Austria-Hungary’s Military Incompetence in WWI

From Russia’s Last Gasp: The Eastern Front 1916–17, by Prit Buttar (Osprey, 2016), Kindle Loc. 251-74:

Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, chief of Austria-Hungary’s general staff, had been a hugely important figure in the years before the war, with a hand in almost every aspect of army training and doctrine. During the years in which he dominated the training of staff officers and the drafting of manuals for the infantry, artillery and cavalry, he preached the supremacy of offensive operations, and the need to press home attacks at close quarters. The use of artillery and infantry fire to suppress defences was often ignored or minimised, and attacks were to be carried out repeatedly against the enemy’s forces in order to break their will to fight. Retreat was something to be avoided at all costs, and if an enemy attack gained ground, it was vital that this ground was recovered with counterattacks as soon as possible, so that the enemy did not gain any advantage in terms of morale from his success. The importance of morale was something that Conrad repeatedly stressed – it was the currency that determined how long an army could continue offensive operations.

It was a huge tragedy for the kaiserlich und königlich (Imperial and Royal, usually abbreviated to k.u.k., a reflection of the arrangement by which Franz Joseph was Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary) Army that Conrad was wrong in almost every respect. In their attempts to turn their chief’s visions into reality, the commanders of Austria-Hungary’s armies squandered hundreds of thousands of lives in the opening battles of the war, and then steadfastly failed to learn from their mistakes in the months that followed. By the end of 1915, the Germans were convinced that their ally was incapable of mounting any operations unless there was substantial German involvement, and the Russians too were aware of which of their opponents was the weakest.

The problems of the Austro-Hungarian Empire extended beyond the disastrous errors of Conrad’s planning and doctrine. There was no clear war plan, other than to tie down large numbers of Russian troops until Germany could turn east in strength. Conrad repeatedly called for a grandiose pincer attack against Warsaw, with Austro-Hungarian troops advancing from the south while German forces pressed down from East Prussia in the north, but the Germans never agreed to such a plan before the war, and its implementation once hostilities began was beyond the limited resources available. Although the ruthless mobilisation of reserves and the shortening of basic training to an absolute minimum allowed the k.u.k. Army to recover its numerical strength after the crippling losses of 1914, the delicate structure of the regiments and divisions was lost forever. The multi-lingual and multi-national empire had organised its regiments along national lines, with officers speaking the same language as their men; as reserves were poured in to refill the depleted ranks, it proved impossible to maintain this arrangement. With growing alienation between officers and men, the forces of Austria-Hungary were already showing signs of war-weariness by the first winter of the war, and by the end of 1915 there were persistent concerns about the reliability of many formations, particularly those made up of Czech and Ruthenian (Ukrainian) personnel.

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Filed under Austria, Czechia, Germany, Hungary, military, nationalism, Russia, Ukraine, war

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