The Austro-Hungarian army that marched east and south to confront the Russians and Serbs in the opening campaigns of World War I had a glorious past but a pitiful present. Speaking a mystifying array of languages and lugging outdated weapons, the Austrian troops were hopelessly unprepared for the industrialized warfare that would shortly consume Europe. As prizewinning historian Geoffrey Wawro explains in A Mad Catastrophe, the doomed Austrian conscripts were an unfortunate microcosm of the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself - both equally ripe for destruction.
After the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914, Germany goaded the Empire into a war with Russia and Serbia. With the Germans massing their forces in the west to engage the French and the British, everything - the course of the war and the fate of empires and alliances from Constantinople to London - hinged on the Habsburgs’ ability to crush Serbia and keep the Russians at bay. However, Austria-Hungary had been rotting from within for years, hollowed out by repression, cynicism, and corruption at the highest levels. Commanded by a dying emperor, Franz Joseph I, and a querulous celebrity general, Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Austro-Hungarians managed to bungle everything: their ultimatum to the Serbs, their declarations of war, their mobilization, and the pivotal battles in Galicia and Serbia. By the end of 1914, the Habsburg army lay in ruins and the outcome of the war seemed all but decided.
Drawing on deep archival research, Wawro charts the decline of the Empire before the war and reconstructs the great battles in the east and the Balkans in thrilling and tragic detail. A Mad Catastrophe is a riveting account of a neglected face of World War I, revealing how a once-mighty empire collapsed in the trenches of Serbia and the Eastern Front, changing the course of European history.
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Wawro's Diatribe Against A-H Military Leadership
As I had previously purchased the book, I was re-familiarized with the depth of Wawro's disregard for anything and everything even remotely related to the Austro - Hungarian army's leadership before and during the First World War. After reading / listening to this litany of indictments I came away with the same persistent question, "Why would Wawro, after putting in prodigious research and formulating a central thesis for the book, really want to write it?"
Now, before hackles get raised and your eyeballs begin their arching movements in their sockets, I am very much aware that there is no written or unwritten rule that the author has to be sympathetic to his or her subject matter in order to write his or her book.
I guess the old saying "Let dead dogs decompose" or something to that effect... may be what I am weakly trying to convey. Maybe I am trying to say that Wawro's book could have expounded more on the plight of the Austro - Hungarian soldier facing the "Russian Steamroller" on the Galician front who found himself consistently outnumbered, outmaneuvered, lacking effective artillery support, exhausted after needlessly marching scores of miles from his detraining location too far in the rear and lacking adequate resupply of pretty much everything needed to sustain him in combat (food, ammunition, medical supplies, fodder for the horses, etc.).
Instead Wawro appeared to be constantly "re-amazed" that Austro-Hungarian generals, Conrad von Hotzendorf, the KUK Chief of Staff, in particular, could repeatedly conjure up unrealistic plans of maneuver against the Russians. After the eighth paragraph length version of "How could von Hotzendorf be so blind, callous and strategically naïve", I kind of said to myself, "alright, I get it, move on." Wawro did not move on in many cases.
Listening to Wawro completely rip apart any scrap of legitimacy Hungary thought it had regarding its role as ally and partner to Austria before and during the war. Wawro throws out fact after damning fact of Hungarian pre war obstructionism, dishonesty, petty paranoia about perceived yet nonexistent threats to its status as co-partner in the Empire. It made me sick all over listening to Wawro drone on about how much of a backstabbing ass Hungary turned out to be in the years leading up to the war.
For example, take this gem - Yeah, Hungary, those big bad Romanian and Croat "separatists" over there are really going to revolt against you and massacre Magyars wholesale if you allow 10% of the eligible voting population right to vote (down from 80% when Austria held the decision switch before 1870). Am I getting this straight? And you are going to withhold 70% of the already allocated military budget for all A-H armed forces not stationed in Hungary AGAIN this fiscal year if those two ethnic groups are allowed to have their 10%? What a punk move by representatives of a people who, in my humble opinion, should have been sent to bed with their goulash and barred from public office (the reps. in Budapest that is, not the group of people they represented).
The above typed scenario actually happened. Look it up if you question my veracity. Hungary was a worse enemy than Russia when it came military preparedness and armaments development, and by 1910 Austria was so sick of the crap Budapest was pulling that Operation U was on its way to becoming reality until Emperor Franz Josef ratted the plan out to a couple Budapest newspapers in a backstabbingly weak and as unpatriotic as humanly possible move designed to discredit his nephew and heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand, for fuck's sake! Dear reader, this stuff is so amazing and true, that I couldn't make this up in my most creative moments. How did this ramshackle, self destructive empire last so long? Yet again, Austria - Hungary willingly seemed to want to self immolate itself with no apparent reason other than that fact that it could do so. Amazing!
Just by typing this review I seem to have caught the Wawro virus and feel the need to throw an overhead brass knuckled haymaker directly in the center of the face of the perpetrators of Austria-Hungary's defeat and downfall. I could type and type about how much Hungary was to blame for the defeats of 1914, but I fear I will lose my laser beam focus I have meticulously adhered to so far in this review.
His voice. When I read the book I used my "internal voice". So, now I get to hear his.
