Category Archives: Austria-Hungary

16 OCTOBER, 1918: With A Whimper

After more than four years of centenary showbiz, the modern heritage industry is still pumping out its trench-based, worm’s-eye view of the First World War, but it does occasionally peep over the sandbags and notice that empires were falling or rising.

Hunt around a little and it’s not so hard to find popular accounts discussing the fall of the Romanovs and the rise of the USSR, or the fall of the upstart Hohenzollerns and its impact on Germany’s future.  The rise of the USA and Japan to imperial status, albeit in rather different ways, has some resonance for modern media, particularly in those two countries but also across a world alert to the roots of the Second World War, while the state of twenty-first century geopolitics (and the outrage of Armenians) has meant that even the Ottoman Empire’s disappearance attracts a hint of heritage profile.

The common selling point that earns these empires, whether waxing or waning, at least a modicum of recognition by posterity is their direct connection to the most sensationally earth-shaking stories of the last hundred years.  The same can’t really be said of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was in the process of a more complete disappearance and has been largely ignored by the rest of the world ever since.  I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years trying to highlight the many ways in which the First World War shaped the future, our present, but today marks the centenary of a last, doomed attempt to preserve an empire, and with it a dynasty, that had helped shape Europe’s centuries-long transition from mediaeval to modern.

This isn’t the place for a potted history of the Habsburgs, and the map below is worth a thousand words, but the dynasty had ruled over vast tracts of Europe for hundreds of years, preserving and extending its power by the traditional (if ultimately unhealthy) method of marrying cousins to create kings.  The decline of the Holy Roman Empire as a geopolitical force, along with the loss of its possessions in Spain and the Low Countries, had significantly reduced the family’s power base by 1914, but the Austro-Hungarian monarchy still held sway over a globally significant chunk of central and eastern Europe.  By October 1918, with its economy atrophied, its politics in a state of revolutionary turmoil and powerful enemies at the gates, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was on life support, and on 16 October the last Habsburg emperor made a last, desperate bid to transform the wreckage into something sustainable.

There you go… ‘Habsburgia’ in all its glories.

The young Emperor, Karl I, had taken the throne in November 1916, too late for his moderate reformism to satisfy separatist elements already bent on full independence.  With no other course of action available, short of handing control of the Empire to Germany, Karl had clung to his reformist principles throughout the next two years, and in July 1917 he had appointed a prime minister with similar views.

Baron Max Hussarek von Heinlein – let’s just call him Hussarek – was a law professor who had served as minister of education under successive governments since 1911.  Committed to finding a constitutional means of reconciling Czech, Slav and Polish ambitions within a monarchic framework, Hussarek came up with a plan that earned royal approval and formed the basis of an imperial declaration released  on 16 October.  Known as the October Manifesto, the declaration proposed turning the Empire into a federation of small autonomous states, each given its own representative parliament, with the exception that Hungary was to remain a unitary kingdom.  The sop to Hungary was in effect an offer to spare that country the political consequences of defeat, at least in the short term, but while the Manifesto was never radical enough for separatist groups it was far too radical for the conservative elite still running Hungary.

 

This is Max Hussarek, the moderate reformer who tried to save an empire…
… and this is Sándor Wekerle, the diehard conservative who made sure it couldn’t be saved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hungarian premier Alexander Wekerle, an elderly conservative appointed to protect the interests of the dominant Hungarian landed class, had been no friend to Vienna since taking office in August 1917.  Forced by Karl (in his capacity as King of Hungary) to present some degree of constitutional reform to the Hungarian parliament – which rejected the proposals in late 1917 – Wekerle had retaliated by pushing demands for Hungarian control over half the Imperial army and by giving support to the increasingly popular republican movement inside Hungary.  He reacted to the October Manifesto by rejecting it and threatening an embargo on vital food exports to Austria if Karl pursued it further.

That was that for the October Manifesto, dead in the water after about two days – but although the failure came as no surprise to anyone, it did function as a signal for the Empire’s final disintegration.  Wekerle declared an independent Hungary on 19 October but, having neglected to abolish the monarchy, he was dismissed by Karl four days later and retired into private life, leaving Hungary prey to revolutionary forces that would define the country’s immediate future.  Hussarek also abandoned politics after his own resignation on 27 October, and his federal mirage evaporated with proclamations of independence by Czechoslovak and Yugoslav nationalists on 28 and 29 October respectively.

Proclaiming a Hungarian republic may have been premature, but it was popular – Budapest, 19 October 1918.

Without the means to force political control, because any remaining loyal troops were defending the Danube frontier or the Italian Front, Karl had no cards left to play.  He would agree an armistice with the Allies on 3 November, and abdicate on 11 November, but both were gestures after the fact.  His empire had already ceased to exist.

When the Austro-Hungarian Empire died, it left little to remember it by.  Imperial records are scarce, most having been destroyed by incoming regimes or outgoing officials, while central European historians have tended, understandably enough, to focus on histories of their own nations rather than that of the perceived oppressor dynasty.  They have a point.  Taken across several hundred years of almost unparalleled power in Europe, the Habsburgs hardly stand out as a boon to the societies they dominated.  Relentlessly inbred and almost exclusively concerned with the family’s status, Habsburg rulers sponsored some interesting art and plenty of exploration, but otherwise tended to feature as major obstacles to pretty much everything the modern world sees as progress.

It seems fitting enough that when this testament to blood as the arbiter of human affairs finally left the stage during the second half of October 1918, it went out with the October Manifesto, which definitely qualified as a whimper.  I’m less convinced that its destruction, a moment of belated triumph for modern values extracted from the disaster of the First World War, should be ignored a century later.

8 OCTOBER, 1918: What’s Going On?

I don’t have the cultural reach or the linguistic skills to interpret mass media’s take on the First World War in those parts of the modern world immune to Western, or apparently Western, historical perspectives. It seems unlikely, but I can’t be sure that Chinese, Ukrainian, Turkish or Iranian media aren’t bigging up the centenaries of a certifiably crazy world’s climactic death spasms, reminding populations that the planet’s modern geopolitical structures were created amid the frantic chaos of the Great War’s rush to conclusions. I can be sure that Western media, while maintaining their lachrymose commentaries on futility, deprivation and death, are keeping oddly quiet about the hurricane of military movement and political upheaval that was sweeping through the world in the autumn of 1918.

So why do the big, decisive events of the War’s latter stages merit so little commemoration compared with the meat-grinding failures of its earlier years? Why do the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele qualify for floods of retrospective tears and millions of platitudes from the heritage industry, while events that made a real difference to modern lives are buried for deep readers or completely ignored? Lots of possible reasons spring to mind, most of them boiling down to laziness or arrogance, depending on whether modifying the ‘static warfare’ narrative is deemed to be too much like hard work or too hard for the punters to swallow. Then again, it could be our own fault for buying into the doleful trench poetry so comprehensively and enthusiastically that media providers can’t find an audience for anything else, or it might simply be that we’re all too busy with today’s chaos to waste time getting serious about any kind of commemoration.

Whatever its roots, the eerie silence leaves a significant gap in common knowledge. In my experience, moderately well-informed people – folks with a sense of history but no specific training or obsessions – see the trench picture, absorb the narrative about static futility and then see the peace treaty that proclaimed its end, with nothing much in between. The overall picture appears simple: a disastrous, ill-conducted war concludes with a disastrous, ill-conceived peace and, Bob’s your uncle, a rotten system is launched along a straight road to dictators and another world war. There is some truth in there, but it’s no more useful than the ‘truth’ that humanity discovered fire and then bombed Hiroshima. We need the journey from A to B if we’re going to extract anything useful from history.

So all’s quiet on the heritage front during the first week of October 2018, yet a hundred years earlier the world was experiencing a few days of sensational and significant turmoil. More all-round earthshaking than anything seen since the heady, hopeful days of August 1914, the game-changing developments taking place all over the world in early October 1918 set the tone for the weeks that followed, leading up to the Armistice in November, and traced out fault lines that would destabilise the century to come. By way of illustration, here’s a fairly detailed look at a week of news that makes today’s Trumpery look trivial.

