Battle of Galicia
Austro-Hungarian defeat in Galicia
23 August - 11 September 1914
author Paul Boșcu, January 2016
During fighting in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia the Russians defeated the defending armies and occupied the eastern part of the province.
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.

Due to confusion over choice of priorities between the fronts in Galicia and Serbia, the Austrians were slower to concentrate their forces against Russia than they should have been. Meanwhile the Russians, defying the German and Austrian staff estimations, were quicker. Their enemies had not made allowance for the fact that two-fifths of Russia's peacetime strength was stationed in the Polish salient, or for the eventuality that Stavka (Russian GHQ) would push the troops in Poland forward before general mobilization had been completed. It was a crucial difference in attitude.

The Russian victory illustrated a dilemma that would plague Stavka throughout the war. German forces were closer to Russia's vital centers than the Austro-Hungarian troops, and Germany was the main enemy. Austria-Hungary's weaker forces could be contained or beaten with a relatively small proportion of Russia's, and the rest used against Germany. But it was also arguable that Germany could not survive alone, so there were two schools of thought among Russia's generals, one giving priority to Germany, the other to the 'soft underbelly', Austria-Hungary.

From the beginning, the Austro-Hungarian forces in Galicia were bedevilled, not only by delays, but also by a fundamental uncertainty as to what they were meant to achieve. They were supposed to attack. But to attack from the semi-circle of Galicia was difficult: if they attacked on the western side, their eastern flank would be increasingly bared; yet if the attack went to the east, it would run into all manner of difficulties. Railways were few; roads, on the Russian side, few; the Germans far away.

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.

The infantry conscripts were called up at eighteen years of age and served two years before passing on to ten years in the Landwehr reserve, followed by a further period with the inactive Landsturm until they were fifty-five years old. Overall their standard of training was basic.

Dressed in a light blue uniform, the Austro-Hungarians were armed with the bolt-action magazine Mannlicher M1895 rifle, which was both reliable and capable of extremely high rates of fire: up to thirty-five rounds a minute. Austrian machine gun companies tended to have four sections, each armed with two water-cooled Schwartzlose M.07/12, guns which had the advantage of being significantly lighter than their competitors’, although at the cost of some loss of range and penetrating power.

The artillery was functional with a high proportion of mountain guns of various calibers. Unlike most countries, Austria had developed some formidable heavy artillery typified by the Skoda 305 mm 1911 siege howitzer. This beast had a crew of at least fifteen and was towed by a 15-ton motorized tractor. Eight Skodas would be lent to the Germans to assist in the reduction of the Belgian forts on the Western Front in August 1914. The Austrians had similar expertise in the manufacture of powerful – and deadly – mortars.

Austria's principal emotional, if not rational, war aim, however, remained the punishment of Serbia, which had precipitated the July crisis by its involvement in the Sarajevo assassinations. Sense would have argued that Austria should deploy its whole strength forward of the Carpathians to engage the Russians, the Serbs' protectors. Outrage and decades of provocation demanded the defeat of the Belgrade government and the upstart Karadjordjevic dynasty.

The Austro-Hungarian General Staff agreed that, in the event of two-front war, Germany’s most sensible course would be to concentrate against France in the first round; consequently, Austria-Hungary would have to undertake a large part of the work in the east, until German troops could come from France.

Formally, the Austro-Hungarian plan before 1914 was for a full-scale offensive against Russia; formally, too, there was an undertaking on the Germans’ part that VIII Army would, if possible, contribute a parallel offensive from East Prussia. The Austro-Hungarian chief of staff dreamed of expelling the Russians from Poland, and was confident enough, when war broke out, to appoint an Austro-Hungarian governor of Warsaw.

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.

The army was made up of nine language groups, of which 44 percent was Slav (Czech, Slovak, Croatian, Serb, Slovene, Ruthenian, Polish and Bosnian Muslim), 28 percent German, 18 percent Hungarian, 8 percent Romanian and 2 percent Italian. The Germans were always dependable, although some were not wholly enthusiastic; the Hungarians, non-Slavs and privileged co-equals, remained reliable until defeat stared them in the face at the end; and the Catholic Croats had a long record of loyalty to the empire, which many of them maintained.

The Poles, hating the Russians, distrusting the Germans and enjoying large electoral and social privileges under the Habsburgs, were loyal; the Bosnian Muslims, sequestered in special, semi-native regiments, were dependable; the Italians, Romanians and the rest of the Slavs, particularly the Czechs and Serbs, lost the enthusiasm of mobilization quickly.

Once war ceased to be a brief adventure, the army became for them ‘a prison of the nations’ with the ubiquitous German superiors acting as gaolers. This was an unhappy destiny for an army which, for much of Franz Josef's reign, had been a successful and even popular multi-ethnic organization. Commanded in their own languages, spared the brutal discipline of the Kaiser's army, prettily uniformed, well-fed, loaded with traditions and honors that ascended to the seventeenth-century Turkish siege of Vienna and beyond, the regiments of the imperial army provided an enjoyable diversion from the routine of workshop or plough.

