"One cannot help feeling that that there is much disgraceful in the surrender of this fortress, (…), an impression heightened by the behavior of the Austrian officers, an air of complete indifference an utter lack of all national pride or even shame, (…), as regards their men. All this is borne out by their behavior in the field."
(F. Nielson, Capt. 10 British Royal Hussars)
On 22 March of 1915, 117,000 Austrian soldiers surrendered to the Russian forces in what was the longest siege of the Great War, having resisted for 133 days in the fort of Przesmyl, in Galicia. They were the last survivors of a contingent of 127,000 soldiers and 18,000 civilians.
The siege was the consequence of the military operations begun by the Austrian forces several months before, in the summer of 1914, in an attempt to attack Russian Poland from the south.
At the outbreak of the conflict, the chief of staff Austrian field marshal Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf sent three armed corps into northern Galicia. The Austrians managed to advance on a front of 320 km and obtained important victories at Kraśnik and Zamosc Komarów, thanks to the troops guided respectively by the generals Victor Dankl and Moritz von Auffenberg.
It did not go as well on the southern slope of the front, where two armed Russian corps managed to push back the third Austrian army, which retreated to the fort of Lwow and definitively surrendered to Rova Russkaja. With the arrival of new Russian troops from the north, the Austro-Hungarians were forced to retreat 160 km, losing, by early October of 1914, a good part of the Galicia. The Austrian forces were forced to shelter in the Carpathian Mountains and in the fort of Przesmyl, near the River San, which became the last vanguard of defence against the Russian advance. Surrounded by the Russian army that attempted to pursue the Austro-Hungarians in the Carpazi, for some time the fort was actually located across the enemy lines.
On 24 September of 1914 the first siege attempt was made by the III Russian army led by General Radko Dimitriev who, although conscious of not having sufficient artillery support, ordered a frontal attack. After three days and 40,000 fallen Russians, the siege was broken thanks to a joint offensive of the Germans, led by Paul von Hindenburg, (which attacked Warsaw), and the Austro-Hungarians led by general Svetozar Boroević von Bojna. They managed to reach the fort and push Dimitriev back beyond the line of the San. The temporary rupture of the siege allowed the evacuation of the civilians. It was, however, a short-lived relief, since toward the end of October Hindenburg was defeated in the battle of the Vistola and was forced to retreat, followed by Boroević. The retreat allowed the Russians, led this time by Andrei Nikolaevich Selivanov, to again besiege the fort, on 11 November 1914. Selivanov did not repeat the errors of his predecessor and avoided any frontal attack, preferring to wait until the enemy was exhausted by the siege and awaiting new artillery divisions from behind the front lines.
The siege was very long and interspersed with attempts by the Austrians to resupply and assist the besieged population. At the end of February, Hötzendorf communicated to Hermann Kusmanek von Burgneustätten, in charge of the fort garrison, that no further attempts would be made to break the siege. On 13 March, the Russians bypassed the defence to north of the fort and began an attack supported by pounding artillery fire. Kusmanek tried to take time to destroy everything the enemy could have reused. On 19 March, he ordered a counterattack that did not manage to make a breach in the enemy lines, finally forcing the fort to surrender on 22 March 1915. At the end of the siege, 9 generals, 93 senior officers and 2500 officers fell into the hands of the Russians. Przesmyl was a metaphor for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in which Austrian, Jewish and Polish people fought side by side, receiving the orders of the day translated into 15 languages. Even if the consequence had not been the feared Russian offensive against Hungary, the loss of the fort was a crushing weight on the morale of the Austro-Hungarian troops. Reconquered by the Germans in summer of 1915, the fort remained in their hands until the end of the war.