The Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914

Updated on February 20, 2018
Fighting in the Carpathian mountains in hellishly cold winter temperatures with inadequate supplies is about the last place I'd like to be in the world, tragically hundreds of thousands of Austro-Hungarians had to do just that.
Fighting in the Carpathian mountains in hellishly cold winter temperatures with inadequate supplies is about the last place I'd like to be in the world, tragically hundreds of thousands of Austro-Hungarians had to do just that.

In 1914, Austria-Hungary went to war against Serbia, which escalated into the great War, ultimately pitting the entire world into war. Austria's entrance was hardly auspicious, with a humiliating failed invasion of Serbia, and a catastrophic defeat in Galicia (modern South-East Poland) where the Russians intervened. The following years brought no relief to Austria-Hungary, where it suffered defeats in the field, and in the end, although it ended the war with soldiers occupying vast swathes of foreign soil, the hollowed out army was incapable of preventing a revolution which toppled the monarchy while simultaneously fighting against the victorious Italian and Franco-British-Greek-Serbian-Montenegro offensives. After 4 bloody years of war, Austria-Hungary collapsed. What had gone wrong in the Austro-Hungarian army, that led it to defeat?

Before any discussion of its details happen, the first thing which must be understood is the basic structure of Austria-Hungary and its military. Austria-Hungary was in essence, a confederation. There was a joint economic ministry, a joint foreign affairs service, and a joint army, and no other common institutions save for the Head of State, the Emperor. In particular there was no joint parliament : the result was any policy formed for Austria-Hungary, had to be approved by the parliaments of both Austria-Hungary. This institution was called the Ausgleich, and every ten years it was necessary to renegotiate its fiscal and economies concerns, a trying and difficult process. There were two constituent parts of Austria-Hungary, Austria, and Hungary, but the situation does not cease there, for there were also a host of smaller kingdoms and duchies. Furthermore, both Austria, and Hungary, had their own national armies, these being the Hungarian Honvéd and the Austrian Landwehr.

16 and 17 belong to the Kingdom of Hungary, and 18 to an Austro-Hungarian condominium, while the rest were part of the Kingdom of Austria.
16 and 17 belong to the Kingdom of Hungary, and 18 to an Austro-Hungarian condominium, while the rest were part of the Kingdom of Austria.

While Hungary and Austria thus made up Austria-Hungary together, quite logically, the system between the two could be often rather dysfunctional. The previously mentioned 10-year negotiations were one of the best examples, and Hungary was recalcitrant on voting funds for the joint army, utilizing it to attempt to gain concessions from the Monarchy upon their status in their empire. The Kossuthist Independence Party had blocked Hungarian funds and recruits, desiring that the army would include Hungarian as a language of command, with special Hungarian units as apart from the standard army units, and with Hungarian banners and devises - although their highest ambition was to form a purely national army, incorporating all recruits from Hungary. To the Emperor, such demands were unacceptable, as they would undermine the unity of his most vital institution, his army. Thus a deadlock, which gripped the Austro-Hungarian army in long years of stalemated military spending, without the capability to buy more equipment, nor to raise its troop sizes. Ultimate concessions would include that the Honvedseg would be allowed artillery and technical troops in 1911, which meant that the Landwehr got them too, but by then the army's state had largely been established. As with most armies, changes in the years immediately prior to the war didn't give enough time to significantly change the army for 1914, and thus the implementation of a 2-year service law in 1914 which meant larger army strength (if shorter periods of time of men in service), and field-artillery reorganization had come too late to make an impact upon the Great War.

The result of this was an Austro-Hungarian military spending which was, by international standards, miniscule. In 1911, Austria-Hungary's military spending amounted to 420 million kronen : equivalent figures in kronen would amount to 1,786 million in Germany, 1,650 million in Russia, 1,514 million in the UK, 1,185 million in France, and 528 million in Italy. This is cited by Tactics and Procurement in the Habsburg Military, 1866-1918. Other sources, such as the Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War give a picture which shows larger military spending on the part of Austria-Hungary, but even here, it lags behind most of its rivals.

