Storming of the Zwinin
The storming of the Zwinin was a battle of the First World War between the Russian Empire and the Central Powers German Empire and Austria-Hungary. This battle of the Zwinin is an exception on the Eastern Front and a unique feature of the First World War: trench warfare in the mountains.
The Russian Army, outnumbered, temporarily abandoned its Carpathian tactics and dug in on the ridge of the Zwinins, Ostrog and Ostrys. It came to a pitched battle on a ridge 1000 m high in the middle of winter. This was an extraordinary feat, which at present, because it took place on “a forgotten front”, is hardly anchored in the historical consciousness.
After the Battle of Lviv (September 1914), the Russian army was able to advance more than 150 km into the Carpathians and threaten the Austro-Hungarian heartland. The k.u.k. Przemyśl fortress was surrounded and besieged for more than 100 days. Large parts of Galicia and Bukovina with its oil fields near Drohobycz fell into Russian hands. The German Empire had lost the Battle of the Vistula by the end of October and was unable to roll up the Eastern Front from north to south as planned. At the same time, the second siege of Przemyśl began, with over 100,000 k.u.k. K.U.K. soldiers were trapped. At the end of November 1914, a new Russian breakthrough into northern Hungary threatened.
In this critical situation, the German Reich decided to support the Austrian ally with two divisions (1st Division and 3rd Guards Division). Hastily, a unit of k.u.k. and Prussian soldiers was transported to Mukachevo by the Hungarian state railway. On January 20, 1915, the unit established itself as the German Southern Army under the command of General von Linsingen. This army, in turn, was framed between two armies: the eastern army group Pflanzer- Baltin, aiming for eastern Galicia and Bukovina, and the western k.u.k. 3rd Army of Boroëvić, aiming to bring relief through the Uzsok Pass to the fortress of Przemyśl. After the 3rd Army took the position at Borynia, the other two armies joined the approach in a northwesterly and northeasterly direction respectively. The southern army’s objective was to cross the Verecke Pass – also called the “Magyar Way” – between Mukachevo and Lviv through the Latorca Valley into the Stryj Valley.
In this main direction of movement, the Southern Army, due to the pass roads, was divided into combat groups operating almost independently of each other: Corps Gerok (48th Reserve Division, 19th k.u.k. Infantry Division as well as the 12th Landsturmbrigade) operated on the east wing, the Hofmann Corps (1st Division; 55th Imperial and Royal Infantry Division and 131st Landsturmbrigade) in the center, and finally the 3rd Guards Division in the west.
This force was opposed by the Russian 78th Reserve Division (309th, 311th, and 312th Infantry Regiments) under Major General Vladimir Alftan, reinforced by the 260th Infantry Regiment of the 65th Reserve Division on the road to Stryi. At the Uszok Pass was the 65th Infantry Division (257th, 258th, and 259th Infantry Regiments) under General Pyotr Postovsky, and around Toronya was the 2nd Kuban Cossack Division, reinforced by the 310th Infantry Regiment of the 78th Division. The leader of these forces was General of Artillery Vladimir Nikitin, who had set up his headquarters in Sambor. Nearby, the railway lines ran from Przemyśl to Mukachevo via Stryy and the Laborcza Valley. Complicating the situation was the fact that in their retreat towards the Hungarian-Galician border, the defending Austrian troops, in order to stop their pursuers, had destroyed all the railway bridges and tunnels that continued on. Individual villages which might have provided shelter for the enemy had also been destroyed. Thus one moved through scorched earth.
The plan was to penetrate the Beskids from Hungary in about 14 days. From January 25, 1915 onwards, important mountain passes were conquered in quick succession: from January 25 to 28, the battle at Vezerszallas; from January 29 to 30, the battle at Verecke Pass and from January 31 to February 2, the battle at Lysa Pass. Then, coming via Tukhol’ka, they reached Oryava at the foot of Mount Zwinin on February 4.
