REVIEW – The Fortress: the Great Siege of Przemysl

6 mins read

By Alexander Watson
Published by Allen Lane

Alexander Watson 
Allen Lane, £25 (hbk)
Alexander Watson
Allen Lane, £25 (hbk)

When the Russians entered the surrendered Austro-Hungarian fortress of Przemysl in March 1915, they set about implementing Tsar Nicholas II’s programme of Russification. ‘There is no Galicia,’ he announced, ‘rather a Great Russia to the Carpathians.’

The Jews – 17,000 of them – were deported to Lwów. The Polish elite was incarcerated. The Greek Catholic bishop found himself under effective house arrest until he conveniently suffered a stress-induced stroke and died.

The defeated Austro-Hungarian military regime had been equally ruthless. Ethnic Ruthenes – considered ‘Russophile’ – had been targeted for ethnic-cleansing. More than 3,000 ended up in Thalerhof concentration camp, where half perished.

Others never got that far. On 15 September 1914, a column of 46 Ruthene prisoners was attacked by a racist mob in the streets and murdered in a half-hour frenzy of killing.

The soldiers slashed and stabbed with their sabres or ripped out planks and posts from an adjacent fence and used these to beat the prisoners to pulp. Eyewitnesses spoke of victims being literally ‘torn to death’. Anybody who tried to run was shot.

I had thought I knew a lot about the First World War. Until I read this book. Then I discovered a yawning gap in knowledge and understanding. I was aware, of course, of the Armenian genocide.

I knew that the disintegrating Ottoman Empire had murdered about a million Armenians in death marches and concentration camps across eastern Anatolia and northern Syria in 1915. I had even written about these events.

Equally familiar were the racially charged petty nationalisms of the Balkans – the way in which competing visions of ‘Greater Serbia’, ‘Greater Bulgaria’, and ‘Greater Greece’ had triggered a succession of murderous rampages which continued into the First World War.

What I was not prepared for was Alexander Watson’s revelation of the moral depravity of both the Habsburg and Romanov regimes during the First World War.

These reactionary empires – medieval autocracies that the tides of history should have swallowed long before – entered the 20th century riddled with caste prejudice, official corruption, and primeval racism. Yet, at the same time, in their crude brutality, they anticipated what was to come later in the 20th century. Reading this book, the realisation dawned that, unlike the ‘cabinet wars’ of the 18th and 19th centuries, the First World War was fought with a truly modern barbarism.


Przemysl was a great fortress-city on the northern edge of the Carpathians, ‘a chain of 17 main forts and 18 subsidiary forts arranged in a rough ellipse 48 kilometres in circumference.’

Though rapid technical developments in artillery and fortification had rendered much of the circuit obsolescent by 1914, and though the defences were manned by reserves, family men in their 30s and 40s, Przemysl constituted a formidable barrier to Russian penetration of the Hungarian plain via the Carpathian passes.

In September 1914, after the Austro-Hungarian Army had suffered its catastrophic defeat in the opening offensive of the war in Galicia and the Russians had attempted to storm the fortress, the garrison had covered the retreat by blocking the enemy’s advance, transforming themselves into ‘the Heroes of Przemysl’.

When a second offensive failed the following month, the 130,000 strong garrison was ordered to hold on for a second time. Przemysl was to stand as a symbol of military defiance, 200 kilometres behind enemy lines, cut off from the rest of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but for a radio link and an air shuttle.

The Russians, bloodied in their September assault, now opted for blockade: the city was to be starved into submission. The four-month siege of Przemysl that followed forms the core of this book.

Watson, a master of the contemporary foreign-language sources, provides fascinating insight into all aspects of the siege – not just the military operations, but the privation, hunger, exposure, sickness, and despair.

The garrison was reduced to eating horse-meat and bread adulterated with bone and wood shavings. Men dropped in the trenches from starvation and exhaustion. The hospitalisation rate hit one in five. ‘The fortress garrison became a zombie army,’ says Watson.

The garrison commander ordered all the Przemysl forts destroyed before the fortress-city was surrendered to the Russians.
The garrison commander ordered all the Przemysl forts destroyed before the fortress-city was surrendered to the Russians.