Officer Corps

It takes time to build an army. Time to craft guns, times for troops to train, time to figure out how to use them. But above all else, it takes time to train leaders and commanders. Austria-Hungary entering the Great War had an officer corps which was adequately sized for the regular army it held. It was insufficient for the vast mobilized troops that it called up, especially when it itself had to train these new men, and above all else when its pre-war officer corps was winnowed brutally in the opening months of the conflict. More guns and more shells could be built, but more leaders were always wanting, and in effect the Austro-Hungarian forces became a great mass of militia, insufficiently led and organized. In a realm which depended above all else on a unitary, stable, and firm army to ensure its solidarity, this was catastrophic, both militarily and politically.

But this marches ahead of time. While the Austro-Hungarian officer corps would be brutally battered by the war, beforehand it was noted as being of a disciplined intellect, keen, active, and well administrated. It enjoyed significant social prestige, and a strong esprit de corps, even if it didn't have the natural prestige which came from being filled with nobles, like in the Prussian officer corps. It did however, have the significant disadvantage that it had not seen war since the 1878 occupation of Bosnia at the very latest, which was more of a guerrilla campaign than a real war, as compared to the Serbs and Russians who had both been recently involved in wars giving their officers military experience. Unfortunately, if this officer corps was solid enough, it had the problem of being small in size, with only 18,000 career and 14,000 reserve officers. This meant a ratio of 18:1 compared to standing army troops, which was worsened by the fact that the army had a chronic lack of junior officers, tending to have too many high level officers. This wasn't terrible, but unfortunately this was not the entire picture, for the total size of forces mobilized when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia was 3,260,000 soldiers, of which only some 414,000 men had been in commission at the start of the war... and it was a force led by less than a mere 60,000 officers, or a ratio of 54 to 1.

If it was insufficient for the troops it led in size, when war broke out, and casualties further thinned its ranks, the officer corps found once again a confirmation of its own minute nature. 22,310 officers and reserve officers had been rendered casualties within the first year of the war. The remaining army was reduced to a force of militia, a pale ghost of the once proud military which had entered the war under the march of drums and the flight of banners.


Austria-Hungary was never a rich nation, although to be fair it was its own self-imposed limits which prevented its expansion and consolidation far more than any economic problems. Training is an expensive task : ammunition fired, troops moving around, repairs, the concentration of large numbers of forces, fuel, fodder, food, so on and so forth. It was also something which didn't help what the principal mission of the military was : to maintain internal order and serve as a pillar of support for the monarchy. And thus when the question arose of whether to drill troops, or to train them, it was to drills which officers preferred to devote their men. Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Hapsburg throne, wanted a strong army, but like many he wanted it to be used for propping up the internal structure of the monarchy, with impressive parades and maneuvers, bands and cavalry charges, which would impress Austro-Hungarian citizens, demonstrate the monarchy's prestige, back up its conservative ideology, and show the stability of the realm. There was less interest in training the army itself for war.

Sometimes the training which the Austro-Hungarian military did do was almost absurd in its lack of meaningful contribution to raising military standards. In war games, it was expected that members of the royal family would win, and so there were cases of the game overseers stopping games where an archduke's side wasn't winning! Thus even though Austria-Hungary had made important innovations in training, such as the first training exercise larger than a corps on each side (in 1893 at Guns in Hungary), its training often gave the wrong impression and was flawed. This was extended in regular training, where most often the offense was declared the winner for having concentrated more troops into a region at a single moment, rather than taking any note of its performance.

Austro-Hungarian cavalry, which had long since abandoned the lance in 1884, still preferred to charge the enemy to decide the situation with cold steel. Rifle bullets decided it instead.
Austro-Hungarian cavalry, which had long since abandoned the lance in 1884, still preferred to charge the enemy to decide the situation with cold steel. Rifle bullets decided it instead.

