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.