Fall of Empires:
Battle of Kraśnik, Part One

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
September 2020

Thank God, we’ve got a war!

Viktor Dankl bellowed his enthusiasm to the staff of the Austro-Hungarian XIV Corps in Innsbruck on learning of the Dual Monarchy’s declaration of war against Serbia, an excitement echoed throughout the Imperial and Royal Army.

Dankl would not lead his corps – considered the Army’s best, containing the 3rd “Edelweiss” and the 8th “Kaiserjäger” mountain divisions – into battle. That job would fall to Archduke Joseph Ferdinand, pre-war commander of the Edelweiss Division. Austrian chief of staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorff had bigger plans in mind for Dankl.

Conrad noticed Dankl during the latter’s term on the general staff in the 1880’s and sponsored him through a series of promotions. When Conrad received the prestigious command of the Kaiserjäger Division, he sought out Dankl to serve as one of his two brigadiers. And when war came at the end of July 1914, he named Dankl to command First Army forming in Galicia, the Austrian province fronting Russian Poland, with the most important role in Conrad’s grand offensive scheme.

The seat of war, August 1914.

The leftmost of the Austro-Hungarian armies, Dankl’s army would drive northward, to locate and defeat any Russian forces to its front, and ultimately march on a point east of Warsaw where it would link up with German forces driving south from East Prussia. To his left the independent corps-sized Army Group Kummer protected First Army’s left flank, with the 7th Cavalry Division and three brigades of Landsturm. To the northwest of Kummer, the German Woyrsch Corps of two German Landwehr divisions covered the gap between Kummer and German forces in East Prussia. On Dankl’s right flank, Moritz von Auffenberg’s Fourth Army would also advance, forming the middle of a pivot based on the Third Army located to Auffenberg’s right.

Conrad based his scheme, finalized in March 1914, primarily on wishful thinking. The Russians failed to cooperate by stationing only screening forces in central Poland: had Conrad’s grand vision come to pass, the pincers might have trapped the Russian 14th Cavalry Division, but little more. The Germans had no intention of driving towards Warsaw, though they did pressure the Austrians to launch their offensive as quickly as possible to divert Russian attention from East Prussia.

The Austro-Hungarian Second Army, intended to assemble behind First and Fourth Armies and reinforce them as needed, had been diverted to attack Serbia instead and then inserted on the right end of the Austrian line in Galicia – the advancing armies would have no second echelon or source of reinforcements. Conrad appears to have believed that since the pins stuck in the situation maps at Army Supreme Headquarters in Teschen (hundreds of kilometers behind the front) needed no food or ammunition, neither did the actual troops in the field. Austria-Hungary’s logistics services were not bad by the standards of 1914, but had not been prepared to support an advance deep into enemy territory.

To carry out this plan, Dankl had three army corps:

I Corps
• 5th Infantry Division. Common Army, home station Olmütz.
• 12th Infantry Division. Common Army, home station Cracow.
• 46th Rifle Division. Austrian Landwehr, home station Cracow.

V Corps
• 14th Infantry Division. Common Army, home station Pressburg (Bratislava).
• 33rd Infantry Division. Common Army, home station Komorn.
• 37th Infantry Division. Royal Hungarian Honvédség, home station Pressburg (Bratislava).

X Corps
• 2nd Infantry Division. Common Army, home station Jaroslau (Jaroslaw).
• 24th Infantry Division. Common Army, home station Przemysl.
• 45th Rifle Division. Austrian Landwehr, home station Przemysl.

In addition First Army had the 3rd and 9th Cavalry Divisions, both from the Common Army, four Landsturm brigades, three “March” brigades and the Polish Legion initially of three battalions and supporting arms but growing rapidly as Poles defected from Russian territory to join up.

Austrian infantrymen resting. Galicia, 1914.

That gave Dankl all of the larger units raised in Austrian Poland (four Common Army and two Landwehr infantry divisions). Polish troops reported to the colors with notably high enthusiasm for a war greeted with excitement by all of the Dual Monarchy’s nationalities (initially, anyway). The Landsturm brigades had been formed of unorganized reservists with a sprinkling of regular officers, while the March brigades were the replacement battalions of various regiments brigaded together simply for transport to the front, but Conrad would soon order them thrown directly into combat. All told, Dankl fielded somewhat over 200,000 men, though the Landsturm and March brigades offered little in the way of additional combat power.