Austro-Hungarian cavalry was even utilized in a mass charge in 1913 training maneuvers - this despite Austro-Hungarian cavalry tactics being markedly ahead of their time for non-Russian European armies, having long abandoned the lance in favor of being purely armed with firearms as mounted infantry for reconnaissance and security. During the war itself, they regularly engaged melee fights with their Russian cavalry opponents and charges upon infantry, showing that even though a good doctrine might be possessed, the training required to make soldiers pay attention to it is vital too. This, the Austro-Hungarian cavalry lacked, and their contribution to the war in 1914 was dismally ineffective - admittedly helped too by a dismal saddle design which resulted in rubbing off horse's skin, although at least it looked good on parade. By October 1914, only 26,800 cavalrymen were still ready for action in Galicia, out of the 10 cavalry divisions at the beginning of the conflict. The cost in horses would be high as well, leaving the Austro-Hungarians with insufficient numbers for the rest of the war, aiding in reducing their cavalry formations to becoming more and more indistinguishable from regular infantry.

While Austro-Hungarian troops had the misfortune of trying to conduct bayonet charges against superior enemy troops, at least they did so in uniforms which weren't designed to draw fire... unlike the French.
While Austro-Hungarian troops had the misfortune of trying to conduct bayonet charges against superior enemy troops, at least they did so in uniforms which weren't designed to draw fire... unlike the French.


During the decades prior to the Great War firepower had increased tremendously, both for infantry weapons, and for artillery. As an example, an infantry division in 1870 with its black powder, single-shot, breech loading rifles could fire 40,000 bullets per minute. By contrast, its 1890 counterpart could fire 200,000 magazine-fed high velocity smokeless powder rounds, to longer range, with greater accuracy, and without the crippling problem of clouds of smoke building up which blocked its line of sight to the enemy and revealed its position and rendered its weapons increasingly inaccurate and less effective. This is without taking into account the impact of machine guns, which while limited in number had made a gradual appearance in armies before the Great War, and above all else the quick firing revolution in artillery fire. The level of firepower which a division could now put out was as a result unimaginable, but its mobility and ability to survive on the offense was no better than it was before.

Military thinkers were not entirely aware of this problem. However, they still believed that they would be able to defeat enemy troops, by utilizing their artillery to suppress enemy formations while their infantry attacked in swarming groups to take their positions (although sometimes armies neglected even these two measures, the German army often being noted as being excessively conservative and preferring closed-order attacks, while the French army sometimes launched launched suicidal attacks without artillery preparation at the beginning of the war). In this, they drew their opinion from the Franco-Prussian war, when the offensive-minded Prussians had overwhelmed the French defeders. Casualties would be severe (Austrian 1889 infantry regulations estimated 30% - too low as it would turn out), but with the new accurate guns which could constantly support the infantry in the assault, élan, determination, and spirit, any position could be overrun, and the soldiers would carry the day with their bayonets. In fact, military thinkers like Foch even turned the equation of increasing firepower favoring the defense on its shoulders : their belief was that increasing firepower favored the attackers, by its ability to destroy the defender's position.

When the actual war arrived of course, it was revealed that the defender's firepower was much higher effectively than that of the attacker, that the previously most often ignored artillery of the defender would be a severe hindrance, and that entrenched field fortifications would prove to be obstacles which field artillery could not easily deal with. Morale had been often quoted as favoring the attacker with their aggressive spirit before the war, under the belief that the spirit of aggressiveness and attack would dominate the will of the enemy : during the war itself, it was revealed that the horrific casualties suffered by attacking forces was more harmful for their morale than for the relatively untouched defenders in their trenches... The Austro-Hungarian army was no exception, and its emphasis on frontal attacks with bayonet charges served it poorly, as it launched attacks into Serbia against enemies equipped with machine g uns and quick firing artillery without a sufficient numerical advantage to suppress and overwhelm them.

