The German VIII Army in East Prussia had won, at least partly because sense had been imposed on it. The army was small enough to be controlled. The invasion-routes, the lines of retreat, and the possible areas of riposte had been clearly marked-out; there was a railway-system that allowed transport at least of François’s corps; and in any case there were seven other armies in the west to pick up the pieces if things went wrong. The Austro-Hungarian army in Galicia did not have these advantages. The theatre of operations was the sprawling, flat land of southern Poland, with neither railway-lines nor roads prominent—hundreds of featureless miles, dominated either by dust or by mud. Neither Russians nor Austrians had their plans made for them.
On the Austrian side, men felt—characteristically—that something must be done, but they did not perceive quite what might be done. They knew that Austria-Hungary must do something to take the load from Germany’s shoulders when war broke out. The Austro-Hungarian General Staff agreed that, in the event of two-front war, Germany’s most sensible course would be to concentrate against France in the first round; consequently, Austria-Hungary would have to undertake a large part of the work in the east, until German troops could come from France. There were plans for an offensive against Russia, in which the German VIII Army might co-operate. Two factors spoke for this offensive: first, the exposed nature of the Russian position in Poland, which jutted out between the two Central Powers, and where large numbers of Russian troops might be surrounded, and second, the calculation that Russian mobilisation would be slow, slow enough, in the first period, to offset any numerical inferiority of the Central Powers in the longer term. Formally, the Austro-Hungarian plan before 1914 was therefore for a full-scale offensive against Russia; formally, too, there was an undertaking on the Germans’ part that VIII Army would, if possible, contribute a parallel offensive from East Prussia. The Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, dreamt of expelling the Russians from Poland, and was confident enough, when war broke out, to appoint an Austro-Hungarian governor of Warsaw.
But in Vienna there was always a large gap—perhaps larger than anywhere else—between ideals and reality. The Austro-Hungary army was not strong enough for the rôle cast for it by Conrad. It had steadily declined in relative weight. In the 1880s, Austro-Hungarian planners had supposed that their thirty-two infantry divisions would have to encounter twenty-nine Russian ones. The proportions then changed, and by 1914 the Austro-Hungarians could foresee that about fifty Russian divisions would be mustered against their own forty. The Habsburg Monarchy could not stand the strain of an arms-race; more and more, it became a system of institutionalised escapism, and the chief benefit that it conferred on its subjects was to exempt them from reality. Universal military liability was never seriously asserted: the Hungarians would not give money for it, the military authorities themselves shrank from its consequences, and the people very often expressed their view of it by the simplest method—running away, as Hitler did. Formally, universal conscription was introduced in1868, but money and will were so far lacking that only about one in five of the liable young men ever reached the colours, the rest being exempted under one heading or other, even sometimes by lot-drawing. Even that fifth frequently did not have to serve the full three years prescribed by law, for many were ‘sent on permanent leave’ after two years. The army became so limited in size that many units were amalgamated—resulting in the curious, though not unique, twist that the Austro-Hungarian field army of 1914 contained fewer infantry battalions than the army that had been defeated in 1866, despite a population-increase, since then, of nearly twenty millions. After 1906, there were attempts at reform. But they simply broke into the never-never world of Habsburg politics: Hungarian obstruction, threats of abdication, followed more prosaically by jugglings of half-percentages and promises of petty payments to nationalist blackmailers, until a few coppers rattled through the machine to reward the soldiers for trying. As war approached, the Austro-Hungarian army was less and less capable of sustaining it.
The chief problem was that Austria-Hungary, too, would have to face a two-front war, with means even less adequate than Germany’s. Her forty-eight infantry divisions must take on not only the fifty that Russia could send against them, but also the eleven infantry divisions of the Serbian army. The Serbian problem was difficult to deal with. If Austria-Hungary tried to defeat Serbia in the first period of the war, she would have to assemble some twenty divisions, to be occupied no doubt for a month. This would leave less than thirty for the Russian front—not enough to take advantage even of the very first period of the war, when Russian mobilisation had not yet told to its full extent. It might be better to leave a minimal defensive force against Serbia, and concentrate the rest against Russia, and this, formally, was the Austro-Hungarian plan for war: seven divisions against Serbia, the rest for Russia. In the early period of war, these latter would have superiority—enough at any rate to hold the Russians off while Germany defeated the French. Moltke approved of these plans, and promised support from East Prussia.
