Austria-Hungary and the First World War

The First World War was one of the most tragic and catastrophic events of the 20th century. In the aftermath of the war four great empires were no longer in existence. The German, Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires vanished from history. However, with the exception of one of these empires the essence of the nation remained. Most of Germany as it was in 1914 still existed in 1919. The ideology that governed the Russians had changed drastically but territorially and ethnically Russia changed little. The Ottoman Empire was ripped of its Arabian and Middle Eastern possessions but the ethnic and religious heart of the empire lived on in Turkey. In Austria-Hungary little remained. Unlike Germany, Russia or the Ottomans, the Austro-Hungarian Empire built itself on the multi-national character of its territory. Austria-Hungary was not an empire of the Austrians or the Hungarians but an empire of the Habsburg Dynasty that, though favouring Austrians and Hungarians, still encouraged and allowed the existence, practise and use of religions, languages, and cultures that were foreign to Vienna and Budapest. The army was officially multi-lingual and talk of federalism was rife in the early years of the 20th century. A truly multi-national state on the Danube could have been the future of the region. But the empire would need to be strong to survive. The First World War ended those hopes. This most calamitous event in Austro-Hungarian history was one that caught the Habsburgs ill-prepared and ill-suited for the task ahead of them. Austria-Hungary’s military defeat was almost unavoidable because of the empire’s unreadiness for war. The disaster that befell the empire in 1914 and 1915 sealed the fate of the Habsburg Dynasty but nevertheless the army fought on surprisingly well to the last days of the war. Austria-Hungary was simply unable to fight a world war to a victorious completion and the war destroyed what national harmony there was prior to 1914, resulting in the loss of the war on the home front rather than at the frontline. By the end of the war the rot from within the country extended to the fighting soldiers, destroying the already precarious position in which Austria-Hungary found herself in 1918.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire in the First World War has been seen differently by historians and those who experienced the tumultuous events of 1914-1918. According to Istvan Deak,
"On one hand is the image of starving and ragged combat troops along the Piave River in Italy and on the lofty peaks of the southern Tyrol, fighting for a Dual Monarchy that had already ceased to exist, and a civilian population, whether nationalistic or socialist, about to stab the army in the back. On the other hand is the frequently drawn historical tableau of mutinous Red sailors at Cattaro, military deserters in the forests of Croatia, and revolutionary officers in Budapest, Prague, Vienna, and Zagreb, hoisting the banners of national and social revolution."

Deak points out that the second view holds that the frontline troops were just as mutinous as the officers in the capitals of the Empire. Even Austrians during the war felt that their mutinous soldiers were to blame for many of their defeats. The initial defeat in Serbia in 1914 was blamed on the VII Corps and in particular the mostly-Czech 21st Division of that unit. Later setbacks against the Russians were blamed on the Czechs of IX Corps suspected of desertion. The real reasons for these defeats will be detailed below. The blame for the military collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire can be spread to almost any group within the nation. The most accurate explanation for the collapse of the empire is not the mutinous soldiers but that Austria-Hungary’s blunders and sheer unpreparedness and inability to wage effective war doomed them to defeat.
The Austro-Hungarian Army of 1914, schooled in the ways of war of the 19th century, was not prepared for what it would face in the 20th century. The army was an effective internal tool but was not suited for aggressive war. Conrad von Hotzendorf, the commander of the army, acknowledged that “the Habsburg army was of a size suitable only for a Balkan war.” Nevertheless, Conrad was determined to use it against the Serbians and the Russians in 1914 and was forced to by the circumstances of the situation. But Austria-Hungary went to war at a large disadvantage to the other Great Powers. Comparing the percentage of population in military training at any one time between 1907 and 1910, one finds that France was training 1.5% of its population, Germany 1%, Russia 0.8%, and Austria-Hungary, smaller in population than any of these, only 0.7%. In addition, France found 86% of its draft age male population fit for military service while Germany found 40% fit, Russia 37% fit, and Austria-Hungary only 22.7% fit for service. Thus the Austro-Hungarian Army began the war at a numerical disadvantage and also had less of its population familiar with military practise. The army was also ill-equipped to fight. Its ally Germany had 72 light and 8 medium field guns per infantry division while Austria-Hungary had only 42 light and no medium field guns per division. To make matters worse, the Austrian mobilisation in 1914 was painstakingly slow. Hew Strachan writes that “the outnumbered armies of the dual monarchy had forfeited the immediate advantages over the Russians which a speedier mobilization and concentration might have conferred.” Any chance of victory in 1914 was robbed from the Austrians before the first shot was fired.
