Going Over The Top: The Death of Empire (Part III - The Ostrich Died for Nothing)

By David Flin

Going Over The Top: A Look at the History and Alternate History of the First World War.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a prime mover in the start of WWI. With deep divisions inside the Empire between Austrians, Hungarians, and Slavs, the governing structure had to balance many factors. Austria-Hungary had been attempting to move into the Balkans as the Ottoman Empire withdrew in the period before the war.

This did not endear the Empire to those Balkan states that had disposed of Ottoman rule, and were seeking independence. In the years before the start of WWI, the various great powers (Britain, Russia, France, Germany) allowed Austria-Hungary considerable latitude in dealing with the Balkans. The Empire had annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in October 1908, and after a bit of desultory sabre-rattling, this was accepted.

The Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913 were, in the simplest terms, about the Balkan League wanting Ottoman withdrawal from the Balkans. Numerous local powers, such as Serbia and Bulgaria, had ambitions in the region, and these were in opposition to the Austro-Hungarian ambitions.

The ethnic divisions had an adverse effect on the functioning of democratic processes, and power seemed, to the minorities, to be increasingly given over to the ruling Austrian group, and tensions grew. Serbian success in the Second Balkan War brought concerns to Austria.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo was a part of these tensions, carried out by Serb nationalists. The assassination intensified existing religious and ethnic tensions, and Austrian authorities encouraged violence against Serbs in Bosnia. These resulted in anti-Serb riots, in which Catholic Croats and Bosnian Muslims attacked Serbs and Serb-owned buildings, killing several. Austro-Hungarian authorities imprisoned over 5000 prominent Serbs, of whom around 2000 died in prison. In addition, 460 Serbs were sentenced to death and executed.

Once war came, the genie of nationalist tensions was out of the bottle, and only victory would allow the Empire to put it back. There was a problem here. Since 1878, every Great Power had dramatically increased its military spending: Germany’s spending had increased five-fold, Britain, France and Russia had each increased spending threefold. Austria-Hungary hadn’t even doubled. This would have been sustainable if the army was well-trained and well-equipped. The small British Expeditionary Force demonstrated in 1914 that well-trained troops with the right equipment can cause problems to much larger forces. The Austro-Hungarian Army was many things, but well-trained, well-equipped, or efficient were not among them.

Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf. Moustache: magnificent. Demeanour: excellent. Strategic grasp: not so great.

In 1906, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf was appointed as Chief of the General Staff. Conrad was sacked in 1911, and reinstated in late 1912. Competition for positions on his Staff were fierce, to the extent that the Hofrichter Affair developed in 1909, in which there were more officers than positions. Obviously, First Lieutenant Adolf Hofrichter decided that the route to military advancement lay in poisoning his fellow officers to eliminate the competition. This he did by sending a package to Captain Richard Mader, containing two pills, and a note explaining that these pills were designed to “fortify the male potential”, and should be taken half an hour before an amorous encounter. Obviously, a Captain in the Austrian Army had many such encounters. Unfortunately for Captain Mader, these pills were heavily laced with cyanide, and he died. Dozens of other officers had also been sent similar pills. General Wiesinger of the general staff described the action as “understandable”. Such was the comradeship among the officer corps of the Austrian Army.

Badly-equipped, poorly-trained, and with officers who viewed assassination as an understandable method of gaining advancement, everything depending on tactical skills. Conrad had studied the Boer War of 1899-1902 and the Russian-Japan War of 1904-05, and concluded that these clearly demonstrated the supremacy of the offensive on the battlefield, and that the power of will would overcome any defensive position. He made promotions dependent on implementing this concept.

To cap it all, having insisted on sweeping offensives to overcome defensive positions, Conrad decided that such operations against Serbia were best conducted in the north-western parts of Serbia, mountainous terrain totally unsuited to such operations.

Unsurprisingly, the Austro-Hungarian Army was torn apart, and morale quickly evaporated. By 1917, the Czechoslovak Legion began active operations against the Empire, intent on winning support from the Entente for the independence of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovak territories.

The economic situation in Austria collapsed, and by 1918, food shortages were endemic, strikes commonplace, mutinies in the army standard. Numerous ethnic groups were declaring independence, and on 31 October, 1918, Hungary ended the union with Austria.

On 11 November, 1918, Emperor Karl relinquished “every participation in the administration of the State”, without actually abdicating. He retained hopes that the people of Austria would vote to recall him in the future.

Thus ended the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the rule of the Habsburgs. It is hard to mourn its passing.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow