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Siege of Przemyśl
Part of the Eastern Front during World War I
The fortress in 1915
Date24 September 1914 – 22 March 1915
LocationPrzemyśl, present day Poland
Result Russian victory
 Russian Empire  Austria-Hungary
Commanders and leaders
Andrei Selivanov Hermann Kusmanek
300,000 Przemyśl Garrison (93,000 soldiers
45,000 impressed levy)[1]
Casualties and losses
115,000 total casualties (40,000 casualties were sustained in the first few days of the siege[2]) at least 86,000 dead, 28,000 to 110,000 wounded, the remaining surrendered[1]

The Siege of Przemyśl was the longest siege of the First World War,[3] and a crushing defeat for Austria-Hungary. Przemyśl was a fortress town on the River San and a Galician stronghold. The investment of Przemyśl began on September 24, 1914[citation needed] and was briefly suspended on October 11 due to an Austro-Hungarian offensive. The siege resumed again on November 9 and the Austro-Hungarian garrison surrendered on March 22, 1915 after holding out for a total of 133 days.


In August 1914 Russian armies moved against both German East Prussia and Austria-Hungary's largest province of Eastern Galicia, in present-day Poland. Its advance into Germany was soon repulsed but its Galician campaign was more successful. General Nikolai Ivanov overwhelmed the Austro-Hungarian forces under Conrad von Hötzendorf[citation needed] during the Battle of Galicia, and the whole Austrian front fell back over 100 miles (160 km) to the Carpathian Mountains. The fortress at Przemyśl was the only Austrian post that held out and by September 28 was completely behind Russian lines. The Russians were now in a position to threaten the German industrial region of Silesia, making the defense of Przemyśl of importance to the Germans as well as the Austro-Hungarians.

Thirty miles of new trenches were dug and 650 miles of barbed wire were used to make seven new lines of defence around the perimeter of the town. Inside the fortress a military garrison of 127,000 as well as 18,000 civilians were surrounded by six Russian divisions. Przemyśl reflected the nature of the Austro-Hungarian Empire - orders of the day had to be issued in fifteen languages. Austrians, Poles, Jews and Ukrainians were together in the besieged town, that was hit constantly with artillery fire, and as the toll of dead and sick and wounded rose, and starvation threatened, so did mutual distrust and racial tension.[4]

First siege

On September 24, General Radko Dimitriev, commander of the Russian Third Army began the siege of the fortress. Dimitriev was without sufficient siege artillery when he began the investment and instead of waiting for the Russian high command to send him the artillery pieces, Dimitriev ordered a full scale assault on the fortress before an Austrian relief force could be sent. For three days the Russians attacked and accomplished nothing at the cost of 40,000 casualties. While this was under way General Paul von Hindenburg launched an offensive against Warsaw in the north. In conjunction with the German attack on Warsaw, General Svetozar Boroevic von Bojna led a relief force towards Przemyśl. On October 11 Dimitriev lifted the siege and withdrew across the San River. Conrad von Hötzendorf had hopes that a combined assault from Boroevic's army and the Przemyśl garrison would inflict a severe blow on the Russians.

A month and a half on from the time when the Russians encircled the town, German troops helped the Habsburg troops to break the encirclement. Civilians were ordered to leave at once - in part to relieve the severe food shortage.

Second siege

By October 31, Hindenburg had been defeated at the Battle of the Vistula River and withdrew from his assault on Warsaw. This caused Boroevic to pull back from the River San line, and abandon von Hötzendorf's proposed offensive against Russia. On November 9 the Russians resumed the siege of Przemyśl. Radko Dimitriev's force was withdrawn from the Przemyśl sector and moved north. The Russian Eleventh Army under General Andrei Nikolaevich Selivanov took up the siege operations. Selivanov did not order any frontal assaults as Dimitriev had, and instead settled to starve the garrison into submission. By mid-December 1914 the Russians were pounding the fortress with ceaseless artillery fire seeking to compel the town's surrender. During the winter 1914-1915 the Habsburg armies continued to fight their way to the fortress. Months of fighting resulted in great losses, largely from frostbite and disease, but relieving forces failed to reach the garrison at Przemysl. In February, 1915 Boroevic led another relief effort towards Przemyśl.

