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|Hermann Kusmanek von Burgneustätten|
|General Hermann Kusmanek was the commander of the garrison stationed in the fortress of Przemysl at the beginning of World War I. The study of the fortress' siege and surrender has undergone con-siderable change. The causes of its fall were accepted by most war scholars until the revisionists began an in-depth study of the siege in the 1930s, after which time the story of the "Lion of Przemysl" and his failures were sorted out and adequately explained. There are two accounts on this page: Bernard Pares' article typifies contemporary theories of the siege, and a description of the siege from a military standpoint follows.|
|Kusmanek and his staff during the siege of Przemysl by the Russians|
|Contemporary Account of the Fall of Przemysl by Bernard Pares|
|"The fall of Przemysl, which will now no doubt be called by its Russian name of Peremyshl, is in every way surprising.
"Even a few days before, quite well-informed people had no idea that the end was coming so soon. The town was a first-class fortress, whose development had been an object of special solicitude to the late Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Of course it was recognized that Peremyshl was the gate of Hungary and the key to Galicia; but, more than that, it was strengthened into a great point of debouchment for an aggressive movement by Austro-Hungary against Russia; for the Russian policy of Austria, like her original plan of campaign, was based on the assumption of the offensive. It was generally understood that Peremyshl was garrisoned by about 50,000 men, that the garrison was exclusively Hungarian, and that the commander, Kusmanek, was one of the few really able Austrian commanders in this war. The stores were said to be enough for a siege of three years. The circle of the forts was so extended as to make operations easy against any but the largest blockading force; and the aerodrome, which was well covered, gave communication with the outside world. An air post has run almost regularly, the letters (of which I have some) being stamped "Flieger-Post." . . . The practical difficulties offered to the Russians by Peremyshl were very great; for the one double railway line westward runs through the town so that all military and Red Cross communications have been indefinitely lengthened...
"For weeks past the fortress had kept up a terrific fire which was greater than any experienced elsewhere from Austrian artillery. Thousands of shell yielded only tens of wounded, and it would seem that the Austrians could have had no other object than to get rid of their ammunition. The fire was now intensified to stupendous proportions and the sortie took place; but, so far from the whole garrison coming out, it was only a portion of it, and was driven back with the annihilation of almost a whole division.
"Now followed extraordinary scenes. Austrian soldiers were seen fighting each other, while the Russians looked on. Amid the chaos a small group of staff officers appeared, casually enough, with a white flag, and announced surrender. Austrians were seen cutting pieces out of slaughtered horses that lay in heaps, and showing an entire indifference to their capture. Explosions of war material continued after the surrender.
"The greatest surprise of all was the strength of the garrison, which numbered not 50,000 but 130,000, which makes of Peremyshl a second Metz. Different explanations are offered; for instance, troops which had lost their field trains and therefore their mobility are reported to have taken refuge in Peremyshl after Rava Russka, but surely the subsequent withdrawal of the blockade gave them ample time for retreat. A more convincing account is that Peremyshl was full of depots, left there to be supports of a great advancing field army. In any case no kind of defense can be pleaded for the surrender of this imposing force.
"The numbers of the garrison of course reduced to one-third the time during which the food supplies would last; but even so the fortress should have held out for a year. The epidemic diseases within the lines supply only a partial explanation. The troops, instead of being all Hungarians, were of various Austrian nationalities; and there is good reason to think that the conditions of defense led to feuds, brawls and, in the end, open disobedience of orders. This was all the more likely because, while food was squandered on the officers, the rank and file and the local population were reduced to extremes, and because the officers, to judge by the first sortie, took but little part in the actual fighting. The wholesale slaughter of horses of itself robbed the army of its mobility. The fall of Peremyshl is the most striking example so far of the general demoralization of the Austrian army and monarchy.
"Peremyshl, so long a formidable hindrance to the Russians, now a splendid base for an advance into Hungary."
|Austrian troops passing through the streets of Przemysl|
|Przemysl: The Greatest Siege of WWI|
|The fortress system as of August 1914 consisted of a perimeter 36 miles surrounding a smaller inner ring of about 6 miles in circumference. Mobilisation required the razing of 18 villages and 5 square miles of surrounding forest. The battleline as planned and executed generally followed the ring of the forts, except on the southwestern side, where the frontline was between 1 and 2 miles ahead of the fortress ring (the so-called Helicha Advance Line). The total manpower strength in the first siege as was left when the Austrian armies retreated from the San River on 18 September was over 130,000. This force consisted of 61 1/2 battalions (2/3 were Landsturm), 7 squadrons, 4 field batteries, 48 Landsturmn artillery brigades, 8 sapper companies, and some other companies.
The First Siege, 24 September to 11 October 1914
Radko Dmitriev's III. Army began the siege on 24 September, but was awaiting siege artillery. As the Austrians had destroyed all communications in their retreat, the Russians could not deliver the artillery in the early days. The Austrians meanwhile attempted a new offensive to raise the siege. Radko Dmitriev ordered a full-scale attack to bring Przemysl to its knees before the Austrians arrived. On 5 October, the Siedliska Group of fortresses were the focus of the offensive, but after three days, the attack was stopped after the Russians had suffered tremendous losses. The lack of artillery meant that the Siedliska Forts were impenetrable.
