Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian army ap­peared des­tined for fail­ure

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Dou­glas J. John­ston

THE First World War is gen­er­ally held to have been trig­gered by the 1914 as­sas­si­na­tion in Sara­jevo of Arch­duke Franz Fer­di­nand, heir ap­par­ent to the throne of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian em­pire, at the hands of a young Ser­bian na­tion­al­ist. And though the cat­a­clysm that left 16 mil­lion dead and 21 mil­lion wounded started with the Hab­s­burg regime’s mil­i­tary re­sponse to the as­sas­si­na­tion, the en­su­ing story of the First World War in eastern Europe and the Balkans is a ne­glected one, ac­cord­ing to Univer­sity of North Texas his­tory pro­fes­sor Ge­of­frey Wawro. “We know the Ger­mans failed to win the west,” he writes. “We have books on the Marne and Ypres, as well as anal­y­sis of the Sch­li­ef­fen Plan and its ap­pli­ca­tion by Gen. Hel­muth von Moltke the Younger, one of the chief ar­chi­tects and over­seers of Ger­many’s war plans. But what hap­pened in the east in 1914?” Wawro is an aca­demic, but he doesn’t write like one. He has great in­stincts for telling a story and con­structs a well-paced nar­ra­tive. And though it’s es­sen­tially a mil­i­tary his­tory, with lots of de­tail about troop move­ments, strat­egy, weaponry, lo­gis­tics and ter­rain, Wawro has a knack for con­dens­ing the ma­te­rial and promptly re­turn­ing to the drama of com­bat. Ger­many’s prin­ci­pal ally in the east, the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian em­pire, is the fo­cus of his anal­y­sis. It was, when the war be­gan, a na­tion of 50 mil­lion, al­ready dis­in­te­grat­ing in the face of the ar­dent na­tion­al­ism of its con­stituent peo­ples. Aus­tria-Hun­gary con­tained within its bor­ders Ger­mans, Hun­gar­i­ans, Ukraini­ans, Czechs, Croats, Poles, Serbs, Slo­vaks, Slovenes, Ro­ma­ni­ans, Ital­ians and Bos­ni­ans. Its reg­i­ments and bat­tal­ions, and their of­fi­cers, were so poly­glot that some­times they couldn’t even talk to each other. As Wawro de­scribes it: “An es­sen­tially feu­dal power whose Crown lands with their dozen na­tion­al­i­ties were botched to­gether in the 16th cen­tury, Aus­tria-Hun­gary limped into the 20th cen­tury un­der at­tack from its own peo­ples, who wanted fed­er­al­ism, home rule or in­de­pen­dence.” Small won­der its cen­tre could not hold in the face of a war with the Serbs and Rus­sians. Aus­tria-Hun­gary’s prob­lems were com­pounded, in Wawro’s telling, by both its mil­i­tary un­pre­pared­ness and the per­sis­tent id­iocy of its high com­mand. Its army’s weaponry, par­tic­u­larly its ar­tillery, was out of date and in short sup­ply. Its pre­ferred bat­tle­field tac­tic was a frontal as­sault with fixed bay­o­nets across open ground against ma­chine guns and en­trenched troops. The re­sult: by 1917 the Hab­s­burg army recorded “as many men had been killed, wounded or cap­tured — 3.5 mil­lion — as re­mained un­der arms.”

Still more telling, by the third year of the war 1.7 mil­lion Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian troops were in Rus­sian cap­tiv­ity, clearly pre­fer­ring their chances of sur­vival as PoWs over their odds as com­bat­ants. The Hab­s­burg monar­chy’s de­feat re­drew the map of eastern Europe. Aus­tria and Hun­gary be­came two sep­a­rate na­tion states, and two new coun­tries — Cze­choslo­vakia and Yu­goslavia — rose from the em­pire’s breakup. That breakup was vir­tu­ally in­evitable, ac­cord­ing to Wawro. But, iron­i­cally, the suc­ces­sor states didn’t flour­ish, ei­ther. They proved too weak to de­fend them­selves against first Ger­man, and (in some cases) later Soviet, en­croach­ments and in­va­sions. Re­gard­less, this is an ab­sorb­ing in­dict­ment of a de­cay­ing em­pire’s feck­less slide into, and con­duct in, the other theatre of the Great War. Dou­glas J. John­ston is a Win­nipeg lawyer

and writer.

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