The Surrender of Przemysl
How Galicia's Strong Fortress Yielded to the Russian Siege
The Austrian fortress of Przemysl fell on March 22, 1915, after an investment and siege which lasted, with one short interruption, for nearly four months, this important event was celebrated by a Te Deum of thanksgiving in the presence of the Czar and the General Staff. The importance to the Russians of the capitulation of Przemysl is suggested by the fact that about 120,000 prisoners were reported taken when the Austrians yielded. Until this was effected the Russians could not venture upon a serious invasion of Hungary, and the investing troops who were then freed were more numerous than the defenders.
By the Correspondent of The London Times
[The London Times, March 1915]
PETROGRAD, March 22.
The Minister of War has informed me that he has just received a telegram from the Grand Duke Nicholas announcing the fall of Przemysl. The fall of Przemysl marks the most important event of the Russian campaign this year. It finally and irrevocably consolidates the position of the Russians in Galicia. The Austro-German armies are deprived of the incentive hitherto held out to them of relieving the isolated remnant of their former dominion. The besieging army will be freed for other purposes. From information previously published the garrison aggregated about 25,000 men, hence the investing forces, which must always be at least four times as great as the garrison, represent not less than 100,000 men. From all the information lately received from both Russian and neutral sources, the position of the Austro-German armies in the Carpathians has become distinctly critical. The reinforcements for the gallant troops of General Brusiloff, General Radko Dmitrieff, and other commanders are bound to exercise an enormous influence on the future course of the campaign in the Carpathians.
All honor and credit are given by the Russians to the garrison of Przemysl and General Kusmanek. Russian officers ever had the highest opinion of the personality of the commandant. I heard from those who fought under General Radko Dmitrieff in the early stages of the Galician campaign that when our troops, after sweeping away the resistance at Lwow and Jaroslau, loudly knocked at the doors of the fortress of Przemysl, they met with a stern rebuff. In reply to the summons of the Russians to surrender the keys the commandant wrote a curt and dignified note remarking that he considered it beyond his own dignity or the dignity of the Russian General to discuss the surrender of the fortress before it had exhausted all its powers of resistance. During the second invasion of Poland by the Austro-German armies the enemy's lines swept up to and just beyond Przemysl, interrupting the investment of the fortress. The wave of the Austrian invasion began to subside at the end of the first week in November. Only then could we begin the siege of the mighty fortress, which proved successful after the lapse of four months.
The first Russian attempt to storm Przemysl without previous bombardment, which followed immediately upon the commandant's refusal to surrender, resulted in very great loss of life to no purpose. Thereafter it was decided to abstain from further attempts to take the fortress until our siege guns could be placed and a preliminary bombardment could sufficiently facilitate the task of the besiegers. Meanwhile, although the fortress and town were duly invested, our lines were somewhat remote from the outlying forts, and the peasants of adjacent villages were, it is said, able to pass freely to and from the town of Przemysl a fact which would enable the inhabitants to obtain supplies. From all accounts neither the garrison nor the inhabitants were reduced to very great straits for food. The announcement made at the time of the first investment of the fortress that provisions and supplies would easily last till May was, however, obviously exaggerated.
I understand that heavy siege guns were ready to be conveyed to Przemysl at the end of January, but that the Russian military authorities decided to postpone their departure in view of the determined attempts made by the Austro-German forces to pierce the Russian lines in the Carpathians in order to relieve the fortress, which, if successful, might have endangered the safety of the siege material. Owing to this fact the bombardment of Przemysl began only about a fortnight ago, when the Austro-German offensive had so far weakened as to satisfy the Russian authorities that there was no further danger from this quarter. The concluding stages of the siege have been related in the dispatches from the Field Headquarters during the past week. The capture of the dominating heights in the eastern sector followed close upon the first bombardment. The final desperate sortie led by General Kusmanek at the head of the Twenty-third Division of the Honved precipitated the end. The remnants of the garrison were unable to man the works extending to a thirty-mile periphery. The loss of the western approaches left General Kusmanek no alternative but to surrender. He had exhausted his ammunition and used up his effectives. His messages for help were either intercepted or unanswered. The assailants broke down the last resistance. The most important strategical point in the whole of Galicia is now in Russian hands.
