Magazine Poland

On this Day, in 1914: Russian forces began laying siege to the fortress-city of Przemyśl

On September 16, 1914, after invading the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, Russian forces began laying siege to the fortress-city of Przemyśl, in present-day Poland, which would hold out behind enemy lines for 133 days.

Following the outbreak of World War I in July 1914, the German General Staff drew up a plan which provided for quick, all-out ground offensive against France, designed to obtain a rapid and decisive victory, while taking up defensive positions in the east against Russia, until the decision had been obtained in the west.

The choice of France for the initial offensive was actuated by the relative slowness of Russian mobilization and by the impossibility of gaining a rapid victory against Russia owing to the great distances.

The Eastern front

In August 1914, pledged to their French allies to assume the offensive at the earliest possible date, Russian armies moved against both Germans in East Prussia and one of Austria-Hungary’s largest provinces, Galicia, straddling the present-day border between Poland and Ukraine.

Facing the Germans, the north-western front was under the command of Yakov Zhilinsky, while the south-western front, facing the Austro-Hungarians in Galicia, was commanded by Nikolai Iudovich Ivanov.

But the Russian invasion of East Prussia quickly turned to a defeat after the Russian Second Army was almost almost completely annihilated at the Battle of Tannenberg, which all but ended Russia’s invasion of East Prussia before it had even really started.

On the other hand, the Russian incursion into Galicia was considerably more successful. General Nikolai Ivanov overwhelmed the Austro-Hungarian forces during the Battle of Galicia, and the whole Austrian front fell back over 160 kilometres to the Carpathian Mountains.

With its garrison of 130,000 soldiers, only the fortress-city of Przemyśl held out behind Russian lines.

The Siege of Przemyśl

Przemyśl was the Austria-Hungary’s main defensive bulwark in the east. The fortification of the city had begun in the 1870s, and by 1914 it was protected by a ring of 35 forts, some 30 miles in circumference. With 46,000 residents, mostly Poles, Jews and Ukrainians, Przemyśl was the third largest conurbation in Galicia, after Kraków and Lviv.

The Russian investment of Przemyśl began on September 16. In front, 50 kilometres of new trenches were dug and 1,000 km of barbed wire were used to make seven new lines of defence around the perimeter of the town, now surrounded by six Russian divisions.

The garrison’s successful resistance won crucial time and the siege of Przemyśl was briefly suspended the following month, allowing the Austro-Hungarian army to regroup and refill its depleted ranks. But at the beginning of November, the Russians returned to open a second and far more gruelling siege.

Austro-Hungarian attempts to break the encirclement and save the fortress-city ended catastrophically as the poorly supplied and outnumbered imperial forces attempted offensive after offensive through the Carpathian Mountains.

Inside Przemyśl, the trapped, frightened people were exposed both to the terrors of age old siege warfare and modern “total war”. Food was weaponised, starvation set in and civilian mortality doubled. The garrison was reduced to eating its own horses while Russian aircraft attacked Przemyśl in some of the earliest aerial bombing raids in history.

“World War I’s Stalingrad”

When, at last, all the fortress’s food was exhausted and a fifth of its soldiers were hospitalised due to malnutrition, capitulation became unavoidable, and the Austro-Hungarian garrison surrendered in March 1915, after holding out for a total of 133 days. It was the longest siege in Europe during World War I.

The Polish elites who had run Przemyśl were arrested and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishop harassed, while the city’s Jewish population, were loaded onto army wagons and forced eastwards, to an uncertain future.

Known as “World War I’s Stalingrad“, the siege and the attempts to relieve it caused the death of well over a million people.

The Russians held Przemyśl until the summer of 1915 when the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive pushed back the Russian front in Galicia. Przemyśl stayed in Austro-Hungarian hands until October 1918 when it became part of the newly independent Republic of Poland.

Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.