Austria-Hungary was poorly prepared for a general war in 1914, yet it was the country that did the most to precipitate one. While the immediate provocation for war was the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, this was only the last of a series of crises that erupted in the Balkans in the early years of the twentieth century. Opinions were mixed in the government of the Dual Monarchy, and in previous crises, a peaceful solution was always reached. The most persistent voice for war, however, was that of the army’s Chief of Staff, General Conrad von Hoetzendorf.
Franz Conrad von Hoetzendorf (generally known as Conrad) became the Chief of Staff of the Austrian army in 1906. Born in 1852, he was in his mid-fifties when he assumed this post, and brought a fair amount of vigor and sharp thinking to his efforts to modernize the army. Politically, he was committed to the maintenance of the aristocratic state, and resisted efforts at reform while urging pre-emptive war against external threats.
These elements cannot be separated in the Austro-Hungarian context. Many of the sharpest calls for change came from ethnic minorities that had strong support from neighboring countries. After the creation of the Dual Monarchy, which elevated the Hungarian part of the empire to rough parity with the German part, it was the Slavic subjects who were most contentious, and they received substantial support from the neighboring kingdom of Serbia.
From the beginning of his tenure, Conrad sought a war against Serbia, as well as action against Italy, even though that nation was technically an ally. He greatly regretted his country’s failure to declare war on Serbia during the crisis of 1908; with time, he felt that the prospects became harder, especially given Russia’s determination to help Serbia. Conrad passed the next few years with some frustration, as additional crises in 1912 and 1913 failed to materialize into concrete action. While he lived, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand stood in the way of such adventurism.
The Archduke’s assassination in 1914 thus doubly accelerated the prospect of war. Not only did it provide the Austrians with the moral high ground in their disputes with Serbia, but it also removed the greatest impediment in the imperial government to a course for war. The second major impediment remained, however: the prospect of Russian intervention. The Austrians were left with no doubt that war on Serbia would draw Russia into the conflict, and Conrad knew all too well that his forces could not meet both enemies and prevail.
Diplomatic overtures to Germany gave a partial solution. The Germans would support the Austrians in the event of a Russian declaration of war, and Conrad reasoned that this presented favorable odds for the two allies. He did not anticipate the sequence of events that would bring war with England and France, and the diversion of the bulk of German force to the west. Even so, he realized that war brought risks, and he argued that these were risks that Austria-Hungary must take in order to survive.
In the event, Austria-Hungary delivered to Serbia an ultimatum, fully expecting refusal and an ensuing war. Conrad formulated his war plans with the assumption that the Russian army would be slow to deploy. Thinking that he had time before Russian troops arrived, and then with German help more time yet before the Russian threat became pressing, he anticipated that he would be able to defeat the Serbs before being compelled to face the Russians squarely. With this in mind, he developed an elegant plan that sent eight divisions south to Serbia, 28 more to Galicia and leaving twelve more as a reserve.
As Conrad would experience time and again in the war, the reality was somewhat different. Austrian infrastructure was not equal to the demands of his plan, and so, the deployment of his forces proceeded much slower than intended. In particular, the reserve proved incapable of giving aid to either front when the need arose.
In the south, progress against Serbia was slow. Indeed, the Serbs maintained stiff resistance until the fall of 1915. It took help from Bulgaria, which joined the war in September, and from Germany, which sent two armies and General August von Mackensen as overall commander in the Serbian theater of war, to capture Serbia and drive the remainder of its army into exile.
Against Russia, Conrad also faced difficulty. The Russians surprised the Germans and Austrians with the speed of their mobilization, and while the initial blow against Germany was soundly rebuffed, Austria as much as Germany needed to bolster its forces in the region at the expense of its efforts elsewhere. In Austria’s case, this drew down the force available for the Serbian campaign.
Furthermore, Austrian strategic realities demanded offensive action. Ideally, Conrad would have joined Germany in a combined effort to sweep the Russians from Poland, but Germany was not ready for such a sweep. The Austrians dared not wait, however, and allow the Russians to gather their full strength in Poland either. With few options, Conrad was left with the prospect of repeated offensives.
These offensives met with success or failure largely in accordance with the measure to which they enjoyed German support. Either way, they proved very costly. His prospects seemed best in May 1915, when the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive had proven successful. Even so, his German allies took an increasingly dim view of his leadership, and indeed of Austria’s contribution to the war effort in general. Gradually they began to assume overall command of all forces in the field.
Conrad anticipated yet another challenge: the prospect of war with Italy. Before the war, he had argued in favor of military action against Italy, which laid claim to the Trentino on the Italo-Austrian border. Under the circumstances of 1915, however, Austria could not afford another front, and so he argued against any course that led to war with Italy. Italy, however, was eager to press its claims against Austria, and so it broke its existing alliance with Germany and Austria and declared war.
The Italians were far from skillful in their attacks, but still they demanded Austria’s attention, and so the Austrian commitment to the east was further reduced. Conrad exacerbated this deficiency with independent efforts in early 1916. His campaign in Albania was successful; his offensive in the Trentino was not. Both drew off men and material that the Germans expected in the east. By September, the Germans had completed their takeover of operational control of all armies in their coalition. Conrad himself was promoted to Field Marshal, but he no longer had effective command of his troops.
Conrad was removed from any role in the east in March 1917. Instead, he was sent to the Italian front to command forces there. He served in this capacity for another sixteen months, but he was relieved of command on July 15, 1918.
Ultimately, Conrad’s role in World War One was disastrous for his own nation. He had done much to build up Austria’s military strength, but the war that he long desired proved to be beyond even that enhanced power. In general terms, his strategic gifts were strong, and many even suggest that they were superior, but under the strategic realities of the day, his forces were unable to fulfill his vision. In the end, the war that Conrad had sought since the beginning of his tenure as Chief of Staff toppled the state it was meant to save.
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Kann, Robert A. A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526-1918. University of California, 1980
Neiberg, Michael S et al. The History of World War I: The Eastern Front 1914-1920. Amber, 2012
Strachan, Hew. The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War. Oxford, 2001
Willmott, H.P. World War I. Covent Garden Books, 2003
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