an Austro-Hungarian Fortress City
Austrian artillery in the Przemysl forts during the Russian siege
The whole of the Great War on the Western Front, with the exception of the first and last months, can with some justification be considered to have been an almost continous 4-year long siege of sorts. Yet even so, there were many distinct and seperate siege operations conducted against fortress cities and encampments, such as for instance those against Liege, Namur, Antwerp, Maubeuge and Verdun. Smaller actions against fortifications were conducted such as those against the French Fort du Troyon or others in the Rheims area. In the Far-East, the German concession at Tsing-Tao in China was besieged by Japanese and British forces, while on the Eastern Front both Russians and Austrians possesed numerous fortified cities and encampments that were at times bitterly fought over.
The two sieges of the Austro-Hungarian fortress city of Przemsyl (now in present-day Poland) took place during the first year of the war and are in this present day and age relatively little known for all their otherwise dramatic content. Przemysl is situated on the northern side of the Carpathian Mountains in Galicia and was one of several border cities that were fortified to protect the mountain passes leading over the mountains to the Hungarian plain. Like many fortifications of the time, the Przemysl forts had been built over a period of years in fits and starts in response to perceived threats, changing alliances and new developments in the art of military warfare. Essentially they were mid-19th century fortifcations, casemats built of brick and mortar designed to house troops and supplies and to guard fixed gun-emplacements. Later, several newer additions and improvements were constructed in concrete, so that overall the Przemysl fortified area was much like the respective Belgian and French fortified camps at Liege, Antwerp, Namur, Verdun and Paris. By European standards the Przemysl fortifications were among the largest on the continent in terms of fortified area, though not the most up-to-date. Like all national fortresses they were considered to be virtually impregnable by the own General Staffs. The enemy usually had diverging and more correct views on the matter.
During the initial Russian offensives of 1914, Austrian forces were pushed back from Galicia and forced into the Carpathian mountains. The fortress of Przemysl, garrisoned with a large number of Austro-Hungarian troops, but weak in supplies, was invested as the Russians continued their advance. After an initial Russian assault in September was repulsed, the fortress of Przemysl was surrounded and cut off from all lines of communication and besieged from November 1914, till March 1915, when it surrendered to Russian forces. Good news being scarce at that time for the Entente Powers, the fall of Przemysl was heralded as a great victory in the Western media and given extensive coverage in newspapers and magazines. Weekly serial history volumes on the war devoted entire issues to the capture of Przemsyl and commissioned heroic and gallant illustrations to accompany the photographs and articles singing the praises of the Czarist armies. No doubt many people also wondered how to pronounce the name of this now renowned city.
But Allied rejoicing was somewhat premature, for in the early summer of 1915, German and Austrian forces in their turn besieged Russian occupied Przemysl and regained possession of the fortress in June 1915.
Both sides had their moment of rejoicing in the fighting for Przemysl, though in the end the Central Powers came out ahead in this instance. Przemysl remained in Austrian hands throughout the rest of the war, though after the Armistice, the city became part of the newly formed state of Poland. But because there was a distinct Russian as well as an Austrian victory, there is a considerable amount of contemporary illustrative material to be found showing both points of view. Much as on the Western Front, few if any photographs of actual combat were taken during the sieges of Przemysl. News editors compensated by commissioning illustrations that could be suitably produced according to wish. By happenstance or from long-time experience and foresight, British veteran war-correspondent and artist H.C. Seppings-Wright, employed by the 'the Illustrated London News', was at the time accompanying the Czarist armies besieging Przemysl. He finished many on-the-spot eyewitness illustrations and sketches of the siege and military operations. These were sent back to London and published in (Allied) newsmagazines around the world. A number of these interesting and unusual illustrations can be found in the links below.
Many photos of Przemysl seem to show a fascination with the terrible destruction caused by heavy artillery fire. Just as in Belgium, there are photos showing German and Austrian soldiers proudly posing amid the rubble of the Przemysl forts, as if they were climbers out for a scramble amongst the local Alps. Conversely to the seeming utter destruction of the fortifications, the city itself appears to have come through the two sieges relatively undamaged, or such at least is the impression one has from the photographs of both Russians and Austrians during their subsequent entries and victory celebrations in Przemysl.
As with almost all siege operations during the Great War, it was obvious, even to non-military observors at the time, that in the face of a determined assault backed with heavy artillery, fortified areas and fortresses were more likely to succumb than to hold out for long periods of time, if even that. It is therefore somewhat mystifying that in the post-war period, French strategians placed their trust in yet another series of extensive fortifications along their border with Germany.
For a 1914 text on the usefulness of fixed fortifications see : 'The Goliath Gun'
to Text Galleries
- The Siege of Przemysl (from a British newsmagazine)
- Przemysl and the Battles of the Mountains and Rivers (from a British newsmagazine)
- Przemysl and the Advance of the Great German Phalanx (from a British newsmagazine)
- Une Visite A Przemysl (French language text)
- Pêrémouichl (French language text)
from 'der Krieg in Wort und Bild' - Russian assault on Przemysl in September 1914
to Illustrations Galleries
- the Russian Siege
- November 1914 - March 1915
from British Newsmagazines
from French Newsmagazines
from a Dutch Newsmagazine
from a Belgian History Magazine
from an American Review
from a German-American Magazine
from an Italian Newsmagazine
- the Austrian Siege
- May-June 1915
from an Austrian News Magazine
from German Magazines
Aerial Reconnaissance Photos of Przemysl Forts
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