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Belligerents and Participants
in World War One:
The Austro-Hungarian Empire  pt1


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As the Ottoman Empire began having difficulties controlling the Balkans, Austria saw this as an opportunity to enlarge the Hapsburg Empire. By 1878 they had occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina, and formally annexed the region in 1908. The incorporation of southern Slavs into the Empire became imperative to the Austrians because they saw this as a way to dilute the power of the Hungarians who had become duel rulers in 1867. This anticipated expansion began to be threatened when Serbia began exerting its own territorial ambitions. This rivalry came to a head during the Balkan Wars, but Austria could not act in fear of inciting Russian intervention. Germany, her partner in the Triple Alliance, might work as a foil against Russian power, but they were still in the process of reorganizing their army.




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When Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated by a Serbian nationalist while visiting Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, Germany was finally ready to throw its weight around. The Hungarian Prime Minister, Istvan Tisza opposed further expansion into the Balkans and pressed for a peaceful solution to the crisis. Ironically Franz Ferdinand had been a moderating voice in the region and his absence made itself felt. As anti-Serbian riots were instigated in Bosnia, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Count Berchtold placed a series of demands on Serbia on July 23rd. When the harshest of these demands were questioned, Berchtold convinced Emperor Franz Josef I to declared war on Serbia on July 28th.

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Commander in Chief Conrad von Hotzendorf had long been advocating for a war against Serbia, but when the time arrived his army was not ready. Had Austria-Hungary been prepared for war they might have quickly overrun Serbia forcing a peace within weeks before the Allies joined in. Instead the conflict opened with a naval flotilla sailing down the Danube to attack Belgrade, while Austria, Serbia, Germany, and Russia all mobilized their armies. Although Germany played her part in warning Russia not to intervene in the Serbian conflict, Russia had grown fearful over the growing German presence in Turkey. While Russia might not have stood up to Germany over the Serbs, she could not let the threat to her access to the West go unchallenged. As Russia continued to mobilize, Germany declared war on August 1st. The overly ambitious General Conrad soon found himself fighting more than a short war against a small Balkan State. Franz Josef was now worried but he would not back down. Even if the Empire was destroyed, he thought it was better to go down in an honorable fight than to be slowly whittled away.

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Germany’s inability to stop Russia from mobilizing caused Austria-Hungary to shift its focus away from Serbia. General Conrad decided to strike first in Galicia before the Russians were ready to receive the blow. While he initially achieved success, he was eventually pushed back into the Carpathian Mountains once the Russians finished mobilizing and counterattacked. Meanwhile the Serbian campaign that they initially planned to fight was not to be the pushover conceived. Conrad’s offensive into Galicia drew many troops away from this front; and their first offensive was easily repulsed. Another offensive into Serbia was quickly launched, and though it resulted in heavier fighting, it also failed. The third offensive launched in November finally made some headway as the Serbs began running out of supplies. They managed to push forward and capture Belgrade, but when the Serbs counterattacked the over extended Austro-Hungarian army they crumbled and retreated. Austro-Hungarian postcard publishers however painted a very rosy picture. Their output of cards showing retreating Russians and Serbs was prolific.

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At the beginning of 1915, Conrad launched three major winter offensives in the Caucasus. The real significance of these battles did not matter to postcard publishers; the snowy mountain backdrop provided them with the excuse to produce many romantic and dramatic postcards. As with depictions of their other fronts, it seemed that Austro-Hungarian troops did nothing but win every encounter they fought. After recent setbacks, these campaigns were a morale booster, providing the public with scenes of their army driving back the Russians and taking many prisoners. In reality the Austro-Hungarians lost territory to Russian counterattacks, and suffered tremendous casualties at the hand’s of the enemy and even more from the cold. These actions decimated the Imperial Army to the point that they were no longer capable of launching large offensives, and Germany took control over the Eastern Front.

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While Germany was reluctant to aid Austria-Hungry the Russian advance into the Caucasus left the Hungarian Plain undefended and Silesia open to invasion. More German troops now had to be directed against the Polish salient holding back further Russian advances. The joint German Austro-Hungarian offensives of 1915 forced the Russians to abandon Poland, and they gave up so much territory in their retreat that General Conrad thought their army was finished. A strong and deep trench line was then constructed to protect their extensive gains that they thought impregnable.

