Victory at Przemysl
The Norman TranscriptOctober 22, 2005 12:15 am— For The TranscriptP roper pronunciation of the town of "Przemysl" comes readily only to those nurtured in the Slavic languages.This is a small community, an ancient foundation dating from the middle ages. Przemysl rests on the banks of the San River, a tributary of the Vistula that has played such an important role in European history. Thecountryside is dominated by the gently rolling forelands of the Carpathian Mountains. Immediately to the eastis the Ukraine. Historically Przemysl belonged to Poland, but what country dominated the town oftendepended on who won the last war. On three occasions Prussia, Austria, and Russia ? motivated by fear andambition divided Poland among themselves.The casualties of World War I in and around Przemysl were monstrous. How the skein of life and the courseof battles will unravel is rarely certain. Battles especially have a near zero predictability. What theconsequences will be are as unsure as who will win. Often the results are not what we think they will be;casualties often turn out to be greater than those predicted by the General Staff; weather often does notcooperate; and morale sometimes modifies history in ways we never conceived. The irony is those who dreamup wars rarely fight them; they simply retire with a generous pension or to comfortable administrative postslike the World Bank.Fully to appreciate the tragedy of Przemysl requires putting it in the larger perspective of the war. Asimpossible as the fact may seem more than five thousand soldiers were killed every day during the entire fouryears of World War I. The real cause of this mayhem was aristocratic arrogance, economic greed,exaggeratednationalism, blind ambition, humane insensitivity, passion for revenge, and petty ethnic hostilities. Theimmediate cause was the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary. The wholeconflict was a terrible tragedy, but in macabre shrouded retrospect ? if we study the leaders ? it sounds a bitlike a group of little boys acting out their fantasies with loaded guns. Still it provided an excuse for Austria-Hungary to pursue her ambitions. Germany backs Austria; France backs Russia; Germany declares war onFrance. And German invasion of Belgium invokes a British declaration of war on Germany. Italy joins theAllies in the spring of 1915, even though treaty bound with the Central Powers. Italy's motivation wastransparent ? expansion at the expense of Austria-Hungary and the lure of possessing Tunisia. Nationalisticgreed has rarely played a more ignoble role in international politics. And Wilson with the pious inconsistencyof politicians, after affirming the virtues of neutrality, led the U.S. into that bloody chaos. Diplomatic effortsto contain the conflagration, assuming the countries involved really want to do so, were about as effective asdousing a fire with gasoline.Initially Russia proved more of a military problem than the Germans anticipated; they mobilized quickly andmade serious advances into East Prussia. Farther south on the Austrian-Hungarian front progress was slower,still the Russians attacked all along the Carpathians. An interesting minor episode of this campaign that couldhave modified the course of political history was the wounding of Sergeant Josip Brozovich. A Russiancavalry lance just missed its critical mark sparing the future communist leader of Yugoslavia, Marshall Tito.On the same day in the midst of bitter fighting in the snow and ice the fortress of Przemysl fell to theRussians. Exhibiting something less than the spirit of comradeship the Austrian commander escaped byairplane.Foreshadowing the terrible struggle at Stalingrad, hundreds of wounded soldiers ? no one knows for sure howmany ? froze to death. More than a hundred thousand Austrian prisoners were captured. Huge stores of supplies were taken by the Russians along with hundreds of pieces of artillery. On hearing of the loss of Przemysl both the Austrian High Commandand the German Kaiser were understandably shaken.