Back to the Austrian Commanders page
Oskar Potiorek
A younger Potiorek as Generalmajor.
FZM Oskar Potiorek was a central figure in the first months of the World War.  He was born on 20 November 1853 in Bleiburg, Austria.  FML Oskar Potiorek succeeded Eduard Ritter von Succovaty von Vezza as commander of the III. Corps in April 1897.  He held this command for four years, surrendering it to FML Karl Schikofski in 1910.   In 1911, he became Inspector General of the Austrian Army.  He was replaced in this position by the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1913. 

When GdI
Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf was dismissed from the post of Chief of the General Staff in 1912, Potiorek assumed he was the most qualified candidate for the position.  However, he was superceded first by FML Blasius Schemua and then by the return of Conrad at the height of Serbia’s military activity in the Balkans.  Rivalry between the two lasted well into the autumn of 1914 when cooperation was needed most.  On 25 July 1914, the Archduke Friedrich was appointed Commander in Chief for the Balkan Theatre of war, as mobilisation against Serbia proceeded.

One must be Hard to Keep these Bosniaks in Line!

Potiorek has a relatively dark reputation among historians.  He replaced General
Marian von Varesanin as military governor of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1912.  Varesanin was the object of more than one assassination attempt by Serb terrorists, and Potiorek let it be known that he would curb the violent tendancies of these terrorists.  To complicate matters, there was something of a dual government in Bosnia.  Civil matters were handled by the Imperial Finance Minister, Leon Bilinski; this was because of a compromise between the parliaments of Austria and Hungary following the military occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878. This circumstance remained even after annexation in 1909. 

Potiorek enlarged the military governor's role in the affairs of Bosnia's government in the name of security, and this simply had the effect of alienating all parties and causing mutual suspicion and ever-increasing espionage by newly active terrorist groups; among these was the "Black Hand."  For his part, Bilinski tried to calm the parties, but he found his civil authority constantly circumvented by Potiorek, and was rendered powerless by 1914.

GWS, 10/00 [rev. 9/04]
At the manouevers on 27 June 1914:  Archduke Franz Ferdinand confers with Potiorek and Carl Bardolff.
The Blackest Day

In late 1913, Potiorek invited the Archduke Franz Ferdinand to visit Sarajevo and inspect the summer manoeuvers, which were being held in the Bosnian countryside close to Serbia, against whom Austria-Hungary had twice mobilised in 1912 and 1913.  Bilinski was not informed of this until after the schedule had been prepared by Potiorek’s office, even though as Civil governor, Bilinski was supposed to be in charge of these preparations. Among his duties was arranging security by the civil police, but Potiorek circumvented his authority even there, giving direct orders to the police of Sarajevo himself.  It is possible that Potiorek's tyrannical behaviour alienated the police of Sarajevo just so that security was low enough for six Bosniak terrorists to enter the city armed with bombs and guns. 

On the day of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand's arrival, Potiorek accompanied the heir and his wife through the city, and was witness to the first assassination attempt by the terrorist Cabrilovic.  Following Cabrilovic's arrest, Potiorek ordered a tightening of security throughout the city, and the Archduke continued on his way undeterred.  When the Archduke expressed his wish to visit officers who were wounded by the first assassination attempt, Potiorek himself rode with the royal couple to the hospital on the running board of the car, “guarding the royal persons with my own body,” as he described it.  It was within Potiorek's sight, and from the other side of car, that Bosniak terrorist Gavrilo Princip shot the couple and prepared the way for war.

Following the assassination, Bosnia-Herzegovina was converted into Potiorek's police state as the investigators rounded up conspirators and searched for evidence.  The troops who took part in the summer manoeuvers were placed on alert and distributed throughout the two provinces.  As the verdict of the investigation led by
Friedrich Wiesner tied the "Black Hand" into the Serbian military, Potiorek called for additional reserves in case of a rebellion.

During the July Crisis, Potiorek was among the loudest voices for war against Serbia.  There were plenty of critics who were willing to blame him for sloppy security and even for gross mismanagement of Bosnia's governorship by undermining the more respected civil authorities, Bilinski especially.  Potiorek himself blamed the Serbian government and intended revenge for the killing of the royal couple.

Before the war started, Potiorek was placed in command of the 6. Army, which was situated along the upper Drina river in Bosnia.  He also retained his position as military governor, and kept a large contingent of reserves in the two provinces on the threat of rebellion.  This never materialised and had the effect of draining critical manpower from the rest of the k.u.k. Armies that desperately needed such reserves.  His actions and errors are noted below.