These plans took account of everything, except the facts. War was not at all likely to begin with a joint Russo-Serbian declaration of war. On the contrary, it was much more likely that Austria-Hungary would first go to war with Serbia, and that Russia would intervene only later on Serbia’s side. If it came to an Austro-Serbian war, then a substantial part of the Austro-Hungarian army would have to go south—about twenty divisions were foreseen—while the rest of the army was not mobilised. If Russia then came into the war, the rest of the army would indeed be mobilised, but, with less than thirty divisions, it would not suffice for the great offensive that Conrad had promised Moltke. Troops would have to be brought back from Serbia. But two things counted against this: first, the relative poverty of the railway-links between south and north-east, second the inadvisability of suspending a campaign against Serbia in the middle. Before 1914, men did not make up their minds as to how this case—which Conrad none the less described to Moltke as ‘the most difficult, but also the most probable’—might be dealt with. Formally, there was an undertaking that all would be subordinated to the offensive against Russia, but within the General Staff there were serious misgivings. It might look, at the least, peculiar for a Great Power to begin a European war with an extra-tour in the Balkans; but maybe the discrepancy between Austrian means and Austrian pretensions left little choice. Certainly, by the spring of 1914, Conrad was clearly a prey to doubt. Despite his protestations to the Germans, his staff was busied with means by which the forces against Serbia could be strengthened at the expense of those against Russia; and in March, Conrad sketched a deployment-plan for the troops in Galicia that could only mean almost complete abandonment of any schemes for offensive action there. Instead of drawing the troops up in the north-eastern part of Galicia, close to the border with Russia, he suggested unloading them far to the south, on the rivers San and Dniester. This occurred in response to alarms (well-founded) as to the speed of Russian mobilisation and the size of the Russian forces. But characteristically Conrad shrank from formal alteration of the plan, such that the great offensive against Russia was still its main object. Before 1914, the Austro-Hungarian General Staff had thus, in effect, failed to decide which of the two fronts would be treated as more important. This was to happen as circumstances dictated.
Guaranteeing this flexibility on the ground was difficult, for the railway-technicians had to work out ways by which parts of the army could be treated separately, once mobilisation began. The greater part of the army (‘A-Staffel’) would obviously have to be reserved for the Russian front, whether or no war broke out with Russia, and a lesser part, Minimalgruppe Balkan, would have to be reserved for Serbia, whether for offensive or defensive purposes. The third part of the army (the twelve divisions of ‘B-Staffel’) would be directed against Serbia or Russia as circumstances dictated. If Serbia alone went to war, it would go south; if Russia and Serbia jointly intervened, it would probably go north-east, but even for this case Conrad seems to have wanted flexibility. The railway-planners were told to work out a method by which the mobilisation of these various groups could proceed separately. They found an obvious one: the troops of ‘A-Staffel’ should be sent first to Galicia, those of ‘B-Staffel’ only afterwards, so that people would have a chance to make up their minds what was to be done with them. The result was a serious delay in the mobilisation-programme against Russia. Although good railways stood at the disposal of the troops of ‘B-Staffel’, they would not, even at the best of times, be able to reach Galicia until the period between the 21st and 25th days of mobilisation, whereas the others would be there a week before. Still, this method seemed to make it possible for ‘B-Staffel’ to make an independent movement, if this appeared to be necessary, without disrupting the mobilisation against Russia or Serbia; and the railway-planners were pleased with their performance. ‘B-Staffel’ could either go south against Serbia, or be pulled out of a Serbian campaign, or be sent direct to Galicia, and the necessary flexibility had thus been attained.
When war began there was a great muddle on the Austro-Hungarian side; and it was not much cleared up by the explanations that were offered, which were, first, that there had been no muddle at all and then that it was the Germans’ fault. On 25th July the Serbians rejected the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum, and Austria-Hungary mobilised half of her army, declaring war on 28th. The seven corps of ‘B-Staffel’ and the Balkan group were to move south; a further one was also mobilised, although it was part of the Galician group, and the railway-planners were told to send it to the Balkans, although Conrad told everyone that it had been mobilised only as protection against Italy, or perhaps revolt in Bohemia. According to Conrad, the bulk of this force was due to be turned against Russia if she intervened. But he could hardly divert troops from the Serbian theatre merely because Russia threatened to intervene; and, according to him, it was not until the very end of the month that Russia’s intention of intervening became clear. Late in the evening of 31st July, accordingly, Conrad tried—by his own account—to turn the bulk of his southern forces against Russia. But he was told by his chief railway-expert, Straub, that this could not be done. So many troop-transports had already left for the Serbian theatre that to turn them about would cause chaos, in the middle of mobilisation against Russia. There was nothing for it but to have these troops (by now, more or less identical with II Army) continue their journey to Serbia. They could de-train there, and be transported back to the north-east, for their Russian campaign, once the lines there had been cleared, i.e. after completion of the mobilisation of the rest of the army against Russia. Conrad had, in other words, lost his chance to send ‘B-Staffel’ direct to Galicia because the Germans had failed to extract ‘clarity’ about the attitude of Russia before these troops had begun their journey south.