The Kingdom of Bulgaria had officially ceased fighting on 30 September, a Monday, and King Ferdinand would abdicate in favour of his son, Boris, before the week was out, but by 1 October this relatively minor triumph was barely worth a propaganda mention in the British press. That’s because bigger fish were being hooked in a hurry.

Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria – quick to sue for peace and destined for a turbulent, 25-year reign.

On the Western Front, battles were gleefully named, concluded and pronounced victorious as British and French armies advanced steadily east in Flanders and Champagne. Battles of the Canal du Nord, Ypres (again), the St. Quentin Canal and the Beaurevoir Line came and went, the Hindenburg line was reached and breached, so that by 5 October British forces were pushing east of Le Catelet, French divisions were advancing east of Reims and German forces had evacuated Lille. Further south, French and US forces, the latter at last operating at full strength and as a unified American command, were attacking northeast in the Meuse/Argonne sector, making progress that was only unspectacular by the new standards being set elsewhere.

Takes a bit of study, but this pretty much nails what was happening on the Western Front.

If the German Army was clearly on the ropes in France and Belgium, the Austro-Hungarian Army and Empire looked ready to collapse. A military remnant, demoralised and short of everything, was drawn up along the Danube frontier by 1 October, theoretically ready to defend the imperial heartlands from invasion, but nobody really expected it to fight. The Reichsrat (Austrian parliament) in Vienna spent the day in uproarious discussion of possible peace options, and on 4 October the government sent a note to US President Wilson proposing an armistice.

The German government sent its own note to Wilson on the same day, after a ‘national summit’ on 3 October, presided over by a panic-stricken Kaiser, had produced general acceptance of defeat and a radical change of administration. Ludendorff, Hindenburg and the rest of the Third Supreme Command simply transferred executive power to the Reichstag, intending to snipe from the sidelines while those they considered to blame for defeat were forced to make peace. German parliamentarians accepted the poisoned chalice in the hope of preventing the revolution that everyone inside Germany could see coming, and the new government led by Max von Baden wasted no time opening peace negotiations.

Wilson, who received the German request for peace talks on 6 October and the Austrian version the following day, was very much the go-to guy for peace talks. The United States of America has never before or since matched the global authority, popularity and prestige it enjoyed during the couple of years between its commitment to the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles. Where common sense and religion had failed more or less miserably to provide any kind of guidance or salvation, the USA spoke with the strictly liberal voice of its founding constitution, wielded sufficient economic and (potential) military might to make liberalism stick and, through its borderline messianic president, offered an apparently victimless blueprint for global healing.

Wilsonian magic was popular everywhere, even in those Latin American states being ravished by US corporations with Washington’s help, and the literate, Western world pretty much held its breath in anticipation of the President’s response to Berlin and Vienna. Wilson, a messiah hedged around by political considerations, fudged it, keeping the remaining Central Powers onside while respecting the stated war aims of his European allies by insisting, on 8 October, that withdrawal from all territorial conquests was the first pre-condition for peace talks. The world breathed out and, for now, the War went on.

The more self-important British newspapers in 1918 didn’t really do headlines. Americans did.

Amid the fanfares from the Western Front, the glimpses of peace to come and all the usual action reports (the wars at sea and in the air were still providing a regular diet of disaster and derring-do), British newspapers still needed room to report a bumper crop of major events elsewhere, many of them rich in implications for the post-War world.

In the Middle East, the long-awaited fall of Damascus took place on 1 October, but British and Arab forces reached the city at about the same time, leaving their alliance on a knife edge and direct confrontation a distinct possibility. Tensions cooled after 3 October, when British c-in-c Allenby and Arab leaders reached a provisional agreement to officially recognise the Arab nations as belligerent states, guaranteeing them a voice in the peace process.

Meanwhile the Ottoman war effort had breathed its last. Anglo-French naval forces occupied Beirut on 7 October – having found it abandoned by Ottoman forces the previous day – just as the reckless, fantasist Young Turk regime in Constantinople was mimicking its German counterparts, resigning en masse and handing the task of clearing up to a moderate parliamentarian cabinet. New grand vizier Izzet Pasha immediately opened peace negotiations with the Allies, but by the time agreement on an armistice was reached on 30 October Enver and his senior colleagues had fled to revolutionary Russia aboard German ships. Izzet’s administration was widely believed to have facilitated Enver’s escape, and was forced to resign on 11 November, after which the heart of the Ottoman Empire (or more accurately its surviving rump) came under relatively short-term military occupation by the Allies, of which more another day.

Once a place is conquered, you march through it in triumph, so that’s what the British did in Damascus on 2 October, 1918.

The deaths of empires give birth to new states, and this week’s first major proclamation of European statehood came on 5 October, when formation of a Yugoslav National Council at Agram marked the first (but not last) attempt to unite the northern Balkans as a single nation. Three days later, Polish nationalist leaders issued their demands for a representative national government, and on the same day the Spanish cabinet resigned, triggering a change of government that made little difference to the military’s effective and oppressive grip on power over that well-established but decrepit state. Far away from Europe, in another ancient and crumbling state, the republican Chinese government at Canton declared war on the Emperor’s regime in Beijing, formalising a multi-faceted civil conflict that would rage almost uninterrupted for more than thirty years.

Like the fate of Bulgaria, all these stories were mere background news, as were the sporadic actions of Allied forces around Archangelsk and Japanese divisions in Siberia.  The same could be said of actions on and around the Italian front, which amounted to a few minor infantry seizures of Austro-Hungarian positions along with regular bombing raids, the usual naval skirmishes and Italy’s ongoing military occupation of Albania.  Rather more column inches were being devoted – in British, French and Italian newspapers – to demands for the Italian Army to launch a full offensive against the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the theatre, but Italian c-in-c Diaz was in no hurry to comply.  Despite increasing pressure from Allied strategists and his own government, especially expansionist foreign minister Sonino, who eventually threatened him with the sack, Diaz held out until the end of the month before sending his fragile army into action.  Italy rejoiced, but its hour of triumph would be over in a matter of days.  A country that had entered the conflict in search of conquests to ease a national inferiority complex would end the War with its collective appetite for expansion whetted but not satisfied.

Italians occupying Berat Albania… the way Italians saw it.

Those are just the noisier headlines from a wild and crazy week in October 1918, displayed as pointers to some of the ways in which they shaped modern life. I plan to say more about most of them as their stories unfold, and to spin a few words about various other chunks of geopolitical architecture under construction as the Great War ground to a halt, but for now this has been an attempt to shine some light on huge, crucial changes to the world that nobody with a modern audience can be bothered to mention.

15 JUNE, 1918: Pawn Sacrifice

A century ago today, one of the First World War’s architects launched his last, unlikely bid for military glory.  It went the way of most wartime plans laid by Field Marshal Conrad von Hötzendorf, the former chief of staff to the Austro-Hungarian Army and latterly in command of its forces on the Trentino sector of the Italian Front, and its failure ended the war on the Italian Front as a serious contest.

Conrad was only partly responsible for the shambles known to posterity as the Second Battle of the Piave River, and although it served as a fitting epitaph for one of modern history’s great forgotten villains (11 September, 1914: Bad Day For The Bad Guy), it was also a stark illustration of Austria-Hungary’s reduced status as the pawn of a German imperial regime that was ready to sacrifice anything and anyone, on almost any off chance, to prevent its own extinction.

One last look at the forgotten arch-villain – Field Marshal Franz, Count Conrad von Hötzendorf; one bad general.

There was nothing new about great powers trying to improve their wartime prospects by sacrificing smaller countries.  When the First World War began, land fighting erupted on three main battlefronts, known to posterity as the Western, Eastern and Southern (or Serbian) Fronts.  Expansion followed.  It began with imperial greed, otherwise known as seizing German colonial territories, but soon developed a more existential edge with the creation of ‘sideshows’.

