Memoirs & Diaries - An Austrian Officer's Memoir of the Battle of the Carpathian Passes
The fighting in the Carpathians, thanks to the difficulties of the ground and the severity of the season, demanded the greatest effort and suffering of which our Army was ever capable.
Those who have not taken part in it can have no idea of what a human being is capable. The resources of vital energy accumulated in our organism are simply prodigious. In particular, our Rumanian soldiers compelled the admiration of all by their fortitude. This quality in this country of mountains and winter made them first-rate troops.
The great Napoleon said: "La premiere qualite du soldat est la constance a supporter la fatigue et la privation. La pauvrete, les privations et la misere sont l'ecole du bon soldat." ["The highest quality of a soldier is constancy in endurance of fatigue and privation. Poverty, privation and misery are the school of the good soldier."]
You can bet we did our schooling all right, even going so far as the examinations, and if the bold Corsican had been with us and we had had an ideal to defend, we should certainly have been reckoned picked troops in spite of our faults.
But our leaders were anything but Napoleons, though, as a matter of fact, the Major of the 22nd Territorials rejoiced in the name of Napoleon. I have no opinion about his military ability, as I was never close to him, but I never heard of him distinguishing himself in any action.
We had some frightful news this morning. The fighting Hungarian Lieutenant Szinte's company had been scattered, and he himself had bolted at top speed, thereby crushing one of his feet and taking all the skin off his nose.
Michaelis, the bookseller, had gone forward with fifty men to a wooded height. A few men of my company, including Sergeant Corusa, told me that they saw some thirty Russians stealing away in front of their line. They began to call out, "Feuer einstellen - Tuzet seuntes" ("Cease fire!").
At this double command, in German and Hungarian, our men got up and left their shelter behind the trees. Then the Russians were heard to whisper: "Brzo, brzo!" ("Quick, quick!"), and they fired rapidly on our poor simpletons and then bolted.
In a few seconds we had only dead and wounded left, for hardly fifteen came back untouched. Poor Michaelis, hit in the left shoulder by a bullet which came out the other side, was killed and buried on the frontier. A Rumanian stretcher-bearer laid him on straw at the bottom of a trench and recited a paternoster over him. That was a real good soul, in a man devoted to his duty. God rest it. H is brother, the engineer, had had his forehead scraped by a bullet. Two other officers had been seriously wounded.
I was left alone, of all those who had left Fagaras with the battalion. Michaelis, my last companion, had just left me for ever.
In the afternoon I took fifty men to hold a slope covered with juniper trees. The men hastily dug trenches, and I manufactured a shelter of boughs and branches. Once more it snowed, and there was no question of making fires.
Everything was wrapped in a mantle of snow, whose virginal whiteness soothed us and made our thoughts turn calmly to death, which we longed for as never before. The men dug coffin-shaped trenches, so that when in the evening I went to inspect them lying in these ditches covered with juniper, they looked to me as if they had been buried alive. Poor Rumanians!
An unforgettable day. I doubt if fiction has ever recorded scenes more comic, and yet more interesting, than those of November 20th.
First, a description of the situation is necessary.
We were holding the hills between the road from Radoszyce in Hungary and that which passes through Dolzyca to the frontier.
The terrain was very uneven and thickly wooded. Here and there a clearing or meadow could be seen, though even these were invaded by junipers. The line of our positions was prolonged over the wooded height opposite us, so that we had to fire to our left straight through the woods without seeing anything.
The reports of our patrols did not enable us to get any very clear idea of the extent of our front, so Major Paternos and I went out to confirm their news from the spot.
The forest began in face of us, thirty or forty paces down the slope. We made our way into it and reached a stream. On the other side of the stream the woods became thicker, and we could get up the slope only with the assistance of projecting tufts and branches.
Beyond the top we found a battalion, about 300 strong, of the 47th Infantry. They had all gone to ground, and their Captain showed us thirty paces away, the crest covered with junipers, and told us: "The Russians are there."
But the undergrowth was so thick that nothing could be seen and no one could get through. This Captain was in despair, feeling that he had no chance of getting away. We understood it. His situation was very difficult. We shivered even as we listened.
Our sector was broken on the right, but on our left, three hundred paces off, the next sector had good trenches, which wound round in a bend to the Dolzyca road. The gaps were due to our lack of men.
In the morning the 12th Company was on duty. Mine rested in shelters in the woods, and we were served out with bread, tinned stuffs, winter underclothes, boots-even children's elastic slippers-and other luxuries.
The men, cold or no cold, lost no time in undressing to change their linen. I then saw human bodies which were nothing but one great sore from the neck to the waist. They were absolutely eaten up with lice. For the first time I really understood the popular phrase, "May the lice eat you!"