Conrad goes on to state that, even with this Balkan trip, the troops of II Army arrived hardly a moment later in Galicia than they would have done had they gone there directly; indeed, this was the railway-experts’ reason for allowing the Army to make its peregrinations in the first place. This was, odd as it may appear, true enough. According to the mobilisation-programme, the troops of ‘B-Staffel’ were supposed to follow those of ‘A-Staffel’ to Galicia. These latter were mobilised only in response to Russian mobilisation, on 31st July, and, if the railway-programme were adhered to, they were due to arrive in Galicia between the 15th and 20th days, the ‘B-Staffel’ troops only in the course of the next four or five days. The ‘B-Staffel’ troops would therefore have to wait in any event before going to Galicia, and it was, from the railwaymen’s viewpoint, more or Jess unimportant whether they spent their waiting-time in barracks or in trains and tents on the Serbian border. Had it not been for activities on the part of the local Balkan commander, Potiorek, most of ‘B-Staffel’ would in fact have arrived in Galicia on schedule, though only because that schedule was in any case preposterously long.
However, Conrad’s own explanation was a dangerously misleading one, for it did not reveal the real causes of the initial disaster that Austria-Hungary met. There was, in the first place, something unreal in Conrad’s constant asseveration that he did not know what Russia’s attitude would be, at least until 31st July. On the contrary, Russia made her attitude plain enough from the beginning. Even before the ultimatum had been presented, she warned that she could not be indifferent to the fate of Serbia. On 25th July, the Council of Ministers instructed the war minister to proceed with ‘the period preparatory to war’, and over the next few days a stream of reports from consuls and businessmen reached Vienna to the effect that substantial troop-movements were taking place within Russia. On 28th July the Russians announced that they would mobilise partially against Austria-Hungary; there was talk of general mobilisation a day later; and on 29th July Conrad himself drafted a document, for presentation to the Emperor Franz Joseph, to the effect that European war was imminent. He himself says in his memoirs that ‘31st July brought clarity’ to Russia’s attitude—not, in other words, 31st July, on which day Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian general mobilisation was formally an announced to the world. Russia’s attitude was really quite clear all along, and Krobatin, the Austro-Hungarian war minister, announced as much when he remarked to the Council of Ministers later on that ‘no-one was ever really under any illusion as to the likelihood of Russian intervention’. Whether Conrad thought it likely or not, he behaved at least fool-hardily in arranging for the transport of ‘B-Staffel’ against Serbia until 31st July.
The documents make plain what Conrad and his apologists concealed: that Conrad had in effect decided to pursue his war with Serbia despite the obviousness of Russian intervention; and this had much more to do with the initial disaster than any difficulties with the railways. The diary of his chief railway-expert, Straub, makes plain what happened. On 30th July, Conrad told him that, with Russian intervention round the corner, he would have to mobilise the rest of the army, ‘A-Staffel’, to go to Galicia. According to the plan, ‘B-Staffel’ should also go to Galicia to meet Russian intervention. But Conrad said he wanted it to go on to Serbia, and asked Straub if he could arrange for simultaneous movement of ‘A-Staffel’ to Galicia and of ‘B-Staffel’ to Serbia. Straub said that this would be extraordinarily difficult, for ‘none of the prepared variants covered this new case’. Success could not be guaranteed, but he would do his best. However, to enable him to do his best, he would have to have a few days’ grace before the mobilisation of ‘A-Staffel’ began. Mobilisation against Russia was proclaimed on 31st July. But, to give Straub his few days’ grace, ‘the first day of mobilisation’ was named as 4th August. What this meant in practice was that not a man would have to report to the colours before 5th August, since the first day of mobilisation was given to the men to arrange their own affairs.4 A grotesque situation resulted. Many men were full of patriotic zeal, and reported at once to their units, instead of waiting until 5th August. They were told to go away again—not the last dampener to patriotic emotion that Austrian soldiers were to receive. Meanwhile, Straub used his few days’ grace to develop a new programme, permitting separate despatch of ‘A-Staffel’ and ‘B-Staffel’. Conrad held to this programme although news built up throughout 30th and 31st July of an impending European war, and he did not learn until late in the evening of 31st July that, independent of his will, technical railway factors had now intervened to make any further change impossible. While still in the belief that the programme could be changed, and while knowing all of the factors that could make change desirable (Russian and German mobilisation having been proclaimed at noon) Conrad persisted in sending orders to the units of ‘B-Staffel that their mobilisation was to go on as it had been begun, and added for the benefit of II Army Command in Budapest that ‘for all troops mobilised before 28th July the instructions of the war ministry and the General Staff will, despite the intervention of Russia, remain in force’. In other words, the despatch of II Army against Serbia had nothing very much to do with railway-necessities; indeed, the railwaymen had protested against it. It was Conrad’s own strategy that dictated its course.
