by Hungary due to the Treaty of Trianon

Post-World War One Hungarian propaganda poster stating Nem, Nem, Soha (No, No, Never) – showing the losses incurred by Hungary due to the Treaty of Trianon

Ultimate Outcomes – The Great War Creates Modern Hungary
It is important to get these answers because Hungary was the one place in post-war Central Europe where Communism was able to gain a foothold for months rather than days, a precursor to the radicalism that would bring on another World War in twenty years. It is also important because there is a direct line between Hungary as one of the losers in the war and the harsh peace imposed on it by the Treaty of Trianon. This eventually led Hungary into an ill-fated alliance with Germany in the late 1930’s in order to reacquire lands lost in the Trianon peace. It also meant that Hungary would join their German allies in the invasion of the Soviet Union. The ultimate outcome was that the Soviet Army ended up in Hungary for forty-five years. The First World War was the most important event in shaping Hungary’s troubled 20th century. It still matters because the Hungary that exists today was created by the war. For these reasons, Hungary’s Great War experience demands a provocative, illuminating exhibition at the National Military Museum. Whether or not that will occur is still to be seen. If not now, then it may be never.

The Przemysl Monument in Buda – For One Single Memory

In Buda, on the right side of the Margit Bridge, there is a large monument of a lion roaring as it surmounts a cannon and draping flag. On the front of the monument is one word: Przemysl. Most people pass by the monument without giving it a second glance. Rarely does one see any tourists pausing for a snapshot. They have little idea what this monument means, let alone any grasp of how to pronounce its strange name. Perhaps they think the name is just another unpronounceable Hungarian word, in that they would be wrong. Przemysl is the name of a small city that lies in extreme southeastern Poland, close to the border with the Ukraine. If wayward passersby knew this, they might make the logical connection that Przemysl is a place where something important happened. Noticing the cannon and flag perhaps they would think the monument had something to do with a battle that was important in the history of Hungary. As for the lion which dominates the monument, even the most baffled observer might guess from the lion’s bearing that it symbolizes courage, strength and greatness. All of these conjectures would be correct, but Przemysl was not just a battle, it was a siege, the longest siege of World War I. And Przemysl was not a victory, it was a loss.

The Przemysl Monument in Buda

The Przemysl Monument in Buda

The siege at Przemysl was one where the troops certainly had great courage and strength, but unlike the lion which dwarfs the flag and cannon, that great courage and strength was still not enough to overcome the enemy. The Przemysl monument symbolizes how those who fought in the months long siege saw themselves in retrospect as well as how they wanted to be seen by history, but the truth is much more complex. There was courage and martial valor to be sure, but there was also a slow, grinding defeat that ultimately led to surrender. On the rolling prairie of Galicia, Hungarians fought, died and along with thousands upon thousands of other men were captured. The monument speaks to all that was glorious for those who fought at Przemysl, but the reality of the siege exposes the degeneration of an army and the dissolution of an empire.

The Weight Of Sheer Numbers – The Battle For Galicia
The opening campaign on the Eastern front where Austro-Hungarian forces met the Russians would end up leading to the siege of Przemysl. A series of battles was fought in Eastern Galicia in late August and September, these battles have become known as the Battle of Galicia. To put it mildly, the campaign was a disaster for the Austro-Hungarians. They wrongly believed the Russian Army would be slow in mobilizing. The Austro-Hungarian strategy was to attack before full mobilization occurred. The Russians though, were able to mass their superior force and through the weight of sheer numbers, inflict hundreds of thousands of casualties. The Austro-Hungarians were resoundingly defeated and fled up to a hundred miles westward.

By September 28th, the fortress at Przemysl was entirely surrounded by the Russians. At first the Russians attempted to storm the fortress, this resulted in 40,000 casualties in only three days. This was madness. Przemysl was the third largest fortress in all of Europe. Its size was impressive even looking back almost a century later. It was centered around the city of the same name, which had 54,000 residents. The surrounding fortifications expanded outward to a 30-mile perimeter, with 19 permanent forts and 23 smaller forts. The complex was able to house 88,000 soldiers to defend it, many of whom were Hungarian. Mounted 7.5 cm and 15 cm guns could produce an incredible barrage of shellfire. No wonder the Russian forces were unable to conquer it immediately.

Borek Fort - part of the Przemysyl Fortress  as it looks today

Borek Fort – part of the Przemysl Fortress as it looks today

The first of what would be two sieges had for all intents and purposes began in late September. It was short and mild in contrast to what was to come. Lasting only two and a half weeks, it was raised by an Austro-Hungarian offensive which relieved the beleaguered garrison. At this time, the commanding officer of the fortress ordered that all civilians who had less than a three month’s supply of food had to leave the city. This reduced the civilian population by half. Unfortunately, there were 128,000 soldiers in the fortress, 40,000 more than its maximum capacity.

Whatever Food They Could Find
On November 9th, the Russians once again surrounded Przemysl.  The second and what would be fatal siege began. For the next 133 days thousands of Hungarian soldiers along with their imperial brethren waited for relief and slowly began to starve. When the soldiers were not starving, they were fighting amongst themselves. Officers were relatively well fed and enjoyed creature comforts. The professional officer corps was dominated by Austrians and Hungarians. The common peasant soldier was treated with contempt. Many of these were ethnic Slavs who must have wondered what they were doing fighting their fellow Slavs, the Russians. Orders of the day had to be issued in 15 different languages. One can easily imagine the confusion and friction which permeated the starving force. Soon the men were left scrounging for whatever food they could find.