GWS, 1/01 [rev. 9/04]
Potiorek smiles uncharacteristically during Bosnian manoeuvers.
Potiorek shortly after becoming military governor of Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1912..
Orders of Battle:  The Serbian Campaign, August 1914
Immediately preceding the first invasion of Serbia in August 1914
General Potiorek, Commander of the Southwestern Front
VI. Armee, General Potiorek
     XV. Korps, Gen. d. Inf.
v. Appel
          I. inf. div., Feldmlt. v. Kostanjevac
          LXVII. inf. div., Feldmlt. R. Eisler
     XVI. Korps, Feldzeugmeister
W. v. Wurm
          XVIII. inf .div., Feldmlt.
     Support, XLVII. inf. div., Feldmlt.
Guido v. Novak
          XL. Honved div., Feldmlt. Braun
II. Armee, Gen. d. Kav.
Eduard von Böhm-Ermolli
     IV. Korps, Gen. d. Kav.
Tersztyanszky v. Nadas
          XXXI. inf. div., Feldmlt.
Erzherzog Josef
          XXXII. inf. div., Feldmlt.
Andreas v. Fail-Greißler
     VII. Korps, Gen. d. Inf.
Otto Meixner v. Zweienstamm
          XVII. inf. div., Feldmlt.
von Henriquez
          XXXIV. inf. div., Feldmlt.
Josef Krautwald
     IX. Korps, Gen. d. Inf.
L. v. Hortstein
          XXIX. inf. div., Feldmlt. Graf Zedtwitz
     Support, XXIII. Honved inf. div., Feldmlt. Dämpf
          VII. inf. div., Feldmlt. von Lütgendorf
          X. kav. div., Feldmlt. Mayr
V. Armee, General der Infanterie
L. Ritter von Frank
     VIII. Korps, General der Kavallerie
Giesl von Gieslingen
          IX. inf. div., Feldmarschalleutnant
von Scheuchenstüel
          XXI. Schützen inf. div., Feldmlt. Przyborski
     XIII. Korps, Gen. d. Inf.
von Rehmen zu Bärensfeld
          XXXVI. inf. div., Feldmlt.
          XLII. Honved inf. div., Feldmlt.
von Sarkotic
The First Invasion of Serbia, August 1914

Even before the Empire declared war on Serbia, Potiorek prepared Bosnia-Herzegovina for hostilities.  General Conrad's plan regarding Serbia specified the main strike to come from the 2. Army of GdI
Eduard von Böhm-Ermolli, which was to drive up the Morava River.  This would likely have succeeded, since there were good communications and infrastructure, and the terrain was not well suited for defense.

By 6 August 1914, with a declaration of war against Russia by the Imperial government, the Archduke Friedrich was designated Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and Potiorek was his replacement in the Balkan Theatre.  Potiorek was already appointed to command the VI. Army and he received a new chief of staff in GM Eduard von Böltz.  (Now Böltz replaced GM Erik von Merizzi, who had been injured on 28 June 1914 when terrorist Cabrilovic threw a bomb at the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s car.  The Archduke shoved the bomb off the car’s tonneau and it exploded beneath Merizzi's car, which was close behind, The Archduke was planning on visiting the wounded Merizzi when he was fatally shot.)

With total police and military control of Bosnia and Herzegovina, personal command of the 6. Army, and overall command of the Balkan Theatre, Potiorek was all-powerful and determined to use his authority to bring defeat to Serbia.  He agitated for operational control independent of Army HQ at Teschen as of 14 August, and a week later, the Kaiser granted him independence.  Thus, Potiorek was no longer bound to orders from Conrad.

Though war with Serbia is precisely what he had wanted, Conrad was nervous at the prospect of two simultaneous invasions--one in Poland and one in Serbia.  However, Potiorek convinced him that the Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina were teetering on the edge of revolt.  An invasion of Bosnia by the Serbs would cause a rebellion, he predicted.  Therefore, Potiorek ordered GdI
Liborius Frank to preemptively launch his 5. Army into Serbia from the lower Drina, while two Corps from the 2. Army were also engaged near Sabac (Schabatz). 

Potiorek himself led the 6. Army in its limited invasion of Serbia from the upper Drina.  He commanded several experienced mountain divisions who were well-supplied, but the swift Drina river was difficult to cross and the terrain was positively primeval.  Serbian General Bojanovic, commanding the Uzice Army, managed to keep GdI
Appel's troops in the XV. Corps separate from GdI Adolf Rhemen's XIII. Corps who were advancing from the middle Drina up the wild Jadar river.  Their linking around Pecka would have threatened the whole front.  But, by 19 August, the 5. Army was being cleared out of the Jadar Valley, and Potiorek began to feel the pressure of both the Uzice Army and the III. Army.  His army retired in good order, without suffering losses in men or equipment.  He established a new frontline in Bosnia along the Drina from Zvornik to Vsegrad. 