Thus the 1911 infantry regulations specifying that “The infantry is the main arm. Able to fight at long range or at close quarters, in defense or in attack, the infantry can use its weapons with success against any enemy, in every type of terrain, by day as well as by night. It decides battles: even without support from other arms and against a numerically superior enemy it is capable of attaining the laurels of victory, if only it has trust in itself and has the will to fight.” reveals more than simply being an affirmation of the use of infantry : it shifts it to a near-suicidal aggressiveness pinned on and expected of the infantry forces, where they attacked with insufficient artillery, arms cooperation, strength, and forces against enemy troops, under the belief that they would win through morale and the triumph of the will. Drang nach vorwärts, the forward push, would win the day. By the standard of the day, Austro-Hungarian assault troops seemed to be quite reasonable and effective : unfortunately, let down by insufficient artillery and attacking enemies with superior numbers, in what was basically a flawed concept of the tactical advance, being good was not enough. Austrian troops would pay for their constant offenses with a constant butcher bill.

Reserves and Size

The relationship of reserves to the front line army were a tricky one in Europe. True, reserves provided vast increases in numbers of soldiers, and every army depended on them for fighting, to raise up the army size capable of meeting the enemy on the battlefield. But reserves also might not have the necessary élan, the offensive spirit, insufficient training and discipline. They would also be more poorly equipped : in all armies, the number of officers to men fell upon mobilization, and reserve formations in many armies had less artillery than the standard troops : this was the case in even the richest and most well funded militaires, like the German one, where reserve troops had far fewer howitzers than the main formations, in preference to field guns. The debate over the armies' usage of reserve has been particularly fierce in the French case, with claims of a schism running between the professional army and the nation in arms, with the professional army school preferring a force of long-serving conscripts capable of offensive action, while the nation in arms school preferred short term reserves mobilized for the war.

In the Austro-Hungarian case, men eligible for conscription went to four branches : being inducted as 3-year conscripts in the army, serving 2-years in the national guards (Austrian or Hungarian), or being inducted into the reserves of the Ersatzreserve, with a mere 8 weeks of training and then 8 weeks of training every year for 10 years. The final group was the Landsturm, with essentially no training. It also included soldiers who had finished their tour of duty, these veterans being on its rolls until the age of 42. In effect, they were exempt. The army's annual conscript intake was set by law : initially in 1868 it was 95,400 (56,000 from Austria, and 40,000 from Hungary), with 20,000 additionally assigned to national guards. Joint army numbers rose to 103,000 in 1889, and national guard numbers to 22,500, 12,500 in Hungary and 10,000 in Austria. This number of roughly 125,000 stayed the same until 1912, and it was on the basis of these reserves that the army would fight the Great War. The second-smallest peace-time army size and inadequate reserve training meant that the Austro-Hungarian reserves were ill equipped as far as size goes, although they still performed well despite their problems : after the effective destruction of the standing army, young Landsturm troops were considered some of the best remaining units available.

The effective result of this was simple : the number of troops that Austria-Hungary could put into the field was small compared to any of the other great powers, save for Italy. Its reserves were large on paper, but without training, they were of limited use.


The decade and a half preceding the Great War, after the French introduction of quick firing artillery with their canon de 75 mle. 1897, had seen a revolution in the firepower of artillery. Artillery fired much faster, as field guns which previously could fire a few rounds every minute could now reach 20 to 30 rounds per minute of fixed ammunition, with smokeless powder rounds which made them capable of sustaining this fire, out to distances beyond which the eye could see, and with their new carriages for the first time in indirect fire. Machine guns are famous in the Great War for a firepower revolution which made breaking entrenched lines difficult, but the artillery revolution was even more profound.

