The great siege of Przemyśl

Fortress cover

Further to Why the First World War failed to end, the history of the chronically traumatised region of the eastern Bloodlands (see also here) makes a necessary counterpart to our British focus on the horrors of the Western Front. A fine recent vignette on World War One is

  • Alexander Watson, The fortress: the great siege of Przemyśl (2019, reviewed e.g. here).

It’s a detailed and readable account of extreme human suffering, quite overcoming my aversion to military history.

In the province of Galicia, soon after the Russian invasion and the fall of the capital Lwów (Lviv) to the east, Przemyśl—now in southeast Poland near the border with Ukraine—became a crucial Habsburg stronghold.

With the Habsburg military operation headed by the reckless, inept General Conrad, the cowed troops who converged on Przemyśl on 14th September 1914 were already broken by defeat. After the field army retreated further, the inhabitants had to endure the Russian siege until March 1915.

Przemyśl was a multicultural city, with Polish and Ukrainian-speaking Ruthenian populations (respectively characterised by allegiance to Roman and Greek Catholicism), Jews, and Germans. Despite all the simmering tensions, they had somehow managed to coexist; with inter-ethnic antagonisms now sparked by international conflict, the war created flashpoints in a long-term clash.

As Watson observes, “the memory of the First World War is dominated by youth”. But the “ragtag garrison” left to defend Przemyśl was composed of a “dad’s army” of middle-aged reservists—including Austrian Germans, Hungarians, Romanians, Serbs, Slovaks, Moravians, Bohemians, Italians, Poles, and Ruthenians. The gulf in class and culture between largely German- or Czech-speaking officers and this Babel of peasant soldiers was reflected in problems of communication.

Most widely mistrusted by the Habsburg command was the local Ruthenian population, suspected of Russian sympathies. The peasant population in the villages had largely been evacuated, their homes brutally demolished, but many returned, unable to survive in squalid refugee camps; others had never left. Now, trapped in the starving purgatory of no man’s land, they found themselves vulnerable to both armies.

Siege Galicians

Within the fortress itself, violent repressive measures were taken against potential traitors such as Ukrainian nationalists and Greek Catholics, with deportations and executions.

Siege hanging

The Russian army too was diverse, with Ukrainians, Jews, Poles, and Romanians alongside people of various ethnicities within the Russian empire. But the Russians had their own agenda of ethnic cleansing, aimed in particular at growing Ukrainian and Polish nationalism, and at the Greek Catholic church.

And the whole region already had a history of anti-Semitic violence. All these enmities came to a head in World War Two under the genocidal policies of ruthless totalitarian states.

In the ravaged countryside around Przemyśl, the fortress was guarded by an outer perimeter of forts, whose defences are described in great detail, with their “gloomy subterranean tunnels and low-ceilinged chambers”, places of terror; out of dysfunctional pyrrhic resistance, heroic legends were concocted.

The following chapter-headings flag the sequence of events: Storm, Barrier, Isolation, Starvation, Armageddon—subsuming epidemics, starvation, stress disorders, fear of espionage, desertions, executions; changing technologies (not least in weapons of war), and a thriving (and class-based) sex trade. Diversion could even be found in cultural events such as cinema and concerts. As morale continued to plummet further, officers indulged in obscene banqueting.

Siege cartoon 2

Watson cites a bitter joke from Przemyśl:

Q. What is the difference between Troy and Przemyśl?

A. In Troy, the heroes were in the stomach of the horse, and in Przemyśl the horses are in the stomach of the heroes!

Siege cartoon

With no hope of relief, the end came in March 1915 upon the inevitable failure of a breakout—in the utterly deluded direction of the east. Here’s footage from the end of the siege:

And the recapture of Przemyśl in June 1915—with the soundtrack perhaps inadvertently mocking pretensions of imperial grandeur and their appalling consequences:

Still the terror continued. Prisoners were deported to camps in Turkestan and Siberia, the foundations of the Soviet gulag system; already exhausted, many died in captivity. The Russian vendetta against the Jews intensified.

