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.
It all seemed a cruel joke, writes Wawro. “Weapons had to be thawed before every operation. Troops simply stopped fighting. Officers could not locate them on horseback, because horses could not traverse the ice and drifted snow, and the apathetic, frozen men refused to march or fight anyway.”
The Russians keep attacking. They enjoy an enormous advantage in manpower, even as the Austrian forces are shriveling.
“There were always more of them,” reports one Austrian officer.
In fact, the Russian soldiers are equally miserable. They are being driven into the Austrian guns like cattle.
Misery is the common lot of all the soldiers fighting in the Carpathians.
But for Austria-Hungary, writes Wawro, “the whole bungled war was rotting away….a pathetic end to a conflict that decision-makers in Vienna had believed might halt the decline of Austria-Hungary and revive the imperial idea.”
“Beaten so many times to count, the Dual Monarchy had lost whatever respect it had commanded from its subjects and neighbors….Its army lay shattered on a line that wended from Poland along the crests of the Carpathians and all the way south to Bosnia…
“Its days on the earth,” Wawro writes, “were numbered.”