Sideshows came in more than one form.  Some were the product of British and French lateral thinking, as the ghastly conditions on the European fronts encouraged some strategists in both countries to seek alternative routes to victory.  The disastrous attempt to attack the Ottoman Empire through the Dardanelles and the shambolic tilt at reaching Austria-Hungary from Salonika fell into this category. Others were essentially accidents.  The British invasion of Mesopotamia was in effect a forward defence of oil resources at Basra that got ridiculously out of hand, and the subsequent invasion of Palestine stemmed from a similarly inflated programme for defending Cairo and the Suez Canal, though by that time the British high command had found good strategic reasons for dominating the post-War Middle East.

Two theatres of war regarded by contemporaries as sideshows were genuine wars waiting to happen, conflicts between two would-be aggressors.  The war in the Caucasus was a frontier battle between the Russian Empire and the Central Powers.  As such it was in many ways an extension of the Eastern Front, but qualified as a sideshow on diplomatic and geographical grounds.  Its genesis lay in Germany’s recruitment of Ottoman Turkey as an ally in late 1914, and Germany’s use of that alliance to distract its enemies from other fronts, while the fighting took place in a region that was of secondary strategic importance to both empires involved.  The war on the Italian Front was a frontier battle between an increasingly arthritic Austro-Hungarian Empire and a young nation with imperial ambitions.  It was geographically central to the strategic interests of several powers, but it was otherwise a classic sideshow.

Once bribed into the War in pursuit of extravagant prizes promised by the Entente powers, Italy became a means of distracting the Central Powers from the main fronts, bullied by the British and French (and to a lesser extent the Russians) into attacking whenever it best suited their wider plans.  In the eyes of Anglo-French strategists, the purpose of the Italian Front was to keep Austro-Hungarian strength pinned down and force Germany into diverting forces from the Western Front.  So far, so sideshow – and although Italian ambitions were limited to the territories just north of the frontier, the standard sideshow dream ticket was also in play, with some Anglo-French optimists (and journalists) imagining an Italian victory so comprehensive that it knocked Austria-Hungary out of the War and threatened southern Germany.

Like all wartime Allied sideshows except the invasion of Palestine (which was conceived and executed with a thoroughness born of experience, in good fighting conditions against an enemy already close to collapse), the Italian campaign went horribly wrong before it went at all right, and by 1918 the it was looking like a very expensive Allied mistake.  An almost continuous series of Italian offensives, many of them ordered in support of Allied operations elsewhere, failed to achieve anything except massive expenditure of lives and resources.  Meanwhile the Austro-Hungarian Army remained largely untroubled in its mountain strongholds, and brought Italy to the brink of defeat whenever it was given enough German support to mount an attack of its own.  By the end of 1917 the Allies were diverting resources from the Western Front to shore up Italian defences, while the Central Powers were on the brink of a breakthrough into the Italian heartlands.

Fast forward to the spring of 1918, and the situation has changed. The Italian line at the River Piave has held, thanks to the arrival of troops and equipment from France and Britain, along with a thorough reorganisation of an Italian Army under new command. The Austro-Hungarian Army has meanwhile lost its German reinforcements, withdrawn to fight on the Western Front, leaving it to hold forward positions with levels of manpower, supplies, equipment and morale that reflected the Empire’s crumbling chaos. In other words, the Allies had started taking the Italian Front seriously and Germany, which had followed Austria-Hungary into the War as a coalition ally, was treating it as a sideshow.

Italian soldiers at the Piave in 1918 – in much better shape now Allied supplies had arrived.

I’ve talked before about the extent to which Austria-Hungary’s war effort had come to depend on Germany (31 March, 1917: The Right Charlie), and about the Empire’s internal disintegration under wartime pressures (24 January, 1918: All We Are Saying…).  By the time its spring offensive on the Western Front was being prepared in early 1918, the German Third Supreme Command recognised that Austria-Hungary was probably doomed to extinction and certainly offered no positive help as an ally.  Its response, bang in character, was to treat Vienna as a chattel, and Austria-Hungary – like Greece, Portugal, Romania or any other country abused by belligerents as a sideshow chattel – soon found itself hung out to dry for the benefit of its masters.

The Third Supreme Command had been pushing for an Austro-Hungarian offensive in Italy since February 1918, in the hope of diverting Allied (and particularly arriving US) forces away from its planned spring offensive on the Western Front.  Austro-Hungarian Army chief of staff Arz von Straussenberg was well aware that apparent superiority in divisional numbers on the Italian front masked the shrunken condition of most units, and that the Italian Army was drawn up in good defensive positions at the Piave.  He might conceivably have refused to comply with German demands – because it was obviously the sensible thing to do – but that would have meant his certain dismissal in favour of someone more cooperative.  It would also have brought down the wrath of his own front commanders, Field Marshal Boroevic at the Piave and, commanding the Trentino sector to the west, Conrad.

Conrad, his enthusiasm undimmed for attack as the best form of everything, had been lobbying for reinforcements to mount an offensive ever since the previous autumn’s Caporetto Offensive had ground to a halt.  Boroevic, whose relationship with Conrad was rivalrous and hostile, was at first against any form of attacking strategy but seems to have changed his mind and demanded reinforcements for his own sector as a matter of personal honour. Arz von Straussenberg responded by agreeing to mount an attack, committing virtually every available soldier to the operation and dividing his strength for a two-pronged strike.  This was a fine idea given the necessary resources, as demonstrated by the early successes of the very similar German operation in France.  Given the actual condition of the attacking forces it was a form of dramatic suicide akin to the Franco-Spanish decision to send their battered old fleets out to face Nelson at Trafalgar.

Planned at the usual ponderous pace – slow, even by First World War standards – the Austro-Hungarian offensive was eventually ready to rumble in June.  By that time, despite repeated and ongoing attempts to exploit its early successes, the German Army’s hopes of a game-changing victory in France were fading, and with them the Third Supreme Command’s hopes of securing (at the very least) a negotiated, conditional end to hostilities.  Even the major Austro-Hungarian success envisaged by blinkered optimists like  Conrad, and to a lesser extent Arz von Straussenberg, wasn’t going to change that narrative.

And so, on 10 June, Boroevic sent his Fifth and Sixth Armies across the Paive near the coast.  They advanced a few kilometres before Italian counterattacks forced them into retreat on 19 June.  Conrad launched the second phase of the offensive in the Trentino on 15 June, but made no significant gains, became bogged down around the town of Asiago and lost 40,000 men in a week.  Meanwhile a botched attempt to re-cross the river exposed the Fifth and Sixth Armies to strong flank attacks, and their losses had passed 150,000 by the time they eventually reached relative safety on 22 June.

When fighting died down next day, the offensive had achieved none of its aims and had no discernible effect on Allied Western Front operations.  Its abject failure dealt another blow to Emperor Karl’s floundering attempt to hold his empire together, and from 23 June 1918 the Austro-Hungarian Army ceased to exist as an effective fighting force.  Desertions went unchecked, many commanders simply went home and the skeleton force facing well-equipped Allied units across the Piave wasn’t fooling anyone. Italian c-in-c Diaz simply had to decide when to brush it aside, and he decided to wait for the relative cool of the autumn.

Italian c-in-c Armando Diaz – more flexible about tactics than his predecessor, and luckier.

Pointless, doomed from the start and mounted at the behest of serial gamblers blind to even the longest odds… if you’re looking for donkeys to blame, or another good reason to revile the legacy of swivel-eyed militarists like Ludendorff and Conrad, look no further than the ritual sacrifice of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s last military adventure.

24 JANUARY, 1918: All We Are Saying…

Fighting on the wartime Western and Italian Fronts never really stopped, and British imperial forces were keeping reasonably busy with minor operations against Ottoman garrisons in the Middle East, but broadly speaking the First World War’s guns were pretty quiet during January 1918.  As was the way during such interludes, preparations for future campaigns were in progress, but the absence of potentially world-changing military action also gave war-weary civilian populations a moment to consider their futures. This was particularly true for millions of socialists who had been on the cusp of significant political progress all over Europe before the War’s injection of nationalist fervour stifled their ambitions, and particularly incendiary in those belligerent empires under the most acute economic and social stress.