The failure of  the 6. Army may be summed up very simply:  Potiorek insisted on keeping several divisions on guard duty throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina on the premise that rebellion was imminent.  He even compelled Conrad to lend additional troops to this end.  All of these inactive soldiers could have been put to greater effect in the invasion of Serbia and definitely in Poland.  But the result of unused troops in the vicinity of a fierce battle remains to be explained.

The Second Army Must Go

Potiorek was bound to certain realities, such as the fact that Conrad’s implemented war plan demanded the recall of the 2. Army to Galicia, even though it was assembling in the Vojvodina to be the main force for the invasion of Serbia. 

On 6 August 1914, Conrad’s revised war plan was put into action, but this allowed for the use of the 2. Army by Potiorek only for an additional two weeks, which might have been enough for a demonstration in the neighbourhood of Belgrade.  Only a few days later, Army HQ warned Potiorek not to have the IV. Corps of GdK von Tersztyánszky cross the Danube or Save river, which would entangle the 2. Army and slow its redeployment in Galicia.  As events will show, the full movement of the 2. Army would be hampered by Potiorek’s deliberate commitment of the IV. Corps, thus weakening defense on the weakening Northern Front considerably without delivering any results in the South. 

The fact was that Potiorek refused to acknowledge his loss of an entire army.  His first invasion of Serbia was most likely designed to force Conrad to leave the 2. Army in the Balkans.  How?  Perhaps by scoring a big enough success that would require exploitation by the 2. Army.  Therefore, Potiorek’s plan was for his 6. Army to lead the invasion of Serbia from the region around Sarajevo, but this change in plans necessitated the use of the 5. Army, which was supposed to focus on lowlands in the river valleys of the Kolubara and the Morava, not in the highland wilderness south of the Macva.  Hopefully, the Serbians would be distracted long enough to allow the IV. Corps to seize Belgrade and the lower Morava valley.

The bulk of the 2. Army was already on its to Galicia by 18 August 1914, but General Tersztyánszky’s IV. Corps remained behind, occupying a strong position in Syrmia opposite Belgrade, strengthening the left wing of the 5. Army. Tersztyánszky’s force attacked across the Save river on 19 August by orders of General Frank, scoring some strong successes against the Serbian 2. Army. 

However, the stunned Army HQ at Teschen immediately recalled the IV. Corps as it had violated orders.  The Serbians used the lull in the attack on their right by concentrating on the difficult Cer ridge to their left, which the VIII. Corps of GdK
Artur von Giesl was attempting to wrest from them.  Now, the Cer ridge separated the Macva to the north, which was bound by the confluence of the Drina and Save rivers, and the wild Jadar river to the south, which emptied into the middle Drina.  During the first invasion by the Austrians, the 5. Army battled to seize the Jadar river gorge and points south while the IV. Corps invaded the Macva. 

Between them, the Cer ridge was held by the Serbian 2. Army, and basically the Serbians were able to rain down fire upon the enemy on both sides without surrendering any part of the narrow ridge.  This caused tremendous casualties on the latter, which retreated in a near rout from the murderous slopes of the Cer.  Unsupported, General Rhemen saw his XIII. Corps suffer terribly, and 5. Army’s General Frank ordered Tersztyánszky to back his IV. Corps out of the Macva to save itself, as Serbian reinforcements plowed into the Macva from the now safe Morava zone. 

Outraged, Potiorek countermanded both Frank’s and Army HQ’s orders, and demanded that Tersztyánszky hold a bridgehead at Sabac for the next stage of his offensive. 

But events in Galicia were becoming severe; temporarily held for another two days in Syrmia and Vojvodina by the fierce action in the northwest, the IV. Corps resumed its move to Galicia, having been denied a real rôle in the first Serbian offensive.  The 2. Army was merely a spectator, and the Serbs had been wise enough to see this and leave only a shadow force along the Danube to defend Belgrade and the Morava valley.  By late August, all of Serbia was abandoned by the Austrians, except for the bridgehead at Sabac, which was taken over by Frank’s 5. Army.

This was a case where Conrad and Potiorek’s rivalry, plans that were uncoordinated and uncommunicated, led to disaster.  Potiorek naturally enough blamed Army HQ and Conrad in particular for withdrawing the 2. Army at the critical moment.  This was true from a tactical standpoint, but the fact was that its removal was already planned and definitely critical, given how the situation was changing on the Northern Front.