TE DEUM AT HEADQUARTERS.
PETROGRAD, March 22.
The following official communiqué was issued from the Main Headquarters this morning:
The fortress of Przemysl has surrendered to our troops.
At the Headquarters of the Commander in Chief a Te Deum of thanksgiving was celebrated in the presence of the Czar, the Grand Duke Nicholas, Commander in Chief, and all the staff.
The following communiqué from the Great Headquarters is issued here today:
Northern Front¬¬—From the Niemen to the Vistula and on the left bank of the latter river there has been no important change. Our troops advancing from Tauroggen captured, after a struggle, Laugszargen, (near the frontier of East Prussia,) where they took prisoners and seized an ammunition depot and engineers' stores.
The Carpathians—There has been furious fighting on the roads to Bartfeld (in Hungary) in the valleys of the Ondawa and Laborcz.
Near the Lupkow Pass and on the left bank of the Upper San our troops have advanced successfully, forcing the way with rifle fire and with the bayonet. In the course of the day we took 2,500 prisoners, including fifty officers and four machine guns.
In the direction of Munkacz the Germans, in close formation, attacked our positions at Rossokhatch, Oravtchik, and Kosziowa, but were everywhere driven back by our fire and by our counter-attacks with severe losses. In Galicia there has been a snowstorm.
Przemysl—On the night of the 21st there was a fierce artillery fire round Przemysl. Portions of the garrison who once more tried to effect a sortie toward the northeast toward Oikowic were driven back within the circle of forts with heavy losses.
Note—This portion of the communiqué was evidently drafted before the fall of Przemysl took place, and the communiqué proceeds:
In recognition of the joyous event of the fall of Przemysl the Czar has conferred upon the Grand Duke Nicholas the Second Class of the Order of St. George and the Third Class of the same order on General Ivanoff, the commander of the besieging army.
COLLECTING THE ARMS.
By Hamilton Fyfe, Correspondent of the London Daily Mail
PETROGRAD, March 23.
Advance detachments of Russian troops entered Przemysl last night. The business of collecting the arms in proceeding. I believe the officers will be allowed to keep their swords.
Great surprise has been caused here by a statement that the number of troops captured exceeds three army corps. Possibly on account of the snowstorm no further telegram has been received from the Grand Duke Nicholas, and no details of the fall of the garrison have yet been officially announced. I have, however, received the definite assurance of a very high authority that the force which has surrendered includes nine Generals, over 2,000 officers, and 130,000 men. In spite of the authority of my informant, I am still inclined to await confirmation of these figures.
The leading military organ, the Russki Invalid, says that the garrison was known to number 60,000 men and that it had been swelled to some extent by the additional forces drafted in before the investment began. The Retch estimates the total at 80,000, and a semi-official announcement also places the strength of the garrison at that figure, excluding artillery and also the men belonging to the auxiliary and technical services.
There is an equal difference of opinion regarding the number of guns taken. The estimates vary from 1,000 to 2,000. What is known for certain is that the fortress contained 600 big guns of the newest type and a number of small, older pieces.
The characteristic spirit in which Russia is waging war is shown by the service of thanksgiving to God which was held immediately the news of the fall of the fortress reached the Grand Duke's headquarters. The Czar was there to join with the staff in offering humble gratitude to the Almighty for the great victory accorded to the Russian arms.
The first crowds which gathered here yesterday to rejoice over the great news moved with one consent to the Kazan Cathedral, where they sang the national hymn and crossed themselves reverently before the holy, wonder-working picture of Kazan, the Mother of God. In spite of the heaviest snowstorm of the Winter, which made the streets impassable and stopped the tramway cars, the Nevski Prospekt rang all the afternoon and evening with the sound of voices raised in patriotic song.