Though Ottoman Turkey was under acute stress, it was barely industrialised and had no socialist tradition to speak of, so its largely rural population remained disorganised, incapable of coherent protest while it suffered and starved.  Not so the politically sophisticated workers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian heartlands, who reacted to the bleak midwinter of early 1918 with an eruption of mass discontent that dwarfed any previous protest in either state.  It began in Austria-Hungary, and a hundred years ago today the winter’s first wave of mass strikes in Vienna was halted on the brink of all-out revolution.

Vienna was no stranger to wartime civil discontent. Food shortages had been a critical problem in the city since the brutal winter of 1916–17, when strikes had swept Vienna and spread south to the industrialised parts of Upper Styria.  News of the February Revolution in Russia sparked a further wave of unrest in the capital, culminating in a strike of more than 40,000 metal workers in May 1917.  They soon went back to work, but only after relatively moderate Social Democrat politicians had won important concessions from the government, including the relaxation of censorship, decriminalisation of public meetings and the recall of the Austrian parliament (Reichsrat), which had been dissolved in 1914.

Russia’s October Revolution had a similarly slow-burning but even more profound impact on workers in distant countries.  The subsequent return of PoWs to Austria-Hungary from the Eastern Front raised the number and intensity of socialist agitators within the empire, and the Bolshevik commitment to immediate peace raised hopes of an end to the conflict.  Meanwhile news of US President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, a putative blueprint for peace based on liberal values and the principle of ethnic self-determination, encouraged popular expectations of fair post-War treatment from the Allies.

Hard times in Vienna, 1918, as painted by Josef Engelhart.

Anger at delays to the peace process at Brest-Litovsk, popularly blamed on the Central Powers’ demands for territorial annexations, was already fuelling calls for strike action when desperate urban food shortages forced the government to halve the bread and flour rations, on 14 January.  The dangerous brew of war-weariness, hope and frustration ignited into furious protest.   Workers at the Daimler factory in the industrial town of Wiener Neustadt, just south of Vienna, immediately struck for peace (rather than improved pay or conditions), and by 20 January some three-quarters of a million workers around the empire had joined them, amid a wave of peace protests and food riots.  Strikes hit the empire’s armaments, railway and metal industries, along with printing, retail and dozens of other domestic trades, and a few days later engulfed the industrially developed Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, once nationalist leaders had made it clear that Czech workers were acting independently from their Austrian counterparts.

For several days, as strikers organised themselves into workers’ councils (or soviets), the situation lurched out of control and revolution appeared imminent – but, as in May 1917, the Social Democrats played the role of intermediaries.  The largest party in the Reichsrat, and openly committed to ending the War since 1916, they were able to take control of the politically inexperienced soviets and negotiate with the (well-meaning but deeply reactionary) government of Emperor Karl to win further concessions, including the introduction of a minimum wage.  These were enough to convince a majority of workers’ groups to halt their action.  Strikers in Vienna began returning to their jobs on 21 January, and most strikes were officially called off three days later.

If revolution had been staved off for the moment, Austria-Hungary was hardly calm.  New strikes, demanding peace and an end to imperialist greed at Brest-Litovsk, broke out all over Austria, Bohemia and Moravia during the next ten days, and the government was forced to break up street protests using troops.  Though the Army gradually restored a fragile semblance of order during the first week of February – at least in Vienna – it had become dangerously unreliable as an instrument of state policy.   Troops from the empire’s non-German provinces frequently joined protesters, a pacifist mutiny broke out at the garrison town of Judenburg, which was also a major steel production centre, and the Navy put down a brief mutiny at the Adriatic naval base of Cattaro (now Kotor in Montenegro).

Vienna calmed down a little during the spring, but Austria-Hungary as whole remained in a volatile and precarious condition, wracked by civilian shortages, on the edge of disintegration into its ethnic components and crumbling from the ground up under revolutionary socialist pressure.  The next crisis would be along in the early summer, by which time the end of the centuries-old Habsburg Empire was near.

Bad moon rising… national groupings in the pre-War Austro-Hungarian Empire.

When Vienna erupted in mid-January, the German Third Supreme Command had been considering annexation of its principal ally (an issue since the 1870s, when the rest of German-speaking central Europe united as one nation under Prussia), but by the end of the month Germany was facing its own socio-political crisis.

Food shortages no less acute than those in Austria-Hungary, the same angst around the Brest-Litovsk/Fourteen Points equation, and an opportunist desire to exploit the revolutionary atmosphere coming out of Vienna prompted a call to strike by Berlin union organisers.  It began on 28 January, and by the end of the day half a million workers had downed tools.  Revolutionary German socialists (of whom more another day) organised a central Action Committee that drew up a list of demands inspired by Bolshevik peace proposals at Brest-Litovsk – but while the government sent troops to break up factory meetings, and the far left demanded revolution on the spot, the protest was being hijacked by the moderate reformists of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the smaller but more streetwise Independent Social Democratic Party (USDP).

Invited to join the Action Committee by the far left – by celebrity revolutionary theorist and activist Rosa Luxemburg, to be precise – the SDP found allies in union organisers shocked by the scale of revolutionary activity they had unleashed.  Violent clashes between strikers and scab workers on 30 January cemented moderate left-wing determination to end the strike, and while the SDP orchestrated calls for negotiation, it’s leader, Friedrich Ebert, announced his support for further military intervention by the state. Thus encouraged, the government began arresting radical strike leaders on 31 January, and threatened to impose martial law in Berlin if the strikes were not called off by 4 February.

Berlin, 28 January 1918: strikers outside the trade union building… and an announcement in the 2 February issue of the SDP newspaper, ‘Vorwaerts’, that martial law was coming.

Union leaders in Berlin obliged with a day to spare, but unrest had meanwhile spread across the military/industrial heartlands of northern Germany, affecting (among other towns and cities) Kiel, Dusseldorf, Nuremburg, Augsburg, Hamburg and Cologne.  The military moved in hard and fast.  Mass arrests, the execution of 150 ringleaders, and the conscription some 50,000 strikers for service with occupation forces in Eastern Europe had brought organised strike action to an end by about 11 February.

Watched keenly by Allied and neutral observers at the time, the Austro-Hungarian and German strikes of early 1918 barely register with the modern commemorative industries.   Even big-picture historians generally give them no more than a passing mention as a preamble to the full-scale revolutions that followed military defeat. That may have been their status in Austria-Hungary, but the German strikes were in themselves an important turning point.

Radical elements behind the mass spread of industrial unrest in late January clearly failed to achieve their stated aim of immediate peace without annexations or indemnities, and failure sharpened the angry frustration of pacifists and revolutionaries in Germany – but the strikes did provide a shock to the ruling Third Supreme Command, and it reacted in typical fashion by doubling down.  Having gambled against the odds in search of military success by pinning everything on submarine warfare, and in search of economic salvation by attempting to run an empire in Eastern Europe, Ludendorff and his ultra-conservative cabal faced the rising tide of revolution the only way they had ever known how, with another desperate roll of the dice.

More than ever convinced that a crushing victory over the Allies, and only that, would frighten the unruly German population into long-term obedience, Germany’s leaders intensified pressure for annexations at Brest-Litovsk, clamped down ruthlessly on  popular dissent and pressed ahead with plans for a major spring offensive on the Western Front.  In other words they lit the blue touch paper, at home and abroad, and hoped for the best, a climactic moment of madness that seems well worth remembering.  My other, rather flimsy excuse for featuring the January strikes is their reminder of the enormous differences, in aims and methods, between social democrats and socialist revolutionaries in 1918, a distinction that remains relevant today, particularly but by no means only in the UK.

31 MARCH, 1917: The Right Charlie

A century ago today, a secret proposal for peace talks reached the French president in the form of a letter from the Austro-Hungarian emperor, Karl I.  The diplomatic grapevine had been alive with whispers of Vienna’s willingness to negotiate since Karl’s coronation as King of Hungary at the end of 1916, when he had confirmed his reputation as a peace-loving moderate by promising to seek a settlement. Though evidently well intentioned, the peace proposal was a clumsy, half-baked and naive attempt to end a conflict that was patently wrecking the Austro-Hungarian Empire beyond salvation, and achieved nothing positive.  That rather summed up poor old Karl’s brief reign.