GWS, 12/00 [rev. 9/04]

Orders of Battle:  Serbian Front, Mid-September 1914
Immediately following the Second invasion of Serbia
Southern Front, FZM Oskar Potiorek, Commander
5. Army, GdI Liborius Frank
     Kombiniertes Korps, FML
Alfred Krauss
     chief of staff, Oberleutnant Ernst Hittl, HQ at Jarak a/d Save
            29. inf. div., FML Alfred Graf v. Zedtwitz
                 Breit brig., GM Breit
                 57. inf. brig.
                 14. inf. brig.
                 58. inf. brig.
           7. inf. div., FML Kasimir v. Lütgendorf
                  41. Schützen brig.
                  Füllöpp brig., GM v. Füllöpp
            104. Landstürm brig.
     VIII. Korps, GdK
Giesl von Gieslingen
        Chief of staff, Obst Ludwig Sündermann
           9. inf. div., FML
Viktor v. Scheuchenstüel
                  17. inf. brig., GM Franz Daniel
                  18. inf. brig., GM Josef Mayrhofer v. Grünbrühel
                   9. feld art. brig., GM Rudolf Laube
           21. Landstürm inf. div., FML Artur Przyborski
                   41. Landstürm inf. brig., GM Othmar Panesch
                   42. Landstürm inf. brig., GM Alois Podhajski
                   21. feld art. brig., Obst Karl Hinke
     XIII. Korps, Gen. d. Inf.
von Rhemen zu Bärensfeld
      Chief of staff, Obst
Alfred v. Zeidler
         36. inf. div., FML
Klaudius Czibulka
         42. Honvéd inf. div., FML
von Sarkotic
6. Armee, FZM Potiorek
       Chief of staff, GM Eduard Böltz
     XV. Korps, Gen. d. Inf.
von Appel
         Chief of staff, Obst Michael v. Mihaljevic
            40. inf. div., FML Josef Braun
                    80. Honvéd inf. brig. Obst Johann Haber
                    39. inf. brig.
                    79. Honvéd inf. brig., GM Koloman Tabajdi
            48. inf. div., FML Johann Eisler Ritter v. Eisenhort
                    10 geb. brig., GM Heinrich v. Droffa
                    12 geb. brig., GM Franz Kaiser v. Maasfeld
                    11 geb. brig.
     XVI. Korps, FZM
Wenzel v. Wurm
        Chief of staff, Obst Paul v. Loefen
             1. inf .div., FML Stefan Bogat v. Kostanjevic
                    9 geb. brig., Obst Josef Hrozny
                    5. geb. brig., Obst Maximilian Nöhring
                    4. geb. brig., GM Theodor Konopicky
                    7. geb. brig., GM Otto Sertic
                    6. geb. brig., GM Heinrich Goiginger
                    support, brig. Snjaric, GM
Lukas Snjaric
             18. inf. div., FML
Ignaz Trollmann
                   1. geb. brig., GM
Guido v. Novak
                   13. geb. brig., Obst Anton Graf v. Berchtold
                   2. geb. brig., GM Theodor Gabriel
                   109. Landstürm inf. brig., GM Johann Czeisberger

The Second Invasion of Serbia, September 1914

While the Austrians were reorganising their armies, Serbia’s supreme commander Vojvod Radomir Putnik planned a bold manoeuver: Invade the Empire itself.  His reasoning for this was to conquer Syrmia, a Serb-populated land belonging to Croatia-Slavonia, stuck between the Save and Danube Rivers.  Putnik hoped the qualified successes on the Cer Ridge could be repeated on the smaller Fruska Range that flanked the right bank of the Danube. 

Following this, he reasoned the Serbian Armies could then invade Bosnia without fear of being attacked from the rear.  On the night of September 5-6, Putnik sent Bojovic's 1. Army across the Save river and occupied Semlin opposite Belgrade on the next day.  Bojovic marched in the direction of the Fruska Range, meeting increasing resistance from the newly formed Combined Corps, which took over from the now departed IV. Corps.  Putnik suddenly recalled the Serbian 1. Army on September 11, for Potiorek had launched a fresh invasion of Serbia from the Drina on the night of September 7-8. 

