“With just as much determination and persistence however we will have to oppose those elements […], who for political […] reasons, in such decisive and fateful times for the fatherland, adopt an indifferent or indeed hostile attitude towards the armed forces and the State.”
Austro-Hungarian Minister-President Karl Graf von Stürgkh, September 1914.
Although the Austro-Hungarian AOK [Armeeoberkommando] prior to 1914 had repeatedly expressed uncertainty with regard to the successful outcome of a mass mobilisation, fearing widespread desertion amongst the Empire’s Slav and Italian draftees, the official data on mobilisation in the summer of 1914 report only marginal episodes of refusals to fight.
The multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian army, led by an elite of officers, the vast majority of whom were Austrian and Hungarian, thus appeared to be more compact and willing to fight than the Habsburg military commanders had anticipated.
Nevertheless, the disastrous outcome of the campaigns in 1914, which caused a far-reaching retreat in Galicia and failure to breach the front in Serbia, profoundly redesigned the structure of the armed forces. The roughly 995,000 casualties in the first few months of war were replaced by soldiers called to the front after summary training; the number of officers had been halved; the living conditions in the trenches on the Carpathian front were intolerable. This combination of factors, along with errors in strategic evaluation, led to the first two episodes of mass desertion from the army in feldgrau: in the spring of 1915, the 28th and 36th Infantry Regiments, composed mainly of Czech soldiers, collapsed on the Eastern Front while combatting Russian troops and the survivors gave themselves up as prisoners. The incident was given vast exposure and rekindled the AOK’s fears concerning the reliability of minority nationalities.
Recent studies have shown how these cases of mass desertion of entire infantry regiments should not be ascribed to the Czech soldiers’ anti-patriotic behaviour towards the Habsburg Monarchy – of the 1300 men in the 28th Infantry Regiment, for example, more than 900 were wounded or killed during the Russian attack that caused the regiment to surrender – but rather to the environmental conditions, lack of tactics and the context of poor quality equipment and training in which the Russian attack took place. Nevertheless, the episode caused the military bodies to tighten their control over the behaviour of non-Austrian or non-Magyar soldiers, their deployment in mixed language units and a more widespread implementation of control measures. The army’s overall solidity however was not impaired by these episodes.
Until the beginning of 1917 no other cases of mutiny were recorded. These emerged, on the contrary, in January and February 1917 in a number of particular circumstances. On 19 January 1917 around 400 soldiers from the 26th Infantry Regiment stationed at Szabadtka refused to be transported to the front; on 1 February 1917 in Mostar 6 battalions from the 22nd Infantry Regiment plundered the city after complaining about the poor quality of the food and were apprehended by force (4 dead and 58 wounded amongst the insurgents); on 11 February another 3 battalions refused to be taken to Čapljina, Konjic and Sinj on the Albanian front due to no military leave being granted. These nevertheless on the whole were isolated incidents, which were not repeated until 1918 and affected the south-eastern part of the Habsburg war effort.
From January 1918 onwards, the dynamics of desertion and mutiny changed significantly. The first sign of this was the revolt of military sailors from 6 naval units in February 1918 at Cattaro, which involved 2400 men in total. The revolt started on the SMS Sankt Georg, then spread to the other ships and resulted in the publication of 8 political demands, along with 9 demands concerning living conditions in the naval base. The rebellion was suppressed by force and 800 military sailors were subsequently convicted; however the element that marked the change in scale was the fact that the mutineers based their demands on a combination of pacifist, Wilsonian and revolutionary political principles, and no longer limited themselves to concrete demands.
The second element that marks a break with the previous situation was the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litowsk: this enabled a large-scale prisoner exchange to take place between Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hundreds of thousands of former Austro-Hungarian soldiers were repatriated from prison camps, with the hope of being released from the army. Moreover, the soldiers had often developed a deep aversion towards state bureaucracy during their imprisonment experience, having felt abandoned by their own country, while prisoners hailing from the German Empire had benefitted from better assistance. However, to address the shortage of military personnel, the army decided to re-enlist the repatriated former prisoners of war after subjecting them to a period of quarantine to ensure they could be depended on politically. The prisoners repatriated and reintegrated into the ranks of the Habsburg army, however, did not passively accept their new condition: between May and June 1918 indeed frequent instances of refusal to go to war were recorded, mainly on a small scale, involving in the great majority of cases former prisoners repatriated to the provinces of Lublin, Galicia and Bohemia and to Hungary.
Alongside these small-scale mutinies, which indicate how pervasive the phenomenon was, revolts of an alarming magnitude however were also recorded. These, as in the previous cases, involved regiments with a large number of soldiers who had returned from imprisonment. At Judenburg around 1200 soldiers of the 17th Infantry Regiment looted the town and public buildings on 13 May 1918; at Radkersburg 1300 Slovenes of the 97th Infantry Regiment were apprehended by force after staging a nationalist protest on 23 May 1918; at Rumburg on 20 May 1918 about 840 former prisoners of war refused to march to the front, looted the town and took possession of the food and ammunitions stores; at Pécs on the same day about 1500 rebels, along with other 1200 people took possession of 172 rifles and 70,000 ammunitions and looted the district after complaining to no avail about the terrible food; at Kragujevac, on 25 April 1918, about 600 soldiers of the 71st Infantry Regiment were forcibly restrained only after days of fighting and the application of 44 death sentences.
From the summer of 1918 onwards the situation changed once again: although no obvious cases of revolt were recorded, there were numerous cases of battalions refusing to be taken to the front. In almost every case these were former prisoners of war repatriated from Russia. Therefore, no violence was recorded, instead passive refusal to take part in the war effort, which resulted in an increase in the number of episodes of individuals deserting. Major Ronge, Director of the AOK military intelligence service, estimated in August 1918 that the number of deserters had risen to 100,000 units. According to Plaschka, at the end of summer 1918, the number of deserters could be calculated at around 40,000 in Galicia, 70,000 in Croatia-Slavonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, 60,000 in Hungary, 20,000 in Bohemia and Moravia, 40,000 in the Alpine and pre-Alpine regions, giving a total of approximately 230,000. This exponential increase is highlighted by the data on Hungary: 6,689 cases of desertion were recorded in 1914, 26,251 cases in 1915, 38,866 in 1916, 81,605 in 1917 and these increased to 44,611 in the first three months of 1918, with a clearly evident upward trend.