Capture of Przemysl

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30 March 1915


By Bernard Pares

The fall of Przemysl, which will now no doubt be called by its Russian name of Peremyshl, is in every way surprising.

Even a few days before, quite well-informed people had no idea that the end was coming so soon. The town was a first-class fortress, whose development had been an object of special solicitude to the late Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Of course it was recognized that Peremyshl was the gate of Hungary and the key to Galicia; but, more than that, it was strengthened into a great point of debouchment for an aggressive movement by Austro-Hungary against Russia; for the Russian policy of Austria, like her original plan of campaign, was based on the assumption of the offensive. It was generally understood that Peremyshl was garrisoned by about 50,000 men, that the garrison was exclusively Hungarian, and that the commander. Kusmanek, was one of the few really able Austrian commanders in this war. The stores were said to be enough for a siege of three years. The circle of the forts was so extended as to make operations easy against any but the largest blockading force; and the aerodrome, which was well covered, gave communication with the outside world. An air post has run almost regularly, the letters (of which I have some) being stamped "Flieger-Post." . . . The practical difficulties offered to the Russians by Peremyshl were very great; for the one double railway line westward runs through the town so that all military and Red Cross communications have been indefinitely lengthened....

For weeks past the fortress had kept up a terrific fire which was greater than any experienced elsewhere from Austrian artillery. Thousands of shell yielded only tens of wounded, and it would seem that the Austrians could have had no other object than to g et rid of their ammunition. The fire was now intensified to stupendous proportions and the sortie took place; but, so far from the whole garrison coming out, it was only a portion of it, and was driven back with the annihilation of almost a whole division.

Now followed extraordinary scenes. Austrian soldiers were seen fighting each other, while the Russians looked on. Amid the chaos a small group of staff officers appeared, casually enough, with a white flag, and announced surrender. Austrians were seen cutting pieces out of slaughtered horses that lay in heaps, and showing an entire indifference to their capture. Explosions of war material continued after the surrender.

The greatest surprise of all was the strength of the garrison, which numbered not 50,000 but 130,000, which makes of Peremyshl a second Metz. Different explanations are offered; for instance, troops which had lost their field trains and therefore their mobility are reported to have taken refuge in Peremyshl after Rava Russka, but surely the subsequent withdrawal of the blockade gave them ample time for retreat. A more convincing account is that Peremyshl was full of depots, left there to be supports of a great advancing field army. In any case no kind of defense can be pleaded for the surrender of this imposing force.

The numbers of the garrison of course reduced to one-third the time during which the food supplies would last; but even so the fortress should have held out for a year. The epidemic diseases within the lines supply only a partial explanation. The troops, instead of being all Hungarians, were of various Austrian nationalities; and there is good reason to think that the conditions of defense led to feuds, brawls and, in the end, open disobedience of orders. This was all the more likely because, while food was squandered on the officers, the rank and file and the local population were reduced to extremes, and because the officers, to judge by the first sortie, took but little part in the actual fighting. The wholesale slaughter of horses of itself robbed the army of its mobility. The fall of Peremyshl is the most striking example so far of the general demoralization of the Austrian army and monarchy.

Peremyshl, so long a formidable hindrance to the Russians, now a splendid base for an advance into Hungary.


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