Fall of History
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Two decades ago, as a very young Fulbright Scholar, I enrolled in a University of Vienna seminar hosted by the renowned Austrian military historian Manfried Rauchensteiner, titled “The Austro-Hungarian North-West Front during the Great War.” Rauchensteiner remains the foremost historian of the latter years of the Dual Monarchy, yet the subject of Austria-Hungary's war against Russia is one little covered in English and only somewhat more in German.
The story of the North-West Front (from an Austro-Hungarian perspective that would be the campaign against the Russians in Galicia and southern Poland) remains a complex story that encapsulates the reasons for Austria-Hungary’s final military collapse. Most English-language histories quickly pass over the campaigns; a very recent book that supposedly covers it in more depth simply assigns every failure to some sort of deep-seated racial stupidity on the part of all Austrians, compounded by greed, lust and general laziness.
Once you’re deeply read on the topic (actually deeply-read, not message-board-buffoon deeply read), like most things it turns out to be a whole lot less simple than it looks. The army that Austria-Hungary sent to war in 1914 lacked many things: modern artillery, numbers of troops proportionate to the monarchy’s population, a realistic tactical doctrine, a competent high command and countless others. And most of that army had perished by the end of the year. Yet somehow the ramshackle Empire found the means and the will to build a new, modern army in the midst of wartime.
Wargames are by no means the equivalent of a fully-realized historical monograph; for one thing, game designers rarely have the training to make use of primary source documents (which is a lot tougher than it sounds, as the primary documents usually have no context to give them meaning). There are a very rare handful that reflect very good secondary research subjected to careful, informed analysis and an even tinier handful that make real use of archival documents and do it well (my friend Dave Powell would be one shining example). For the most part, the historical research and analysis in wargames is pretty superficial, and often that’s sufficient to produce an enjoyable game with a veneer of historical simulation.
I wanted to do something more than that with Fall of Empires, with the full knowledge that a wargame is a pretty silly means through which to analyze history and that a large part of the intended audience would never know – or care – about that part. So, having proclaimed that I know a lot about the topic and have thought a lot about it, what does that mean for the game, Fall of Empires?
The campaign in Galicia was a big one – four Austrian armies faced off against four Russian ones, making the forces involved in this campaign a little less than three times the size of those in the much better-known one taking place in East Prussia at the same time. And both sides went on the offensive, making for a lot of action.
On an operational level, I don’t find the campaign very interesting (from a game designer’s perspective; were I still mired in academia, I’d probably feel differently). No sane Austrian player is going to replicate the strategy followed by Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf – relentless attacks by an ill-prepared, outnumbered and outgunned army, mobilized in the wrong locations, with a good portion of its strength wandering aimlessly between the Serbian and Galician fronts.
Conrad (Hötzendorf was the family’s noble predicate, not its name) had come up in the 1880’s as a professor of tactics when the Army still held to the doctrines of the great Radetzky. Radetzky’s formula – as applicable in 1914 as in 1814 – called for selecting and holding a good defensive position, allowing the enemy to wear down his strength attacking it, and then striking at the key moment with a strong, carefully conserved reserve. This had actually been the Austrian way of war since the days of Prince Eugene, and almost every great Austrian victory from Zenta in 1699 through Custoza in 1866 follows this pattern. Historicism – in this case, the notion that direct lessons can be drawn from historical precedents - ruled Austrian military thinking.
Conrad rejected that notion, seeking a new path: the relentless offensive. When war came – after the turn of the century, there was never a question of “if” – the Imperial and Royal Army would take the offensive against the Russians. At first this made a certain amount of sense, as Austria’s ally Germany also planned to attack Russia in the event of war. But when German emphasis shifted to a first strike against France with only minimal forces left on the Eastern Front, Conrad kept his offensive plans intact.
Just why he did so remains the object of historical study; it’s actually possible he was out to impress his mistress, the astoundingly beautiful (and inconveniently married) Gina von Reininghaus. In any event, the Army planned for a mass offensive against Russia (and against Serbia too; while “flexible” plans existed to fight one or the other alone, no one seriously believed that would happen). At the tactical level, the infantry trained to attack in brutal frontal assaults, while the artillery trained to support them with direct fire. The cavalry, for all its ridiculous pomp (most regiments rode to war in 1914 in their parade uniforms), had actually practiced dismounted combat, including entrenching.
Despite those shortcomings, at the tactical level the Austrians usually held their own against the Russians, who had some problems of their own. For the first weeks of the campaign, the Austrian side actually held the upper hand, winning most of the battles. That also brought them massive casualties, with Austrian tactical doctrine assuring that these would fall disproportionately on the irreplaceable, multi-lingual professional officer corps. It also encouraged further attacks. If anything, the early victories like Kraśnik and Komarów ultimately damaged the Monarchy more than a solid string of defeats would have done when the renewed attacks that followed turned into disaster.
So the tactical level is where I decided to set a game based on the campaign. I wanted Fall of Empires to be one of those rare games that actually adds to the literature of a historical topic, and to a small extent I think it does so. While the actions covered have been mentioned in passing in English-language works, to my knowledge they’ve never been covered in any detail, much less included anywhere in game form.
Fall of Empires represents an opportunity to create a product that’s both a fun wargame and a solid work of history, or at least as solid as is possible in this format. The scenario book will be much thicker than our usual, with a lot more context for each scenario plus multi-scenario battle games like those in Panzer Grenadier: Broken Axis. Mostly, I want to use the strengths of the simulation format to show instead of just tell.
Many superficial studies concentrate on ethnic tensions within the Empire, but as in other times and places, a lot of this represents projecting the passions of a small set of intellectuals onto the broader population. Hungarians did not all suddenly become more loyal to Austria-Hungary because of a few battlefield victories, nor more disaffected because of a few defeats. That Czech reservists answered in Czech when called up may well show less than devotion to the Emperor, but the important point is that they answered at all. In a society where historicism mattered, the thousand-year-old traditions of the Austrian monarchy carried enormous weight.
The reasons why the Dual Monarchy ultimately crumbled have been well-studied; in an age of multi-national societies, it’s a pretty important question (that historicism thing again). Just as important as the reasons for failure are the reasons for success: if Austria-Hungary was a failed state, doomed to destruction, how then did it survive over four years of intense wartime pressure, collapsing only when its people and its soldiers were themselves collapsing from starvation?
With Fall of Empires and its successors, we’ll look at this in depth. We’ve done our best to make it a truly remarkable product, and I hope you’ll like it.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.