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.

The 'Warsaw bulge' laid Galicia open to invasion from the northern as well as from the eastern, Ukrainian, side. Austria-Hungary's heterogeneous armies were believed to be less formidable than the Kaiser's, and some Russian generals favored knocking out Austria-Hungary before seriously tackling Germany.

Stavka planned to take the Austrians in flank and rear by attacking south from the 'bulge' with the Fourth Army, while the Third and Eighth advanced into Eastern Galicia. However, Conrad expected Russia's slow mobilization to give him numerical superiority until late August, and was preparing to attack the 'bulge'.

Strategically each side stood to lose, as both proposed to attack forces that greatly outnumbered them. But misfortune for once came to Russia's aid. Ninth Army, assigned to the intended drive on Berlin, was deployed along the Vistula between Warsaw and Krasnik, and when the East Prussian disasters foreclosed the Berlin option, it was already deployed where it could be best used against the Austrians.

In Eastern Galicia, the Austrian Third Army, along the Grula Lipa river, was intended only as flank guard for the First and Fourth Armies, and was assisted only by the lightly armed Kovess Group, deployed south and west of it. Conrad intended also to use the Second Army here, but it was en route to Serbia when he belatedly realized that its departure left Galicia weak. He recalled it, but railway congestion slowed its return.

The front was enormous, 300 miles in length from the junction of the Austrian and Russian borders with neutral Romania to Krakow in Austrian Poland, and defended by large fortifications, of which those at Lemberg (Lvov) and Przemyśl had recently been modernized.

Physical circumstances favored the Russians. The terrain suited their enormous formations of hard-marching infantry and their plentiful cavalry. So did the geographical features defining the boundaries of the theater of operations. The Austrian positions on the forward slope of the Carpathians formed a salient which projected between the River Vistula and its tributary, the San, on the left and the River Dniester on the right. The Vistula, running north, boxed in the Austrians on the left; the Dniester, running southeast, gave the Russians a strong support to any thrust they might make against the Carpathian salient from the right.

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.

Universal military liability was never seriously asserted: the Hungarians would not give money for it, and the military authorities themselves shrank from its consequences. Formally, universal conscription was introduced in 1868, but money and will were so far lacking that only about one in five of the liable young men ever reached the colors, the rest being exempted under one heading or other, even sometimes by lot drawing.

After 1906, there were attempts at reform. But they simply broke into the never-never world of Habsburg politics: Hungarian obstruction, threats of abdication, followed more prosaically by jugglings of half percentages and promises of petty payments to nationalist blackmailers, until a few coppers rattled through the machine to reward the soldiers for trying. As war approached, the Austro-Hungarian army was less and less capable of sustaining it.

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.

Conrad had in effect decided to pursue his war with Serbia despite the obviousness of Russian intervention; and this had much more to do with the initial disaster than any difficulties with the railways.

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.

The Russian General Staff recorded that, at the opening, ‘the 18th Division fell under violent enemy fire, which obliged the Riazan and Riaysk Regiments to retreat… while the 5th Light Infantry were almost encircled.’

The victory at Kraśnik gave misplaced confidence to Conrad. The Austrians outran their supply lines, could not bring in reserves as quickly as the Russians, exhausted themselves in marching, and fought a purely frontal battle.

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 Austro-Hungarians moved forward and attacked the Russian lines. The battle was a success for the Austro-Hungarians and it seemed that the Russians would be unable to stop the Central Powers, particularly in light of their defeat at Tannenberg a few days earlier.

The Russians were unlucky in the racial composition of the enemy they met: the Austrian II Corps was formed of Vienna regiments, including the capital's Hoch and Deutschmeister, whose colonel was always the Emperor, in tribute to the dynasty's association with the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights; the IX Corps was raised from Sudetenland Germans and the XVI from Hungarian Magyars. No more solidly imperial foundation for an Austrian victory could have been assembled and, after a week of fighting, it had been gained. By the conclusion, the Russians were almost surrounded.

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 Third Army was also to find itself grossly outnumbered by the Russian Third Army it was advancing to meet. When the encounter came, less than a hundred Austrian infantry battalions, supported by 300 guns, ran headlong into nearly two hundred Russian, supported by 685.

The breakdown of the Austrian attacks was followed by Russian counterattacks, and heavy losses. Many of the Austrians fled in panic as far back as Lemberg; and III Army could not restore the situation easily. Tired Austro-Hungarian troops stumbled forward with inadequate artillery preparation against an enemy nearly double their numbers. There was a further disaster, and this time it reached such dimensions — 20,000 men and seventy guns captured — that even Conrad could judge he was facing an immeasurably superior enemy.

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.

