In the Frozen Heights Austrian Soldiers Die in Their Sleep
Russians Prevail; Austrian Army Shattered
Special to The Great War Project
(28 February-2 March) A century ago, the Eastern Front war in the Carpathian Mountains is brutal – and largely unknown in the West.
Yet the Carpathian campaign may prove to be decisive for both sides, Russian and Austrian.
The Russians fight to destroy the Austro-Hungarian army and break into the vast heartland of Hungary and central Europe. The Austrians fight desperately if incompetently to defend the very territory of Austria and Hungary.
“The whole operation was flawed,” writes historian Geoffrey Wawro of the Austrian effort to confront the Russians in the mountains. The Austrians with German support field “just 175,000 troops with a thousand artillery pieces for a sequence of suicidal assaults on entrenched Russian positions.”
The terrain and the viciously cold weather are killing as many Austrians as the Russians are.
The Austrians are “wallowing uphill through knee-deep snow,” reports Wawro, “assaulting the same 3000-foot Russian-held heights they had stormed, taken, and lost the previous week.”
Efforts to attack at night yield no better results, Wawro reports. The Austrian troops make too much noise crossing ice. ‘The sound of cracking ice betrayed us as we advanced toward the Russian wire,” writes one Austrian officer. “The enemy illuminated us as we got near and hit us from three sides.”
Repeated efforts by the Austrians to mount an offensive go nowhere. The snow is so deep that Austrian artillery shells burrow into the snow and do not detonate.
“The infantry gained no ground,” writes Wawro, “and lost half its strength, 40,000 men, to cold and wounds. “Generals would awake to discover that hundreds of their men had frozen to death in their sleep. Hundreds more deserted. Thousands of Austrians are “going into Russian captivity without firing a shot.”
“One Czech regiment [of the multi-national Austrian army] lost 1850 of 2000 men to desertion in a single night,” reports Wawro.