Fall of Empires:
Scenario Preview, Part Eight
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In the years after the First World War, a number of apologia appeared, excusing Austro-Hungarian chief of staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorff of blame for the Dual Monarchy’s military defeat and by extension its subsequent collapse. Historian Cyril Falls is probably the best-known propagator of what later writers would call “The Conrad Lie.” Boris Shaposhnikov was another. Conrad’s blunders sentenced hundreds of thousands of soldiers to needless deaths, among them his own son.
In Conrad’s defense, the campaign that held his primary focus in August 1914, his effort to bed and wed wealthy heiress Gina von Reininghaus, was ultimately successful. So there’s that.
Among the excuses offered for Conrad, supposedly the Imperial and Royal Army was weak and brittle, unworthy of the genius of its leader. First off, as another colossally failed military leader said a century later, “you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” And second, the Austro-Hungarian armed forces included some outstanding units. Let’s take a look at the best of them, as shown in Infantry Attacks: Fall of Empires.
The Alpine Corps
Raised in the provinces of Vorarlberg, Tirol and Salzburg (plus a Czech regiment from Prague), the three divisions of Innsbruck’s XIV Corps were accounted the Imperial and Royal Army’s finest, no doubt because Army Chief of Staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendoff had held his only troop command in the corps’ 8th “Kaiserjäger” Division. The corps included the elite Kaiserjäger regiments plus two elite “House” regiments, the 59th “Erzherzog Rainer” from Salzburg and 14th “Grossherzog von Hessen” from Linz.
Conrad reinforced the corps with an additional Honvéd division and then could not decide how to make use of this powerful striking force. It spent the first several days of the campaign marching and counter-marching between the right flank of Fourth Army and the left flank of Third Army to its east. When Conrad finally committed them to action, they plowed into the Russian Fifth Army’s unprepared and open left flank.
28 August 1914
After the 38th Honvéd Infantry Division failed to push back the Russians occupying the woods south of Tarnoczyn, Archduke Joseph Ferdinand of XIV Corps committed the four battalions of his 8th Infantry Division’s 121st Infantry Brigade. Maj. Gen. Alfred Brunswik von Korompa had half the infantrymen of most brigades, but most of them came from the 1st Kaiserjäger Regiment.
The Tirolean assault swept the defending infantry out of its positions and captured sixteen Russian cannon. The division command reported that the troops then loudly sang the Imperial anthem, the Kaiser Lied, to celebrate their victory. While that’s likely a bit of embroidery, the attack had helped smash XVII Corps’ ability to intervene in the looming encirclement battle around Komarów.
The Austrians come at the Russians with absolutely no artillery support, on or off the board, and the morale of Israeli paratroopers. The Russians have artillery, they have numbers, and they have a very good defensive position. It might not be enough.
Across the Solokija
28 August 1914
To the right of the 1st Kaiserjäger Regiment’s attack, Maj. Gen. Rochard Mayer’s 96th Infantry Brigade had two full regiments of the storied mountain infantry. They reached the shallow Solokija River just after dawn broke, and in the early morning light attacked across it to drive away the Russians on the opposite bank. Alerted by the intense fighting for the woods at Tarnoczyn, the defenders were ready for them.
The Kaiserjäger got across the Solokija but made very little progress beyond the crossing. Well-prepared Russian artillery - a constant nemesis for Austrian infantry attacks - inflicted enormous losses that even the insanely high Tirolean morale could not overcome. The brigade fell back to the river line as the Russians had to retreat later in the day anyway thanks to the collapse of the rest of XVII Corps.
It is actually possible to stop the Kaiserjäger. It’s just not very easy. The Austrians have artillery this time - obsolete mountain guns that probably weren’t worth dragging across Galicia - and numbers. But the Russian position is strong and backed by many field guns.
