World War One: Fortresses, with a focus on Przemyśl

It can be hard to imagine that during an age of artillery, tanks, machine guns and aircraft that fortresses were still being used.  In fact the fortresses of the 20th century were deadly, Verdun, a line of fortifications that cost hundreds of thousands of lives to take, or Przemyśl, a fortress town being attacked by the Russians who used to old method of starving the defenders.  So this blog post will focus on these two examples, to give a flavour of the impact of fortresses and their importance in WW1.  The majority of the post does focus on Przemyśl, I hope you enjoy the read!

So let’s start with Przemyśl, owned by the Austria-Hungarian Empire, however when sieged it was in enemy territory.  When the Russians won the battle of Galacia in 1914, the Austrians were pushed back, with only Przemyśl standing, defiant in the face of the Russian foe.  There were around thirty miles of trenches, which surrounded the fortress town, including the famous barbed wire, which would entangle a man and kill him.  The garrison of this fortress was an incredible 127,000.  May I hasten to remind you that Winchester’s population is less than 40,000, so that’s three times the city where I study!  The foe, however, were the Russians, who strangely did not outnumber the defenders (this is quite unexpected, it is often thought the attacker needs to outnumber a defender 3:1, which probably explains the Russian generals decision to starve out, rather than to directly attack).

The town was to be sieged twice, the first time, the Russians launching an assault and loosing around 40,000 men, that is an incredible number, however the attack was repulsed and a relief force sent by the Germans managed to puncture through and escort the civilians out, leaving the Austrian army, mixed of different nationalities, left to defend to the town.

The Second siege would start in October 31, 1914, with the German army being pushed pack after the defeat at the battle of the Vistula River.  The Second siege was to be one of starvation and waiting for the defenders.  The relief efforts made by the Germans and Austrians were all to fail.  With heavy artillery, the defenses of the fortress were destroyed and the trenches overran, the Austrian army destroyed anything that would have been useful to the Russians and once an attempted breakout had been stopped, they surrendered on March 22 1915.  They had little choice.

There was once instance of when, a force of 30,000 Hungarian troops, starving, perhaps emboldened by hunger, marched out from the forts which they were garrison in a desperate attempt to raid the Russian food base at Mosciska, 20 miles away.  Their route led them past the strongest of all the Russian artillery positions.  The 30,000 men were annihilated by a bombardment of shells, machine-gun fire and rifle bullets.  It is hard to imagine that out of 30,000 troops, only 4,000 would return, with the rest killed or captured, it was a suicidal mission, nonetheless, people were desperate.

So let us move on to the fortresses at Verdun.  The area immediately around Verdun contained twenty major forts and forty smaller ones that had historically protected the eastern border of France.  They were upgraded in the early part of the 20th century.  The assault was part of the German strategy to bleed France White.  It was believed that the French would not surrender at Verdun, they could not allow these forts to fall. It was a matter of national prestige and dignity, losing them would have led to great humiliation.  The Germans believed that the French would fight to the last man at Verdun, which in turn would mean that the French would lose so many men that the battle would change the course of the war.

In the attempt to control Verdun and its fortresses, over a quarter of a million men lost their lives.  It proved to be unbreakable, the French held.  The figures at the start of the battle were one million German troops against 200,000 defenders.  Again this would seem normal, as the attacker has to outnumber the defender if assaulting directly.  However by the end, Of the 330 infantry regiments of the French army, 259 eventually fought at Verdun.  Did you know the Battle of the Somme was an attempt to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun.  That was its main purpose.

In the end Verdun was to be a bloodbath, with neither side making many gains, and the body count just rising.  The German army did manage to take a few forts, however, as soon as the Somme commenced, it was impractical for the Germans to continue, they couldn’t afford to just through men at forts.

Therefore fortresses were important in WW1 .  They were of course modernized, with the original 19th century fortresses inadequate for the task, with technology, deep tunnels and trenches being added.  They could withstand a certain amount of artillery fire and in some cases appeared impregnable.  The only way to defeat them appeared to be either starve them out or just hope they run out of men before you do.  Like most of WWI, it was attrition that won you the battle.

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