In the early evening of 31st July Conrad seems to have had second thoughts. On the face of things, it was absurd for Austria-Hungary to begin European war by launching half of her army against an insignificant Balkan state. Moltke, when he heard of the plan, protested energetically. A series of messages came from Berlin—Moltke, several times; Bethmann Hollweg; Jagow; and finally the German Kaiser himself, in a telegram to Franz Joseph, saying ‘in this gigantic struggle it is vital for Austria not to split her forces by going against Serbia’. Within the Monarchy, there were also alarms. Tisza, the powerful Prime Minister of Hungary, had been told on 28th July by his representative in Vienna what Conrad’s plan was: to ignore Russia and strike down Serbia ‘with rapid blows’. He saw through the technical obfuscation with which Conrad decked out his plan, and protested that, if too few troops were placed against Russia, there could be a defeat that would attract a Romanian declaration of war. He tried to persuade Conrad to send another two corps against Russia. These pressures brought Conrad round. After receiving the text of the Kaiser’s telegram, he telephoned Straub, summoned him back to the office, and asked him how he would react, ‘if the prevailing Balkan mobilisation were to be transformed into a Russian one’, in other words, if ‘B-Staffel’ were to go after all to Galicia.
Straub was aghast. He had been told the day before to improvise a plan, despite his own protests, by which precisely this was not to happen. The orders had been sent out; any countermanding of them would swamp the telegraph-lines, and in any case the troops had begun to move against Serbia—by the late evening of 31st July, 132 troop-trains. To stop this movement now, Straub said, would mean ‘a mess… chaos on the railway-lines for which I can take no responsibility’. There was no way of improvising yet again movement, direct, of the transported parts of II Army to Galicia, as some officers suggested. Of course, the trains that had left could simply be directed back to their depots. But this was not done for revealing reasons—‘We feared moral, political and disciplinary damage; the men’s confidence in their leaders professional competence would have suffered’. Indeed it would, if troop-trains that had left, Prague, Leitmeritz, Budapest a few days before, to flowers and bands, steamed back again in the middle of mobilisation. The satirical journals of Prague and Budapest would have had a field-day; the old saying, ‘L’Autriche est toujours en retard d’une armée, d’une année et d’une idée’ being once more triumphantly borne out. But in any case, as Straub and his assistants pointed out, even if this were done it would not advance by a minute the time of II Army’s arrival in Galicia. The mobilisation-schedules had been so arranged that the corps of II Army would, as ‘echelon B’, take the railways to Galicia only after all the other corps had gone to the Russian front. Even if the trains were now taken back, these troops would simply have to kick their heels in the depots of Prague and Budapest. It would simplify the railwaymen’s problem, they said, if these heels were kicked on the Danube instead. On 1st August Conrad therefore decreed that II Army, with a few omissions, should go first to the Balkans, wait there for ten days, and start back to Galicia when ‘A-Staffel’ had already finished its deployment to the north-east—i.e. around 18th August. As a consolation, the corps might be used ‘for demonstrative purposes’ in the south against the Serbians, over the river. Embarrassment was such that the Balkan commander, Potiorek, was told nothing of all this until 6th August. With justice, he recorded: ‘How the supreme command could arrive at such a radical change in its decisions is a mystery to me. It reveals much as to the functioning of the machine.’