To be fair, few modern monarchs have come to their thrones in more difficult circumstances.  Karl’s great-uncle, the Emperor Franz-Josef, had been occupying the imperial throne for 68 years when he died in November 1916, so a sense of major change came with the territory. Karl, who was a cavalry officer when he became heir presumptive on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, spent about nine months at court between the summer of 1915 and May 1916, but was otherwise attached to field units and came to power with little training for the job.  He inherited an empire in almost every kind of trouble, mired in ghastly military deadlock on two fronts, well on the way to economic collapse and hurtling towards social breakdown – but while his brand of tentative liberalism was enough to alienate conservatives, and to provide encouragement for the many forces demanding change, it never came close to satisfying anyone.

Karl’s reform attempts kept pouring water on oil fires.  He appointed a series of reformist prime ministers in Austria, beginning with agriculture minister Heinrich Clam-Martinic in December 1916, and pursued the same line in Hungary after the removal of the stubbornly nationalist Count Tisza the following May, but none of them impressed separatist or republican opinion and none lasted long.  Karl’s recall of the imperial parliament, the Reichsrat, merely confirmed the paralysing depth of national and political divisions within the Empire, while his decision to release the Empire’s most high-profile political prisoners served only to strengthen his opponents.

The new regime did try to rationalise an economy that was manifestly failing to meet the challenge of total war, but development of an elaborate new bureaucratic structure during 1917 achieved nothing in practice, and arms production for 1918 fell below 1914 levels.  The King-Emperor also increased his influence over the military by putting an end to Conrad’s catastrophic tenure as Army chief of staff (14 May, 1916: Bad Hand? All In!), and treating his replacement, the altogether more pliant General Arz von Straussenberg, as a glorified personal advisor.  That backfired when Karl went on to ban duels, flogging, bombing of civilian targets and most use of poison gas, a set of highly commendable reforms that outraged most senior Army commanders.

Allied blockade, German demands and Hungarian hoarding meant food shortages were a big problem in Vienna by 1917.

Despite the obvious onset of imperial entropy, Karl still saw some small chance that the monarchy could survive, at the head of what he envisioned as a multinational federation, if he could succeed in bringing peace to the Empire and claiming the credit.  The idea chimed with the strongly pro-Allied views of his influential French-Italian wife, Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, and Karl’s first attempt to save the world, the proposal for negotiations received by President Poincaré on 31 March 1917, was delivered through her family.  It destined to go horribly wrong, of course.

What became known as the Sixtus Affair began in late March as preliminary talks between French officials and Princess Zita’s brothers, Belgian Army officers Sixtus and Xavier Bourbon-Parma. Apparently sanctioned by Austro-Hungarian foreign minister Czernin, a figure generally known for his clear pro-German views, talks were sufficiently encouraging to prompt the more formal approach to Poincaré, but from that moment Austrian hopes faded fast.  With no sign that Vienna could exert the slightest influence over German determination to fight on, or that Austria-Hungary was ready to risk a unilateral arrangement, the letter to Poincaré was simply ignored by Allied leaders.

Sixtus, Xavier and their French mother. The Swiss-born princes were considered too noble to be allowed into a French Army still very big on the revolutionary principles of the 1790s, so they fought for Belgium.

They were right, and Karl knew it.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire was by now dependent for survival on German military and economic support.  If the German Third Supreme Command, already eying his regime with acute suspicion, were to catch him feeding at the peace trough, support was sure to be withdrawn or expanded to the point of conquest, either of which meant curtains for the Empire. Suitably cowed, Karl made no further attempts to make peace with the Allies before the early summer of 1918, by which time it was far too late because the Sixtus Affair had come back to bite him.

Sending a secret document to the enemy without telling your allies is a pretty obvious hostage to fortune, and the peace bid of March 1917 gifted the Allies an opportunity to disrupt relations between Berlin and Vienna at a time of their choosing.  French premier Georges Clemenceau, the wily, aggressive nationalist who took office in November 1917 on a platform of war to the finish (and of whom plenty more another day), chose the spring of 1918 to reveal records of the Sixtus proposals, and achieved just the effect he was looking for.  The German Third Supreme Command reacted by forcing Czernin’s dismissal and imposing formal economic and military union between Germany and Austria-Hungary in May, at which point Karl lost any hope of significantly influencing, let alone controlling the collapse of his Empire.  The rest is a history of small central European countries dominated by powerful German and Russian neighbours.

Whatever Karl I tried to achieve, and no matter how enlightened his earnest pursuit of peaceful power sharing may appear to modern eyes, in 1917 he appeared weak-willed and volatile to everyone except other moderate liberals.  Despised by the right and the left, by diehard imperialists and committed nationalists, and with no Habsburg institutions left to defend his reputation after an early death – from pneumonia on 1 April 1922, while in exile on the island of Madeira – he was an easy target for central European commentators heavily influenced by the political extremes of the mid-twentieth century.

Popular anglophone history hasn’t really moved on from there. It still generally dismisses the last Habsburg emperor as a dithering weakling (and calls him Charles I), but in doing so reveals its blindness to perspective.  While it would be ridiculous to portray Karl’s short reign as any kind of success (despite the longstanding campaign by some Austrian Catholics to have him canonised), it might be more appropriate to commemorate him with reference to Mikhail Gorbachev – the last ruler of another empire, a man who met similar problems with similar responses, and a figure consistently glorified by the same heritage salesmen.

Who? Me?

21 OCTOBER, 1916: Snapshot

Austria and Hungary tend to escape the discredit they deserve for their roles in the First World War.  This is largely because they have since become modest, periodically oppressed nations with no pretensions to global clout.  While Britain, Germany, Russia, France and Italy all remained important actors in the post-War geopolitical narrative, and the Ottoman Empire retained at least a semblance of religious coherence after its collapse in 1918, imperial disintegration instantly transformed Austria and Hungary from world powers into small-time bystanders.  At the same time, the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire entailed mass destruction of its institutional records, and that encouraged a generalised denial of responsibility for its actions among its various populations.  In other words, circumstances and the self-interest of survivors combined to promote the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s quiet erasure from modern popular history.

That’s a shame, both because the Empire is central to the developmental history of modern Europe, and because Austria-Hungary’s wartime story was wild and crazy stuff.  Today marks the centenary of the assassination of Austrian premier Count von Stürgkh by Friedrich Adler, the son of Austrian socialist leader Viktor Adler, an event that summed up the Empire’s condition quite nicely.

Karl Count von Stürgkh had just turned fifty-two, and had made his name as a trenchant conservative during two years as Austrian education minister, when he was appointed Austrian minister-president in November 1911.  He had since dedicated himself to maintenance of the Empire under autocratic, Germanic government, and his policies had provoked persistent opposition from socialists and separatist nationalists, above all from Czechs.  His response had been to suspend the Austrian parliament in March 1914, after which he ruled by royal decree, a move that had the predictable effect of driving opposition away from institutions and onto the streets.

Wartime Czech nationalism was a well-organised, politically sophisticated movement that made its presence felt all over Europe.
Wartime Czech nationalism was a well-organised, politically sophisticated movement that made its presence felt all over Europe.

Once war broke out, Stürgkh introduced rigid press censorship and restriction of public assembly rights, while allowing the military to infiltrate civil bureaucracy and policing.  His approach drove opposition closer to open revolt but was seen as insufficiently forceful by extreme militarists, a powerful influence at the Emperor’s court and a group that could have given the Russian nobility lessons in rabid conservatism.  He had therefore become thoroughly unpopular on all sides, but was still rigidly attached to policies that promoted exactly the imperial break-up he was determined to avoid, when he was shot and killed by Friedrich Adler in the dining room of a Viennese hotel.

Three shots killed Graf von Stürgkh, as seen here.
Three shots killed Stürgkh, as seen here.

