VERITAS Research Institute and Archives

Entering the last year of World War I, all sides suffered from war fatigue, but the Army of Austria-Hungary was in especially bad shape, with its reserves nearly exhausted. Despite all the hardships, however, the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was not in an altogether unfavorable position. As a result of the ongoing revolutions in Russia, fighting had subsided on the Eastern Front, while the Battles of the Isonzo had culminated in victory at the end of 1917. At the Battle of Caporetto, the Monarchy had made a 120-km advance to the Piave River, smashing the 2nd and 3rd Italian Armies along the way. Seizing the vanquished Italians’ supplies and munitions had allowed the depleted Monarchy to continue the war.

In a speech to the United States Congress on January 8th, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson introduced his soon-to-be infamous 14 Points, the 10th of which would accord “the freest opportunity to autonomous development” to the people of Austria-Hungary. For the first time in the war, the Entente explicitly called for the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian dualist state. The recognition of Czechoslovakia joining the Entente on August 17th was part of the process that Wilson’s speech had initiated. In other words, the plan to destroy the Kingdom of Hungary had already been formulated by the middle of the year. In autumn 1918, dangerously unaware of their misunderstanding of the meaning of self-determination as expressed by Wilson, the Hungarian opposition put its trust in the very principle whose application would inevitably result in the breakup of Hungary. 

On March 21st, 1918, the German Army began its Spring Offensive, a campaign whose preparations had taken more than six months. Chief of the Great General Staff Paul von Hindenburg assembled a fighting force consisting of his last reserves, risking everything in a move that would decide the war before the Americans could get significantly involved in the struggle. Despite the precarious situation in which the Entente Powers found themselves that spring, they ultimately succeeded in stopping the German attacks, so much so that by summer, the fighting coalition led by General Ferdinand Foch had successfully launched a counterattack. The trench warfare that had characterized the earlier years of the war came to an end, and in the aftermath of August 8th, the black day of the German Army, it was clear that the war was lost for the Central Powers.

In June, the Monarchy carried out an offensive in the southwestern theater of war whose main focus was the 140-km long Piave frontline. The attack, in addition to resulting in 150 thousand casualties, ended in failure and destroyed the dualist state’s capability of launching any additional large-scale offensives, although a small-scale offensive did take place in Albania in August 1918. The Central Powers were depleted, mainly as a result of the English blockage. In the first days of June, Hungary was hit by freezing weather and the resulting crop yields were so poor that not even the grain reserves of occupied Ukraine could help. The average weight of a soldier fell to only 50 kg while the troops on the frontline also suffered a shortage of clothing. In autumn, Hungary was hit by the Spanish flu pandemic, which decimated the civilian population. The Monarchy’s situation deteriorated further in April, when Emperor Charles was forced to dismiss his Foreign Minister Count Ottokar Czernin after Prime Minister of France Georges Clemenceau made public the so-called Sixtus Letters that Charles had written to him one year earlier. Charles’ attempts at making peace had utterly failed. Not even the return of Sándor Wekerle, one of the shining political lights of the Dualist Era, to power as prime minister for a third time on August 20th, 1917, could ease the domestic hardships that Hungary faced.

by Dávid Ligeti

Source of Photo: The Atlantic