And unfortunately for Austria-Hungary, it was one where she lagged behind. Many Austrian-Hungarian guns were of an obsolete steel-bronze type, which weighed more and had shorter ranges than steel guns, but which could be produced by Austro-Hungarian industry. The Austrian 9cm Feldkanone M75 had been updated into the 9cm Feldkanone M75/96 and soldiered on in service in some units, having an improved, if still not perfect recoil system which only enabled around 6 rounds per minute, and inferior range and weigh : at least soldiers could take comfort in not using the thoroughly ancient M61 which equipped some fortress artillery. Its counterpart of around the same time, the 8cm Feldkanone M.99 had improved range over its predecessor and a marginally improved rate of fire, but still no real quick firing capacity, serving with mountain artillery. The new main infantry gun was the 8 cm Feldkanone M 05, which had a standard quick firing mechanism, but unfortunately still possessed inferior range due to its steel-bronze construction than foreign artillery. Even more importantly, they were outnumbered : the Austrians had 144 guns per corp, compared to 160 German and 184 French, and for every 1000 men, in Germany there were 6.5 guns, in Great Britain 6.3, in France 5, in Italy 4, in Austria-Hungary 3.8–4.0, and finally in Russia 3.75.... and Austria's army size was smaller than most of these nations. To make matters worse, lower ammunition supplies were provided for each gun, both in training and war. In training, an Austro-Hungarian battery fired 208 shots per year, compared to 464 in Germany, 390 in France, 366 in Italy, and 480 in Russia. In war, Austro-Hungarian field guns had 500 shells, and their light field howitzers, 330, substantially lower too than foreign shell reserves. In Russia, there were 500-600 shells per gun, in France and Germany 650-730. Aolhough Austro-Hungarian artillery tactics were noted as being good before the war, with firing from defilade (indirect fire) positions, with telephones for communication and fire control and having impressed pre-war observers, it wasn't enough in the face of these deficiencies.

If conventional artillery was mediocre at best, at least the Austro-Hungarians could count on a powerful siege artillery train, with the excellent Škoda 30.5 cm Mörser M.11 siege howitzer. 8 were loaned to Germany for their attack through Belgium, and they played an important role there in smashing the Belgian fortresses at Liege, Naumur, and Antwerp : they did not see however, usage in the mobile warfare then prevalent on the Russian and Serbian fronts. There were none of the heavy 15cm howitzers which the Germans had, leaving the Austro-Hungarian military without the advantage of their German allies to the north, although at least their opponents in Serbia and Russia weren't equipped with such heavy howitzers as well.


Of the host of problems which faced the Austro-Hungarian military, none has resonated more deeply with popular consciousness than the difficulties created by the empire's multi-ethnic and multi-lingual structure. How does an army work when its soldiers cannot even speak each other's language? Fighting and cooperation become immensely more difficult as a result, like strangers vaguely allied rather than a single army.

Thankfully for the Austro-Hungarians, things were not as bad at the beginning of the war as this stereotype portrays. The joint Austro-Hungarian military had German as its language of command, while in the Hungarian and Austrian national guards, Hungarian and Austrian were used respectively. In the joint army before the war, there had been a great degree of emphasis placed upon the knowledge of multiple languages, and thus on average every officer knew around two languages other than German. With German as the language of command, these officers would be able to communicate among themselves, and hence units would be able to cooperate even if individual soldiers couldn't. Every unit would have a language for usage in its ranks, and thus there were German, Hungarian, Polish, Czech, forces, and NCOs would be an invaluable link between an officer and his men. 80 basic commands were taught to all soldiers in German. Finally, there was quite naturally the creation of pidgins and creoles, which while not literary languages (generally being an odd mixture of German and Czech), gave some way for soldiers to communicate among themselves. While imperfect, these measures meant that at the beginning of the war, the Austro-Hungarian military was hardly the shambling wreck unable to communicate that it has garnered the reputation for.

Unfortunately things would not always be so. This system relied upon a carefully crafted structure, with multi-lingual officers and NCOs who would be able to bridge the gaps between their men and the army's upper echelons, as well as among each other. These officers were the product of exacting training before the war, where they had gone through years of military education, and had mastered multiple languages, especially German, the language of their trade. When they died, who replaced them? Hastily trained officers, who lacked the same linguistic preparation (undermined by increasing linguistic nationalism in Czech, Hungarian, German, Polish and Croatian high school education), and were much more mono-lingual than their dead predecessors. The more casualties bit into the army's ranks, the more its pre-war officer corp was winnowed, and the harder that communication and cooperation became. One officer reported that he spent a week in a foxhole with a companion from a Honved battalion, and was unable to understand a single word.