General Boroevic pushed his III. Army to the San on 11 October, and Radko Dmitriev ordered a retreat across the San to defend the line of the river. As Przemysl straddled the river, it was therefore in the middle of the battleline and presented an Austrian bridgehead. General Conrad believed that this offensive, combined with the German advance on Warsaw in the north, would bring the Russians to their destruction. He ordered the garrison to help the III. Army force the San line. Their supplies were also tapped for the general attack. However, by 18 October, Hindenburg had despaired of breaking the Russians and ordered a retreat on the northern front.
This, in turn, caused the Austrians to fall back slowly. There was just enough time to restock the fortress with supplies. Kusmanek also created a new advance perimeter one mile ahead of the Helicha Advance Line in the southwest, and one mile ahead of the fortress ring in general. Aeroplanes were added to the fortress and a special airfield was laid out; this was useful when Russian General Kornilov was captured during an attack. He was flown out of Przemysl and placed in an Austrian POW camp (he later escaped back to Russia in 1916).
|Sketch Map of the Second Siege of Przemysl, March 1915|
|The Second Siege of Przemysl, 9 November 1914 to 22 March 1915
On 9 November, the second siege began. Radko Dmitriev moved forward to attack Krakau, and the siege was undertaken by General Selivanov and the newly created XI. Army. This force at first consisted of 4 divisions, but after December, they were increased to 6 infantry divisions in the XII., XXVIII., and XXIX. Corps, and 2 cavalry divisions (a final increase of 3 more divisions occurred in March, 1915).
The Austrian garrison that was left behind to withstand the second siege consisted of the XXIII. infantry division, the LXXXV. Schützen brigade, and the XCIII., XCVII., CVIII., and CXI. Landsturm Infantry Brigades.
These troops, however, were mostly inactive: the Russians decided to starve the fortress into submission. Kusmanek, upon hearing of the desperate situation around Krakau and the Dukla pass, ordered diversionary attacks by the garrison. Such brazen assaults earned Kusmanek a reputation of being a "Lion." By Christmas, Krakau was safe, but the Russians decided to focus their efforts on the Carpathian passes. The Austrians under Generals Boroevic and Böhm-Ermolli launched a winter offensive designed to relieve Przemysl and take pressure off the passes. Böhm-Ermolli's forward troops reached to within 20 miles of the fortress by 23 February 1915, but the fierce Russian counterattacks drove the Austrian II. and III. Armies back over the crest of the mountains. Conrad had to inform Kusmanek that no further relieving effort could be launched.
Flushed with success after defeating the previous Austrian offensive (at an enormous cost), the Russians grew tired of Kusmanek's resilience, and therefore prepared a final offensive to destroy the garrison. Better artillery was loaned to General Selivanov so he could begin a systematic bombardment of the northern line of forts, which broke on 13 March, 1915. With a new line of trenches to the south of the blasted forts holding back the Russians, Kusmanek ordered all remaining works to be demolished as thoroughly as possible in preparation for a breakout. Most of the 21,000 horses in the fortress were slaughtered to prevent their use by the Russians. Meanwhile, more Russian reserves were shipped to the siege as its fall became imminent.
Kusmanek launched his breakout early in the morning of 19 March, fighting eastwards, but it ground to a halt under fierce Russian resistance. With the fortress and munitions destroyed, there was no alternative but surrender. Kusmanek turned Przemysl and its garrison of 110,000 over to the Russians on 22 March 1915. It was a terrible blow to the morale of the whole of Austria-Hungary, and was considered a scandal of tremendous proportions.
Kusmanek was considered by contempories to be another Benedek: incompetant and lacking courage. Revisionists have since rehabilitated Kusmanek, considering his handling of the whole siege to be perhaps as good as it could have been. Even his sorties by the garrison were conducted intelligently and without significant loss. Indeed, the whole siege saw a loss of only 1/8 of the garrison strength before surrender, including casualties from the final, fierce hours of the Russian attacks. The blame of nearsightedness can be directed at the Austrian high command, which made Przemysl its focal point during the Battles of the Carpathians. They should have focused on Lemberg, which, as a rail centre, supplied the Russian armies across the whole length of the Carpathians. Przemysl was not a majour railhead, and did not control any Russian supply lines. Therefore, the Austrians wasted their resources on a fortress that was not critical to either army and that was in no imminent danger of falling-not until the second week of March did the Russians turn up the heat on Kusmanek.
Claims by the Entente that Przemysl's fall would facilitate a Russian invasion of Hungary were really illusory. For one, the nearest Carpathian passes were 40 miles to the south of Przemysl and already in Russian hands by the time of Kusmanek's surrender. For another, the Russians were winding down their offensive by reason of exhaustion and lack of supplies. In this light, the struggle for Przemysl, the longest and perhaps greatest siege in WWI, was really for nought—the hundreds of thousands of killed and captured soldiers on each side fought for a symbol that had no substance whatsoever.
|The Last Days of Przemysl, March 1915|
|Fort Xa is surrounded by the devastation of war|
|Fort X is one of the first to be demolished by the Austrians|
|Fort XIV near Hurko is totally destroyed by the Austrians|
|An artillery pillbox blown sky high on Kusmanek's
orders, to prevent its use by the Russians
|Fort XIIIa is unrecognisable after the Austrians blew it up|
|Przemysl Today: What Remains from the Great Siege|
|Photos from the collection of Grzegorz Karnas|
|Redoubt near the San River|
|Fort III. near Luczyce on the south|
|Siedliska Gate, near where Radko Dmitriev
tried to break through in October 1914
|Fort XIII. near Bolestraszyce in the northeast sector|