After Przemyśl was recaptured by the Habsburgs, it passed to the new independent Polish republic, under which antagonism between Poles and Ukrainians escalated, and Jews continued to be scapegoated.

Though the rival Habsburg and Russian empires soon fell, the violence, poisoned by an endless thirst for revenge, “persisted, mutated, and further radicalised”—culminating in the ethnic cleansings of World War Two, outlined in Watson’s Epilogue, “Into the dark”. Under successive Soviet and Nazi occupations Jewish, Polish, and Ukrainian peoples—and the whole of the Bloodlands—fell victim to unimaginably brutal atrocities. Pogroms and ethnic cleansing continued even after the formal end of the war in 1945 (see e.g. Keith Lowe, Savage continent, ch.18).

* * *

Watson laces his disturbing account of barbarity with black humour—like the ludicrously complex choreography of the three-part ritual that troops were expected to perform as a recognition system while patrolling no man’s land, which “would have been funny, had it not put lives at risk”.

Such tragic absurdities may remind us of Jaroslav Hašek’s The good soldier Svejk and his fortunes in the World War (1921–23—see under Czech stories).

Volume 4 (unfinished on Hašek’s death) evokes the ignominious dénouement of Švejk’s involvement in the Galician campaign. Out of curiosity he dons a Russian uniform that he found by the lake, whereupon he is seized by a gendarmerie patrol as a fugitive prisoner of war. He is then classified as a Russian spy and escorted on foot from Dobromil to Przemyśl—a fiction later commemorated there more readily than the realities of the siege.

Svejk p.675

Illustration by Hašek’s friend Josef Lada.

Hašek himself served with the Habsburg army on the Galician front. Captured by the Russians, he went on to work, quite commitedly, with the Bolsheviks. For a “humorist, satirist, journalist, anarchist, hoaxer, truant, rebel, vagabond, play-actor, practical joker, bohemian (and Bohemian), alcoholic, traitor to the Czech legion, Bolshevik, and bigamist”, his brief Soviet career was remarkably exalted. He commanded Chuvash troops in the Red Army and served as commissar of Bugulma in Tatarstan (which inspired stories in The Red commissar). In Siberia he found himself the “hero of the Buryat nation”; wiki also mentions a “mysterious mission to Mongolia” that may even have led to him learning Chinese. He returned to an independent Czechoslovakia in 1920.

In the novel, Hašek’s comments on the ineptitude of the Habsburg command are echoed in Watson’s portrayal of General Conrad—who, “never a man to permit reality to interfere with his plans, insisted on having his horse and eating it”.

Meanwhile, Švejk meets his fellow prisoners:

The Russian prisoner looked at Švejk in full understanding of the fact that he could not understand a single word of what he said.

“No understand. I Crimean Tartar. Allah achper”, the Tartar said. Then he sat down, crossed his legs on the ground, folded his arms on his chest and began to pray, half in Russian and half in Tartar. “Allah achper, Allah achper—bezemila—arachman—arachim—malankin mustafir”.

“Well now, so you’re a Tartar, are you?” said Švejk with compassion. “Well, you’re a fine customer then! How could you with your double-Dutch be expected to understand me then and I you, if you’re a Tartar? […]
Švejk turned to another prisoner:

“Are you a Tartar too?”

The person addressed understood the word Tartar, shook his head and said half in Russian: “No Tartar, Circassian, Circassian born and bred. I chop off heads!”

It was Švejk’s luck that he found himself in the company of these various representatives of the Eastern peoples. The transport comprised Tartars, Georgians, Osetins, Circassians, Mordvins, and Kalmyks.

As Hašek’s fine translator Cecil Parrott observes, “I know of no novel which conveys so poignantly not only the ugliness of war but the utter futility of anything connected with it.” I may not be alone in needing to re-read the book with a clearer picture of the tragedy that pervades it.

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