It is not surprising, then, that the years 1914 and 1915 were ones of complete disaster for the Austro-Hungarian forces. Strategy for the first months of the war could not be decided upon. Conrad favoured a concentration in Galicia in order to defeat the Russians since he believed a Russian defeat would end the war sooner than a Serbian defeat. Oskar Potiorek, general in command of the Austro-Hungarian army arrayed against Serbia, disagreed. A concentration of forces could thus not be created since “the tug of war between the two for troops kept the Austrian forces on the Drina stronger than they needed to be for true defence, but still too weak for a major offensive. The same applied in Galicia.” In addition to disagreement with Potiorek, Conrad had three other problems that ruined his Galician strategy. Romania’s lack of support for the Central Powers caused insecurity on Conrad’s right flank, Germany became concerned with defending East Prussia rather than invading Russian Poland, and the offensive in Serbia soaked up troops needed elsewhere. Thus, a potentially winning strategy could not be pursued by Conrad, who himself was not a particularly brilliant general. The result was that when the war began Russia had 53 infantry divisions and 18 cavalry divisions positioned on the Austrian border while Austria had only 37 infantry divisions and 10 cavalry divisions to face them. Without a concentration on either the Serbian or Russian fronts, the Austro-Hungarian army was outnumbered in both locations and suffered terribly. Neither victory against Russia or Serbia could be attained. The failed Austrian attack on Serbia that was blamed on the Czechs was actually caused by the good defensive positions and persistent counter-attacks of the Serbians, as well as the lack of numerical superiority by the Austrians. By December 1914 Conrad had lost 1,268,000 soldiers out of the 3,350,000 mobilised. The Battle of Lemberg was especially catastrophic. Though the Austrians were able to avoid a complete collapse, the battle cost them the XIV Tyrolean Corps, the elite unit of the army. The soldiers of this corps were never replaced and were sorely missed. The year 1914 was also damaging to the state of the army as losses were concentrated among German-Austrians and Hungarians, the two most reliable groups in the army. In addition there was a great loss of officers and non-commissioned officers - the backbone of every army - who would have to be replaced by less able men. The well-trained soldiers lost would themselves have to be replaced as well. The Austrian official history would call the post-1914 army a “Landsturm (second line) and militia army.”
During the winter of 1914-1915 the disaster continued. General von Kralowitz of X Corps wrote about his men who were “already cut to pieces and defenceless...Every day hundreds froze to death; the wounded who could not drag themselves off were bound to die...there was no combatting the apathy and indifference that gripped the men.” The men of X Corps were demoralised for good reason. Conrad had sent them on an offensive through the Carpathian Mountains during the winter. This disastrous mistake in early 1915 added 800,000 casualties to those already lost in 1914 and forced the Austrians to rely on German aid for the rest of the war. While this did lead to many successes it also caused great humiliation in the country. Austria-Hungary had survived 1914 because of the good training of its soldiers and the high quality of its officers, but with such terrible losses the Austrian generals had to fight the rest of the war with ill-trained recruits. By 1915, an already disadvantaged army was bled dry. It would be nearly impossible for the state, ill-suited as it was for the war, to sustain its fighting forces.