Opposing First Army, Anton von Salza’s Russian Fourth Army initially had three corps as well, with two more on the way. Salza (sometimes rendered Saltza or even Zalt’sa) came from a Baltic German family with a long history of service to the Tsar, which Anton could boast as well: commissioned in 1862, he was repeatedly decorated for bravery during the 1863 Polish Insurrection and again during the 1876-78 Russo-Turkish War. In 1914 he was 70 years old and held command of the Kazan Military District, whose staff was mobilized to form the command of Fourth Army.

Salza’s army included:

Grenadier Corps (Moscow Military District)
• 1st Grenadier Division
• 2nd Grenadier Division
• 1st Cavalry Division

XIV Corps (Warsaw Military District)
• 18th Infantry Division
• 1st Rifle Brigade
• 2nd Rifle Brigade
• 13th Cavalry Division
• 14th Cavalry Division

XVI Corps (Kazan Military District)
• 41st Infantry Division
• 45th Infantry Division (shifted to XIV Corps)
• 47th Infantry Division
• 5th Cavalry Division

Fourth Army also included two divisions of Cossack cavalry (3rd Don Cossack and Ural Cossack) and the Separate Guards Cavalry Brigade.

Distrusting its Polish population, the Imperial Russian Army sent most Polish conscripts out of Poland for their military service, assuring that no regiment would be more than 10 percent Polish, even those stationed there. Most of XIV Corps’ troops were therefore Great Russians, and small numbers of Polish soldiers served in almost all Russian regiments.

Fourth Army represented the rightmost of the Russian armies facing Galicia. Salza detached the 14th Cavalry Division as a screen to his far right; the next large Russian formation beyond them was Second Army facing the southern border of East Prussia. To the left stood the Fifth Army of Wenzel von Plehve, another Baltic German in Russian service. Behind them, Ninth Army near Warsaw was still forming from troops arriving from the interior military districts and could provide a ready source of reinforcements.

Trumpets and drums, September 1914 (open in new tab to enlarge).

Dankl’s army therefore had a significant edge in numbers and Polishness; Salza’s troops had the edge in cavalry and had better artillery (almost the exact same number of tubes, but far better-quality pieces). Crucially, Salza’s potential source of reinforcements (Ninth Army) remained reasonably close to hand, while Dankl’s (Second Army) had been sent on a railway tour of the Dual Monarchy, first to Serbia and then back to Galicia where it was eventually inserted on the far right flank, well away from First Army.

Nikolai Ivanov, commander of the Russian Southwestern Front, ordered his four armies forward in two pairs, hoping to take the Austrians in both flanks and crush them. Russia had gained an enormous intelligence coup, turning Colonel Alfred Redl, the head of Habsburg counter-intelligence. Redl fed the Russians a trove of secret documents up until his accidental discovery in May 1913, including war plans and mobilization tables.

Conrad reacted to the revelation by simply moving his assembly areas 100 miles to the west, then thinking better of it and marching his troops back eastward. When the order to advance came, Dankl’s troops had not reached their new/old jumping-off points. Meanwhile, Ivanov continued to assume the Austrians would be found where Redl’s document’s indicated. So while the Russians made ready to take Dankl’s army in its left flank, the First Army was actually moving forward into Fourth Army’s right flank in what would become a gigantic encounter battle in Galicia.

Throughout mid-August, both sides deployed their large cavalry forces in sweeps across northern Galicia and southern Poland, seeking out enemy concentrations. Neither side’s horsemen managed to accomplish much, beyond several clashes of sabers (some of them very large). When the orders came to move forward, both armies did so blindly.

Salza advanced on the morning of 22 August, with 13th Cavalry Division reinforced by the Guards cavalry on the right, followed by XIV Corps, XVI Corps in the center and the Grenadier Corps on the left. The 3rd Don Cossack Cavalry Division covered the left flank of the Grenadiers. That evening, Dankl’s troops crossed the small Tanew River and marched steadily northward, with I Corps on the left, V Corps in the center and X Corps on the right. Third Cavalry Division covered the left flank and 9th Cavalry Division the right. Swampy ground slowed the march and Dankl cautioned his generals to maintain their flanks and take care not to blunder into the Russians unexpectedly.

Austrian troopers of the 3rd Cavalry Division encountered their Russian opposites from 13th Cavalry Division that afternoon, and also identified the Russian 18th Infantry Division. Gen. Karl Freiherr von Kirchbach, commander of I Corps, brought up his 5th and 46th Divisions overnight and hurled them against the Russians the next morning near the town of Kraśnik. His 12th Infantry Division and attached 1st March Brigade hurried to join in. The Battle for Galicia was on.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published an uncountable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold enjoys eating bugs and editing Wikipedia pages.