Przemysl is admitted to be the first spectacular success of the war on the side of the Allies. It is not surprising that the nation is proud and delighted, yet so generous is the Russian mind that there mingle with its triumph admiration and sympathy for the garrison which was compelled to surrender after a long, brave resistance. Popular imagination has been thrilled by the story of the last desperate sortie, which will take a high place in the history of modern war.
When toward the end of the week the hope of relief, which had so long buoyed up the defenders, was with heavy, resolved hearts abandoned, General Kousmanek resolved to try to save at all events some portion of his best troops by sending them to fight a way out. From the ranks, thinned terribly by casualties and also by typhus and other diseases caused through hunger and the unhealthy state of the town, he selected 20,000 men and served out to them five days' reduced rations, which were all he had left. He also supplied them with new boots in order to give them as good a chance as possible to join their comrades in the Carpathians, whose summits could be seen from Przemysl in the shining, warm Spring sunshine.
It was a hopeless enterprise, pitifully futile. It is true that the Austrian armies sent to relieve the city were only a few days' march distant, but even if the 20,000 had cut a way through the investing force they would have found another Russian army between them and their fellow-countrymen. General Kousmanek, before they started, addressed them. In a rousing speech he said:
Soldiers, for nearly half a year, in spite of cold and hunger, you have defended the fortress intrusted to you. The eyes of the world are fixed on you. Millions at home are waiting with painful eagerness to hear the news of your success. The honor of the army and our fatherland requires us to make a superhuman effort. Around us lies the iron ring of the enemy. Burst a way through it and join your comrades who have been fighting so bravely for you and are now so near.
I have given you the last of our supplies of food. I charge you to go forward and sweep the foe aside. After our many gallant and glorious fights we must not fall into the hands of the Russians like sheep; we must and will break through.
In case this appeal to the men's fighting spirit were ineffective threats were also used to the troops, who were warned by their officers that any who returned to the fortress would be treated as cowards and traitors. After the General's speech the men were told to rest for a few hours. At 4 in the morning they paraded and at 5 the battle began. For nine hours the Austrians hurled themselves against the iron ring, until early in the afternoon, when, broken and battered, the remains of the twenty thousand began to straggle back to the town. Exhausted and disheartened, the garrison was incapable of further effort.
In order to prevent useless slaughter General Kousmanek sent officers with a flag of truce to inquire about the terms of surrender. These were arranged very quickly.
In spite of the local value of the victory, and the vastness of the captures of material as well as of men, it must not be thought, as many are inclined to think here, that the Novoe Vremya exaggerates dangerously when it compares the effect likely to be produced with that of the fall of Metz and Port Arthur.
It certainly brings the end of the Austrians' participation in the war more clearly in sight. But the Austrians will fight for some time yet. What it actually does is to free a large Russian force for the operations against Cracow or to assist in the invasion of Hungary.
What is the strength of this force it would be imprudent to divulge, but I can say that it certainly amounts to not less than an "army," (anything from 80,000 to 200,000 men.) Those who are anxious to arrive at a closer figure can calculate by the fact that the Russians had a forty-mile front around Przemysl which was strong enough to repulse attacks at all points. Another very useful consequence is that all the Galician railway system is now in Russian hands. It makes the transport of troops much easier.
One further reflection was suggested to me last night by a very distinguished and influential Russian soldier, holding office under the Government. The method which prevailed at Przemysl was as follows:
Instead of rushing against the place and losing heavily, we waited and husbanded our forces until the garrison was unable to hold out any longer. That is the method adopted by the Allies. It must in the course of time force Germany to surrender also. "Up to now we have held our own against her furious sorties. Soon we shall begin to draw more closely our investing lines. Only one end was possible to Przemysl. The fate of Germany is equally sure."
