This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War. Four Weeks in the Trenches: The War Story of a Violinist can be found here.
This short account by an officer in the Austrian Army tells of his experience fighting on the Eastern Front in the Battle of Galicia—a drawn-out affair that resulted in a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Russians.
The subtitle War Story of a Violinist is mainly a publisher’s hook: Fritz Kreisler was an accomplished violinist who had already won international fame. Seeing this title, the reader might expect a theme of contrasting identities: sensitive artiste versus soldier in combat. But Kreisler’s two selves harmonized surprisingly well, and at one point in the battle his musical ear played a military role, one of the most interesting incidents in his story. I’ll come to that a little later.
Kreisler produced this memoir at the publisher’s urging. He had never intended to author an account. His prose flows smoothly enough but it isn’t the writing of someone who seeks to express original ideas via the written word. He expressed himself in music rather than language. As a result, he tended to lapse into stereotypes. All the officers were “brave” and all the orderlies were “faithful.” People were always behaving splendidly under trying circumstances. This also came from his personal ethic. He strongly believed in a stoical adherence to duty—which made him a good soldier.
Kreisler as an officer of the Austrian Reserve and his wife as nurse.
On July 31, 1914, the 39-year-old Kreisler and his wife are vacationing in Switzerland when they learn that the Austro-Hungarian troops are mobilizing. As a former officer in the Austrian Reserve, Kreisler immediately returns to Vienna to report for duty. He finds the city transformed. “Feverish activity everywhere prevailed. Reservists streamed in by thousands…. Autos filled with officers whizzed past. Dense crowds surged up and down the streets.”
A patriotic fervor spreads through the city in a way we haven’t seen since WW2 and perhaps hard for the contemporary reader to understand. Kreisler notices a young couple seated at a sidewalk cafe, a reservist in uniform and his young bride or sweetheart. They sit, “hands linked, utterly oblivious of their surroundings and the world at large.” Suddenly someone in the crowd recognizes this fundamental scene of wartime and calls out words of encouragement. People throng around the table, applauding and waving handkerchiefs and hats. When the couple realize they’ve become the center of attention, they are at first embarrassed and confused, but the young man soon rises to his feet and bows, to further applause. He struggles for words. Finally raising his hand to his cap in a salute, he begins to sing the Austrian national hymn.
“In a second every head in that throng was bared. All traffic suddenly stopped, everybody, passengers as well as conductors, joining in the anthem… soon it was a chorus of thousands of voices…. We were then on our way to the station, and long afterwards we could hear the singing, swelling like a human organ.”
Officers and wives.
Concert given in support of the Red Cross, shortly before departure for the front. Kreisler with violin.
Kreisler joins his battalion at Leoben, near Graz. He is to command a 55-man platoon.
Kreisler’s battalion, at Leoben.
After a week of drilling and organizing, they join the rest of the regiment and board trains headed through Budapest to an unknown destination. They soon learn they are bound for Galicia, an eastern province of Austria-Hungary, now part of western Ukraine. They deboard at Strij, south of Lemberg (now Lvov or L’viv).
Lemberg in 1915.
Reports filter through that Austrian forces have driven back the Russians so far that they now occupy Russian soil. Because the Russian border is far away, Kreisler and the others believe they are to remain at Strij for some time, training and maneuvering. They are in for a rude surprise. In fact, the Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, Conrad von Hoetzendorf, is about to rush his armies forward in the hope of engaging and defeating the Russians before they can mobilize forces greatly superior in number.
I should note that it is difficult to coordinate Kreisler’s account with histories of the fighting in Galicia. He himself apologizes for the lack of clarity, noting that he didn’t keep a diary. “My memories are uneven and confused,” he pleads, but it’s clear that he remembers quite well the things that interest him. His place names are another source of confusion, since they are largely extinct. We are visiting that mysterious Central European region with its malleable boundaries and its complex ethnic mix, little known by most people in the West.
So I can’t tell whether the reports of Austro-Hungarian success heard by Kreisler and his comrades were simply false or perhaps stemmed from advances in what is called the Battle of Krasnik in the area of Lublin (then part of Russia, now Poland). The timing seems off for that. I have to bear in mind that his account is meant to describe the inner experience, not to serve as a chronology.
At any rate, the men receive no information about the situation or the strategy, only orders to march out immediately. By night, troops of the entire Third Army march 20 miles, pause to feed themselves and their horses, then march on through the next day another 22 miles. The unconditioned men stagger along under their heavy loads that include rifle, bayonet, ammunition, spade, canned foods, cooking utensils, spare boots, winter overcoat, and part of a tent. Kreisler later estimated the weight at 50 pounds. Men drop out of the line, rest a few minutes, and struggle on once more.
