One of the things I love most about hosting this site is the interesting people who are drawn to it. Richard Krotec is one such person. A fan of Austrian-Hungarian history, Richard has stopped by several times leaving kind comments and movie recommendations. In recent emails with him, I learned that he became interested in the Austrian army while growing up and hearing stories of his grandfather, who served in the 27th Laibach Division during World War I. (Laibach, by the way, is German for Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia, which was part of the Habsburg Empire from the fourteenth century to the close of World War I, when the Empire dissolved).
“I mainly got interested in the Austrian-Hungarian history by listening to family members talk,” says Richard. He recalls one story where his grandfather, drafted into the victorious Austrian battle of Caporetto of October-Novemver 1917 at the tender age of 14, was severely wounded when an artillery fragment flew into the magazine of his rifle, causing his weapon to blow up in his hand. Richard says the Austrian doctors were able to repair his grandfather’s arm to such a remarkable degree that, save for the scars the wound left behind, was able to regain the use of his hand.
Richard credits a brilliant teacher for cementing his lifelong interest in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. “It really picked up when I was in high school and my history teacher, a very educated man with degrees in the subject, taught our class a lot about Austria-Hungary.” So, without further ado, here’s Richard Krotec with a brief history lesson on the Austro-Hungarian Army.
In the late-nineteenth century, the Habsburg Army was unique among the world’s great powers. In fact, it was not one single army, but three separate armies. There was the “common army”, called the Imperial and Royal army, or Kaiserlich und Koniglich (KUK). (Being common meant that the soldiers were recruited from both parts of the empire—from Austria and Hungary.) Then there was the Kaiserlich Koniglich Landwehr (KK), where the soldiers were drawn totally from the Austrian half of the empire. And there then there was the Ku Koniglich Ungarisch, also a landwehr, but better know by its Hungarian name Honved, which drew its soldiers from the Hungarian half of the empire.
Due to a lack of funding, the army was unable put weapons into mass production. Then from 1911 through 1912, Parliament passed an army act that allowed much more spending on the military. This was due in no small part to the Austrian Chief-of-Staff Conrad von Hotzendorf putting on the pressure to get what the army needed. But the budget came too late and could not change things drastically by the outbreak of WWI. The Austrian Army was starved of proper equipment and funding, and this lead to huge losses in November of 1914.
During the war, the tight control and military restrictions that the civilians in Parliment had were lifted, and despite what many American historians say, the Austro-Hungarian Army preformed very well considering the disadvantages the Empire faced. It hung on till the bitter end, collapsing only one week before the Prussian-German Empire. A tribute to the military prowess of the Habsburg Empire.
The Austrian Army went over to the offensive and struck the Russian Army at the victorous battle of Krasnik as well as the battle of Kamarov. These two victories protected Germany from Russian troops advancing on Berlin, because the Austrians believed that Germany would follow up and link up with Austrian forces to knock out Russia. But allied armies were thrown back with massive casualties because as allies complained, the Germans did not live up to their end of the bargain. After these disasters, the Germans finally sent a powerful contingent to the east to assist Austria-Hungary.
There’s been a lot of German criticism of Austria’s performance at the early stage of the war, but this is unfair as the Austrian chief of staff Conrad von Hotzendorf once said in his memoirs that the Austrian Army basically saved Germany from having Russian troops march on Berlin’s door step after the battles of Krasnik and Kamarov in August and September 1914. Of course, Germany’s assistance to Austria-Hungary should not be underestimated. Germany was indeed the senior partner in the alliance—that’s a fact. But that did not mean that Austria-Hungary could not hold its own. From 1914-1916, the Eastern Front was spilt up. And on the northern sector of the front, Austrian troops operated under German command. However, on the southern sector of the eastern front, German troops came under Austro-Hunagrian command in 1915 at the battle of Gorlice Tarnow. Germany’s chief of staff Falkenhayn had two plans to consider: one drawn up by Ludendorf for Hindenburg, and the other by the Austro-Hungarian chief of staff Conrad von Hotzendorf. Falkenhayn came down in favor of Conrad’s plan. As it was a more sound battle plan, he took both plans to the German emperor Wilhelm II, but did not mention whose plan it was but agreed to pick Conrads Wilhelm II’s. At Golice Tarnow, the offensive turned out a complete success.
If you are interested in reading more on the Austro-Hungarian Army, I recommend these four excellent books, which are all well illustrated. (You can get them on Amazon.com for around $40 to $50. Sometimes they are over $100, but you just have to sometimes wait and check back every few days to few weeks and you can find them cheaper.)
- Fighting Troops of the Austro Hungarian Army (1868-1914), by James Lucas
- Austro-Hungarian Infantry (1914-1918), also by James Lucas
- The Austro-Hungarian Forces in World War One, by Peter Jung, volumes 1 and 2 (these sell for $12 to $14 and are about 48 pages long)