28 August 1914
The Russian 61st Infantry Division had mobilized on 6 August with cadres supplied by 10th Infantry Division and reservists from the Nizhny Novgorod area east of Moscow. It had just arrived at the front and been assigned to the left wing of XVII Corps. Its commander, Gen. Panteleimon Nikolaevich Simansky, described his officers as “tactically illiterate . . . not having any tenacity in battle, prone to panic, constantly looking back at abandoned families.” And now they would face Austria-Hungary’s best division.
In its first action of the war, the Edelweiss Division’s 5th Infantry Brigade devastated the 61st Infantry Division, taking 40 guns and thousands of prisoners while the remainder of Simansky’s hapless division fell back in disarray. Prisoners named the Kaiserjäger “flowery devils” for their edelweiss insignia. Col. Alexander Brosch von Aarenau of 2nd Kaiserjäger told his wife that he led recklessly from the front “to give the men an example of cold-bloodedness and courage on our first day of battle.” The victory cost one-quarter of his men dead and wounded.
Brosch had been Franz Ferdinand’s military aide until shortly before the archduke’s assassination, and went to war eager to avenge his old boss - and even more reckless than most Austrian regimental commanders in August 1914. The Kaiserjäger not only have numbers, they’re facing reservist infantry this time. It won’t be pretty, but the Austrians have to nearly wipe out the Russians in order to win.
Edelweiss, Second Verse
29 August 1914
While other Austrian divisions had more often than not scored tactical victories during the early days of the campaign, they usually suffered so terribly in doing so that the Russians could break contact during the night and the Austrians couldn’t exploit their successes. The Edelweiss Division, however, kept track of the battered Russian 61st Infantry Division through the hours of darkness and returned the next morning to dish out more punishment.
The Edelweiss Division reported taking another 24 cannon in this attack, which would bring the total to more than the 61st Infantry Division’s holdings. Whatever the actual total of trophies hauled back to Salzburg and Innsbruck, the Russian division had taken another crushing defeat and would not play a role again in the Battle of Komarów.
Poor Simansky. Facing the Kaiserjäger was bad enough, now he has to discover that they’re not the best infantry in the Edelweiss Division. The Austrians once again have to wipe the map close to clean of Russians, and they have the force to do it.
A Lively Fight at Posadow
29 August 1914
The Kaiserjäger Division renewed its attack as well, driving over the Huczwa River to seek out the defeated Russian 35th Infantry Division. The Russian division had survived its first day of combat in better condition than the neighboring 61st Infantry Division, and put up what the Austro-Hungarian Official History termed “a lively fight” against Tirol’s elite mountain troops.
The Austrian division surged over the Huczwa and inflicted heavy losses on the Russian division, but could not achieve all of its objectives. The Kaiserjäger still battered the 35th Infantry Division and left it unable to threaten the Austrian divisions turning westwards to try to encircle two corps of Fifth Army.
The fortunes of war sometimes yield unexpected results; the Austrians had even greater advantages here than in the battles shown earlier in this chapter, but did not achieve the same total victory. These Russians fought off the Kaiserjäger, and you can too. You just need to play really well and trust in the dice.
Viktor Dankl, XIV Corps’ peacetime commander now leading First Army, had forged the three divisions into a potent weapon (the corps’ third division, 44th Landwehr, had not yet reached the front lines at the time of these battles). These actions laid the groundwork for the Edelweiss and Kaiserjäger divisions’ later wartime reputation. But the men were still flesh and blood like any other, and they achieved success in large part through their willingness to continue fighting after suffering tremendous casualties.
On the Russian side, XVII Corps had been rendered incapable of combat after a single day of fighting against the Dual Monarchy’s Alpine elite. It fled to the north, leaving the neighboring two corps vulnerable to encirclement and destruction in detail. But Auffenberg and his staff would have to complete their victory with troops now utterly exhausted from their intense efforts.
And that’s Chapter Eight.
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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; a few of them were actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold enjoys gnawing his deer antler and editing Wikipedia pages.