The second night, they camp beside a monastery in the midst of a forest. I quote at length the description of a scene that touches deep recesses of imagination: “It made a weird and impressive picture in the wonderful starlight night, these soldiers sitting around the camp fires softly singing in chorus; the fantastic outlines of the monastery half hidden in the woods; the dark figures of the monks moving silently back and forth amongst the shadows of the trees as they brought refreshments to the troops;… the snorting and stamping of the horses nearby; an occasional melodic outcry of a sentinel…. That night I lay for a long while stretched near the smoldering ashes of the camp fire, with my cape as a blanket, … my soul filled with exaltation and happiness over the beauty around me.”
In the morning they march another 22 miles. By now the men are exhausted. They rest another night, and the following day, they hear what sounds like thunder. Still imagining the front to lie beyond the Russian border, they never suspect they are hearing the rumble of artillery until the colonel summons his officers and says, “Gentlemen, accept my congratulations. I have good news for you, we may meet the enemy today.” This comes as a shock: “We were thunderstruck at the sudden realization that the Russians had penetrated so far into Galicia.” But they press forward and soon come under the fire of shrapnel shells accurately aimed by gunners guided by a spotting airplane. Eventually the Austrian artillery responds and the Russian shellfire is diverted in that direction. The troops advance to a line of hills and take up a position there, digging a line of trenches.
It is here that Kreisler’s musical ear comes into play. While advancing between the positions of Austrian and Russian artillery, he at first notices that Austrian shells have a dull sound while Russian shells are shrill. As his unit continues to advance, the difference dissolves and the sounds reverse—Austrian shells become shrill and Russian ones dull. He confirms his perceptions by observing flashes of the guns. He concludes that as the shell rises in an arc it produces a dull whine in a falling cadence, followed by a rising shrill after it reaches the acme of the arc and descends.
He speaks about this with an artillery officer, who of course knows about the changing sounds, “but this knowledge was not used for practical purposes…. I told him I could actually determine the exact place where a shell coming from the opposing batteries was reaching its acme.” He is sent on a reconnoitering tour, marking on a map the precise spots where the hostile shells hit the high point of their arc. He’s later told that he had succeeded in giving the exact range of the Russian guns.
They are soon ordered to relieve an isolated detachment struggling to hold out against a surrounding Russian force. As they make their way in that direction, Kreisler sees a small drama unfold, so poignant that if I saw it in a movie, I would consider it contrived, a tearjerker. He happens to ride beside the colonel commanding the brigade, a man he hadn’t met before. The colonel speaks proudly of his two sons serving in the Third Army. One of them is with the regiment under attack. As they proceed, wounded men are carried back from the fighting on stretchers. One passes by, and the colonel jumps down, recognizing his son. The boy says nothing of his wound. “He cried out, ‘Father, how splendid that the relief should just come from you! Go on… don’t stop for me. I am all right.’ The old colonel stood like a statue of bronze.”
The father-son exchange was recollected much later by Kreisler without benefit of a diary, and it is fair to ask whether he embellished the scene. Of course there is no way of knowing, but I hazard a guess that his account is essentially true. The ethos of stoical self-sacrifice was very strong among these men.
The Austrians engage the Russians and eventually force them into a disorderly retreat. They take 240 prisoners, who seem not overly distressed about their capture. Kreisler forms no conclusion here, but the reader suspects conditions in the Russian army might be less than ideal. Later observations by Kreisler bear this out.
Russian prisoners in Galicia.
That evening Kreisler visits the field hospital in search of the colonel’s son. He arrives at the bedside too late. The young man lies looking peaceful, a bouquet of wildflowers placed on his chest. Cause of death: a shot to the abdomen. Together with the young man’s orderly, Kreisler goes to convey the terrible news to the father, who is busy conferring with other officers. As soon as the colonel sees Kreisler with the “faithful orderly,” he knows what has happened. He says nothing. The orderly sobs as he hands over the son’s personal effects. The colonel dismisses them without a word and resumes his conference.
Later that night Kreisler passes the colonel’s tent. “I saw a dark figure lying on the floor, seemingly in deep sleep…. Then I saw that his shoulders were convulsively shaking and I knew that the mask of iron had fallen at last. The night was chilly so I entered his tent in search of his overcoat and laid it around his shoulders. He never noticed it.”
For some days the troops remain quiet in their position, until a scouting airplane brings word that five Russian army corps are approaching. Soon they come under bombardment. Shells burst around them hour after hour. “Suddenly there appeared a thin dark line on the horizon which moved rapidly toward us…. It was Russian cavalry, swooping down.” Just as the Cossacks reach the range of Austrian rifles, they swerve to left and right, revealing advancing infantry. They “moved forward in loose lines, endlessly rolling on like shallow waves overtaking each other, one line running forward, then suddenly disappearing by throwing itself down and opening fire on us to cover the advance of the other line, and so on.”