Born into a wealthy Jewish family, Friedrich Adler had been a physicist and mathematician, a close friend of Albert Einstein at the University of Zurich, before abandoning academic life in 1911 and moving to Vienna to work as a journalist in the cause of socialist revolution.  His father, Victor Adler, was Vienna’s best-known social democrat, a major figure in the Second International and an advocate of federalism and autonomy for the peoples of the Empire.

Adler Senior’s passionate commitment to unification of the Empire’s various socialist groups had fallen foul of Czech refusal to operate as anything other than a national movement, and of his own position in support of Austria-Hungary’s war effort. While Victor Adler saw the War as a struggle against the greater evil of imperial Russian expansionism, Friedrich and the left wing held to the pre-War socialist view of international conflict as combat between oppressors fought by the oppressed. The two squabbled loud and often over the matter, and at thirty-seven Friedrich evidently retained a teenager’s love for angry drama – or so some Viennese commentators concluded when unable to find a better explanation for his extraordinary resort to murder on 21 October 1916.

If the younger Adler expected Stürgkh’s violent death to spark any change in the government’s rigidly conservative position, let alone any kind of revolution, he was naive, pretty much out on his own and destined to be disappointed.  Stürgkh was replaced by the more moderate Körber, while political and separatist agitation continued to escalate all over the Empire, but contemporaries recognised that the real agents of change in Austria-Hungary that autumn were a bad harvest and the death, in November, of the elderly Emperor Franz Josef.

Critical food shortages multiplied the problems facing a government already coping with extreme military over-extension, attacks on its eastern frontiers, the collapse of most non-military industry and strident bids for autonomy from all its component nations.  Under these circumstances the vaguely liberal instincts of the new Emperor, Karl I – which did bring a shift in the monarchy’s stance, from diehard to dithering – did nothing to prolong the regime’s survival.  Amid this tidal wave of change swamping the political landscape, the sensational killing of an unpopular premier created no more than a ripple so brief and insignificant that it didn’t even do serious damage to the career of either Adler.

Friedrich was found guilty of the murder in 1917, after toying with an insanity defence, but Emperor Karl avoided creation of a martyr by commuting the death sentence to eighteen years in prison.  Like other politically connected prisoners, Friedrich was released just before the Armistice, and he emerged as a committed social democrat, going on to play a significant role in the creation of post-War Austria.  His father meanwhile continued to work within the existing political system, rejected calls for a Bolshevik-style revolution in Austria, and became foreign minister of a provisional, post-imperial Austrian government in October 1918.  By then he was one of the most influential voices calling for post-War ‘re-unification’ of Austria and Germany (subsequently vetoed by the victorious Allies), but he had long been a sick man and died on Armistice Day, 1918.

Stürgkh and the two Adlers were all major players in the political maelstrom at the centre of the wartime Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like those of the military in general, the Emperor and his courtiers, their various actions and ideas proved completely powerless against the entropy unleashed once political and economic norms had broken down across the Empire as a whole. I’m bothering to commemorate their shared moment in the headlines of October 1916, and its failure to change anything much, because they offer a snapshot of the extremes to which Austro-Hungarian politics had fled in time of crisis, and because they shine a little light on a time and place that were important to the history of South-Eastern, Eastern and Central Europe, but have been largely ignored by English-speaking posterity. Oh, and because anything that reminds anyone how extreme politics generally fail to resolve crises, and frequently exacerbate them, seems worth talking about in October 2016.

14 MAY, 1916: Bad Hand? All In!

First of all, apologies for the condition of Poppycock’s brain last week. Foreign travel, sport and associated misdemeanours left it addled and exhausted by the time it came to contemplate the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and with hindsight I’m not too impressed with its work. Ah well, at least a spell of feeble-minded lassitude sets the right tone for today’s foray into folly, because it’s time to check in on the shambles that was Austria-Hungary in 1916.

A century ago today, Austro-Hungarian forces launched their first offensive on the Italian Front.  Known as the Trentino Offensive, or sometimes as the Asiago Offensive, after the town near the centre of the heaviest fighting, it was planned by Austrian chief of staff Conrad, a man whose obsessive militarism and blind optimism made him one of the First World War’s great unsung villains (11 September, 1914: Bad Day For The Bad Guy).  The operation was intended to fulfil his longstanding fantasy of cutting off the Italian armies that had been attacking Austrian positions further east, on the River Isonzo, since June 1915.  Here’s the theatre map, by way of a reminder.

BB97Y7 The three theatres of war on the Austro Italian Frontier 1915. 1. Trentino . 2. Carnic Alps. 3. Isonzo Front.
Action areas on the Italian Front: 1. Trentino . 2. Carnic Alps. 3. Isonzo.

Conrad was in some ways a very lucky commander. For one thing, he was still in his job after almost two years of expensive military failure, thanks largely to lack of serious competition in a command corps that had long since fossilised around an ageing Emperor’s courtly appointments.  What’s more, German support had saved the Empire from the immediate consequences of Conrad’s strategic and organisational blunders.  Most of these followed from an unshakable faith in launching offensives, followed by more offensives, regardless of his armies’ actual capacities at any given moment, backed by a fixed belief, based on no evidence obvious to anyone else, that each would bring total victory.

In spite of Conrad and the general inefficiency of Austro-Hungarian military action, German help meant the conquest of Serbia was complete by the spring of 1916, and an essentially positive position of stability had been achieved on the Eastern Front.  Meanwhile on the Italian Front, where Imperial forces had successfully defended their lines without German aid, the comprehensive failure of the latest Italian Isonzo Offensive, in March, brought a lull in the fighting.  This, at last, was a chance for the Empire to pause for much-needed recuperation, reorganisation and reinforcement.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire’s need for a pause was even more urgent than that of its theoretical peers.  Without the industrial strength in depth, infrastructural and bureaucratic organisation, national unity or autocratic leeway that, in various combinations, helped Germany, France, Britain and Russia respond to the demands of total war, Austria-Hungary (pictured below) had been in crisis when the War began and was in danger of disintegrating before it ended.

Austro_Hungary_1000

Quite apart from the territorial disputes with Russia, Serbia and Italy that took Vienna to war (not to mention a squabble between Hungary and Romania over part of Transylvania that would later extend it), the Empire had faced major internal problems in 1914. Separatist movements were gathering strength among the Empire’s Poles, Slovaks, Slavs and Czechs, while all was far from well between Austria and Hungary.  The Hungarian government opposed Vienna’s plans for military expansion, and was working to increase industrial Austria’s already considerable dependence on Hungarian agricultural produce.

These problems had temporarily evaporated amid the bellicose euphoria of August 1914, and the Empire’s ruling elites had, like their German counterparts, watched in happy amazement as a multiracial population (Bosnians aside) rushed to mobilise in a noisy display of national unity– but other weaknesses remained.

A clumsy bureaucracy and command structure, easily dominated from a faction-ridden centre, was no more equipped for the sudden demands of modern, industrial warfare than a supply system that evolved into something like the German model, but without the efficiency provided by Germany’s War Materials Department (the KRA). Run by and for Austria’s major landed and industrial interests, central associations formed to control individual resources and commodities unbalanced the impact of war on the economy, concentrating vast profits in a few hands while leaving small or medium-sized businesses out of the equation.

Meanwhile tension between Austria and Hungary mounted steadily as the War progressed from optimism through disappointment to stalemate and hardship.  A poor harvest in 1914, devastation of grain belts on the Eastern Front and Hungarian premier Count Tisza’s national approach to food resources had already combined to create food shortages in urban Austria by early 1915.  Later that year, Tisza ended customs union and restricted food exports to occasional surpluses, while Allied blockade began to stifle overseas imports and overland trade with Italy ceased – but the government in Vienna was never sufficiently organised to impose a centralised food policy or systematic rationing.

So by the time the Empire’s three fronts all went quiet in 1916, the civilian population was hungry and poor, the Army had been bled white and was short of supplies across the board, and cracks were starting to appear in the surprisingly durable loyalty of soldiers from ethnic groups, especially Slavs and Czechs.  Something needed to be done while the going was, if not good, at least steady – but it was entirely typical of Conrad that he treated the breathing space as an opportunity to fling every available unit into one more shot at the big time.  Letting him get on with it was equally characteristic of the regime he served.