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Austria-Hungary lost interest in finishing off Serbia when it became overly involved in fighting the Russians. This posed a problem for Germany because Serbia blocked the supply route to the Ottoman Empire depriving the Germans of raw materials and the Turks of weapons. They agreed to help Austria-Hungary launch a fourth offensive against Serbia, which was to be reinforced by Bulgaria who was just persuaded to join the Central Powers. When this new alliance delivered an attack in October 1915 they broke the impasse. Unable to form a defense against attacks from the north and east, the Serb army fled their kingdom. The pursuing Austro-Hungarians came to occupy not only Serbia but Montenegro and Albania as well. While there was no longer an organized army to oppose them, fighting with irregulars would continue, and a brutal occupation would ensue. Despite this the war in the Balkans seemed all but over.

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Austria-Hungary was again forced to unexpectedly fight on yet another front when Italy, bribed with promises of Austrian territory, declared war in August 1915. Geography however severely limited Italy’s offensive military options, which favored an Austrian defense. The only viable route for a major attack was across the Isonzo River, and although the Austro-Hungarian line was thinly manned they took up fortified positions on the high ground on the far bank. The Italians made many attempts to break through and seize Trieste but little ground was taken. The quick Italian victory that was expected turned into a war of attrition.

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Censorship had been put into place before the War started and was even more severe than in most other countries, but there was no real concerted effort by Austrian or Hungarian officials to oversee the production of propaganda until 1917. A notable exception to this are cards that reference Italy’s refusal to uphold its commitment to the Triple Alliance. These political cartoons usually personify Italy in the form of a squat shady character ready to stab Austria-Hungry and her Germany in the back. Despite the alliance, Austria and Italy were traditional enemies and relations were never good. Austria had already fortified its mountainous border with Italy in case of hostilities.

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Much fighting Between Italy and Austria also took place in the mountainous region between them, especially in the area of south Tyrol surrounding the Trentino. While the Austro-Hungarian offensive launched in May 1916 was aimed at breaking through to the Venetian Plain and surrounding the Italians fighting on the Isonzo, it took on darker overtones. Labeled the Punishment Expedition (Strafexpedition), troops were incited to do greater violence and destruction as a punishment for Italy’s betrayal. The attack showed much promise until troops had to be withdrawn to help stem the massive Russian offensive launched a month later. The Italian offensive launched into the Trentino in June 1917 could not make headway against the strong Austro-Hungarian defenses.

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Although the more rugged mountain terrain of the Dolomite Range that formed the Alpine border between Italy and Austria was totally unsuited for combat, Italy decided to launch an offensive here. Austria-Hungary had already fortified this mountainous border despite their alliance with Italy. Now, with most of their army fighting elsewhere they found they did not have enough troops to properly man all their forts. They then withdrew to the most strategic locations to fight a defensive war. The fighting here drew in many more troops from both sides, but it was the terrain that would prove decisive. The Italians could never mass enough men on such narrow approaches to make a breakthrough.

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While nothing of strategic importance was ever gained, the uniqueness of Alpine fighting created a large audience for such imagery back on the home front, and a great number and variety of postcards were produced to capture it. There was no single formula to represent this front. Many of these cards shared the same romantic themes with those depicting the Caucasus, and these snowy landscapes can be easily confused. Distinct mountain peaks of the Dolomites were often pictured to definitively place the settings on these cards. This can skew the amount of fighting perceived to have taken place there.

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In many of the cards that picture fighting in the high Alps, it is the scenery that dominates. Sometimes these cards are so colorfully picturesque they come close to being confused with attractive view-cards. Some publishers tried to depict the situation there realistically, but they could only provide a glimpse into the true hardships of high altitude combat. In this region the terrain and weather were often so severe that it killed more soldiers than combat.