Just as the waves of Russian troops threaten to engulf the defenses, Austrian reserves succeed in performing a flanking movement. Caught in a cross-fire, the Russian line finally falls back. That evening Kreisler watches Red Cross parties visiting the piles of Russian casualties heaped up against barbed wire defenses. “These grotesque piles of human bodies seemed like a monstrous sacrificial offering immolated on the altar of some fiendishly cruel, antique deity.”
The tide soon turns, for Russian troops continue to advance in overwhelming numbers. If my inferences are correct, these are the Russian Third Army under Nikolai Ruzsky and the Eighth Army under the famous Aleksei Brusilov.
The Austrian Third Army commander, General Rudolph von Bruderman, determines that the only course is to fall back in a series of retreating battles. A period of gloom and hardship follows, when drenching rains turn the roads to sludge incessantly churned by wagons and artillery. Supplies of food become sparse and infrequent: at one time Kreisler goes three days without anything to eat.
The strategy of “retreating battles” has the sound of preserving a modicum of honor, but in reality the Austrians do little fighting—mostly fleeing. After some weeks they reach the swamps of Grodeck, south of Lemberg. Here the decision is taken to make a stand. After bouts of skirmishing, the two sides dig lines of trenches only 500 yards apart. By using field glasses, the Austrians come to recognize individuals in the opposite trench, “the favorite of my men being a giant red-bearded Russian whose constant pastime consisted in jumping like a Jack-in-the-box from the trench, crying over to us as he did so. He was frequently shot at, but never hit.”
A remarkable fraternization develops. The red-bearded Russian grows bolder and finally springs out of the trench, shouting and waving his cap. The Austrians stop shooting. One of Kreisler’s men, inspired by this bravado, jumps out of his trench and stands facing the Russian. They beckon to each other and draw closer until they stand at arm’s length. Neither one has carried his rifle, and Kreisler expects a fist fight—with a crushing result for the much smaller Austrian. “But lo, and behold! The big Russian held out his hand which held a package of tobacco and our Austrian, seizing the tobacco, grasped the hand of the Russian, and then produced a long cigar, which he ceremoniously presented.”
After the tide turned: Austro-Hungarian prisoners in Russia.
Similar incidents occur over the next days. One night, a Russian officer and his orderly come under a white flag, asking in broken French whether the Austrians can spare any food—they are starving. The visitors offer in return a small barrel of water and a little tobacco. Seeing the two emaciated faces, the Austrian major decides to comply with the request even though food is nearly as scanty on his own side. Contributions are collected from the trenches, and soon the two Russians are seated among the Austrians, feasting on canned beef, cheese, biscuits, salami, and chocolate. They return to their trench carrying a sack of the stale bread with bits of moldy cheese that the Austrians can afford to spare.
The very next day, the Russians storm a hill on the Austrian flank. In keeping with the fundamental paradox of war, this is not for a moment seen as a betrayal of the previous night’s generosity. Now we fight—now we have a truce—now we fight again. It’s all part of playing by the rules of an enormous and terrible game.
The Russian flanking movement cuts off Kreisler’s unit from the main body of the army. They soon find themselves in an impossible position. They run out of food and water, and ammunition is used up. To make matters worse, swampy water constantly oozes into their trench. They resort to bailing it out with their caps.
After four days a decision is made to evacuate the trench. But before they can accomplish this, they hear galloping hoofbeats: the Cossacks attack. The defenders seize swords and bayonets. A dark figure swoops down on Kreisler, a horse’s hoof strikes him hard on the shoulder, and he feels a sharp pain in his thigh. He passes out.
Over the next four weeks, Kreisler is transported in stages to a hospital in Vienna, where his own wife works as a Red Cross nurse. Naturally, their reunion is joyous. By November he has recovered sufficiently to appear before a medical board, which rules that he is unfit for further service. Perhaps they are also considering his age. He and his wife decide to leave overcrowded Vienna, where prices have skyrocketed. They go to New York, where Kreisler already has connections in the world of music, arriving late November.
In the meantime, Russia has decisively defeated Austria-Hungary in Galicia. It lays siege to the Austrian fortress of Przemysl in the Carpathian mountains until the fortress capitulates in March 1915.
Aftermath of the Siege of Przemysl.
In the summer of 1915 Austria-Hungary joins forces with Germany in the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive, pushing the Russians back behind their own borders. The Russians advance again in the Brusilov Offensive of 1916. They are gradually halted, but at a cost of 650,000 casualties for Austria-Hungary. Casualties for Russia amount to 1.4 million. Neither side ever recovers. The loss of men and material on the Russian side factors heavily in the discontent leading to the 1917 revolutions.
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Austria-Hungary coat of arms.