Situation and situation
The ridge of the Zwinin stretches for about 10 km from the southeast to the northwest and is over 800 m high in its entire course. The three highest elevations are (from W to E): the Zwinin II (1109 m); the Höhe (1091 m) and the Zwinin I (992 m). Further east, the mountain massif is joined by Ostrog (936 m) and Ostry (1026 m). Between the Zwinin I and the Ostrog a pass road leads from Oryava to Koziowa and further to Skole. About 5 km to the south of the Zwinin, almost parallel to it, is the Dauzki massif, also over 1000 m high. In the valley between the two mountain ridges lie the villages of Orjawa, and, following the valley road, Pogar and Kriwe at about 700 m above sea level. In a wood-rich valley on the other side of the Zwinin lies Kosjowa with sawmills and factories. This terrain, with its relatively wide roads and railway connection to Skole, was made for Russian supplies. From here, crew replacements and ammunition could be brought in under safe cover.
At the beginning of February, the Carpathians were still in the depths of winter. Places as well as mountains were covered with metres of snow. Temperatures far below -20 °C occurred during the nights.
Fight at the Zwinin
The “Surprise Attacks” from February 4 to 11, 1915
On the morning of February 4, 1915, the infantry regiment “von Boyen” (5th East Prussian) No. 41 reached the village of Oryava. They immediately began to climb the heights of the Zwinin, but halfway there they were forced by heavy infantry fire to dig themselves into the snow. The same thing happened on the other side of the pass to the East Prussian Grenadier Regiment No. 1 “Kronprinz”, which had to dig in on the slopes of the Ostrog. The commander of the 1st Division, General Richard von Conta, then climbed the heights of the offshore Dauzki to get an idea of the situation.
The Russian entrenchment works on the crest of the Zwinin, the Ostrog and the Ostry were easily recognizable. Several trenches in succession with wire entrenchments had already been made. Hoping that these would not yet be far advanced, he decided to make a surprise attack together. The Russian positions on the southwest side of Zwinin I, which rises about 300 yards from the Orava valley, were dug in eight rows deep, one above the other. Their position was comparable to the auditorium of a theater, with exclusive tiers and boxes overlooking the entire valley and slope. Without endangering themselves, they could simply roll ecrasite charges down the hill, causing danger and disorder to the attacking German troops.
Thus the 1st Division tried for a week to storm the mountain massif of the Zwinin by continued surprise attacks. The higher Russian positions alone had the better view. The deep snow prevented the grenadiers and musketeers from charging forward with surprising speed, but made them easy targets for the enemy’s machine-gun positions. Killed soldiers did not fall over, but were held upright by the snow. By the end of the week, von Conta had to make it clear to his pressing Austrian allies that without sufficient artillery support, storming the Zwinin was hopeless.
In total, there were three major attacks – on 7, 9 and 11 February 1915 – all of which were repelled by the enemy. Many soldiers suffered frostbite. In a to and fro the German troops now worked their way up one position after the other, taking advantage of the smallest cover. Supplies were brought to them via dog sleds and the injured and frostbitten were brought down to the valley. Due to the succession of thaw and frost, the trails in the snow had become slippery as glass.
The congealing of the front into a battle of position from 12 February to 22 March 1915
For their part, the German troops now began to build trenches and dugouts. Both sides took turns attacking without any significant shift in the front line on the ridge. On the German side, artillery now began to be added. Mortars, howitzers and all steep guns were positioned in the valley. This included a 30.5-cm mortar. The 1st Division, on the other hand, had hardly any steep guns, its field guns having a flat trajectory. Exerting great feats of strength for men and draft horses, they managed to pull them onto the opposite Dauzki and position them as batteries. “To bring a single gun into firing position at the height of 887 yards required 14 horses, all the expendable gunners of four batteries, and two platoons of pioneers; man and beast worked themselves half to death at it, and after five hours only was it done.”
Above all, Field Marshal Lieutenant Peter von Hofmann urged haste, as the news from Przemyśl became increasingly worrying. In all there were three attacks with artillery support: on 7, 10 and 20 March, which, apart from minor successes, failed to take possession of the mountain. In the generally tense situation, spying was finally believed: the remaining villagers were expelled, and the Austrian military authorities hanged a clergyman in the village of Komaniki, who was said to have given signals to the Russian army from the church tower, and the sexton. On March 9 and 20, 1915, they had already reached the top of the ridge, but still could not take possession of the Zwinin. Thus, there was a war of position on the upper ridge.