Now all eyes are fixed on the Dardanelles. The phrase on every lip is: " When the fall of Constantinople follows, then Prussia must begin to see that the case is hopeless." But we must not deceive ourselves, for even when her allies are defeated Prussia will still be hard to beat. Przemysl must not cause us to slacken our effort in any direction or in the slightest degree.
WHAT THE RUSSIANS FOUND
Special Cable to The New York Times.
London, April 3.—The London Times under date Przemysl, March 30, publishes a dispatch from Stanley Washburn, its special correspondent with the Russian armies, who, by courtesy of the Russian high command, is the first foreigner to visit the great Galician fortress since its fall. He says:
Przemysl is a story of an impregnable fortress two or three times over-garrisoned with patient, haggard soldiers starving in trenches, and sleek, faultlessly dressed officers living off the fat of the land in fashionable hotels and restaurants.
The siege started with a total population within the lines of investment of approximately 200,000. Experts estimate that the fortress could have been held with 50,000 or 60,000 men against any forces the Russians could bring against it. It is probable that such supplies as there were uneconomically expended, with the result that when the push came the situation was at once acute, and the suffering of all classes save the officers became general. First the cavalry and transport horses were consumed. Then everything available. Cats were sold at 8 shillings, and fair-sized dogs at a sovereign.
While the garrison became thin and half-starved, the mode of life of the officers in the town remained unchanged. The Café Sieber was constantly well filled with dilettante officers who gossiped and played cards and billiards and led the life to which they were accustomed in Vienna. Apparently very few shared any of the hardships of their men or made any effort to relieve their condition. At the Hotel Royal until the last, the officers had their three meals a day, with fresh meat, cigars, cigarettes, wines, and every luxury, while, as a witness has informed me, their own orderlies and servants begged for a slice of bread.
There can be no question that ultimate surrender was due to the fact that the garrison was on the verge of starvation, while the officers' diet was merely threatened with curtailment. Witnesses state that private soldiers were seen actually to fall in the streets from lack of nourishment. The officers are reported to have retained their private thoroughbred riding horses until the day before the surrender, when 2,000 of them were killed to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Russians. A Russian officer of high rank informed me that when he entered the town hundreds of these bodies of beautiful thoroughbred horses were to be seen with half-crazed Austrian and Hungarian soldiers tearing into the bodies with their faces and hands smeared with red blood as they devoured the raw flesh.
The Russians were utterly amazed at the casual reception which they received. The Austrian officers showed not the slightest sign of being disconcerted or humiliated at the collapse of their fortress.
The first Russian effort was at once to relieve the condition of the garrison and civilians. Owing to the destruction of the bridge this was delayed, but soon with remarkable efficiency distribution depots were opened everywhere and the most pressing needs were somewhat relieved.
The entire conduct of the siege on the part of the garrison seems wholly without explanation. The Austrians had throughout plenty of ammunition, and they certainly grossly outnumbered the Russians; yet they made but one recent effort to break out, which occurred three days before the surrender.
Civilians inform me that they gladly welcome the Russians and that the first troops who entered were greeted with cheers, while the garrison was frankly pleased that the siege was over and their troubles at an end.
As an example of over-officering it may be stated that General Humane had seventy-five officers on his staff, while General Artamonov, the acting Russian Governor, had but four on his immediate staff.
The removal of the prisoners is proceeding with great efficiency. They are going out at the rate of .about 10,000 a day. The docility of the captives is indicated by the fact that the Russian guards attached to the prisoners' columns number about one for every hundred prisoners. They are all strung out for miles between the fortress and Lemberg. The prisoners are so eager to get out and to see the last of the war that they follow the instructions of their captors like children.
All the civilians as well as prisoners I have talked with are unanimous in their praise of the Russian officers and soldiers, who have shown nothing but kindness and delicacy of feeling since their entrance into the fortress. This consideration strikes me as being utterly wasted on the captured officers, who treat the situation superciliously and are quite complacent in their relations with the Russians.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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