One thing was certain: both sides suffered shocking casualties as simplistic infantry tactics frequently exposed men en masse to the dazzling power of modern weaponry. The Austrian troops were exhausted, and had suffered heavy losses; they could no longer be moved around in Conrad’s fashion like so many colored pins on a staff-map. After a few tactical successes of no great importance, they became locked west of Lemberg in a frontal battle of no issue.

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.

In the face of all the evidence, Conrad continued to believe he was winning. His local successes on the left wing, together with the dilatory Russian movement on the right, persuaded him that he could allow Third and Second Armies to make a deep withdrawal behind Lemberg, drawing the Russians after them, and then bring Fourth Army down from the north to attack the enemy in the flank. The main line of resistance was to be the River Wereszyca, a tributary of the Dniester running southward between Lemberg and Przemyśl. In the event, the plan nearly worked.

Conrad's efforts to use a weaker force to outflank a stronger force that was attempting to outflank him now threatened catastrophe. A huge gap had opened between his First Army — still battling against the Russians in the north — and his other three, locked in conflict behind Lemberg. He had no reserves of his own, and the detachment of a third-line German reserve formation to assist resulted only in severe mauling. The Russians, gathering reinforcements daily, stood with open jaws ready to close on the Austrians.

The Russians were slow to follow up the abandonment of Lemberg, thus allowing time for the Austrian Fourth Army, exhausted and depleted by losses as it was, to make its advance across the front of the Russian Third Army toward Lemberg. The Third and Second Armies actually won some success on the Wereszyca position, thus delaying for a few days the closure of the Russian encirclement of the Austrian center, the imminent danger of which was becoming more and more evident.

Conrad appealed to the Germans for help. He was told that, for the moment, nothing could be done: the Kaiser remarked, ‘You surely can’t ask any more of VIII Army than it has already achieved.’ With Russian cavalry raiding even the headquarters of his divisions, Conrad elected to retreat.

The retreat itself was extremely disorderly. Nothing had been prepared in anticipation of it — it was thought that preparations for retreat would demoralize the troops still attacking on the eastern side. Consequently, the few roads were taken up with two-way traffic — men and guns moving west, hospital-carts and munitions-carts moving up to the front. A steady downpour went on, turning the roads into marshes. Inside the San fortress of Przemyśl, narrow streets were blocked by military carts, standing axel-to-axel.

With some speed, Conrad withdrew his stricken armies to the San, then to the rivers east of Krakow — the Dunajec and Biala, which were reached in mid-September. Both armies were exhausted.

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.

Przemyśl, the huge fortress guarding the gaps in the Carpathian chain where the Rivers San and Dniester rise to flow into the Polish plain, had been abandoned, leaving its garrison of 150,000 soldiers surrounded behind Russian lines. Austrian territory to a depth of one hundred and fifty miles had been surrendered.

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.

By now some of the urgency had been removed: the situation on the Western Front may not have been resolved, but the Battle of the Marne had been fought and won by the French early in September 1914. Nevertheless, in the end Grand Duke Nicholas and his headquarters, the Stavka, resolved to continue with the Silesia option, fearing that a vigorous campaign to the southwest could be taken in the flank by the Germans from the north.

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.

Falkenhayn endorsed the belief that Germany must bolster the Austrian front, but without transferring forces from the west. He approved Ludendorff's proposal to move most of the Eighth Army south to Silesia, to form a 'new', Ninth Army, commanded by General Hindenburg. General Ludendorff, its Chief of Staff, met Conrad to discuss further action. Conrad resisted putting Austro-Hungarian troops under German command, and Ludendorff did not press him.

Ludendorff realised the Austrians needed a breathing space that only the Ninth Army could provide, and had already issued appropriate orders before going to meet Conrad. The Ninth Army began advancing northeast, aiming to push the Russians back to the upper Vistula between Warsaw and Ivangorod (now Deblin) and draw Russian forces off from the Austrians, who would then, he hoped, resume their offensive.

The Austro-Hungarians had suffered casualties of nearly fifty percent — 400,000, of which the Russians took 100,000, with 300 guns. The Russians had lost 250,000 men, 40,000 as prisoners, with 100 guns. Conrad could now only wait for German help; and the two operations of August-September 1914 now came together in their consequences, if not their course, as Ludendorff himself arrived to discuss matters.

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.

Intellectuals and artists have bequeathed letters and diaries and at least one classic novel, Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk, which is not to be taken as representative of all Habsburg soldiers' attitude; but they are isolated memorials. Some sense of the imperial army's ordeal may be caught in the somber regimental tablets in Viennese churches, decorated on regimental anniversaries with ribbons and wreaths.

The 1914 battles on the Eastern Front closely resembled those fought by Napoleon a hundred years earlier, as indeed did those of the Marne campaign, with the difference that infantry lay down rather than stood up to fire and that the fronts of engagement extended to widths a hundred times greater. The duration of battles extended also, from a day to a week or more. The outcomes, nevertheless, were gruesomely similar: huge casualties, both absolutely and as a proportion of numbers engaged, and dramatic results.