Daily Archives: 3 November 2020

Russian vs. Habsburg Military Tactics, 1914

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 37-38:

The Habsburg army displayed almost superhuman courage in this early fighting, but it was outnumbered and, crucially, heavily outgunned. Russian divisions fielded sixty guns to the Habsburg divisions’ forty-eight. Their artillerymen were more skilled, too. The Tsarist force had absorbed many lessons from humiliating defeat at the hands of the Japanese in the war of 1904–1905, among them the importance of combined arms operations. Its field regulations stressed the dominance of firepower in combat, and its artillery was expected to work closely with forward infantry to support any advance. By contrast, as Romer frankly confessed, cooperation between the Habsburg artillery and infantry was weak. The gunners chose their own targets, often with only vague knowledge of enemy positions. Much ammunition was wasted. The obvious superiority of the Russian gunners, who seemed everywhere capable of putting down accurate and heavy bombardments, was debilitating. As one staff officer of the 11th Division, fighting on the Third Army’s right, observed, the enemy’s shellfire “instantly caused a feeling of defenselessness, which grew from one battle to the next.”

The Habsburg army’s tactical doctrine exacerbated the problem. In peacetime, Conrad had enjoyed a reputation as a tactical genius, although his ideas about how to balance fire and movement, the most important military debate of the period, had barely developed since 1890, when he had first put them in print. Conrad, like most commanders of the day, was a firm advocate of the offensive, but he stood out for his uncompromising belief in the ability of sheer willpower to conquer the fire-swept battlefield. In Conrad’s conception, artillery was not needed to clear a way forward. His 1911 regulations asserted that physically tough, determined, and aggressive infantry could alone “decide the battle.” Within the professional officer corps, his subordinates thoroughly imbibed this mentality. Manic admonitions to act “ruthlessly” or “with utmost energy” were virtually obligatory in any order. At the outset, heavy casualties were not seen so much as a problem as proof of troops’ “outstanding feats of arms.”

This toxic combination of inadequate fire support and a tactical doctrine encouraging impetuous rushes directly at the enemy brought horrendous loss of life when it was tested on the battlefield in the autumn of 1914. Officers suffered catastrophic casualties, for they led from the front, pulling their peasant soldiers forward through their own exemplary courage. The professionals, in particular, were determined to display no fear; as critics scathingly observed, they behaved as though accurate, long-range rifles were never invented and refused to use cover. Russian snipers, ordered to take down anyone wearing officers’ distinctive yellow gaiters, reaped a grim harvest. The same mentality fostered a disdain for lifesaving digging. Regiments were quickly obliterated. On the first day of battle, August 26, units of the III “Iron” Corps, operating farther south from where Romer was fighting, lost between a quarter and a third of their men. Infantry Regiment 47, a mainly Austrian German unit, had 48 officers and 1,287 other ranks killed, wounded, or missing that day. Infantry Regiment 87, filled mostly with Slovenes, suffered 350 killed and 1,050 wounded in clumsy and fruitless attacks.

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