Franz Xaver Joseph Conrad Graf von Hötzendorf, the Austro-Hungarian Chief of the General Staff, and hence effective commander of the Austro-Hungarian military, had had a tumultuous relationship with Emperor Franz Josef. For most of the history of Austria-Hungary, the Chief of Staff was Friedrich von Beck-Rzikowsky, who was chief of staff between 1882 and 1906, and even before then had exercised substantial influence. Beck was a cautious man, and in this regard was quite similar to the Emperor he served. Conrad had a different take on strategy for Austria-Hungary, and believed that the only solution to Austria's domestic problems and strategic international situation was to attack, in a preventive war against either Serbia or Italy - positions which he recommended constantly, in the various diplomatic crises proceeding the Great War, starting in 1906 but particularly in 1908 over the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia, and in 1911 when diplomatic tensions flared with Italy over its war against the Ottoman Empire. In fact, he proposed it up to 25 times - in 1913 alone! In both cases he was shot down, and he was even forced to resign his position in 1911. But as might be guessed from his 1913 proposals, he was back soon thereafter.

Conrad had a belief in the superiority of the offensive and the need to strike against potential enemies. Such a belief existed both before and after he became Chief of Staff, and he was an influential teacher at the Austro-Hungarian military academy in the decades before (between 1888 and 1892 in particular), instilling many future Austro-Hungarian officers with his opinions. Reputedly an excellent instructor who encouraged discussion and gained the trust and friendship of his students, unfortunately his tactical ideas were poorly suited for the war. This hardly set him apart from other Chiefs of Staff in Europe, who believed that the offensive was the only way to secure victory, and who were often willing to violate the sovereignty and territory of other nations to ensure their nation's security. Unfortunately, Conrad's shortcomings would have more disastrous effects on Austria-Hungary than elsewhere.

Firstly, Conrad was a man of brilliant plans... on paper. Unfortunately, in practice, these plans often failed to take into account local conditions and realities, as well as extraneous factors. Thus, he had a tendency to launch suicidal attacks in the dead of winter into the frozen wasteland of Galicia into Russian troops, doing so over the Carpathian mountains. By the time the troops actually arrived at the battlefield, they were horrifically decimated by cold and frostbite, and their misery only continued to get worse. Conrad's plans here were complex, hoping to lure the Russians forwards then attack them on the flank, but as always, complex operations often go awry. It was a perfect example of a man of brilliant plans, but who failed to take into account the problems confronting them, which he repeated again in planned encirclement campaigns in the Italian mountains in 1916 which denuded troops and enabled the Russian Brusilov offensive to bring itself to a magnificent victory over Hapsburg forces, and which ultimately bogged down with little decisive result in Italy too.

Great strides had been made in the construction of railroads in Austria-Hungary, but travel was still not instantaneous : the constant shuffling of troops mean that the Austrians didn't have the strength they needed at the front.
Great strides had been made in the construction of railroads in Austria-Hungary, but travel was still not instantaneous : the constant shuffling of troops mean that the Austrians didn't have the strength they needed at the front.

Deployment and Galicia

And thus the guns of August fired, and the world would never again be the same. The Austrians had their disadvantages, their weaknesses and their problems. Their foes however, had their own shortcomings and difficulties. In the end, it would be catastrophic deployment issues by the Austro-Hungarian army which most undermined its performance in the Great War.

Austria had long been used to the idea of a two, or even three front war. It had spent vast sums of money on fortifications as a result. Now, this was becoming reality, with Serbia in the South, and Russia in the North, and insufficient Austro-Hungarian armies to defeat both at once. The Austro-Hungarian military as devised by Conrad was split into three groups : Minimalgruppe Balkan with 8-10 divisions against Serbia, A-Staffel with 28-30 divisions against Russia, and B-Staffel with 12 divisions which would be available as a reserve to support either. In theory, an excellent plan, but the war meant that the railroads were extremely clogged with troops and men, making the movement of forces from front to front laborious and lengthy once they had been moved to one. The force facing Serbia meanwhile, was too small to attack, and too large to just defend, tying down forces which might have been used to save Austro-Hungarian armies against Russia in Galicia.

