He experienced the horrors of two wars and during this time he also covered an immense geographical area. The trip described in this blog is an attempt to retrace his steps from Prague across the Eurasian continent to beyond Lake Baikal in Siberia. The first part of the trip will follow the precisely described route of Josef Švejk, Hašek's inspired literary creation. I left home on April 30 2010 and was back on October 29.

Thursday 1 July 2010

Ruffled feathers

The World War: our army withdrew from Lvov. Národní Politika  on the disaster in Galicia in 1914.
By the time our hero Švejk arrived in the Laborec valley in late May 1915, the war itself had been mentioned in the novel many times, mostly in conversations and anecdotes. In Chapter 7, where Švejk is called up to serve in the army, Hašek reports the disasters Austria-Hungary suffered in the first month of the war. Later he lets obrlajtnant Lukáš convey a more positive and less realistic view. This is during the famous conversation with hop-trader Wendler, who was despairing because of the loss of hop markets and also the behaviour of his wayward wife Katy. During Švejk's stay in Királyhida, soldiers who had already been to the front reported on the problems the k.u.k army faced both in Serbia and in the Carpathians. Now as the 11th march company of the 91st regiment moved up the Laborec Valley, the reader gets the firsts descriptions of actual war destruction. Still no Russian was in sight so it is clear that the enemy had been driven out.

General August "Totenkopf" von Mackensen.
It is therefore time to attempt a short summary of the historical events between the outbreak of war and early summer 1915. In August 1914 the German army had acted quickly to attack Belgium and France and for a while they threatened to reach Paris like they had done in 1870/71. The attack on Belgium drew the British Empire into the war. Although this had little effect at this early stage, it was still important because the Central Powers now faced an Entente who was superior both in production capacity, manpower and other resources. Therefore the Central Powers were relying on winning the war early, as they correctly feared that a war of attrition would benefit the Entente. However, by September, it was already clear that they had failed. The Russian Empire mobilised much quicker than expected and two Russian armies invaded East Prussia. Although these were destroyed at Allenstein and the Masurian Lakes it took the pressure off France who with help from the British managed to stop the German advance at Marne and recapture some ground. The war in the west now entered a stalemate that would last until 1918. The belligerents dug themselves in and the phase of trench warfare began.

Austria-Hungary, in which army Švejk served, was in trouble from the outset. Historian Norman Stone comments: The Austrian General Staff took everything into account, except reality. The mobilisation was a mess of indecision, orders and counter-orders. On the other hand, the fast Russian mobilisation took them by surprise. Troops going to Serbia now had to be directed east, resulting in havoc on the railways. At the heart of these dispositions was the powerful Chief of Staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, the very man who was the most ardent campaigner for "preventive" war-fare against Serbia.

The k.u.k army hanging Serbian civilians
An attack on Serbia on 12 August 1914 was quickly repelled by the experienced Serbian army. In Švejk these events are often referred to in stories from the front told in Királyhida, particularly by the ill-tempered sapper Vodička. Although the k.u.k army briefly captured Belgrade in December 1914, Serbia still held its ground in the early summer of 1915. The attack on Serbia was followed by systematic atrocities, "to teach the Serbs and their sympathizers within the Empire a lesson". This pattern repeated itself also in the east where the Rusyn population was regarded similarly unreliable. These atrocities are regularly woven into the novel by Hašek.

On the Eastern front things went even worse. By mid September Galicia had been overrun by Russian troops, who were in November threatening Kraków and had reached the Carpathians. The losses were huge; the Dual Monarchy lost 25 per cent of her officers in the first month of the war. One of the reasons for the scale of the  losses was the officer’s  fabulous head-gear and splendid uniforms. These were great for pomp and parades  but easy targets for Serb and Russian riflemen and machine-gunners. The army soon had to ditch the feathers and equip their officers with less conspicuous headgear. It is estimated that Austria-Hungary lost 1.2 million in killed, wounded and missing up to 1 January 1915.

Civilians in Galicia 1915 (Tore Mentyjærvi)
They winter battles in the Carpathians are also regularly mentioned. The Russians pushed through the Dukla pass and the  Łupków pass. Medzilaborce and Humenné were both captured. Hašek describes war damages as far south as Trebišov. During the winter of 1914/15 there was a real danger that the Russian Army could break though onto the plains of Hungary and threaten the very core of the Empire. After these setbacks, the Austro-Hungarian army increasingly had to rely on assistance from Germany and further Russian advances were thwarted. Still, as late as 22 March 1915, there was a major setback; the strong fortress of Przemyśl surrendered after having been starved out.

The offensive in which Jaroslav Hašek took part
In early May 1915 the situation changed dramatically in favour of Germany and Austria-Hungary. At Gorlice-Tarnów the Germany Army, commanded by the capable August von Mackensen launched an offensive which led to a Russian collapse. Further operations pushed them away from the Carpathians, forced them to withdraw from Galicia and in the summer they decided to give up Poland to shorten the exposed front. It is during this offensive we find Švejk moving up the Laborec Valley, crossing the Łupków pass and marching towards the front from Sanok. By September 1915 the front had stabilised more or less along the Austro-Russian border. Judging only by Hašek's narrative it is difficult to grasp the scale of the Central Powers’ victory; Jaroslav Hašek was a very reluctant participant in it.

Despite Italy's entry in the war against their former allies, 1915 was a black year for the Entente: The Russian army had been badly mauled and their munitions and supply problems were cruelly exposed. The Anglo-French operations against Turkey failed, Bulgaria entered the war and in October Serbia finally succumbed after German and Bulgarian forces came to the aid of the hitherto unsuccessful Austro-Hungarian army. The Serbian resistance still commanded the admiration of the above-mentioned August Mackensen who led the final offensive; he ordered a monument to be erected in honour of the enemy he had just defeated!

Švejk never saw the year out. By the time the novel finished due to Jaroslav Hašek's untimely death, the 11th march company had reached the river Bug and by studying the text and relate it to historical events we can time the arrival  to early  July 1915. Švejk incidentally never got involved in the fighting and he was meant to survive, to be back at U kalicha at 6 o'clock at night, after the war.

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