Though refused German support for his offensive, because chief of staff Falkenhayn was still pouring everything he had into the mincing machine at Verdun, Conrad massed 18 divisions of troops and some 2,000 guns (including several gigantic Schlanke Emma howitzers) in the Trentino sector during early May.  Meanwhile the Italian chief of staff, General Cadorna, helped Conrad’s cause by sticking with his own offensive obsessions, ignoring obvious Austrian preparations, keeping most of his troops on the Isonzo sector, ordering them to maintain offensive positions, and ordering General Brussati’s relatively small Italian First Army in the Trentino area to do the same.

Austrian forces outnumbered their opponents 4-1 in men and guns when the attack began on 14 May.  Advancing down into the Trentino Valley along a 70km front, they forced the centre of the Italian line back 8km by 22 May, and two days later a renewed push drove Brussati’s central divisions another 10km south, beyond Asiago, which was evacuated on 29 May. By the static standards of the Italian Front this was startling progress, but the offensive, like so many during First World War, soon fell victim to its own success.

The Italian line had bulged but not broken, so the defenders’ internal communications remained intact, and northern Italy’s good railway system allowed Cadorna to rush 400,000 troops to the critical front during the next few days.  They brought Austrian advances to a halt on the plains south of Asiago, and casualties on both sides were mounting fast when, from 10 June, a major Russian offensive on the Eastern Front forced Conrad to start transferring troops away from the Trentino.

I’ll talk in detail about the Russian Brusilov Offensive another day, but for now it meant the end of Austrian ambitions in Italy.  With the Italians preparing strong counterattacks on the flanks of the new bulge (or ‘salient’), Conrad ordered theatre commander Archduke Eugen to withdraw to a line about 5km south of the offensive’s starting point.  There the front stabilised, leaving the Austro-Hungarian Army shorn of some 150,000 men, and the Italian Army about 147,000, for territorial returns that could only be called trivial.

The Offensive’s side effects were more momentous.  In Italy, the spectre of invasion sparked a public sense of crisis and urgency that brought down the Salandra government on 12 June, and forced an almost immediate resumption of offensive operations on the Isonzo in defiance of the Army’s debilitated condition.  For Vienna, the military consequences of Conrad’s cavalier optimism were terminal. The Austro-Hungarian Army went on to suffer huge losses to the Brusilov Offensive, and would never again mount an offensive of its own, on any front, relying on German command and reinforcement until the Armistice.

At best, Conrad’s Trentino Offensive was a desperate, long odds gamble; at worst it was a prime example of blind folly that cost 300,000 casualties, achieved nothing of value and further weakened an Empire that was already falling apart.  It might be going too far to suggest that, given a chance to rebuild its war effort in early 1916, Austria-Hungary might have survived, or even survived a little longer – but thanks to Conrad and his inert masters we’ll never know for sure.

This was Conrad in 1916. You can all hiss now.
This was Conrad in 1916. You can all hiss now.

25 NOVEMBER, 1915: The Hard Way

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, European military history is littered with ‘great’ retreats. Some, like the great retreat from Russia that wrecked Napoleon’s army in 1812 or the ‘Great Retreat’ that took Entente armies back to the Marne in August 1914, were great in the sense that they were decisive. Other spectacular withdrawals – like the Russian ‘Great Retreat’ in the early autumn of 1915 or (whisper it) the BEF at Dunkirk – were only as great as the propaganda surrounding them, and some, Sir John Moore’s 1809 retreat to Coruna springs to mind, have picked up the sobriquet because they took place in particularly harsh conditions.

The Serbian Great Retreat of late 1915 is less celebrated than any of the above. Just getting underway a hundred years ago, it had no decisive effect on the outcome of the First World War, and its propaganda career has been largely confined to the Balkans. Yet in a dark and terrible way it may be the greatest of Europe’s great retreats, both for the epic nature of its concept and execution, and for its heroic persistence through nightmare conditions.

I could have picked various dates to commemorate the start of the Serbian retreat. Everything between 17 and 30 November has been cited, and even the day on which the formal order to retreat was issued is variously given as 23, 24 and 25 November. Unless you’re planning a Serbian Great Retreat Opening Day Commemoration party, this isn’t important, so let’s move on to context.

Last time we went to the Balkans, back in early October, an exhausted Serbia stood no chance of defeating the joint Austro-Hungarian, German and Bulgarian invasion it knew was coming. When it came, from the north and the east, the invasion quickly pushed Serbian and Montenegrin forces back. French-led attempts to provide support from Salonika were cut off, and defenders had retreated into the plateau lands of Kosovo by the time heavy snow slowed operations by both sides from 17 November. During the next few days all roads out of Kosovo were closed by Bulgarian forces to the east and Austro-German forces to the north and west, leaving Serbian leaders with three options. Their battered army could stand and fight a vastly superior force, they could surrender, or they could attempt a retreat through the mountains into Montenegro and Albania. On 25 November (or thereabouts) Serbian chief of staff Putnik gave the order to head into the mountains.

Here’s a map of the campaign, stolen from the net and removable the moment anyone minds.

map_Serbia-falls_1915

The decision to retreat was not made lightly. The 200,000 men of the Serbian Army, most of them old men and boys, were desperately short of warm clothing and rations, but they were better off than some 20,000 prisoners of war travelling in tow, or than many of perhaps another 200,000 civilian refugees that joined the exodus (though all these figures vary enormously, as befit guesses made about chaotic conditions in primitive areas). In total this amounted to about a tenth of an expanded prewar Serbia’s population and – given that the weather was freezing and the treacherous mountain passes could provide little food, most of it jealously guarded by tribal peoples harbouring a bitter hatred of all things Serbian – large-scale loss of life was inevitable. Weighed against the perceived need to preserve some kind of independent Serbian force for future re-conquest of the country, the sacrifice was deemed worthwhile.

While their Montenegrin allies made their way home, the Serbs set off in four columns and blizzard conditions, accompanied by the royal family, the government, the high command and most of the country’s civil dignitaries. You can read eyewitness accounts of the nightmare journey that followed by looking online, and I won’t attempt the deathless prose it would take to do it justice, but estimates of the number of deaths along the way rise to about 200,000, roughly a third of them military personnel, the rest civilians. Half-hearted pursuit by the invaders didn’t have much to do with the death rate, and most were victims of typhus, cold, starvation or predatory local tribes.

The first survivors began reaching the Albanian coast during the first week of December, but most arrived late in the month or in early January, and stragglers were still staggering in until the middle of February. Albania could hardly be called a safe haven for Serbs, and the Italian, French and British navies mounted a joint operation to evacuate them. It took a while to get underway, delayed by the need to secure Albanian ports against Austro-Hungarian naval attacks and the Italian Navy’s reluctance to risk its warships as escorts, but proceeded without serious interruption from late December until mid-January.

Most of the refugees, an estimated 155,000 people, were taken to the Greek island of Corfu, which was occupied for the purpose by French Navy units. Smaller numbers were shipped to French Tunisia or resettled inside France, and those with identifiable diseases were treated on the small Greek island of Vido, to reduce the risk of epidemic. The measure wasn’t entirely successful, and uncounted thousands more died during the next few weeks on Corfu.

Those military personnel fit to resume service were redeployed during the autumn to the fortified Allied enclave at Salonika. From there, they would eventually, and in a fairly minor way, fulfil the national mission by playing a small part in the final collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – but it’s still hard to argue with history’s majority verdict that the Serbian Great retreat was a tragically bad idea. For all the heroism and indomitable spirit it embodies, and despite its epic qualities, it might have been better all round to go the usual route and simply send king and government into exile before surrendering.