B-staffel was ultimately redeployed to the Galician front after having been only committed for a short period against Serbia, something it wasn't even able to start until the 18th due to railroad line congestion. Upon arriving in Galicia, it entered a theatre had gone horrifically wrong, as the Russians, free to concentrate the great majority of their forces against the Austrians with the Germans themselves concentrating their own vast majority of troops against France in the West with only a token in East Prussia, had smashed Austrian troops themselves attacking the Russians. Hapsburg troops met Russian troops with a decided numerical superiority, 38.5 infantry divisions and 10 cavalry divisions to 46.5 Russian infantry and 18.5 cavalry divisions - these numbers were even worse in reality, as the B-staffel troops didn't arrive in Galicia until after the engagement had already begun. 1/3 of troops there meanwhile, were Landwehr Austrian national guards with insufficient training and equipment. Even standard Austrian divisions were heavily deficient to their Russian counterparts, as according to archivist Rudolf Jeřábek a Russian infantry division had a superiority of 60-70% in infantry, 90% in light field artillery, 230% in heavy guns, and 33% in machine guns (an Austro-Hungarian battalion started the war with 4). Furthermore Austrian light field howitzers were obsolete M.99 and M.99/04 with steel-bronze barrels, distributed 12 per division, with only 330 shells compared to 500 shells for field artillery guns, and with 2/3 of these being shrapnel - somewhat contrary to the entire point of a howitzer, which delivers a powerful plunging high explosive shell to destroy enemies in sheltered positions.

Prior to the war it had been recognized that it would be difficult to maintain coordination in this theater, large and spread out with flat plains. Nothing was done to resolve this problem, and in the battles of 1914, the Austro-Hungarian armies advanced north, north-east, and east. The north and north-east troops were roughly matched in division size to their equivalents and had some local successes, but in the east, 7-8 Austrian divisions ran into 21 Russian equivalents. Hapsburg troops attacked headlong, losing 200,000 troops and 70 guns, and Conrad ordered them to charge once more, exhausted as they were, into the overwhelmingly superior foe. Austrian troops attacked with great élan and spirit, and Conrad heard reports from captured Russian officers that they attacked with greater ferocity than even the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese war, but as it turned out, élan and spirit was little match for machine guns, artillery, and bolt-action rifles. Offense after offense occurred, which ultimately resulted in a retreat, with the Austro-Hungarians being expelled from Galicia, losing 350-400,000 men and 300 guns - nearly 50% of its original strength facing Russia. Worse was yet to come.

Przemyśl, lying shattered and ruined after he siege.
Przemyśl, lying shattered and ruined after he siege.

Przemyśl was one of the permanent fortifications upon which the Austrians had lavished immense sums of money before the war. They would defend the borders of the empire, and Przemyśl in particular helped cover the vital railroad bridgeheads into Galicia. 120,000 Hapsburg soldiers found refuge there, but this refuge shortly become a nightmare, as the Russians placed it under siege. Far larger than the number designed to be used in the garrison, 50,000, which helped intensify a severe food shortage. Constant efforts were made to relieve it, which even had some temporary successes, but in the abysmal terrain attacking through the Carpathians, with insufficient artillery support - 4 shells per day per gun, at best - casualties piled up and continued to mount. With brutal casualties sustained in the failed offensives, Przemyśl could not be relieved. Its siege had begun on September 16 1914, had been lifted between October 11 and November 9, and on March 22, 1915, the fortress fell, along with its entire garrison.

By the end of 1914, the Austro-Hungarians had sacrificed some 1,250,000 men. These were not terrible casualties for their army. They were casualties which destroyed their army, numbers larger than the total number of professional soldiers and trained reserves which they had mobilized at the beginning of the war. The Austro-Hungarian military was reduced to a force of militia soldiers with horrifyingly inadequate numbers of officers. For the rest of the war, it would be a broken shell. It is unsurprising that its performance afterwards would be poor: what is amazing is that it survived and continued to fight at all. Courage was something that the Austro-Hungarian military never lacked : the brains and material to accompany it would have served them well.