France, Great Britain, Germany, and Russia also lost some of their best men in the first year of the war, but unlike Austria-Hungary they were nations that were strong enough to recover. Austria-Hungary, though territorially large, did not have a great population. In 1915 the Austrians were fighting against Russians, Serbians, and Italians. Austria-Hungary had a population of around 50 million in 1914 but those three enemies combined had a population of over 200 million. Austria-Hungary also did not have the industrial capacity of her enemies. In 1916, Austria-Hungary produced 3,650 artillery pieces and 6,300 machine guns while Russia produced 8,284 artillery pieces and 11,072 machine guns. In 1917 Austria-Hungary produced 1,272 aircraft while Italy produced 3,861 and in 1918 the Austrian total increased by 700 to 1,989 aircraft while Italy’s total increased by 2,600 to 6,488 aircraft. Austria-Hungary was simply unable to keep up industrially with her enemy neighbours.
Amazingly, despite being outnumbered and outgunned, the Austro-Hungarian forces fought splendidly. The Battle of Limanowa-Lapanow in 1914-1915, for example, was a brilliant victory attained without great aid from Germany that prevented the Russians from marching on Budapest, though it would be the last solely-Austrian victory. In 1915 the outnumbered Austrians were able to hold off the Italians in four different battles along the Isonzo River. In fact, it was a common theme in the war that Austria-Hungary was outnumbered in battles but nevertheless held its own. At the Second Battle of the Isonzo in July 1915, 129 Austrian battalions faced 260 Italian battalions. In October 125 Austrian battalions held against 338 Italian battalions. In that Third Battle of the Isonzo the Austrians sustained 41,800 casualties while inflicting 65,500 on the Italians. The theme continues on the Asiago Plateau in June 1916 and at the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo in August where 67 Austrian battalions inflicted 51,200 casualties on 140 Italian battalions while suffering only 37,500 casualties of their own. Perhaps the greatest result was the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo (there would be twelve in all) where 11 Austrian divisions battled 28 Italian divisions. In that battle, the Austrians lost 65,700 men while inflicting 159,000 casualties on the Italians. These are the numbers of an army fighting well and any claims that ethnic strife undermined the fighting capabilities of the Austro-Hungarian army are unfounded. In the words of John Keegan, “no Austrian defeat can be attributed to large-scale disloyalty.” The soldiers of the army overwhelmingly remained loyal to the empire. For example, the Entente attempted to recruit Czechs and Slovaks, generally regarded as among the least reliable nationalities in the Habsburg army, to fight in Entente units. Some units were created but their attempts were mostly futile as “relatively few Slavic prisoners of war from the Austro-Hungarian army actually responded to the call to fight...and the Czechoslovak legions, important as they were politically, never numbered more than 60,000 men.” At most, only 10% responded to this call to fight. By the beginning of 1918 the situation Austria-Hungary was in was overwhelmingly positive. The Austrians were “better fighters than better-equipped and fed Italians,” were occupying Serbia and Romania, Russia had been defeated, Italy had been humiliated in a series of successful German-Austrian offensives, and the army was fighting on two small fronts in Italy and the Balkans where casualties were low. Germany and Austria-Hungary were winning the war. And when some defeats did come for the Austrians it was through no fault of their own. The September 1918 Entente offensive in the Balkans forced the surrender of Bulgaria, whose forces made up the bulk of the Central Powers army in the region. The surrender of Bulgaria left a hole in the frontline that could not be closed and though Austria-Hungary had the men to fill the gap, their weak infrastructure was unable to transport the troops south.