An Austrian military doctor, Josef Toman left a diary describing the surreal scenes he witnessed. The Russian soldiers make a neighing sound whenever they see our troops, as they know we are forced to eat horsemeat in the fortress. A few days ago one of our patrols found a note they’d left us, showing where the potato and cabbage fields were and saying they would stop shooting while we fetched some food. It was true! When our soldiers went over, the Russians shot two blanks high into the air, just to let them know they’d seen them. The next day we all went for some more.”

These efforts provided only minor sustenance. The lack of food was a constant problem which in turn led to weakness and exhaustion. Soon disease was added to the list of the garrison’s woes. An outbreak of cholera claimed many lives. The sickened, starving soldiery were reduced to laying in their bunks for days on end. To try and sate the terrible hunger, horses were shot and consumed. This turned out to be a double edged sword. In those days, before universal mechanization, horses were the only method of transporting guns and ammunition for a possible break-out attack. Without horses, the possibility of the besieged fighting their way out was almost nil. Only a relief force could save the garrison as the siege dragged on. Two attempts by the Austro-Hungarian Army to relieve the fortress failed. The army then became bogged down trying to fight their way through the snowy Carpathian mountains. At the same time, they were suffering from a horrid malady, namely the brutal cold and corresponding frostbite that came with it. No attack came even close to breaking through the Russian encirclement of the fortress.

Geza Gyoni - author of "Just For One Single Night"

Geza Gyoni – author of “Just For One Single Night”

Just For One Single Night
Down on the frozen Galician prairie, Przemysl was struck by ferocious winter weather as well. In the last weeks of the siege, blizzards and sleet storms made conditions nearly unbearable. Gnawing hunger led desperate soldiers to add the bark off trees to flour. This was done in an attempt to make their meager rations a bit thicker. On the first day of March, distribution of food to civilians stopped. The end was near. Meanwhile, during this four and a half month odyssey one Hungarian soldier, the poet Geza Gyoni wrote line after line of verse interpreting the common soldier’s disillusion with the war. His poem “Just For One Single Night” was composed during the worst days of the siege. It perhaps best sums up the general feeling in the fortress with the lines:

Send them away just for one night:
Who love their country with long, babbling tongues.
Just for one night.
When the stars bear blinding light,
May they see their faces in the waters of San river,
As it rolls Magyar blood along,
So they must call out crying: My God, no more.

Send them away just for one night
So they may remember their mothers’ pain.
Just for one night.
How they would huddle scared and cold;
How they would roll about, with mea culpa;
How they would tear their shirts, how they would bang their breasts,
How they would cry yelling: My Christ, what’s next!”

What was next? The end was mercifully at hand. On March 21st the soldiers were jolted from their bunks by round after round of explosions, set off to destroy Przemysl’s forts, cannons and ammunition. They smelled the smoke and breathed the soot that emanated from the funeral pyres of documents, money and material. This is the way one world, one empire slowly disintegrated, surrounded by external enemies and beset by internal disruptions. On March 22nd at approximately nine o’ clock in the morning the Russians gained entry to the fortress as the exhausted defenders finally capitulated. As a sort of eerie coda to both Przemysl and the empire which had built and defended it, the Russians noticed something astounding. The Austro-Hungarian soldiers, despite their haggard appearance, were quarreling and fighting with one another. This was the old empire, with all it contradictions finally coming to the fore and consuming it.

Entrance to one of the Przemysl forts following the siege

Entrance to one of the Przemysl forts following the siege

The End Of A Siege, The End of An Empire
The Russians took 93 staff officers, 2,500 officers and 117,000 men prisoner. One of these men was Geza Gyoni. He would end up in a Prisoner of War camp deep in Siberia. His military career was over, but his literary career continued. He wrote with even greater profundity from the wild, frozen wastes, far to the east. His words became a monument to the madness of war and disillusionment of soldiers in not only Przemysl, but the entire Eastern Front. He expressed in line after line of poetry what it truly meant to fight for the Kingdom of Hungary and the old Empire. He died in a POW camp thousands of miles from home in 1916, his words long outlived him. But those same words are not found on the monument to Przemysl, some wounds cut to deep.
Przemysl signaled the end of a seven month period that began the war. For the Austro-Hungarian Empire it was an apocalypse. Between campaigns in Serbia, the lowlands of Galicia, the Carpathians and the siege of Przemysl, the Austro-Hungarian military had sustained almost two million casualties. 40% of these or approximately 800,000 were the Kingdom of Hungary’s share. These numbers make the tragedy almost beyond human comprehension. The Hungarians as well as all the men who fought there deserve more than a monument, they deserve our memory. They deserve for every passerby to stop at the Przemysl Monument on the Buda bridgehead and to be shaken into silence. And give thought to the memory of those men who suffered so much, for an empire and an ideal that no longer exists.

Note: The Przemysl Monument in Buda by designed by Szilard Szody who was present at the siege. The backside of the monument bears the inscription: “It was erected by fellow soldiers for the glorious memory of our Hungarian soldiers who died a heroic death at Przemysl fortress. With the support of the public in 1932. They fought like lions at the  gate (fortress gate) of Hungary. Let their example be (live) forever.”