The campaign against Serbia was not as destructive as that against Russia, except for one crucial thing : prestige. It was one thing to lose to the Russians, but to lose to a small Balkans country and its even tinier ally of Montenegro, was a crushing blow to the prestige and reputation of the Dual Monarchy. Its efforts to enhance its image and position through the offensive, laid it to its most utter low. At the beginning of the campaign, the Austrians had a slight numerical superiority, with 282,000 infantry, 10,000 cavalry, and 744 guns, but this was soon reduced by the departure of B-staffel units, resulting in 219,000 infantry, 5,100 cavalry, and 522 guns against 264,000 Serbian infantry, 11,000 mounted troops, and 828 field pieces. Around half of the Hapsburg troops were landwehr with obsolete Werdl rifles (although Serb troops had insufficient rifles themselves), and their artillery had 5,000 meters of range to the enemy's 8,000, plus commanders with less experience - at most, fighting irregulars in Bosnia, compared to the Serbs who had fought in 4 wars since 1878. As per elsewhere, the Austro-Hungarians went on the offensive, the offensive, nothing but the offensive, despite pre-war war games showing that they would be defeated in such a strike from Bosnia. Attacking into the mountains of Western Serbia, with two armies separated by more than 100 kilometers, and bad supply, within two weeks the offensives stumbled. A Serbian attack in September was driven back, but then the resultant Austrian attempt to capitalize on this failed, in bad weather in November and with all of the previous problems resulting in yet another defeat. In effect, it was a stalemate, and one which contributed 273,804 casualties to the Hapsburg armies, and shattered its international reputation. Serb casualties were heavy too, and they were losing the war of attrition, but they had survived 1914. Ironically, if the Austrians had attacked there in winter rather than in the Carpathians, they might have finished off the Serbs, but instead their north strike was chosen, with further horrific consequences.


Austro-Hungarian troops entered the war with a host of problems. Given their difficulties, they fought in 1914 remarkably well under the circumstances, but this could hardly manage to overcome the problem of attacking two superior enemies at once, with a catastrophic defeat in one case and abysmal quagmire in the other. Again and again Hapsburg troops had attacked, rising from the heaps of their own dead in reckless bravery in suicidal offensives under the orders of Conrad, and again and again, the bullet showed itself the master of élan and offensive spirit. For the rest of the war, the Hapsburg soldiers would be on the backfoot, crippled by the abattoir of 1914 where it suffered more than 2,000,000 casualties and would increasingly come to rely on the Germans for aid. 82% of its professional infantry complement was dead in 1914, meaning there were few left to train those who remained. Hopes for recover and a breathing space would be ruined when Italy entered the war, meaning that the Dual Monarchy was fighting a war on three fronts. With a host of mistakes and weaknesses, Austro-Hungarian soldiers fought as well as they could, but the struggle was too much, and in the end their ally in Bulgaria collapsed and Italian troops defeated them at Vittorio Veneto. Revolution broke out within, and if a war on three fronts could be sustained for years, a war against itself could not. The Hapsburg monarchy would never abdicate, but it was a throne which ruled an empty empire, as it dissolved into a host of republics and new pan-nationalist states. A dynasty which traced its heritage back some 900 years vanished from the ranks of kings and emperors, and Austria-Hungary was no more.


The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War by David G. Herrmann.

Beyond Nationalism : A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps 1848-1918, by Istvan Deak

Tactics and Procurement in the Habsburg Military: 1866-1918 by John A. Dredger

© 2018 Ryan Thomas


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    • Readmikenow profile image

      Readmikenow 6 weeks ago

      Excellent article! The photographs and everything combined to produce a good historical read. Really enjoyed it!

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 6 weeks ago from Auburn, WA

      Great job on a very complicated topic. But still incredibly interesting. Sharing.