by Graydon A. Tunstall
Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010. Pp. ix, 258.
Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 0700617205
Although a great deal has been published recently on World War I, the vast majority of the works that have appeared are overwhelmingly devoted to the Western Front. The Eastern Front -- and the others as well -- remains relatively uncovered. When one thinks of the Eastern Front in World War I, Tannenberg immediately comes to mind. Less well known are some of the gigantic campaigns conducted by the Russians and Austro-Hungarians, although a recent study by Timothy Dowling covers the most successful Russian offensive, which was launched by General Alexei Brusilov in 1916. Much less well-known is the titanic struggle for the Carpathian mountain passes during the winter of 1915. Graydon Tunstall now brings this horrific campaign to light with this book.
The reason for the Carpathian winter war was the fortress of Przemysl. Under siege by the Russians since the late fall of 1914, the fortress and its 120,000 strong garrison represented a major prize for the Russians. Its relief by the Austro-Hungarians would likewise provide a considerable boost to the sagging morale in Vienna. From January to March 1915, Austro-Hungarian Chief of the General Staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf conducted three separate attacks designed to break through the Carpathian passes to Przemysl; all of them failed, and were accompanied by massive casualties on a scale exceeding Verdun or the Somme. In the end, Conrad got the worst of all possible results. His offensives bled the Austro-Hungarian Army white, and Przemysl ultimately surrendered on 22 March 1915.
Tunstall attributes these failures largely to Conrad, who persisted in fruitless frontal attacks resulting in many "avoidable" casualties. While defending the Carpathian passes was expensive for the Russians as well, the Austro-Hungarians were simply not in a position to sustain heavy losses.
Tunstall notes that, aside from time and the Russians, the Austro-Hungarians also had to contend with the environment. The Carpathian winter is incredibly harsh, and these offensives were conducted in temperatures well below freezing, and in some cases below zero, over ground blanketed by many feet of snow. The area itself was wild, one in which wounded soldiers on both sides occasionally fell prey to marauding wolves. Tunstall brings the horrors of this unknown campaign to the reader, backed by impressive research. Few American scholars know the Austrian archives like Tunstall, and he has mined a mass of official reports and private correspondence to give a full account of the winter war.
Although the writing can at times be a hard slog, readers will appreciate some excellent photographs and a series of very useful maps. Tunstall has rendered a vital service to our understanding of World War I. This is a must book for both experts and novices alike.