General Artur von Giesl’s VIII. Corps established a new bridgehead at Parasnica at the confluence of the rivers Save and Drina, but could advance no further.  On the middle Drina, the XV. and XIII. Corps broke the Serbian frontlines between Zvornik and Ljubovija, pushing the Serbian 3. Army back on itself.  Meanwhile, the Serbian 1. Army was rushing across northeastern Serbia from its defunct invasion of Syrmia to Valjevo on the upper Jadar river, where the XIII. Corps under General Rhemen was once again threatening to cut the Serbian lines in two. 

By September 16, the Serbian 1. Army launched a vicious counterstroke against the Austrians near Loznica, and halted their advance.  This time, the XIII. Corps could not advance up the Jadar and threaten the Serbian 3. Army’s rear as before.  Meanwhile, Potiorek had sufficient defensive positions prepared to fall back on. So, although the Serbs won a victory, they failed to drive the Austrians out of Serbia.  Potiorek's second invasion ended, resulting in more casualties and few practical results.

Throughout October, the Serbians fought slow but sanguinary battles to drive the enemy from their territory.  The battles for the Macva were particularly blood-curdling.  Three weeks of uninterrupted fighting erupted along a diagonal northwest-to-southeast front across the Macva, with the Combined Corps of General Alfred Krauss taking the brunt of the assaults.  The front happened to separate the brother villages of Glusci and Uzvece from one another, and the unrelenting fighting was horrendous but with no tactical result.  For all the struggle by the Serbian 1. Army, Sabac remained in the grasp of the Austrians through the fall.

GWS, 12/00 [rev. 9/04]
Serbs cross the muddy Kolubara river via a destroyed bridge, November 1914.
The Third Invasion of Serbia, November 1914

After waiting a month to allow for further reorganisation and resupply, Potiorek prepared for a third offensive, even though winter was approaching fast.  The Austrians were finally in sufficient numbers and with enough supplies to drive the weakening Serbs back.  General Radomir Putnik decided that, if necessary, he would abandon hard-fought western Serbia and take up a defense on the Kolubara river, which flowed from central Serbia into the Save river west of Belgrade.

By November 17, the VIII. Corps had attacked the Serbian 2. Army and driven them from the Maljen Ridge south of Valjevo through terrible weather.  The Austrians crossed the Kolubara against tremendous resistance, and Putnik chose to abandon Belgrade to the invaders until he could build a supply line sufficient for a counteroffensive.  The Austrians entered Belgrade on 1 December 1914.  Meanwhile, Potiorek directed his 6. Army toward Rudnik, close to the arsenal and supply depot of Kraguljevac. 

Putnik chose to launch his counteroffensive between the Austrian 6. and 5. Armies, which were becoming widely separated.  In the confusion, the Serbian 1. Army under General Misic drove deep between the enemy forces.  General Stefan Stefanovic threw his Serbian 2. Army against the VIII. Corps on 3 December, but Generals Giesl and
Alfred Krauss (of the Combined Corps) responded with a counterattack from 6 to 9 December, which had the effect of slowing Putnik's general counteroffensive.  Misic's Serbian 1. Army was achieving such success, however, that Potiorek ordered first a tactical retreat to reorganise and then a general retreat back to the bridgheads. 

On December 16, Belgrade was once more in Serbia's hands, and even the Macva was cleared of Austrian troops.  Potiorek's campaign for victory came to a bitter close as winter gripped the smoldering ruins of Serbia, and fresh battles tore along the Northern Front now situated all along the Carpathian ridge.  For this last failure, Potiorek was relieved of his command of the Southwestern Front on 27 December 1914, along with General Liborius Frank of the 5. Army.  Potiorek's 6. Army was dissolved and not reorganised until 1917. 

General Tersztyánszky, formerly the object of contention between Potiorek and Conrad, was eventually appointed to replace Potiorek as senior active commander on the Serbian front (perhaps as a fitting punishment for Potiorek). In the meantime,
Archduke Eugen was given command of the Southern Theatre, and General Stefan Sarkotic was made military governor of Bosnia-Herzegovina; thus, Potiorek’s powerbase was broken up and Army HQ at Teschen became the final authority concerning action on the Serbian front. 

But the Austrian armies were severely weakened from the five months of battles, and they suffered from a lack of supplies and outbreaks of Typhus.  One severe outbreak even killed the commander of the XV. Corps, General
Michael Appel, and spread across southern Hungary, killing thousands of civilians.  The Serbians were also depleted beyond repair, and the whole Southern Front between the two enemies would remain quiet from mid-December 1914 all the way through the end of September 1915.

Oskar Potiorek died on 17 December 1931 in Klagenfurt, Austria.

GWS, 12/00 [rev. 9/04]
A haunting photo of Potiorek taken just days before his death in 1931.