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The battles of Lemberg, 23 August-12 September 1914, is a collective name given to the series of battles between the Russians and the Austro-Hungarians in Galicia at the start of the First World War. It saw three Austro-Hungarian armies clash with four Russian armies in four main battles that began with Austrian successes in the west and ended with a Russian victory that forced the Austrians to retreat back to the Carpathian Mountains.
In 1914 Galicia was the name given to the Austro-Hungarian province north of the Carpathian Mountains, now split between Poland and the Ukraine. It was bordered on the north and east by the Russian Empire, with the great salient of Russian Poland to the north.
In 1914 the Austrians assumed that the Russians would take advantage of that salient to attack to the west of their great Galician fortresses at Lemberg and Przemysl, attacking from the vicinity of Lublin. They also assumed that they would be able to mobilise quicker than the Russians. Accordingly the Austrian commander-in-chief, General Conrad von Hötzendorf, decided to concentrate two of his three available armies on the western part of the front and launch an attack north into Russian Poland to disrupt the Russian concentration
Both assumptions were wrong. Under pressure from their French allies, the Russians had greatly improved their mobilisation process. In 1914 they were able to launch attacks on Germany and on Austro-Hungary in the first month of the war. The Russians also decided not to attack from the Polish salient, but from the east. Two Russian armies would attack east of Lemberg.
From west to east the Austrian armies were the First, Fourth and Third, stretched out from the Vistula to Lemberg and the line of the Dniester, facing the Russian Fourth, Fifth, Third and Eighth Armies. At the start of the campaign the three eastern Russian armies were all advancing towards Lemberg, while the Fourth Army had orders to advance into the area west of Przemysl to cut off any Austrian retreat to the west.
The first major clash came at Krasnik (23-25 August), at the western end of the line. Here the Austrian First Army clashed with the Russian Fourth Army, and pushed it back in three days of fighting. The Russians refused to believe that any significant Austrian forces could be this war west, and ordered the next army in line, the Fifth, to wheel to its right to take the Austrians in their flank.
Instead, the Russian Fifth Army found the Austrian Fourth Army. The resulting battle of Komarow, 26 August-1 September, came close to being a total disaster for the Russians, who were very nearly enveloped by the Austrians.
The Austrian collapse began further east. On 25 August three corps of the Third Army advanced to the river Zlota Lipa, to deal with what was believed to be a minor Russian attack. Instead they ran into the eight corps of the Third and Eighth Armies. The resulting battle of Gnila Lipa saw the Austrian Third Army forced back, first to the Gnila Lipa and then west of Lemberg. On 3 September Lemberg fell to the Russians.
There was now a real danger that the Russians advancing from the east would cut off the Austrian armies at Krasnik and Komarov. This danger was averted after Conrad was able to form a new defensive line, facing east, with the Fourth Army on the left, the Third Army in the centre and the recently arrived Second Army to the right. It was believed that the Russian Fifth Army had been badly damaged at Komarov, and so did not pose a threat.
This was not the case. There was now a forty mile gap between the new Austrian line and the First Army. On 10 September the Russian Fifth Army began to advance into that gap. By the end of the day it was already behind the Austrian Fourth Army. The trap would have been closed on 11 September if the Austrians had not intercepted a Russian radio order that gave away their position (battle of Rava Ruska). Conrad attempted to continue attacking, but his army commanders, with a more realistic view of the state of their armies, didn’t pass them on to their men. That evening Conrad ordered a general retreat.
By the time the chaotic retreat ended, the Austrians had pulled back to the line of the Carpathian Mountains and Conrad’s headquarters in the great fortress of Przemysl was under siege.
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