One of the men, when he pulled off his shirt, tore away crusts of dried blood, and the vermin were swarming in filthy layers in the garment. The poor peasant had grown thin on this. His projecting jaws and sunken eyes were the most conspicuous features of him.
Even we officers were regular hives. Fothi yesterday counted fifty. He pulled them one by one from the folds of his shirt collar. He counted them, threw them in the fire, and while we drank our tea and smoked, we scratched ourselves and laughed.
About midday I decided to change also. I began by washing, for I was filthy and black. From the time of our arrival at Laszki-Murowane, six weeks before, I had not known what it was to wash my mouth.
The post had brought me from Hungary a toothbrush and some paste. What a joy once more to have white teeth and a clean mouth! In one's daily life at home one cannot imagine that such pleasures can exist. One thing at least war teaches us - to appreciate as never before the pleasures of peace!
I had just put on my shirts again - I always wore two or three - when I heard a shout from all sides: "The Russians are on us!"
Private Torna came to our shelter to announce: "Sir, the Russians are breaking through our line on the top!"
I did not yet believe it, but, at any cost, I asked my friend Fothi to conduct the company to the trenches. Meanwhile I hastily put on my boots, took my rifle, and rejoined the company as it was emerging from the wood.
There I stopped. I could hardly believe my eyes. What was it I saw? Along the whole front, the Russians and our men were in contact, staring at, threatening (with bayonets fixed), shouting at, and, in places, blazing away at each other.
Among the junipers, near to the trench we had dug three days back, the Russians and our men were scrambling together, fighting and kicking, around a supply of bread intended for the 12th Company. This struggle of starving animals for food only lasted a few seconds. They all got up, each man having at least a fragment of bread, which he devoured voraciously.
With a rapid glance I counted the Russians. They were not more numerous than ourselves, and I saw them drag our men away one by one by pulling at the corners of their blankets - for our shepherds had turned their blankets into overcoats.
One or two of them, a little more knowing than the rest, unfastened these coverings and, with a shake of the shoulders, left them in the hands of the Russians. The latter, well content with their prize, went their way laughing, while our men came back to us. I thought to myself that, after all, it could not be much worse in Siberia than it was here.
Some of the Russians now tried to surround us. One raw young recruit came quite close up to us and raised his rifle at me. I held mine to the ready in response. It was a thrilling moment. I don't know what it was, but something in my look prevented him from firing, and I too refrained.
He took to his heels and fled. But the shock had been too much for me, and, like a savage, I yelled in a fury: "Disarm them!"
I threw myself on to the group nearest to us, and Fothi and I together wrenched the rifles out of the hands of the two Russian soldiers. They all surrendered forthwith like lambs. We took sixty of them. All our men wished to escort the prisoners.
I selected three as a guard, the third to walk behind and carry the Russian's rifle. I was obliged to have recourse to threats before I could induce them to enter the trench, and I then marched them off in file to the Commander-in-Chief.
And this is how bread, holy bread, reconciles men, not only in the form of Communion before the holy altar, but even on the field of battle. The peasants, who, in their own homes, whether in Russia or elsewhere, sweat blood in order to insure the ripening of the golden ear of corn which is to feed their masters, once they are on the battlefield forget the behests of these masters who have sent them forth to murder their fellows, and they make peace over a scrap of bread.
The bread which they have produced and harvested makes them brothers. After this scene not a single shot disturbed the forest, and those who had been able to preserve a whole loaf, quickly shared it brotherly fashion with the prisoners, the latter offering them tobacco in exchange. All this, of course, took place in front of our bivouacs in the heart of the forest.
I sent Fothi to the Major to ask for reinforcements, as I was expecting a second attack. The prisoners told me that the Russians had come about four hundred strong.
I did not have long to wait. An hour later, on the edge of the wood, a party of Russians appeared. They were standing with their rifles at the slope, beckoning to us to approach. One of our men left his party and came to tell us that the Russians wished to surrender, but that we ought to surround them.
It was no doubt a fresh ruse. A quarter of an hour before I had sent out a patrol of two men- a Rumanian and a Saxon - and they had not returned. The Rumanian had surrendered and the Saxon had been killed.
My reinforcements arrived, sixty men of the 10th Company, under Second Lieutenant Szollosy, the man who was always the best hand at cursing and belabouring our Rumanians. I sent his sergeant-major, a brutal and thoroughly repellent Saxon, together with twenty men, to the right to surround the Russians.