I began to have rather strong feelings of sympathy for that unknown Austrian Landser squatting in some shallow trench somewhere west of Lemberg in early September 1914 with two clips of rifle ammo left, a few crumbs of stale bread in one of his pockets who just saw his sergeant bleed out because the medic was 2 kilometers to the rear. To his front he can just see the next wave of Russian soldiers advancing out of the distant tree line. Where are his battalion's machine guns? Where is the supporting artillery batteries? What the fuck is he to do with what he has at hand? There are no divisional reinforcements - they are still entrained coming up from their fiasco in Serbia. There are no battalion reserves, everyone who can hold a rifle is spread out to the left and right of him and probably wondering similar thoughts. All he can do is hold out for as long as possible and pray that the commanders, whoever they are, wherever they are will decide that his situation is untenable and order a pull back 5, 10, 20 kilometers to the west, hopefully behind that river he crossed a few days earlier. It looked defendable.
The sad fact is that he has zero control over his situation and that fact saps most of this will to combat. So he looks to the east, checks to make sure his remaining clip is where it should be and then sights his rifle on one of those thousands of Russian infantry across the dusty field that looks like he might be an officer, maybe a lieutenant leading his platoon. Amid the chatter of and dust kicked up around him from the section of Russian machine guns covering the advance from their reverse slope positions to the left the Landser fires his Mannlicher and sees his target crumple face first into the Galician soil. As he clears the spent casing and slides the bolt back he temporarily forgets his own tragic situation and lets his training take hold. Just sight in, pip up the sight for range, then squeeze and eject. Just like at the firing range in Klagenfurt. Nothing else matters now.
He is a Kaisertrau soldier of the Austro-Hungarian Army fighting for his beloved Austria, his Emperor Franz Josef and, most importantly, his comrades on the firing line around him.
This is the kind of emotional response I felt when listening to Wawro's accounts of the battles around Lemberg in Eastern Galicia in September, 1914. Issues like grand strategy or the absurd decision to detrain Austrian army units at the northern foothills of the Carpathian Mountains instead of 50 - 100 miles closer to the Galician border where the actual fighting would take place somewhat faded into the background to be replaced with a sympathy for the common soldier and his daily struggle to stay alive in a truly horrible situation.
I must say a word about the Austro - Hungarian army detraining fiasco. To unload those hundreds of thousands of soldiers each weighed down with 50-60 pounds of equipment was one of the first of many truly monumental errors made by Austrian leaders when you consider it is late August, with day time temps. in the high 80's, the "roads" are nothing more than wide dirt paths that churn up choking dust that clings to the sweat soaked soldiers in the marching column, stinging eyes and swelling already parched throats shut). By the time the Austro - Hungarian armies first encountered Russian armies moving west and southwest around SE Poland and NE Galicia, they were utterly exhausted after the ridiculously long approach marches they were compelled to undertake by von Hotzendorf.
Wawro did point out that Austrian generals such as Auffenberg and Dankl made strenuous arguments to von Hotzendorf to keep the trains moving closer to the initial starting line for their planned offensives so as to not exhaust their units before combat was to begin. No dice! For reasons only von Hotzendorf felt justified, their protests came to naught and the soldiers detrained in some cases 5-6 full day's marching distance (at 15 - 20 miles marching distance daily) from where they were to BEGIN their operations. 100 miles in full packs in the Summer over sandy roads with little hope of a hot meal at the end of the day's march? And then the real action begins? Nonsense! Utter Nonsense!
That is why my heart went out to that unknown Landser stuck in his shallow scrape. His army high command had little if any real idea of the nature of the combat he was engaged in, and did not exercise an iota interest in finding out whether their pre-war presumptions about the ability of units to advance in a modern battlefield swept by modern weapons (machine guns, bolt action rifles with smokeless powder and effective ranges out to 1200 meters, high trajectory howitzer fire from up to 8-10 kilometers in the enemy's rear that can arc over defensive works and deliver high explosives or shrapnel accurately) could survive in sufficient numbers to take and hold enemy positions. There were many more just as important issues they ignored. The lack of leadership shown by the Austro - Hungarian general staff cost their army an estimated 375,000 casualties (with an estimated 250,000 Killed and wounded and 125,000 taken prisoner) BY THE MIDDLE OF SEPTEMBER 1914 - LESS THAN ONE MONTH INTO WW1!
Max Hoffman hit the bull's eye when he described what it was like to be at war with Austria-Hungary as an ally, "It is like dancing with a corpse." Enough said.
No, I think I have bled enough in the above typed screed. Buy the audiobook. You too can experience how much, or should I say how little Mr. Wawro thinks of the Austro-Hungarian war machine.
It must be mentioned for the record that A-H was fact on the winning side against Tsarist Russia in 1917. They might have metaphorically had to be wheeled in on a medical gurney with all types of life support tubes keeping its wheezing, emaciated and otherwise chronically chronic bag of bones alive to the End of the War in the East Barbecue and Beer Fest that Germany held at Hindenburg's pad, but show they did and even brought 3 kegs!
In the interests of full disclosure, it was revealed that only one keg actually held beer and the other two empties were brought along with the hope that Germany would be able to toss the kegs in the back of its pickup and blow over to the liquor store, fork out some extra dough and fill them with at least Budweiser, and not that crappy, flat Shaeffer beer in the keg the Austrians brought. Like always, Germany manned up and came through strong. 2 kegs of pure drinking delight - Budweiser in a fat tub of ice! Nice! Ludendorff even manned the tap for the first hour until he passed out! I'll show you the pics after I get them back from Walgreens tomorrow. Lates.