Meantime, many regimental officers pigged themselves on looted food, cavorted with prostitutes, and ducked front-line service.

The high command was worse. Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, emerges as one of the most depraved and incompetent of a military elite wholly indifferent to the fate of the rank and file. Preoccupied with personal prestige, he ordered a doomed winter offensive to relieve Przemysl that cost a staggering 670,000 men.

Kusmanek, the garrison commander, was no better. Peddling lies about imminent relief, he launched a futile eleventh-hour attempted breakout that was smashed in just five hours with some units losing 70% of their men; ‘a poor thanks to the soldiers for their loyalty and copious sacrifices during eight months of service in the fortress,’ was the bitter comment of one subaltern.

The Russians, of course, were no better. When they took the fortress, they murdered some prisoners, marched others away to perish building a ‘death railway’, and commenced a programme of ethnic-cleansing that anticipated the grotesque programmes of racial engineering that would later be implemented in the region by the Nazis.


Watson’s writing is fresh, vivid, and informed by a great breadth of scholarship and depth of understanding; yet it is wholly free of the routine cataloguing of details that renders so much academic history turgid.

His technique of drilling down to look at the experience of a single unit or the fight around an individual perimeter fort is an effective way of capturing the essence of the human experience of the siege.

His purview is wide. Professor of History at Goldsmiths, Watson’s previous book, Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary at War, 1914-1918, was widely acclaimed. He draws heavily on his knowledge and understanding of the war in Central and Eastern Europe to provide context for the struggle at Przemysl. Above all, he uses the siege as a window on Austria-Hungary in the winter of 1914/15, exposing its inner hollowness – its parasitic ruling elite, its negligent officer corps, its festering divisions of class and nation.

The book is full of fascinating asides and insights. I had not realised, for example, that the Russian Army was far superior to the Austro-Hungarian. Defeat at Tannenberg in August 1914, and the eventual collapse of the Tsarist Empire in 1917, leaves one with a sense of endemic military weakness.

But all things are relative. The Russian Army had modernised its tactics on the basis of experience in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), learning, in the face of modern rifles, machine-guns, and artillery, to advance in rushes, employing ‘fire and movement’. Not so the Austro-Hungarian Army. Not the least of Conrad’s many stupidities was his anachronistic conception of infantry tactics.

Conrad, like most commanders of the day, was a firm advocate of the offensive, but he stood out for his uncompromising belief in the ability of sheer willpower to conquer the fire-swept battlefield. In Conrad’s conception, artillery was not needed to clear a way forward. His 1911 regulations asserted that physically tough, determined, and aggressive infantry could alone ‘decide the battle’.

No less important was that Austria-Hungary – like Imperial Germany – found itself fighting a ‘war on two fronts’, against Serbia in the south and Russia in the north. Conrad had no adequate plan for dealing with the implications of this – in a war which the Habsburg elite had itself triggered by attacking Serbia in the first place. Moreover, Austro-Hungarian defeat, signalled by the fall of Przemysl in March 1915, brought Italy into the war, saddling the creaking Empire with a three-front war.

From the macro to the micro, Watson shifts effortlessly from grand strategy to the combat experience. I found his descriptions of battle, laced with first-hand testimony, compelling.

Take the Russian attack on Fort I/1 in the south-eastern sector in September 1914, for example, when Tsarist infantry overwhelmed the surface defence-works, but found that the defenders had locked themselves inside their underground complex. What followed was a curious standoff.

Unnerving bangs and thumps came from within the walls as the attackers dropped things down chimneys and fired into ventilation shafts. The cries of the wounded, which echoed through the fort’s stuffy, oppressive chambers and dim corridors, acted as a constant, frightening reminder of the fate that awaited if the enemy broke in.

I have one minor complaint: the maps are inadequate, sometimes seriously so, in a work of military history. Much of the action is beyond understanding without a set of largerscale maps than the publishers have thought fit to provide.

This is a quibble. In all other respects this is an exceptionally valuable work of First World War history. English-speaking readers who are familiar with events on the Western Front in the first six months of the war often know almost nothing about the equally colossal military operations on the Eastern Front at the same time. I can think of no better introduction than Alexander Watson’s The Fortress. 

Review by Neil Faulkner

This article was published in the December 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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