I certainly doomed them to death. I reckoned that if the Russians wished to surrender they would not wait for us to surround them first. They would lay down their arms and give themselves up. On the other hand, if they did fire on our men, all who had gone out to the corner of the forest would fall victims. But calculations are all very fine; on the field of battle they are apt to be misleading.
Surrender was the last thing in the world that the Russians against whom our men were advancing with fixed bayonets had in mind.
I went over the top, clambering over the body of a man whose brains were sticking out of his head, and signed to them to surrender - they were at most 200 yards away.
But they still continued to call to us without attempting to move. I thereupon gave the command, "Fire!" and held my own rifle at the ready. At this point my calculations broke down. My Rumanians refused to fire, and, what was more, prevented me from firing either. One of them put his hand on my rifle and said "Don't fire, sir; if we fire, they will fire too. And why should Rumanians kill Rumanians?" (He was thinking of the Bessarabians.)
I accordingly refrained, but, beside myself with rage, tried to rejoin my right wing, where incredible things were happening.
The schoolmaster Catavei and Cizmas barred my way, exclaiming: "Stop, don't go and get yourself shot, too!"
Our men were advancing towards the Russians, and, with their arms at the slope, were shaking hands with them; and the fraternizing business started again.
"Surrender, and we will surrender, too. We're quite ready."
Our men were bringing in Russians, and vice versa. It was a touching sight.
I saw one of my Rumanians, towards Saliste, kiss a Russian and bring him back. Their arms were round each other's necks as though they were brothers. They were old friends, who had been shepherd boys together in Bessarabia.
We took ninety Russians as prisoners in this way; whilst they took thirty of our men.
But this was not the last of the adventures of that wonderful day.
I was afraid of a third attack. A Moldavian from Bessarabia, noticing what a handful we were, said to me: "If we had known there were so few of you we should have gone for you with sticks."
I again applied to the Major for reinforcements and a machine gun. As it happened, he had just called up a company of the 96th Infantry Regiment; they arrived almost immediately - 125 men, under Lieutenant Petras - and went to lengthen our right wing.
As for me, the Major sent me to a bank on the left, to direct two machine guns where to fire in order to cut off the retreat of those Russians who had remained in the wood. I had hardly advanced a hundred yards before I heard a shout of "Hurrah!" in my sector.
I called out to the Major to find out what it meant, and went on. In a hollow I found a field officer - unfortunately, I have forgotten his name - who sent a lieutenant to accompany me to the machine guns.
But it was a Russian machine gun that welcomed us as soon as we reached the trenches. The bullets whizzed by, thick and fast. One grazed my leg, another came within a hand's-breadth of my head.
The Russians employ detachments of snipers, who creep into advanced positions and pick off officers only. Major Paternos had the fingers of his left hand shot off in his observation post. They are wonderful shots. I showed my respect for them by not leaving the trench until nightfall, when I returned to my sector.
Lieutenant Petras had attacked the Russians in the wood. That was the meaning of the cheers I had heard, of which the most patent result was the reduction of the relieving company of the 96ths to twenty-five men. Those who had entered the wood never returned, and had certainly fallen a prey to the Russians.
Once again I had escaped the dangers of that fateful day, which the Commander-in-Chief assured us, in a special Army Order, would be inscribed on the page of history.
Our scrap with the Russians may have been extremely comic, but at least we had held our positions - and that alone was a victory. We had been allotted the task of keeping the crest, from which, if they had been able to seize it, the Russians would have threatened our line in the rear and on the flank; and we had fulfilled it.
Major Paternos told us to draw up a list of the men who had distinguished themselves. We all received the second-class medal for valour, and three officers - Fothi, Szollosy and myself - were also awarded the Signum Laudis bar.
The Hungarian deserved it perhaps least of any of us. He was not even present when we took the prisoners; but he had the impudence to go to the Major and declare, in front of us all, that it was he who captured the first Russian.
We marched through a huge forest to Hocra, where the Command of the Twentieth Division was stationed. We only got there late at night, and our strength had dwindled to a quarter of what we had at the start.
Our little Budapest gentlemen had littered the road like flies. Many of them remained behind in the woods, weeping, and no one bothered about them. Some of our veterans had dropped behind, too. It was by the mercy of God if they escaped the frost and the wolves.
All these villages of the Galician frontier were crammed with Jewish refugees from the Galician frontier. We found rooms filled by thirty to forty persons, men, women, little girls, children, and, of course, a seasoning of soldiers. all sleeping together in a heap. It is difficult to imagine a more complete picture of misery.
Our numbers were so seriously reduced that we were obliged to form two companies, a half-battalion, the last unit which preserved its individual supply arrangements, for although we were attached to the 1st Regiment of Honveds, we were messed by ourselves.