Since friend and foe could no longer be distinguished from the Dauzki, even the artillery could no longer provide support. Fierce hand grenade fights ensued. Finally it was considered to withdraw the infantry and to make the summit storm-ready once more by a well-directed effective firing of the artillery. This met with bitter resistance from the infantry. Finally, fog rolled in, making such considerations absurd.
The artillery now passed the time with competitions in the snow: “St. Moritz” they called their games of “snowshoeing” and building figures. Meanwhile, the infantry was still trying to conquer the mountain.
On March 22, 1915, the Przemyśl fortress fell into Russian hands. The race against time was lost. Through Russian jubilant celebrations as well as through dropped leaflets all Austrian and German soldiers could find out. On 23 March 1915, the Southern Army decided to unite the two divisions fighting there into one army corps and place it under the command of General Felix Graf von Bothmer.
Preparations in the thaw from 23 March to 8 April
From mid-March onwards, temperatures reached -8 °C at night and +8 °C during the day. This resulted in murky, brownish streams of dew pouring from the Zwinin during the day, covering all roads and paths with viscous mud. “The roads, which are bad in themselves, have fallen into such a state from the heavy use that the horses – 6 to 8 in front of a wagon – are sinking up to their bellies in mud. Whole forests are disappearing, and are being turned into stump dams.” or “Due to the snow melting early this year, the roads, which had deep holes, were bottomless with mud; in one large hole on the Smorze-Krasine-Zadzieliko road, a four-horse team drowned. All wagon traffic, even on the larger roads, finally ceased.”
From wagons finally had to be switched to pack animal transport. As a result, there were deficiencies in the supply situation: there was a lack of ammunition and supplies of foodstuffs such as potatoes and bread. In the darkness, what was available then froze back into ice. Meanwhile, fog and driving snow prevented an attack. The question arose as to where the Russian army would use its forces released at Przemyśl. Nevertheless, they made the most of the time and were not thrown off guard by a surprise Russian attack: Russian miners had undermined front-line trenches near the 3rd Grenadiers and caused them to collapse by detonation. The subsequent infantry attack, however, was repulsed. Bothmer formed the Bothmer Corps from the 1st Division and the 3rd Guards Division together with parts of the 38th Honved Division. All troop units were now assigned their exact function and deployment. There was to be a joint, well-coordinated attack.
Storming of the Zwinin I on 9 April 1915
Bothmer had the infantry withdrawn, realigned the artillery, and waited for good weather. It was not until the evening before April 9 that suitable weather promised. “The 1st Inf.Div. is to storm the Zwinin on the 9th of April, while the 3rd Guards-Inf.Div. is only to threaten the attack and tie up the enemy by brisk firing and partial attacks.” But again Russian troops seemed to forestall the Germans. They took advantage of the weather conditions to launch a surprise attack on the 3rd Guards Division at Zwinin II. “During the night of April 8-9 the Russian fired particularly briskly; about 3 a.m. he suddenly advanced in his turn to attack along the entire line of the regiment.” At Zwinin II, after three waves of attack, the Russian army finally broke into the phalanx of the Lehr Infantry Regiment.
Simultaneously, at exactly 7 a.m., German artillery of all calibers opened a drumfire on Zwinin I. The hilltop was enveloped in deep black smoke, and the thunder of the guns was amplified by the echo from the valley. The shots hit. “At eight o’clock the artillery fell silent. The infantry had been preparing in the sappers for the last few days; 8 o’clock fifteen minutes they went on the charge.” The first wave of infantry ran to the enemy trench, and the soldiers threw hand grenades. After that, the trench was captured with relative ease. The trench crew offered little more resistance and, if alive, were able to be taken prisoner of war. The Russian officers will have regarded the attack on Zwinin I as a spontaneous sham or relief attack of no particular significance. The accounts of Colonel Moskuli, the Russian commander of the Zwinin.., the Russian commander of the Zwinin position, who was so convinced of the impregnability of his position that he threw caution to the winds until he was finally surprised by the attacking German troops at morning tea. The first wave was followed by the second, which penetrated still deeper into the enemy trench system. By about 11 a.m., Zwinin I had been captured.