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Austrian publishers were quick to produce a large number of propaganda cards on their own that evoked the Tyrollean War of Napoleonic times to inspire those who might defend Southern Tirol against Italian claims. These cards range from reproductions of historic events from that earlier conflict to scenes of modern soldiers that evoke the Tyrolean spirit. Many cards feature the martyred rebel leader Andreas Hofer in various historical narratives. Cards of this genre were created by a variety of artists for a number of different publishers and are very common.

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The Russians were far from defeated after the campaign of 1915; they had only been trading space for time so they could resupply and reorganize. Pressed by the French to relieve pressure on Verdun, the Russians launched the Brusilov Offensive against the entire Austro-Hungarian front in Galicia in June 1916. They achieved total surprise. Austro-Hungarian reserves had been siphoned out of this quiet area to fight in Italy, and once the Russians broke through there was little to stop them. While the Russians had not yet accumulated enough supplies to sustain their push, they severely damaged the Austro-Hungarian army and might have knocked the empire out of the War if German and Turkish reinforcements were not rushed in.

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While the Brusilov Offensive resulted in a tremendous Austro-Hungarian defeat, you would not know it by examining their postcards. Much of the fighting in this region was represented by the same old generic cards of fleeing Russians, with almost nothing referencing this specific campaign. The closest thing to reality showed Austro-Hungarian troops putting up a desperate defense, but it is always a heroic fight, and they are never on the verge of giving in to defeat. While this approach is not so unexpected, the lack of Russian cards representing this fight skews the balance and we are left with a distortion of history. While the Russians suffered very high casualties, the Austro-Hungarians suffered much more. Similar scenarios played out elsewhere, but this is a clear example of how postcards better represent attitudes than events.

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By 1916 the Allies believed that the Austro-Hungarian Empire might fall if it were given just one more hard push. They used Romania’s desire to gain control over Hungarian held Transylvania to achieve this. Once the Allies assured Romania that they would accept its territorial gains, they invaded Transylvania and quickly seized it believing that the Central Powers were to preoccupied elsewhere to react to this move. This was certainly true of Austria-Hungary whose armies were stretched thin, but the Kaiser who had Romanian assurances of neutrality felt betrayed. With the German high command now largely in charge of military affairs, they organized an invasion of Romania by all the Central Powers. After a month of fighting, the Romanian army was left hanging onto only a small corner of their kingdom.

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After the 1917 February Revolution in Russia, Kerensky managed to supply his armies with a massive amount of guns and supplies to launch a new offensive into Austria-Hungary. In better times this might have ended the War but these were not those times. Russian morale was broken and the offensive made few gains as most troops were leaving the front line to go home. The situation on the Italian Front suddenly changed in August 1917 when the Italians finally broke through the weakly held Austro-Hungarian center in the Ninth Battle of the Isonzo. The Italians continued to attack during in two more offensives during the fall, but while they wore the Austro-Hungarian army down to their breaking point, their own high casualties, low supplies, and missed opportunities prevented them from exploiting the situation. When winter brought an end to the year’s campaigning, nothing had changed strategically.

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The Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo deeply troubled Austro-Hungarian leadership. They no longer had the resources to deal with this situation and pleaded with Germany for help. Before the Italians could take advantage of their advanced position, Germany had reinforced this front to put an end to the fighting. It was hoped that a major offensive out of the upper Isonzo would threaten the Italian flank and force them back to the Tagliamento River where they could not threaten the Austrian border again. After the attack was launched in October the Germans and Austro-Hungarians quickly broke through the Italian line and seized Caporetto. The Italians suffering from bad morale put up little defence. As their army began to disintegrate many soldiers went home, and the troops that remained did not rally until being pushed back across the River Piave. The Italians had abandoned the entire Isonzo front by the end of 1917.

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The Austro-Hungarian Empire may have been made up of many conflicting nationalities, but most held a strong personal allegiance to their Emperor, Franz Joseph. He had reigned for 66 years when the Great War broke out, and he was the only ruler most had ever known. After he died on November 21, 1916, Emperor Karl assumed the reigns of the Hapsburg Empire but he did not yet command the same respect amidst growing ethnic tensions and a seemingly never ending war. After taking the role of Supreme Commander of the Empire’s armed forces in December, he could see that after years of fighting on multiple fronts, his armies were exhausted and the Empire would only be able to remain committed to the War with the help of German and Ottoman reinforcements. By April 1918 he made overtures to France regarding a separate peace, but when news of this leaked out prematurely during the Sixtus Affair, Germany forced him to keep his commitments.