That’s not intended as a judgment, because this was in the Balkans in 1915. If the stubborn, stoic sense of sacred nation that motivated the Serbian command seems a little mediaeval to you, hold that thought, because apart from a few modern weapons and a few gadgets for grandees, life in the Balkans had barely reached nineteenth-century levels of development, let alone twentieth-century. In other words, the Serbian retreat is yet another First World War catastrophe that, while easily dismissed as tragically bonkers, is best viewed with an understanding of its technological and psychological environment.

6 OCTOBER, 1915: Big Hammer, Small Nut

Now here’s a rarity for this stage in the War:  a plan that worked.  A hundred years ago today, as mentioned only yesterday, German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian forces invaded Serbia on two fronts. Within two months, the country had been conquered and most of the invasion’s limited objectives achieved, at which point the invaders secured their gains and redeployed resources back to other fronts. The attack’s only failure lay in allowing the remains of the Serbian Army to retreat into Albania, but chasing it across the mountains would have risked heavy casualties in a largely symbolic cause, and it would be a long time before Serbian forces troubled the Central Powers again.  So what was the secret of the year’s only complete offensive success?

The answer is that there was no secret.  For once, the offensive tactics and technology of 1915, efficiently used, found circumstances ideal for their success.  The offensive method in question, breakthrough tactics, has been described before, and amounted to massive concentration of men and firepower against a single point of the enemy defence.  Breakthrough tactics had failed against well-prepared German defences on the Western Front and, after achieving initial successes during German offensives on the Eastern Front, they had fallen foul of extended supply lines and failed again.  Serbia was different.

First of all, Serbia was barely able to defend itself.  After the campaigns of 1914 had left its citizen army decimated, exhausted and short of every conceivable supply need, the country had been promised major reinforcement by Britain and France – but squabbles between the two had delayed help beyond usefulness. Serbian leaders had known for months that the invasion was coming, and that Bulgaria would take part, but Britain and France had also vetoed a Serbian plan for a preemptive summer strike against Bulgaria, which was still considered a potential ally in London and Paris.  So the Serbian Army – some 200,000 typhus-ridden, hungry troops, all desperately short of ammunition and artillery support – could only take up its positions and wait for the hammer to fall.

It was a big hammer, deployed for generally sound strategic reasons. Austria-Hungary wanted to finish the job so poorly begun in 1914, and Bulgaria wanted territory it had failed to secure at the end of the Balkan Wars, but German military involvement took a wider perspective.  German chief of staff Falkenhayn saw the removal of Serbia as a means to open up land communications with the Ottoman Empire and with its new Bulgarian allies.  Once the Pless Convention had committed Bulgaria to the attack, Falkenhayn overruled the inevitable protests from Ludendorff and transferred forces from the Eastern Front to the Balkans.  Come October, Serbia’s ragged defenders faced 300,000 efficiently concentrated, well-equipped and supported attackers, commanded by German Field Marshal Mackensen, star of the year’s Eastern Front offensives and the acknowledged master of breakthrough tactics.

When the hammer fell, with Austro-German attacks from the north and Bulgarian from the southeast, Serbian resistance crumbled very quickly.  Once the government realised that Allied help wasn’t going to arrive, and even before the failure of General Sarrail’s unconvincing attempt to intercept the Bulgarians from Salonika, the campaign as a whole became a matter of retreat and pursuit.  With no second line defences to overcome, and no problems with supply lines, the combined invasion force could deliver, within the limits of a relatively small theatre, the Holy Grail that had tormented Joffre and eluded Ludendorff – total victory through the shock and awe of breakthrough tactics.

The Serbian campaign of late 1915 makes a grimly fascinating story, and I’ll be having a word about it in weeks to come, but for now just an academic point: it took a small war within the War, in which defenders effectively fought with one hand tied behind their backs, for one of the period’s most efficient commanders to achieve the only clear-cut victory in Europe throughout 1915.  So today marks the centenary of the exception that proved the rule.

7 JULY, 1915: Elephants and Mosquitoes

A hundred years ago today, the Italian Navy suffered its first significant wartime loss, when the large ‘armoured’ cruiser Amalfi went down in the northern Adriatic, killing about 150 of its 400-strong crew.

I mention this anniversary for two reasons. First of all, as I never tire of pointing out, big warships were the ultimate deterrent weapons of their day, and their failure to punch their weight was one of the great shocks to wartime military orthodoxy. It shouldn’t have been. Torpedoes and mines had been around for decades and were obviously a cheap, effective way of destroying even the most heavily armoured big ships – but as with (for instance) nuclear power in the 1970s and 1980s, there came a point at which so much money, prestige and propaganda had been invested in battleships and big cruisers that it was easier for those at the top to bury their heads in the sand than admit such a colossal mistake.

All the world’s big navies were riddled with internal disputes about how to protect big ships, how to deploy them and whether it was worth deploying them at all, and the Italian Navy was no exception. Its main components were five modern dreadnoughts completed since 1912, eight pre-Dreadnought battleships, three modern light cruisers and 18 older ‘armoured’ cruisers, of which the Amalfi and her Pisa-class sisters were among the best. When Italian Navy chief of staff Admiral Revel ordered four Pisa-class cruisers to Venice, close to the main Austrian Navy base at Pola (modern Pula), he overrode opposition from those who thought the move too risky, including battlefleet commander Admiral Abruzzi. Admiral Cagni, commanding the cruisers, evidently shared Revel’s head-in-the-sand approach, because he took his ships on patrol with only minimal protection from small ships capable of hunting submarines or deterring torpedo boats.

Only two Italian torpedo boats were screening the Amalfi when she was sunk by single torpedo from a German U-boat sent to the Adriatic in pieces and rebuilt as the Austrian U-26, and an outraged Italian press was quick to blame both Cagni and Revel for the disaster. Revel learned his lesson. The three surviving cruisers remained virtually inactive in Venice until April 1916, when they scampered back to the relative safety of the southern Adriatic, reduced, like so many of their counterparts in other European navies, to a role defined by self-protection.

The Amalfi sinking also gives me a chance to mention a naval theatre of war that was small, deadly, essentially trivial and destined to be largely forgotten by the Anglophone heritage industry.

The Mediterranean as a whole was a crowded hotchpotch of competing navies in 1915, overlain and dominated by the large Royal Navy presence in the region – but the Adriatic was a straight fight between Italy and Austria-Hungary. Since the early years of the twentieth century both sides had been building up their naval strength without knowing if they would be enemies or allies. If Italy stuck with its Triple Alliance partners, the two fleets could combine to threaten Anglo-French dominance of the Mediterranean, and if Italy sided with the Entente they would be needed to fight each other.

Italy duly declared the War against Austria-Hungary in May 1915, and from that point the Austrian Navy was effectively bottled up in the Adriatic. Its only big base was at Pola, pretty much opposite the biggest Italian base in the northern Adriatic, at Venice, and its secondary bases along the eastern Adriatic coast were equally vulnerable to Italian attack. The Italians meanwhile kept most of their modern warships at Taranto, at the Adriatic’s southern tip, and stationed just enough vessels across what was known as the Otranto Barrage to dissuade the Austrians from a breakout that might influence other Mediterranean theatres. Here’s a map, borrowed and removable on request:

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Both sides opted for caution. The Austrians never attempted a breakout, despite German and Turkish requests for help in the Dardanelles and the Black Sea, and the Italians never attempted a major attack on any Austrian bases. Minefields prevented either side from committing major ships to direct support of troops on the Italian Front, and once the Amalfi‘s fate had illustrated the folly of boldness war in the northern Adriatic became a private affair between light naval forces.

Fought by light cruisers, destroyers, torpedo boats, minecraft, naval aircraft and submarines, including German U-boats operating under the Austrian flag out of Cattano (now the Montenegrin port of Kuta) because Italy and Germany were not officially at war, it was a ‘mosquito’ war of coastal raids and attacks on Entente supply lines to Serbia.  It would rage uninterrupted until late 1918, generating dash, derring-do and the destruction of several more big ships, providing both sides with plenty of colourful propaganda and making no strategic contribution to anything, except the parlous state of both wartime economies.  But it was still a war in what we now consider a relatively local holiday region, and it cost a lot of lives, so why ignore it?