from ‘the War Illustrated Deluxe’ vol. I page 232
'The First Historic Battle
of the Polish Rivers'

The Great Episodes of the War

crossing a pontoon bridge somewhere on the Polish front


In these wild days it is given us to witness as mighty and terrible things as are recorded in history. Since Alexander the Great defeated a million Persians at Nineveh, there has not been so sudden a destruction of the tremendous military power of an ancient Empire as that which befel Austria-Hungary in the middle of September, 1914. The Russian victory between the Vistula and San Rivers was the grand event of the first part of the war. After it, Austria practically disappeared, the remnants of her main forces being merged in the eastern armies of Germany. The Hapsburg dynasty, that for six hundred years had controlled the destinies of Central Europe, came to an end. The upstart Hohenzollern was, for the rest of the war, the real master of both Teutonic Empires.

Such were the consequences of the greatest victory of modem times. By three rapid blows the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia reduced a million of the best soldiers of Austria-Hungary and Germany into a fleeing mob without fighting power. Nobody expected the Russians to fight in this manner, not even their Allies. It was a strange new Russia that emerged on the battlefield, with all the old slackness, slowness, muddle-headed, passive strength of Russian warfare transformed into the speed of a Napoleonic campaign, on a vaster scale than Napoleon ever fought.

Except that the Austrian commander, General von Auffenberg, allowed himself to be lured far away from his railways into Russian Poland, the enemy combated at good advantage. He chose an excellent position in the rolling, wooded country between the Vistula and the Bug Rivers, with the broad stream of the San as his southern line of defence. A German force of some 150,000 men, with heavy artillery, entrenched on hills a thousand feet high, with a river running at the foot and moating their earthworks. They formed the central point in the battle-front at Turobin, and some 900,000 Austrians, Hungarians, Italians from the Trentino, and subject Slav soldiers extended the line for 200 miles. They had 2,500 pieces of artillery, and machine- guns in extraordinary abundance.

So formidable were the positions and the armament of the Austrians that our ally had to withdraw large numbers of its men from Eastern Prussia to help in the attack. No outflanking movement was possible. The wide, deep, strong, unbridged waters of the Vistula protected the first Austrian army near Krasnic. Besides, Austrian war-boats, with quick-firing guns, joined in the battle from the Vistula—as our monitors afterwards did off Nieuport, on the North Sea. The second army held the central hill country from Turobin to Tomashov. The third army was pivoted on the great fortress of Przemysl, in Galicia. Altogether, the Austrians were as strongly posted in Russian Poland in the first week of September as the Germans were in France in the middle of the following month. The Turobin heights were, indeed, more difficult to storm than the plateau of the Aisne, and siege-guns were mounted on them.

From the point of view of the Teutonic strategists, they had recovered from the reverse at Lemberg by bringing their opponents suddenly to the position of stalemate. A frontal attack, against such terrific power of heavy and light artillery and such masses of riflemen as they had placed and entrenched, was impossible. There remained only a slow, open-air siege battle.

But since the first modern siege battles had been fought in the Manchurian campaign a new school of strategists had arisen in Russia. In flat contradiction to German ideas, the Russian military experts held that a frontal attack, if properly managed, was bound to succeed at a heavy, but justifiable, sacrifice of troops.

And it did succeed. Terrible as were the odds against him, the Russian infantryman proved that the bayoneted rifle was the master even of the modern gun. On September 10th the front of the first Austrian army, resting on the Vistula, under the command of General Dankl, was pierced and shattered. None but the Russians could have done such a thing. They alone of the Allies had the tremendous numbers necessary for prevailing against modern artillery.

The battle opened at the beginning of September with the usual artillery duel. Slowly, stubbornly, the quiet, patient Russian peasant advanced under the cover of his big guns. Then, when he seemed to have reached the edge of safety, he charged. He fell. His immediate supports came on at a run. They fell. But a great army was behind them, ranged company after company, regiment after regiment. Every yard the dead and wounded won in front was held by their advancing, inexhaustible supports. In the night, when the defending gunners could not distinguish friend from foe, the bayonet came over the Austrian trenches, stabbing, thrusting as it passed. Behind, the Russian guns were pushed along the path of the victorious infantrymen, and great masses of Cossack cavalry rode in advance of the guns.

