The city that endured the Russian siege in World War I and epicenter of Ukrainian refugees | The USA Print

The city that endured the Russian siege in World War I and epicenter of Ukrainian refugees



A year ago all of Europe remembered or discovered the name of Lviv (Lviv in Ukrainian) when Putin’s forces shelled the city located 80 kilometers from the Polish border. The first months of the invasion made Europe’s heart sink as it watched thousands of citizens, most of them women, children and the elderly, fleeing from the bombs of the Russian satrap. In February 2022, the Przemyśl station became the epicenter of the refugee crisisMany followed the route connecting Lviv to Poland, the same route that hundreds of thousands of Austro-Hungarian subjects had followed 108 years earlier in the first months of the First World War.

On the current European map, the city of Przemyśl It is located in the far east of Poland, bordering on the border with Ukraine. In 1914 the city belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and did not border on the tsar’s estates. However, after the outbreak of the Big war, the Russian forces advanced rapidly until they reached their gates. It was also the border between Western and Eastern Christianity, blocked the approaches through the Carpathians to the south of Habsburg Hungary and it was a major nerve center, controlling the region’s rail connections to the south and its main east-west transportation route.

The Austro-Hungarian army had been overwhelmed by a massive Russian invasion force, and broken, defeated, diseased troops flooded into the city that for half a year held off the Russian advance, a story recorded in Alexander Watson’s Strength (Wakes up Ferro). The work describes the Austro-Hungarian troops who succumbed in the East as incompetent and inferior in number to the Russians. The reservists of the garrison were not the image of heroes capable of resisting the onslaught of Russian power either. With obsolete fortifications and weapons and “fat overweight” soldiers, according to one of the officers.

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“An ancient city and important fortress on the San River”, described a guide before the year 1914, which had about 45,000 inhabitants including Poles, Ukrainians and Jews. It was a city surrounded by a ring of forts, a fortress with a multi-ethnic garrison made up of men from all over the empire: Austrians, Hungarians, Romanians, Czechs, Italians, Poles, and Ukrainians. 108 years later, images of the city opened the world news as it became the epicenter of the refugee crisis caused by the Russian invasion.

“What we are witnessing today in the Ukraine is a repeat of the tsar’s failed attempt in 1914-1915 to reclaim all Ukrainian lands for Russia. The same ideology, the same violence… this is a pending issue from the First World War,” said the author of the work.

Horse slaughterhouse in the city of Przemyśl.

More than half a year of siege

After a first attempt to storm the city, the Russians besieged it, subjecting the population to six months of starvation and bombing. The siege lasted from mid-September 1914 until March 22, 1915 when the city fell.

The historical episode that starred Przemyśl it also saw unprecedented forms of barbarism such as one of the first aerial bombardments on the civilian population. Russian planes dropped 275 bombs on the city during the second siege that killed a dozen civilians. Despite the fact that the damage was not extensive, this new form of war generated atrocious fear among the inhabitants, aware that with the new flying devices their home was no longer safe no matter how far it was from the range of the front cannons.

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Inside the city, public concerts in the squares softened the hardships of the siege for which the vast majority of the 21,000 horses present in the fortress were sacrificed.

The last chapter of the work is appropriately titled “Armageddon” and tells of the last days of the siege when those in charge of the fortress decided to destroy everything that could be reused by the Russians. First it was a useless attack to try to break the encirclement that ended in carnage, and then came the blowing up of the bridges, the shooting of the remaining horses and the destruction of the belt of forts and the gunpowder stores in a terrifying hell in the that the cannons of the fortress fired all their ammunition.


For half a millennium the city had been home to a thriving Jewish community that ran afoul of Russian anti-Semitism. Following the Russian conquest in May 1915, 17,000 Jews were expelled from the city and the surrounding district. The tsar ended up expelling more than 100,000 Jews in the spring and summer of 1915.. The anti-Semitic wave was part of the multi-ethnic reorganization plan that sought to shape a new, ethnically “pure” Greater Russia in which Poles would be disenfranchised and Ukrainians would be culturally extinguished and Russified.

But ethnic suspicions were not the exclusive preserve of the Russians. During the siege, the commander of the square, Hermann Kusmanek von Burgneustädten, lived within a paranoia of mistrust towards the local Ukrainian-speaking minority that resulted in hundreds of arrests, executions and a massacre in the center of the city. And during the worst months of the siege, when food was scarcer, anti-Semitism intensified within the city unfairly blaming Jewish merchants for speculation.

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From the Russian point of view, the city was, surely the argument sounds familiar to you, “a Russian city liberated after centuries of slavery”, and a month after the liberation, Tsar Nicholas II himself came to the city, which accelerated the process of Russification of the city. But the Russian occupation of the city lasted much less than everyone expected.
Again a bombardment, in this case with 42-centimeter Gran Bertha howitzers from the monstrous German cannon rumbled through the city. On June 2, 1915, the Russians abandoned the city and days later the German troops celebrated their victory by marking the goose step. Przemyśl it became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire again, and after its disintegration came under the control of the new republic of Poland.

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