Here my company was dissolved, as it had now only the strength of a platoon, of which I was still the Commander. There were only two officers with precedence over me, and both of these were Hungarians - Szinte and Szollosy - so that in spite of the regret of my men and the indignation of many of my friends, I still remained a subaltern.
The dispersion of my company was the last straw. I made up my mind to say goodbye to battlefields, as I was nothing but a shadow and it was all I could do to drag myself along.
At night we returned to Havaj. We left early for Stropka-Polena in a thick mist, cold and penetrating. Marching was a difficult business, for the men were worn out.
At Polena, a halt. But Austrian bureaucracy could not even leave us alone in the field. We had to get out a return of all the men's belongings which were missing, and ever would be.
What was there that our poor fellows did not lack? Everything they had on them was in rags, and filthy beyond words. Lice swarmed over them like bees in a hive. Most of them were barefooted, and had wrapped up their feet in rags tied round their tattered socks.
The feet of many were terribly torn and sore, but it was useless for them to go to the doctors. Strict orders had been issued that only those half dead should be admitted to hospital. One of our men remained in action for two weeks with his left arm broken by a piece of shrapnel, so he said. He was actually afraid to go to the doctor. There was, in fact, no question that the bone of his forearm was broken, but no flesh wound was to be seen.
About midday we once more took the northwest road for Galicia. We climbed hills which had been well ploughed by Russian artillery. To get through a wood we had to swing by the trees. At the top we were stopped by Colonel Gombosh.
It was useless to tell him that we had our Major's orders to occupy another hill. He would not hear of it. He needed a reserve, and we must stay. Shells of all kinds fell thick and fast in the forest, and there was violent fighting everywhere, the swish of machine gun bullets being conspicuous.
Colonel Gombosh sent Szinte to take a house about 1,000 metres behind the Russian front line. Then he showed me a knoll from which I was to watch for his return and shoot his company wholesale if he returned with it. We then began to realize that we were dealing with one who had lost his wits. But Szinte's men went off to the Russian trenches - and few of them came back.
Night fighting in forests, where it is almost impossible to see even in daytime, has something quite unreal about it. All is confusion, and fear reigns supreme. Only the flashes can be seen, and it is by them that the enemy, his strength and position, can be seen. Group fights with group. Often enough you come upon your enemy from behind without knowing that it is your enemy. I once met a lieutenant whose cap was absolutely cut up at the back. He had got up to the Russians, crawling at full length. Bullets had sliced through his clothes. But he had come, dragging himself along from tree to tree.
The men passed the night in a wide trench, dug specially for the reserve, and I myself sheltered behind a tree, shivering with cold. The bullets struck the tree-trunks with a sound like the cracking of a whip. We heard that the Russians were using explosive bullets.
The minute you got up or moved from your protecting tree, you were gambling with your life. It was indeed a night of horror. At two o'clock in the morning certain platoons received an order to fix bayonets and drive the Russians from a trench. They approached, sent out scouts ahead, and found the trench full of the - 24th Territorials!
They were within an ace of executing their orders and killing every single occupant. The Colonel's information was defective. The trench had been only partly occupied by the Russians, and was actually held both by our men and them. In fact, they had been having a shooting-match down the same communication trench. In the morning we returned to Havaj.
We went back to the trenches. Towards five o'clock in the afternoon the Russians were at Stropko-Polena. They bade us good-night by sending over four shells, which burst round the village church. We did trench duty that night, relieving each other every two hours.
In the night one of our patrols brought us in three Russian soldiers, well-clad, healthy young men, two of whom were Russians, the third a Jew, "master of the Hebrew tongue." I can't say where he came from. It was he who had persuaded the others to surrender.
Our popular Major Paternos left us at last. He got poisoning in the wound on his hand and had a sharp fever.
That night I felt ill myself: I was reduced to skin and bones - I could hardly stand up. I had had quite enough of soldiering, and so made up my mind to go.
In the morning with tears in my eyes I said goodbye to my men. Then, having gone through all the formalities, I walked as far as Bukocz and drove to Eperjes in two days, and from there took the last train to Budapest.
Both Eperjes and Cassorie were empty of inhabitants. I was the last officer of the unit who had started out with the battalion from Fagaras and had left the fighting area. After myself there was none left but Dr. Schuller.
Of our regiment of more than 3,500 men I had left only 170 at Havaj. Of the 11th Company, which had left Fagaras 267 strong, only five now remained, and six counting myself.
God had willed that I should return alive.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. III, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
Duck-Boards comprised slatted wooden planking used for flooring trenches or muddy ground.
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