These were momentous times on the Western Front a century ago, and there’s no denying that events in France and Belgium were the War’s big stories in mid-September. The Marne was ending and military focus shifting to the River Aisne as Allied and German forces sought to outflank each other, but Poppycock knows you can get all you need elsewhere about the Battle of the Aisne and the series of similarly inconclusive actions that followed. Instead, let’s talk about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which officially called off its invasion of Russia on 11 September, and about the man responsible for Vienna’s spectacularly creaky war machine.
Franz, Count Conrad von Hötzendorf, generally known as Conrad, became the Austro-Hungarian Army’s chief of staff and effective commander in 1906. Apart from a hiatus in 1911–12, he held the job until 1917. Like any historical event great or small, the First World War emerged from a swathe of interconnected dynamics and circumstances, and no single person or cause can be held responsible for its outbreak – but if you were looking for a single bad guy to blame for the catastrophic collapse of European diplomacy, then Conrad might be your man.
The hawkish epitome of pre-War European militarism, Conrad was convinced that aggressive expansion was the cure for his multiracial Empire’s economic problems and mounting internal tensions. For years he had argued strongly but in vain for surprise attacks on disputed territories in Italy and Russia, and he was responsible for Vienna’s aggressive response to the Serbian crisis of 1914. He did everything in his power to ensure Germany’s support for the Austrian invasion across the Danube that followed, and when general war broke out he launched a second invasion, across the Empire’s eastern frontier into Russian Galicia.
Conrad was also a military optimist to the point of fantasy, and as such a byword for folly among contemporary commanders. He had been responsible for some modernisation of the Army, particularly its antiquated artillery arm, but it was still largely dependent on obsolete equipment, guided by outdated tactics and hamstrung by tensions (and language barriers) between its component nationalities. Conrad nevertheless expected this Army to knock out Serbia at a stroke, redeploy a thousand kilometres to the northeast and invade Galicia before the Russians were ready.
In fact, Serbia held firm against tactically naive Austrian attacks in August, while Russia took nothing like the expected six weeks to bring troops to the front. Conrad reacted by halting reinforcements en route for Serbia and sending them to Galicia instead, an idea based on a fantastically optimistic view of the Imperial railway system, which was largely single-tracked and collapsed into utter chaos trying to turn all the trains around.
With half the invasion force and much of its equipment stranded on the railways, and available units still in the process of basic organisation, Conrad launched the attack into Galicia anyway. Committed to offensives at every opportunity but never remotely fit to carry them out, the invasion quickly disintegrated in the face of Russian counter-pressure and had been driven back into the Carpathian Mountains by the time Conrad called an official halt on 11 September.
Meanwhile, Austro-Hungarian forces in the south were launching a second invasion of Serbia, but simple frontal attacks on strong defensive positions met the same fate as before, this time at the River Drina. That invasion was suspended on 15 September, leaving Conrad’s grand scheme in tatters and Vienna saddled with expensive, dangerous stalemate on two fronts.
Close to the royal family and with no credible rival among an anaemic officer corps, Conrad held onto his job and went right on launching his troops into hopelessly optimistic offensives against Russia, Serbia and Italy for the next two years, sacrificing hundreds of thousands of lives in pursuit of a crushing, decisive victory that never came. His influence waned in the second half of 1916 as Austro-Hungarian command effectively passed under German control, and the new emperor, Karl, eventually dismissed him in March 1917.
The importance of Austria-Hungary in 1914 is largely overlooked by heritage commemoration, not least because the Empire had ceased to exist by the time the War ended and escaped the contemporary bad press heaped upon Germany. This tends to let Conrad off posterity’s hook, but amid all the exposure of Prussian militarism his disastrous contributions to the bloodletting shouldn’t be forgotten. While the British leadership went reluctantly into battle, the French righteously and the Russian blindly, while even the Kaiser abandoned peace with dread in his heart, Conrad’s Austria-Hungary marched greedily to war and sought advantage in its extension across Europe.