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Even though the Romanian army was able to reorganize and hold off further assaults, they could do little after Russia left the War at the end of 1917 and so they signed an armistice with the Central Powers. The war on Austria-Hungary’s Eastern Front was truly over, allowing them to transferred troops to the Italian Front. They were needed there to replace the Germans who began to withdraw in early 1918 thinking the Italians finished. Austria-Hungary who now faced the Italians alone was asked to launch an offensive to prove their continuing loyalty to Germany after the Sixtus Affair. Though unprepared for this undertaking, an attack was made in June but it failed to break the Piave line.

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By the fall of 1918 the Allies began putting added pressure on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Salonika front was reinforced in September and they finally broke through the defenses of the exhausted Bulgarians. By the end of the month Bulgaria signed an armistice taking it out of the War, allowing the Allies to march further north into Serbia and threaten Austria. Another offensive was launched on October 24th along the Piave in Italy after receiving heavy Allied reinforcements. Within two days Austria-Hungry dissolved its alliance with Germany. The Empire was already collapsing.

In an effort to stem ethnic revolt, Emperor Karl I issued a manifesto on October 16th that turned the Empire into a federation of nationalities. This move placated few, and on October 28th Czechoslovakia declared its independence from the Empire, and was joined the next day by the Southern Slavs who formed The State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. The Poles had already declared their own state earlier in the month. In October the Hungarian Prime Minister Istvan Tisza was assassinated by revolutionaries, and by the 31st Hungary withdrew from the union, officially dissolving the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By now the Austrian army had lost its capacity to fight and disintegrated within a month. An armistice was then signed on November 3, 1918. With Germany still fighting, the Allies continued their advance and Romania re-enter the war. These advances would only come to a halt when Germany signed an armistice on November 11th.

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Note: The postcard above is a mechanical; when the dial on the left is turned, the map of Hungary is dismembered.

Although the Allies originally expected to keep Austria-Hungary together as an empire to counterbalance Germany, events got a head of them. Many nationalist movements, distrustful of Allied intentions, took advantage of the Empire’s growing weakness to declare states of their own. Austria continued to exist after the War as a Republic though they lost much territory to Italy. Even Hungary who thought that withdrawing from the Empire before the War was over might spare it some repercussions for its reluctance to become involvement in the first place still lost much territory to all its neighbors as a consequence. Though the Empire was broken into a number of smaller states and their borders were forced to be recognized, their exact placement remained contentious. Disagreements between new nations and ethnic groups would lead to continual political tension and sometimes armed conflict going forward.




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The Holy Roman Empire was dissolved in 1806 and the small states of the Rhineland passed to France after Napoleons decisive victory over Austria in the War of the Third Coalition. After the fall of Napoleon, Austria regained control over these small German states, but this brought it into conflict with the growing territorial ambitions of Prussia. Austria lost these territories for good after their defeat in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. This also exposed the growing rift between ethnicities within the Austrian Empire, and while most semi-autonomous regions were ignored, a compromise was reached in 1867 with their largest ethnic group, the Hungarians. A duel monarchy was then formed (The Kingdoms and Lands Represented in the Imperial Council and Lands of the Holy Hungarian Crown of St. Stephen) out of fear the Empire might collapse. Hungary basically conceded control over war and foreign affairs to Austria in exchange for full internal autonomy. They would share a common currency but not citizenship. Although Hungary wanted a new coat of arms to be adopted, the double headed eagle (Reichsadler), used as a heraldic insignia of imperial power since the Holy Roman Empire was formed was kept in use to symbolize the new Austro-Hungarian Union.

Written references to the new Austro-Hungarian Empire were changed after the Compromise of 1867, which are noticeable on many military postcards. While the abbreviation k.k. continued to refer to the official institutions of the Austrian half of the Empire and the abbreviation m.k. or kgl. ung. in the Hungarian half, the initials k.u.k., meaning imperial (Austria) and royal (Hungary) was used as a prefix for all shared institutions.

