Today (9 March) is the hundredth anniversary of one of the biggest victories ever achieved by the Russian Army – the capture of the Austro-Hungarian fortress of Przemsyl.
The history of the Eastern Front in the First World War is little known, even in Russia. If people have some knowledge of it, they have probably heard only of the catastrophic defeat at Tannenberg in August 1914, in which General Samsonov’s Second Army was surrounded and destroyed. Yet the Russian victory at Przemysl was on the same scale as the German one at Tannenberg.
The importance of Przemysl lay in its location astride the route westwards out of Galicia and into the Carpathian Mountains. The Russians first surrounded it in the summer of 1914 during their successful Galician offensive, only for the Austro-Hungarian Army to relieve it a short while later. After the Russians encircled it a second time in autumn 1914, the Austro-Hungarians made repeated efforts to relieve it again, but all such attempts foundered in the winter snows of the Carpathians. Deprived of supplies, the Przemysl garrison eventually had to surrender.
News of the victory reached the Russian Supreme Headquarters (Stavka) while Tsar Nicholas II was there. The Supreme Commander, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, rushed to give him the news, ‘out of breath and with tears in his eyes’, the Tsar told the Tsarina. The two men celebrated with champagne and a mass at the Stavka church. The Tsar then awarded the Grand Duke the Cross of St. George Second Class.
The Russians took 130,000 prisoners and captured 1,000 guns at Przemysl. It was possibly the most successful day any army ever had in the First World War.