The real defeat of Austria-Hungary, however, was caused not by Allied action but by the strains the war put on the national harmony that existed before 1914. The Habsburg army prior to the war had been a happy, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual organisation popular among the population where the experience of training and military exercises were looked at positively. Despite this military officials realised the army might not be as content in wartime. Austria-Hungary had been fearing mass desertion when mobilisation was called - perhaps on the order of 1 in 10 men - but instead the numbers of men who showed up where they were needed to were extraordinarily higher than expected. Indeed, during mobilisation the enthusiastic and loyal soldiers far outnumbered those soldiers who were reluctant to fight or those who deserted. The ethnic make-up of the Austro-Hungarian army demonstrates that all ethnicities were equally represented and so none were treated unfairly. Out of every 100 soldiers there were 25 Germans, 18 Hungarians, 13 Czechs, 11 Serbs and Croatians, 9 Poles, 9 Ruthenes, 6 Romanians, 4 Slovaks, 2 Slovenes, and 2 Italians. In terms of population of Austria-Hungary, Germans made up 24%, Hungarians 20%, Czechs 13%, Serbs and Croatians 9%, Poles 10%, Ruthenes 8%, Romanians 6%, Slovaks 4%, Slovenes 3%, and Italians 3%. Thus no one ethnic group was exploited more than another. The languages of these minorities were recognised within the army and out of 142 uni-lingual units in 1914 only 31 were German-speaking. Pre-war officers had to learn the languages of their regiments in order to hold their position but as the war went on there was little time to educate officers in other languages and so in many cases the officers and soldiers could not understand each other. Even nationalist movements prior to the war were in their own way loyal to the empire. Hew Strachan writes that “most national groups derived benefits as well as disadvantages from membership of the empire, and therefore the majority before 1914 looked to federalism, not independence.” This goal of creating a federated Habsburg state made up of semi-autonomous nations would have been possible and indeed was even proclaimed by Emperor Karl I in the last weeks of the war. That the ethnic minorities were looking to stay within the empire but with more autonomy demonstrates that they were not completely opposed to the Habsburg state.
However, the death of Emperor Franz Josef in November 1916 changed everything. John Keegan writes that “even among the least imperial of his peoples, Czechs and Serbs, many had held him in personal reverence. To the Kaisertreu Croats, to the Germans and to the Hungarians...he had stood as a symbol of stability...His departure loosened such bonds as still held the ten main language groups.” Franz Josef was the last thing keeping the various ethnic groups together through the turbulent war. His successor, Karl I, had youth on his side and in a time of peace could have sustained the power of the throne, but “he could not begin, in the circumstances of war, to establish strong imperial authority of his own.” With their respected emperor dead, officers no longer speaking their language, and the war looking to last for years and years, the ethnic minorities of the empire saw the army as “a prison of nations, with the ubiquitous German superiors acting as gaolers.” It would not take long for discontent to flare up on the home front and for the strain to be felt at the front lines.
The soldiers of the empire had bled for four years and were pushed to beyond their breaking point. By 1918 more than 1,500,000 men had lost their lives. The situation by mid-1918 was not as good as it had been only a few months previously. The Americans had arrived in France in great numbers and with defeat on the Western Front the Austrians could not avoid defeat on their fronts for much longer. Count Stephan Burian, foreign minister of Austria-Hungary at the end of the war, later wrote that “the Austro-Hungarian front might conceivably be held to the end of the year [1918]. Shortage of munitions, provisions, and clothing made it quite impossible to last another winter. Our general position made an early solution most urgent.” The realities of a nation not strong enough to supply an army through modern warfare had finally caught up to the Austro-Hungarian administration. The soldiers, though, still held strong. On October 24, 1918 the French, British, and Italians launched a massive offensive on the Italian Front with great superiority in numbers in what would become known as the Battle of Vittorio Veneto. Although one Bohemian and two Hungarian divisions did revolt, the remainder of the army managed to stop the offensive for a few days and it took two more weeks for the Allies to break the Austrian line. The image of the “starving and ragged combat troops along the Piave River in Italy and on the lofty peaks of the southern Tyrol, fighting for a Dual Monarchy that had already ceased to exist” referred to earlier is demonstrated here to be the truth. The men were willing but they no longer had the means and motivation to fight.