By the end of February all relief efforts having been defeated von Hötzendorf informed Hermann Kusmanek von Burgneustädten that no further efforts would be made. Selivanov was given sufficient artillery to reduce the fortress. The Russians overran the northern defenses on March 13. An improvised line of defense held up the Russian attacks long enough for Kusmanek to destroy anything left in the city that could be of use to the Russians once captured. On March 19 Kusmanek ordered an attempt to break out but his sallies were repulsed and he was forced to retreat back into the city. With nothing useful left within the city, Kusmanek had no choice but to surrender. On March 22 the remaining garrison of 117,000 surrendered to the Russians.[5] Among the captured were nine generals, ninety-three senior staff officers, and 2500 other officers.[6]

Life in Przemyśl under siege

Diaries and notebooks kept by various people in the town have survived. The diary of Josef Tomann, an Austrian recruited into military service as a junior doctor, reveals the results of the activities of garrison officers: "The hospitals have been recruiting teenage girls as nurses. They get 120 crowns a month and free meals. They are, with very few exceptions, utterly useless. Their main job is to satisfy the lust of the gentlemen officers and, rather shamefully, of a number of doctors, too [-] New officers are coming in almost daily with cases of syphilis, gonorrhoea and soft chancre. The poor girls and women feel so flattered when they get chatted up by one of these pestilent pigs in their spotless uniforms, with their shiny boots and buttons." Other accounts reveal the pervasive presence of starvation and disease, including cholera, and the diary of Helena Jablonska, a middle-aged, quite wealthy Polish woman, reveals class and anti-semitic and racial tensions in the town; " The Jewish women in basements rip you off the worst", and on March 18, 1915 - "The Jews are taking their shop signs down in a hurry, so that no one can tell who owns what. [-] They've all got so rich off the backs of those poor soldiers, and now of course they all want to run away!" Once the Russians arrived in March the fate of the Jews worsened and she noted: "The Cossacks waited until the Jews set off to the synagogue for their prayers before setting upon them with whips. There is such lamenting and despair. Some Jews are hiding in cellars, but they'll get to them there too." [7]

Mail communications

Przemysl and surrounding forts

The world's first airmail flights from Przemyśl during both sieges when airmail postcards, mostly military mail, were flown from the besieged city on twenty-seven flights. Following a forced landing, mail from one flight was confiscated by the Russians and sent to Saint Petersburg for postal censorship and onward transmission. Balloon mail, on manned but mainly unmanned paper balloons, was also carried out of the city.[8] Pigeon mail was also used to send messages out of the city.[9]


Statue commemorating the siege of Przemyśl in Budapest, Hungary

The fall of Przemyśl led many to believe that Russia would now launch a major offensive into Hungary. This anticipated offensive never came, but the loss of Przemyśl was a serious blow to Austro-Hungarian morale. A further blow to Austria-Hungary was the fact that Przemyśl was only supposed to be garrisoned by 50,000, yet over 110,000 Austro-Hungarians surrendered with the fortress, a much more significant loss. The Russians held Przemyśl until the summer of 1915 when the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive pushed back the Russian front in Galicia. Przemysl stayed in German hands until October 1918 at which point Eastern Galicia left the Austro-Hungarian Empire and became part of the newly created independent state of Poland. The Austro-Hungarian army never recovered from its losses in the winter of 1914-1915 and the Habsburgs would rely henceforth on German assistance both in their sector of the Eastern Front and in the Balkans.[10]

References and sources

  1. 1.0 1.1 "Przemysl leltára" (in Hungarian). account of Przemyśl. Budapest, Hungary: Huszadik század. April 1915. Retrieved 2 August 2011. 
  2. "Przemyslt teljesen felszabadítottuk" (in Hungarian). Przemyśl has been fully liberated. Budapest, Hungary: Huszadik század. October 1914. Retrieved 2 August 2011. 
  3. A War in Words, p.69, Svetlana Palmer & Sarah Wallis, Simon & Schuster 2003
  4. A War in Words, p.70, Svetlana Palmer & Sarah Wallis, Simon & Schuster 2003
  5. Rothenburg, G. The Army of Francis Joseph. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1976. p 185.
  6. Rothenburg 1976, p. 185.
  7. A War in Words, p87-88
  8. Kupiec-Weglinski, Jerry (December 2009). "The Siege Of Przemysl 1914–15". Mineola, NY: American Air Mail Society. pp. 494–509. ISSN 0739-0939. 
  9. "PIGEON POST FROM PRZEMYSL.; " We Are Doing Very Well," Says Message to Vienna". 1914-11-29. pp. 2. 
  10. A War in Words, p.93
  • Tucker, Spencer The Great War: 1914-18 (1998)

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