November 6, 2020

Ukrainians at Sadowa: A historical investigation

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One day some time before 1914, an elderly gentleman from the Austrian crownland of Galicia was strolling through Vienna. Seeing some soldiers drilling on a parade ground, he asked a nearby officer what regiment that might be. The officer told him. “That is my regiment!” the gentleman responded. As it turned out, he was the oldest surviving member of the unit. He was invited to headquarters and suitably feted.

That, at least, is the story he told his son. Half a century and half a world away, the latter related it to his own grandson.

Another of this gentleman’s stories was about a terrible battle he had experienced. In a desperate and chaotic retreat, the gun carriages had churned up human entrails, which lodged under the collar of his uniform.

But what battle was this? And in what regiment had he served?

Our veteran died around 1930, reportedly at age 93. He therefore must have been born around 1840. Eligible Austrian males were conscripted at age 20 and could serve up to eight years, plus two years’ reserve. This would place his service in roughly between 1860 and 1870. What wars did Austria fight in those years? Its defeats at Magenta and Solferino in 1859 do not quite match the rout described by our protagonist. Nor do the actions in the German-Danish war of 1864. That leaves the Austro-Prussian war of 1866.

Though that war was fought in both Italy and Bohemia, Austria was victorious in Italy. The failed Bohemian campaign involved several actions culminating in the battle of Königgrätz (today Hradec Králové in the Czech Republic), also known as the battle of Sadowa, on July 3, 1866. The largest battle of the 19th century, it involved between 440,000 and 460,000 men (compare Gettysburg’s roughly 168,000 combatants three years earlier). Total casualties (dead, wounded, captured and missing) were approximately 53,466 (compare Gettysburg’s 51,000). Sadowa is considered the battle that established Prussian leadership in German unification.

The Austro-Prussian war is also remarkable for the use of modern technology: railways, the telegraph and the Prussians’ breech-loading Dreyse needle gun, which had several advantages over the Austrians’ Lorenz muzzle-loaded rifled musket. But effective command, strategy and tactics were more likely decisive.

In the Austrian Army of the North, several infantry regiments were recruited from Ukrainian-populated areas. Recruiting district headquarters for Infantry Regiment No. 9 were in Stryi, for Regiment No. 10 in Peremyshl, for No. 15 (Brigade Fragnern, VIII Army Corps) in Ternopil, for No. 24 at Kolomyia. Infantry Regiment No. 30 (Brigade Poschacher) was recruited in Lviv, No. 55 (Brigade Rosenzweig, VI Army Corps) in Berezhany, and No. 58 in Stanyslaviv (today’s Ivano-Frankivsk). No. 77 (Brigade Fragnern, VIII Corps), was recruited in Sambir. Since Sambir was our hero’s nearest town, it is likely that if he fought in the war of 1866, it was in the 77th.

At Skalice on June 28, the Fragnern Brigade suffered heavy losses in an unauthorized attack at Dubno wood. Undaunted, the Ukrainians and Poles of its 15th regiment boldly charged the Prussians, only to be cut down by their rapid-firing needle-guns. Geoffrey Wawro relates that then, “A wild-eyed battalion of Ukrainians fled towards Skalice, overran the fortified railroad station and burst into General Karl Schulz’s sector on the right wing of the Austrian position…” An Austrian officer reported being told that “the men refused to obey orders and could no longer be controlled” (Wawro 171). Presently, “400 drunken Ukrainians of the 15th Regiment, who had somehow managed to cross through enemy fire to the east end of the Dubno Forest, took off across open ground in mad pursuit of some astonished Prussian fusiliers. Their officers called them back, to no avail” (Wawro 173). In the VIII Corps’ panicked retreat through Skalice and over the Aupa bridge, Fragnern’s brigade suffered casualties of 3,200 men and 100 officers (Wawro 174).

Such accounts reflect the point of view of Austrian officers, who may have harbored a bias against the “unruly” Slavs. It is not inconceivable, moreover, that some may have sought to shift the blame for the Austrian defeat to their men. Nonetheless, this description of the retreat of VIII Corps, and particularly of Brigade Fragnern (composed of our protagonist’s presumed 77th as well as the 15th regiment) dovetails with his account of a chaotic rout.

In the fighting at Sadowa on July 3, the VI Corps, which included the 55th regiment, made four attempts to retake strategically important Chlum by frontal attacks. In the first attempt, “… Rosenzweig led his Ruthenians, closely supported by the Deutschmeister [a Viennese regiment], to the very edge of Chlum village where, after a frantic fight in the light of the blazing church, they were finally forced to retire.” (Craig 148) In the last Austrian infantry action of the day, a desperate assault on the same objective, Brigade Poschacher was practically destroyed and its commander killed (Craig 158-59). The Ukrainians and Poles of its 30th regiment “advanced to the edge of Rosberic in three battalion masses, took a few tentative steps up the ‘Way of the Dead,’ then broke formation and ran.” (Wawro 267)

In the final analysis, I do not know whether my great-grandfather fought in the Austro-Prussian war. The evidentiary thread is thin. But as possibly the last of his descendants to receive these fragments of memory, I felt an obligation to set them down and try to determine their context and meaning.

Did your forebears fight at Sadowa – or Stalingrad, or the Somme? The records may be sparse or inaccessible, though much is available on the Internet. But even if you find nothing conclusive, you will learn something of the terrible human experience of war.

Sources: Prussian General Staff, The Campaign of 1866 in Germany, von Wright and Hozier trans. (London, 1872), book II; Gordon A. Craig, The Battle of Königgrätz (1964); Glenn Jewison and Jörg C. Steiner, http://www.austro-hungarian-army.co.uk/index.htm; Graham J. Morris, https://battlefieldanomalies.com/the-battle-of-koniggratz-2/; Geoffrey Wawro, The Austro-Prussian War (1996).

 

Andrew Sorokowski can be reached at andrewsorokowski@gmail.com.