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The Austro-Hungarian Empire instituted a new coat of arms in 1915 that merged the coats of arms still used by each half of the Dual Monarchy. The traditional double headed eagle however was probably used on more Allied propaganda cards than by the Austro-Hungarians. It had proved so successful to mock that Allied publishers continued to use it throughout the War. The symbol was so commonly recognized than many political cartoons could employ it without the need to add text. While some of these cards are subtle or clever, most are very biting.

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Since both Austria and Hungry are landlocked countries today, it is easy to forget that they were once naval powers with ports on the Adriatic Sea. The main Austrian naval base was at Pola while the Hungarians were set up at Fiume. The French fleet, which dominated the Mediterranean had them bottled up by blockading the Strait of Otranto at the heel of Italy, though it could do little to stop the passage of submarines. For the most part the Austro-Hungarian navy stayed in port though they made many raids on the coast of Italy and Montenegro that began as soon as the War started. There were also a number of engagements between their ships and those of the Italian navy to contest control of the Adriatic. Nearly all of these engagements, large and small, were captured on postcards, many by well known marine artists.

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Austria-Hungry was a multi-ethnic society with many languages spoken within its borders. Although most in Austria were German speakers there was no official state language as there was in Hungry. In both cases the language used by officials was usually determined by the local community where it was being applied. This carried over into postcard production. Cards from Austria-Hungry are often printed in different languages. Sometimes a single card will have its caption printed out in multiple languages, and sometimes the same image can be found in more than one version, each in a different language. Irrespective of official policies, publishers often chose the language or languages that best fit their customers.

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Language problems went well beyond the concerns of postcard publishers. With an army consisting of 44% Slav, 28% German, 18% Hungarian, 8% Romanian and 2% Italian, ethnic problems plagued Austria-Hungry from the start. Not only did language differences hamper the effectiveness of soldiers in combat, many were more loyal to nationalist movements or their own ethnic identity than to the Hapsburg Empire. Many soldiers deserted to form legions that would fight against the Central Powers. The most notable of these was the Czech Legion that fought alongside the Russians. Despite long standing ethnic grievances and nationalistic urges, real dissension did not begin to appear until the end of 1917.

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Although a number of foreign legions were created by ethnic groups seeking independence, these urges were not always well understood or taken advantage of by the Allies. Suspicion of true loyalties always hung over these men, and there were also some conflicts of interest over postwar outcomes despite their common enemy. Italy driven to seize territory on the far side of the Adriatic saw the native Slavic population as competitors rather than allies when they thought about them at all. Soldiers from this region were perceived by the Italians as being the most loyal to the Austrian crown and so they were not sought as allies. The fact was there loyalty was not strong as they wanted independence; they fought tenaciously against the Italians because they were defending their Balkan homeland. The red fez was a popular form of headgear within the ottoman Empire and was often worn Turkish soldiers. This can lead to confusion on postcards because Muslim troops from the Balkans serving in the Austrian Army continued to wear the traditional fez as part of their uniform.

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When the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned in the 18th century some of the spoils fell to Austria. A number of Ukrainians living in Galicia came with this territory, and by the 1890’s their nationalistic urges were rising. One of the ways in which this manifested was through the creation of scouting organizations. These included sharpshooter societies, which by 1913 were forming into paramilitary units such as the Ukrainian Sich League in Lviv. Although all these groups professed a nationalist outlook, some wanted an independent Ukrainian state while others just wanted more autonomy within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

When the Great War broke out, those deemed loyal to the Empire were organized into the Legion of Ukrainian Sich Riflemen under the command of Frank Schott. While these soldiers wanted to bring many more Ukrainians in Russia under their fold, this made Austrian authorities suspicious of their true motives and limited the size of the legion. They fought with the Austro-Hungarian army and garrisoned the southern Ukraine when Russia left the War in 1917. After the War’s end they were reorganized into the army of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic. While in the service of the Central Powers, postcards depicting them were printed in Germany. While these cards have German captions, their backs were printed in a Ukrainian script.




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