At dawn the breach that had been made was held and widened; the Cossacks poured through, and the pursuit began. Rearguard after rearguard of the retreating first Austrian army was outflanked or beaten down by a direct attack. On both sides the carnage was dreadful. The Russian commander had sent his men forth to die in tens of thousands—in many tens of thousands. With something between twenty and thirty millions of armed men at his call, he could do what General Joffre on the Aisne could not safely do. He could chance the lives of half a million men for the sake of a great, overwhelming victory.

At Mukden, some years before, the Russians had been too cautious. They had allowed the Japanese to play the German game of persistent outflanking movements. But now the Grand Duke Nicholas was in his own country, with millions of reserves hastening towards his lines. So he used his unparalleled resources of flesh and blood to obtain a swift and complete decision. From the Vistula to Turobin heights the enemy's machine-guns were rushed and their cannon choked. Then the deaths of the multitudes of fallen, heroic pioneers of victory were avenged on the broken, fleeing foes. It was a terrible way of winning a battle, but the result was of incomparable importance. There was no retreat possible for the vanquished army; it was torn in two and routed.

The great siege-howitzers and heavy guns of the German army could not be moved quickly enough. When the front suddenly broke the Cossacks swept through the opening, with light horse artillery supports, and captured the German armament. Then the Russian horsemen divided. One division helped their infantry to drive in the rearguards of the flying first army. The other division rode through the gap between the retiring force and the second central Austrian army at Tomashov.

By September nth the Austrian centre, under General von Auffenberg, was assailed in front by a force under General Russky, and attacked on the flank by another Russian force.

The Russian cavalry, moreover, was working on the Austrian line of communication, and capturing most of its supply trains. Having guns with them, these horsemen were terribly powerful. The starving, outmanoeuvred Austrians were summoned to surrender. Their case was utterly hopeless, but their commanders refused to yield. The Russians, therefore, had no alternative but to destroy this great mass of men.

It was the most dreadful slaughter in modern history.

The vast hordes of beaten, hungry troops were driven out of the hills down to the great marshlands and swamps extending from the banks of the Vistula on the west and the San on the south. The Cossacks shelled and charged them in their rear, the Russian gunners and infantrymen slew them in the front and on the flank. Something like a hundred thousand of the Austrian force surrendered, bit by bit, in brigades, regiments, and leaderless squads.

None of the others would have escaped had it not been for the fine, unwarlike humanity of the Russian foot soldier. During the first day of the rout, while he remembered his own dead, he was terrible. He slew till he was foregone with fatigue. Then he slept where he stood, and fed, and looked to his bayonet, and went onward to continue.

But he could not bring himself to do it. All anger died out of him when he came upon his starving, driven foes. Used to sharing his food with every beggar that wandered into his village, he felt only a great pity for the beaten men bunched about the marshes. The gunners and the Cossacks acted as executioners; the peasant rifleman took what prisoners he could, but he was very slow to kill. This is the reason he had afterwards to fight, in the great battles round and below Warsaw, some hundreds of thousands of the Austrian forces he had previously had at his mercy.

While the first and second Austrian armies, with their German reinforcements, were withdrawing in increasing disorder towards Cracow, the third Austrian force maintained a stubborn fight near the Galician frontier. But the arrival of fugitives from their second army, bringing the news that the Russians were getting between them and their beaten centre, soon began to tell on their spirits. They made a desperate attack on the Russian left wing on September nth, but the next day the Russian commander in this section of the battlefield—-General Brussilov—took the offensive and swept away the last stand of Austria's last forces. The beaten third army retired on the fortress of Przemysl, while the other two armies were shepherded along a difficult, boggy line of retreat that afforded no rallying place till Cracow was reached.

This rout of a million men was full of wild horrors. Streams were dammed with bodies, trodden down in headlong flight till the current was banked up and flowed over the surrounding fields. Piles of slain awaited burial or burning. Wounded, riderless horses galloped wildly over the abandoned country, that was strewn with dead men, and weapons, and equipment. More than a third of the forces of Austria- Hungary were put out of action; the rest were left with no fighting ability, until they passed under the control of the German General Staff, who stiffened them with their own men and removed most of their commanders. Even then, they fought with no spirit.


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