from ‘the War Illustrated Deluxe’ volume III page 918
'The Siege of Przemysl'

Great Episodes of the War

from an Austrian magazine - Austrian troops defending a fortress


The siege of Przemysl ranks with those of Sebastopol and Port Arthur. Its capture was a decisive event of the war. It was not, however, decisive in the straightforward, ordinary way. Some of the subtlest and most brilliant moves of the Russian Chief of Staff were concealed behind the ring of flame and steel which for four months cut Przemysl off from the Austro-German armies.

Przemysl was first attacked towards the end of September, 1014, by the Bulgarian general, Radko Dimitrieff, after he had swept through Lemberg and Jaroslav. He tried to take the great stronghold suddenly by storm, sending his infantry against the forts, without using siege-guns. But the only result was a heavy loss of life. And when Hindenburg, in October, relieved the pressure that Dimitrieff was bringing to bear upon Cracow, both that place and Przemysl were freed for awhile of the besieging Russian armies.

Hindenburg, however, was hurled back from Warsaw to the German frontier, and the besieging Russian armies returned to the two great fortress cities. In November Dimitrieff drew his lines partly round Cracow, and on the twellth of that month General Brussiloff entrenched some of his troops on a thirty-mile circle all round Przemysl, under the command of General Selivanov.

Strangest Siege in History

It was then that the siege of Przemysl began. It was the strangest siege in military history, for the besieged troops were stronger in guns, ammunition, and numbers than the men who were trying to starve them out. General Selivanov had only about three army corps, with their ordinary field artillery. Their heaviest pieces were 6 in. howitzers, that could not reach the great concrete armoured forts defending the hill- town amid the Carpathian Mountains. The Austrians had 13 in. and 14 in. guns, mounted in nine large forts, and operated by electricity. There were also ten smaller forts, furnished with motor batteries, and sixteen concrete field fortifications, connected by a track, along which the mobile artillery moved.

It was no wonder that Radko Dimitrieff had failed to carry by storm so well-equipped a fortress with a garrison of 170,000 troops. Even in the middle of November the position of the besieging Russians was one of extreme difficulty, for they could not spare more than 72,000 bayonets for the investment of the stronghold. But General Selivanov, a veteran of the Russo-Turkish War, was a man of genius to whom a difficulty was an inspiration. He posted his guns on a ring of hills some ten to fifteen miles beyond the city, and entrenched his troops a thousand yards or so in front of the guns.

German Strength Wasted

In this way he controlled every road, path, and railway leading to and from Przemysl, and waited, with terrible, imperturbable Russian patience, for famine and disease to do their deadly work. All the costly work of attack against guns, quick-firers, and machine-guns was left to the Austrian, German, and Hungarian troops, under the command of General Kusmanek. They were encouraged to waste their strength in continual sorties against the ring of heights held by the Russians. Neither the Austrians nor the Germans seemed to have relished the tactics imposed upon them; but the Hungarian militia, the famous Honved divisions, were of a more fiery and daring character. Under their gallant leader, General Tamassy, they began, towards the close of November, to try to storm through the distant Russian ring. To the very end they maintained their dash and intrepidity. For the last act of the Przemysl garrison was a violent and desperate attempt to cut through the Russian trenches, made by the 23rd Division of the Honved on March 20th, 1915.

Except for these sorties, the siege went on very quietly for the first two and a half months. If the garrison had possessed a year's store of food and ammunition and supplies of typhoid and cholera vaccines, they might have lived in happy, armed peace in the beautiful old garden-city of the Carpathians. For a very curious thing happened at the headquarters of General Selivanov towards the end of January, 1915. By this time some fifty great howitzers, with a longer range and heavier shell than the Teutonic ordnance, were ready for use in the Russian lines. It would only have taken about a fortnight to wreck the forts of the eastern sector, and thus to blow a wide path for the advance of the Russian Army into the doomed town.

Purpose of the Russian Delay

But General Selivanov had no need of the new monster howitzers. He advised that some of them should be used to strengthen the defences of the small Russian fort of Osoviec, on the Niemen front, where Hindenburg was again trying to break through. None of the great siege pieces was railed to Lemberg for use by the army besieging Przemysl until Hindenburg's attack on the Niemen front had broken down.

This was why the Siege of Przemysl was so extraordinary. The Russians did not want to capture the fortress that they had invested! Their siege operations were designed to induce the Austrians and Hungarians to expend the best part of their remaining strength in attempting to relieve "the Gibraltar" of their almost lost province of Galicia. In between Przemysl and the Austro-Hungarian armies sent to relieve it rose the snow-covered, freezing, wind-blown heights of the Carpathian Mountains. General Brussiloff's main army held most of the passes and debouching valleys on the Galician side, and the nearer Przemysl approached to famine the more strenuous were the efforts that the Austro-Hungarian force made to cross the Carpathians. Terrible were the difficulties under which they had to fight. More of them perished from the rigours of the mountain winter than from the bullets and bayonets of the Russians. By keeping Przemysl as a lure to them. General Brussiloff and General Selivanov in the awful winter campaign sapped the remaining strength of the Austrian and Hungarian peoples. About the beginning of March, 1915, the enemy's offensive movement across the Carpathians weakened, while the opposing Russian force increased to three-quarters of a million.

The Final Act in the Great Siege

Przemysl had done the work that the Russians intended. So it could now fall. In the second week in March some of the big siege-howitzers were brought up, and the chief hill forts in the eastern sector were bombarded. Then the Russian infantry began to storm over the field fortifications and on March 21st General Kusmanek ordered his garrison to cut their way out, but only the twelve thousand Hungarians had the heart to attempt this magnificent adventure, and those of them who were not shot down were made prisoners. The next day Przemysl was captured.


pages from a British magazine


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