Daily Archives: 2 November 2020

Habsburg Landsturm: Alien Officers and ‘Army Slavic’

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 57-59:

As a guest list for a gentlemen’s club dinner, the officers’ roll of III/Landsturm Infantry Regiment 18 would have promised a fascinating evening. However, as a warrior fraternity, a band of brothers sworn to defend to their dying breath the realms of a venerable emperor, these officers were unlikely to strike fear into many enemy hearts. In this terrible war, their ranks began to thin immediately….

Beyond the almost complete absence of military qualities, what is also striking is how entirely alien the officers of the regiment were to the men they led. Of course, class distinctions between officers and their soldiers were virtually universal among the armies of 1914, and they even had advantages: the self-confidence, self-control, and education associated with an elite upbringing were, commanders insisted throughout the war, the best foundation for military leadership. However, the officers of the battalion were also geographically remote. Most lived 500–600 kilometers (310–375 miles) from Czerteż. Eight came from Vienna, five from Brno, and nine from other parts of Moravia or Bohemia. Only two, one Pole and one Ukrainian (this last a cadet rather than a full officer), were from Galicia. The cultural gulf between these officers—bourgeois big city slickers from the most economically advanced western regions of the Habsburg Empire—and the Central Galician battalion’s rank and file was immense. In the eyes of the pious middle-aged peasants they led, the officers might as well have landed from Mars.

The regional divide between III/Landsturm Infantry Regiment 18’s officers and other ranks raised practical problems of language. All the battalion’s officers, with the exception of the two from Galicia, had as their mother tongue Czech or German. Their men, by contrast, spoke Polish or Ukrainian. Occasionally, one came across a Yiddish-speaking Jew. Theoretically, this posed no great difficulty, for the Habsburg army had long experience of managing polyglot units. The army recognized three different types of languages. The “language of service,” which was German in most of the army, and Hungarian in Honvéd and Hungarian Landsturm units, was used for all communication above the company level. (The Magyar term for Landsturm was Népfelkelő.) More important for interaction between the officers and the men was the “language of command,” which was a list of eighty basic military words and phrases in either German or Hungarian, such as “March!,” “At Ease!,” and “Fire!” To cultivate deeper relations between ranks, all units also had one or more “regimental languages.” Any tongue spoken by at least one-fifth of the regiment’s personnel was so designated, and officers were obligated to learn every one of them in order to engage with their subordinates, bond with them, and exert influence over them.

In III/Landsturm Infantry Regiment 18, as in most wartime formations, such intricate arrangements were pipe dreams. For officers, a decent grasp of the German language was essential, as it was the medium for communication with the various levels of the Fortress Command and with other units. Within the battalion’s mess, German was also widely spoken, although, to annoy Major Zipser, the Czech officers made a special point of speaking their mother tongue to each other. Communication with the men was, kindly put, a challenge. Some officers may have gotten by with “Army Slavic,” a most peculiar military Esperanto blending Slavic grammar with German military terminology. Thus, for example, the battalion’s Poles could be ordered to antretować (from the German antreten—to form up) on parade, and would then narugować (nachrücken—to move up) to the front, before forming a szwarmlinia (Schwarmlinie—firing line). Others who spoke only German relied on the battalion’s few Jews to act as intermediaries. Still, even with goodwill, careful listening, and much imagination on all sides, frontline command of Landsturm troops was difficult.

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