The seeds of defeat were thus not planted in the Austrian trenches but in the cities and in the great rural expanses of the empire. In Vienna wages were halved by 1916 and halved again in 1917 and by the end of the war the state allowance given to those who had family members at the front was only enough to purchase less than two loaves of bread a day. The crises caused by the war and the strain put on industry had forced hyper-inflation to the point where it was already entrenched in Austria-Hungary by 1918, well before any other major nation. The military and economic problems only caused more strife on the home front and magnified any pre-1914 problems. Lower class antagonism was heightened as they were worst hit by losses in battle, the infrastructure deficiencies meant that there was a shortage of rolling stock, and by 1917 there was hunger both at home and at the front. The ethnic minorities within the empire were beginning to split apart and were looking at a way to reach their own independence. The situation came to a head in October 1918 when Emperor Karl I began to search for a political method to extricate Austria-Hungary from the war and proclaimed on the 16th of October that he was transferring the state into a “federation of nationalities.” The population, now having suffered four long years of war, were no longer open to this idea. Soldiers and officers off duty and away from the front led the social and national revolutions that sprung up in Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Lemberg, and Zagreb. In the words of Istvan Deak, “it was the mutinous army at home that put an end to the Habsburg Monarchy and ushered in the dubious blessing of an era of nationalist successor states.” It was unrest from within and not disloyalty from the front that brought about the downfall of Austria-Hungary, though the situation at the front caused this unrest. One by one the national minorities dropped out of the empire. On October 6, 1918 the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes together created the new state that would become Yugoslavia. The next day the Poles within the empire joined with their German and Russian compatriots in creating an independent Poland. On October 28 the Czech-Slovak republic was proclaimed and on October 30 the German subjects of the empire claimed their ability to direct the new foreign policy of a German-Austrian state. Lastly, on November 1 Hungary detached itself from the Dual Monarchy it had helped prop up more than any other non-German minority. With these new states forming, the men at the front no longer had a legitimate reason to continue to fight as their allegiances shifted from Vienna to a new capital. The empire for which they had bled was no longer in existence and they now had new nations for which to bleed.

The military defeat of Austria-Hungary’s allies are easy to explain. The German Army was simply exhausted and depleted after the spring offensives of 1918 and could not withstand the offensive of the Allied forces, now consisting of fresh American troops, during the summer and autumn of the same year. The Bulgarians were already weary of the war and were broken after the Allied offensive in the Balkans. The Ottomans were similarly defeated at the front in Palestine and Mesopotamia by British and Arabic forces. The Allied armies had soundly defeated their enemies through superior military might and tactics. Austria-Hungary, however, was not defeated in this manner. The surrender of the Bulgarians sealed the fate of Austria-Hungary in the Balkans and the tearing apart of the empire sapped the motivation of the Austrians fighting on the Italian Front, who nonetheless held the Allies off for two weeks. The Austro-Hungarians, perhaps alone of all major nations in the First World War considering the routing of the Russian Army before the Revolution of 1917, were defeated only because of their own actions. Austria-Hungary was the least prepared Great Power nation to go to war in 1914 and the results were the disastrous events of 1914 and 1915 that dealt a blow to the Austrians from which they could not recover. The Austro-Hungarian army did stop the Russian advance in those first months but it came at the price of their best men. The Austro-Hungarian state itself was simply not capable of sustaining its army in the field, as attested by the production figures of war materiels in comparison to her enemies and the statements by Foreign Minister Burian. It is remarkable, then, that the Austro-Hungarian forces managed to wage the war as long and as successfully as they did but in so prosecuting this war they destroyed the national harmony that had precariously existed before the calamitous events of 1914-1918. The war also prevented the new emperor Karl I from enforcing his authority when the popular and unifying emperor Franz Josef died in 1916. With national harmony broken and people at home suffering, it was not long before the strife at home reached the front lines, giving the Allies the only opportunity to militarily defeat the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


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Johnson, Lonnie R. Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbours, Friends. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Keegan, John. The First World War. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1998.

Strachan, Hew. The First World War, Volume I: To Arms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.