The Battle of Galicia, also known as the Battle of Lemberg, was fought between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires on the Eastern Front of World War One. During the battle, the Russians defeated the Austro-Hungarians and captured the city of Lemberg, today known as Lviv and located in western Ukraine. The Austro-Hungarians were forced out of Galicia and for almost nine months the Russians ruled Eastern Galicia, until their defeat during the Gorlice-Tarnów Offensive.
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Facing the Russians was the Austro-Hungarian Army. In peacetime it numbered some 440,000 men, but on mobilization would expand to a more intimidating 3.35 million, deployed in forty divisions. Yet this was another state that had neither the internal cohesion nor the modernized infrastructure to capitalize on its huge size. With a population of around 50 million, it was the third most populous state in Europe in 1914, but it had no concept of nationhood; here was a country ready to be torn apart by local nationalism.
A major additional disadvantage to the Austrians was the unreliability of parts of their army. This is a much debated matter. During the war, Entente publicists made much of the disaffection of Franz Josef's Slav soldiers. The readiness of some Slav contingents, particularly Czech and Austrian Serbs, to surrender at will was widely reported, and the collapse of the Austrian army at the end of 1918 was taken to confirm the truth of Entente propaganda. There were post-war revisions, arguing that desertions were the exception and that the army as a whole had remained remarkably loyal, with reason, for no Austrian defeat can be attributed to large-scale disloyalty.
While the battle for Eastern Prussia was raging on, the first gigantic clashes were occurring in Austrian Galicia between the Russian Fourth, Fifth, Third and Eighth Armies (under the overall command of General Nikolai Ivanov), and the Austrian First, Fourth and Third Armies, commanded by the Austrian Chief of Staff General Conrad von Hötzendorf.
In Vienna there was always a large gap — perhaps larger than anywhere else — between ideals and reality. The Austro-Hungarian army was not strong enough for the role cast for it by Conrad. The Habsburg Monarchy could not stand the strain of an arms-race; more and more, it became a system of institutionalized escapism, and the chief benefit that it conferred on its subjects was to exempt them from reality.
The chief problem was that Austria-Hungary, too, would have to face a two-front war, with means even less adequate than Germany’s. Her forty-eight infantry divisions must take on not only the fifty that Russia could send against them, but also the eleven infantry divisions of the Serbian army. The Serbian problem was difficult to deal with. It might be better to leave a minimal defensive force against Serbia, and concentrate the rest against Russia, and this, formally, was the Austro-Hungarian plan for war: seven divisions against Serbia, the rest for Russia.
Despite the Russian superiority in numbers, Conrad's first thrust succeeded. His left wing ran into the Russian right at Krasnik, just across the River San inside Russian territory, and attacked. The leading Austrian formation was the First Army, largely composed of Slovaks from Pressburg (Bratislava) and Poles from Krakow; both Catholic, the Slovaks as yet unpoliticized, the Poles anti-Russian, they fought fiercely for their Catholic Emperor in a three-day battle against the Russian Fourth Army which had come forward without waiting for its reserves. The Russians were forced to retreat 20 miles toward Lublin.
In the center, near the town of Komarów, a ‘soldiers’ battle’ developed, with frontal attacks exchanged. The Austrians attacked General Pavel Plehve's Fifth Army, and the ensuing Battle of Komarów proved to be a victory for them; however it was one they would not be able to repeat during the coming months of the war. The Austrians took 20,000 prisoners and nearly 100 guns; Plehve’s army lost forty percent of its complement.
The Austrian Third Army had been disfavored by Conrad's decision to give it an ‘active defensive’ role. As a result, it was deployed well inside Austrian territory, some sixty miles behind the frontier, standing on the River Gnita Lipa. There it should have been safe, had it stayed put. However, Brudermann, its commander, learning of the advance of ‘five or six Russian divisions’ westward from Tarnopol, decided to act offensively and moved forward. In three days of fighting in the broken country between the two Lipa rivers, the Austrians were first defeated and then driven back. Some of the defeated Austrians fled as far as Lemberg.
The Russian advance commenced and the series of epic battles that ensued were redolent of an earlier age of warfare. Slow-moving, monolithic armies crashed into each other on the Galician plains, complete with cavalry skirmishing in the gaps between the armies and dramatic maneuvering as both sides sought the flanks of their opponents while desperately fending off threats to their own. All this while severely hampered by minimal communications, and with a near-total lack of accurate intelligence as to their opponents’ movements. For all their manifold problems, the Russians had the edge over the Austrians in battle.
The Russian Third Army captured Lemberg, a key railway center and the fourth largest city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This success can be seen as the first major Entente victory of the war. Further complex fighting followed until the Austrians were forced to withdraw back to the San River. The only thing that saved Conrad from even greater collapse was the sluggardly Russian advance. Ivanov took the view that ‘the Austrians’ retreat will secure for our army the chance of an essential break in operations’. Rest-days were lavishly distributed. Ruzski ordered the fortification of Lemberg. Cavalry, unfamiliar with the terrain, caused some panic in the Austro-Hungarian baggage-trains, but was less effective in this than men had hoped.
The Austro-Hungarian retreat left the important fortress town of Przemyśl besieged by the Russians, although they lacked the super heavy artillery to make much of a dent on the ring of modern fortifications that defended it. Still the Austrians fell back to the southwest, finally finding a defensible line along the Dunajec River-Biala River line east of Krakow. The siege of Przemyśl would prove to be the longest of the war, with the city finally falling into Russian hands in March 1915.
By this time the Russians had managed to position their units in roughly a north-south line and had two main options before them. The first was to reinforce Ivanov’s success and carry on attacking the hapless Austrians in the southwest with the intention of capturing Krakow and bursting through into Hungary. Alternatively, they could launch the Ninth and Tenth Armies across Poland and into German Silesia. They chose the Silesia option, although the Germans would soon seize initiative and attack Russian troops in Poland.
The fighting in Galicia had highlighted Austria-Hungary's shortcomings, while that in East Prussia demonstrated Russia's. To dig in on a defensible line in France and send most troops east to knock out Russia was an option. Erich von Falkenhayn, the new German Chief of General Staff, however, believed the Russians could avoid decisive battles by retreating. Thus, victory must be sought in France, where the defenders had less room to trade space for time, and where the British, Germany's main enemy in his view, were involved. The Austrians, however, needed to be reinforced. And the Russians could be attacked through Poland.
The nature of these titanic battles on the Eastern Front is difficult to represent at a human or individual level. The Russian army, 80 percent peasant when the majority of Russian peasants were still illiterate, left no literature to compare with that of the Western Front. The better-educated Austrians have left equally few recollections of service in the ranks, probably because the disaster of the war was overtaken in personal experiences by the even greater upheaval of the Habsburg empire's collapse. For the most part, however, the experience of the Tsar's and Austrian Kaiser's armies in the vast campaigns of movement in 1914 has passed out of memory.