Przemyśl falls — the Austro-Hungarians lose their greatest city fortress of the Great War
The fall of Przemyśl, an Austro-Hungarian fortress town, was a huge loss for the Austro-Hungarian empire.
The fortress town was finally taken by the Russians after two drawn out sieges that cost them over 100,000 casualties. But first, a quick geography lesson for those you with a knowledge of eastern European geography like mine; the town of Przemyśl is in modern day Poland, on the border with Ukraine. It’s about 100 kilometres to the west of Lviv.
The town, a major fortress intended to defend the Austro-Hungarian empire from Russian army, first fell under siege on the 24th September 1914. The Russian army, with a force of six divisions under General Radko Dimitriev, encircled the fortress, and began to bombard the outlying ring of forts. The fortress, although cut off from the rest of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was heavily defended by an enormous garrison of some 120,000 soldiers commanded by Hermann Kusmanek von Burgneustädten. The Asutro-Hungarians sent a relief force east to break the siege from outside. The relief arrived at Przemyśl around the 12th October 1914 and the Russians were forced to withdraw, ending the first siege
However, later in the year, the Austro-Hungarian army and their German allies were forced to withdraw further westwards following a change in the overall situation caused by setbacks in the Battle of the Vistula River. Of course, armies can ebb and flow, but towns and fortresses tend to stay still; now Przemyśl was exposed to another siege. Civilians were told to leave on the 4th November and on the 10th of November the fortress was, once again, surrounded and under siege. The fortress was hammered by artillery fire as the outlying forts were smashed up and repeated attempts were made to penetrate the outer ring of defences, but the garrison held on.
Meanwhile, the Austro-Hungarians made repeated efforts to fight their way back to the town and break the siege as they had done before. These encounters were brutal in terms of both fighting and the miserable winter conditions that caused huge numbers of casualties to men fighting in the open.
In February 1915, the last relief attempt failed and von Burgneustädten was told by the Austro-Hungarian commander Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf that no more relief efforts could be expected. Now, without resupply, food supplies began to run out, with the garrison’s horses being slaughtered to feed the men. Dogs, cats and mice began to fetch good prices on the open market. As the situation grew more desperate, discipline began to falter and the garrison’s fighting spirit began to collapse; many officers deliberately caught gonnorrhoea so they could avoid their duties and desertion rates soared. By the 1st of March, over 15,000 men were hospitalised, generally suffering from starvation or illnesses caused or made worse by the effects of starvation.
The fortress began to collapse on the 13th March when the Russians breached the northern ring of protective forts. As the Russians closed in, further improvised defences held them off for long enough for the city’s stores to be destroyed. Then, on the 19th of March, with the end in sight, a desperate attempt was made to abandon the town and break out to and safety, but this inevitably failed as underfed men were counter-attacked by experienced and healthy Russian troops. The breakout failed and the garrison were forced back to the city where, with no hope of rescue and no food left to feed the men, and with just enough food to provide horsemeat and hardtack biscuits to last two days (enough to see them into captivity), the Austro-Hungarians were forced to surrender. But not until they had burnt the money from the treasury, destroyed anything of military value and fired off all the remaining machine gun ammunition.
117,000 men of the Austro-Hungarian Army went into captivity, along with nine generals and 2,500 officers. For these men, a new ordeal awaited. One in five Austro-Hungarian prisoners failed to return from their captivity, and for the starving men of Przemyśl, already weakened by starvation, the odds were stacked against their safe return.