“The mountain must be taken at all costs,’ were the orders. We were hardly out of the trench when the Russians appeared at the top and received us with rapid fire. Nevertheless, everything ran and climbed to the top. As we ran we fired our rifles at the visible heads of the Russians. This worried them and made their aim less accurate.[…] The Russian position had not been heavily occupied, for many Russians had been busy cooking their breakfast in the dugouts that were on the slope of their position. We now advanced to the edge of the hill and saw that down the slope everything was swarming with Russians fleeing downward. They were being shot down en masse. Since the northern slope of the mountain was completely bare, they found no cover anywhere. […] Now the order came for everything to gather on the top of the mountain. The wounded, who in the meantime had been bandaged, Germans and Russians, were placed on tents and carried down to Orawa by the captured Russians. A detachment of Russians had to help us dig large holes; in them were buried those who had fallen during the storm, as well as those who had perished earlier. [… ] As we then learned, a total of 12,000 men fell on the German side at the Zwinin.”
The Russian army still cleared the entire Zwinin on the night of April 9. ” …At dawn on April 10, patrols, the first being that of the G.F. Rueter 3rd Comp. noted that the Russians had left.” Subsequently, also on April 24, 1915, the Ostrog and the Ostry were captured.
The conquest of the Zwinin was part of the Battle of the Carpathians; but it also created the necessary conditions for the further campaign in Galicia.
It became apparent that the Austrian army was increasingly losing its leadership and initiative. In the further course of the war, it sank from being an equal ally to a mere vicarious agent.
Felix von Bothmer was awarded the Military Order of Max Joseph and the Pour le Mérite.
The Austro-Hungarian Army Report of 10 April 1915 mentions the events as follows: “Official announcement: In the Forest Mountains yesterday there was also fierce fighting in the sections east of the Uzsok Pass. German troops captured north of Tucholka a high position disputed since February 5 and stubbornly defended by the Russians; 1 colonel, over 1000 men were captured in this attack and 15 machine guns were also wrested from the Russians.“
The Austro-Hungarian Army report of April 25, 1915, states, “Official announcement: On the Carpathian front a new success was achieved in the Orava valley near Koziowa. After days of a very tenacious and determined attack, our troops stormed the heights of Ostry, south of Koziowa, yesterday. At the same time the following German troops succeeded in gaining forward space on and west of the road. In all, 652 Russians were captured. By the storming of the Ostry height and by the capture of the Zwinin ridge at the beginning of April, the enemy is now thrown by the allied troops from the whole position on both sides of the Orava Valley, which has been tenaciously defended for months.“
Some contemporaries saw the storming of the Zwinin as an outstanding military achievement:
“The storming of Zwinin I deserves its special place in the war history of all time. It far eclipses the storming of the Spicher Heights in 1870. In the judgment of eye-witnesses it still stands high above the storming of the 203 m. hill by the Japanese at Port Arthur. The demands made on the troops by the length of the preceding struggle, the season, the effect of modern means of fighting, were unique.”
Most of the fallen could only be found and recovered after the snow had melted. There are reports of horrific images. Corpses were apparently used, like sandbags, for the breastwork of the trenches. It took months until the mountain was halfway cleared. Altogether about 30,000 dead of the battle probably found their last resting place in individual and mass graves on the Zwinin. A uniform cemetery was never established. However, a stone pyramid with an epitaph was erected on the top of Mount Zwinin I for the fallen:
Brave and faithful,
Guardians of the homeland,
Avengers of Justice.
At the end of the First World War, the mountain and the surrounding land fell to Poland. By the end of the twenties of the 20th century, the pyramid was already badly damaged. At the end of the Second World War the country became part of the Soviet Union. In 1991 Ukraine gained its independence. Neither a grave nor a memorial stone can be found (as of 2011) on the Zwinin.
The storm on the Zwinin
The thanksgiving service on the following day after the storming in Orava
The mass graves
The pyramid on the Zwinin
The pyramid ca. 1926: “The Zwinin peak with the tomb of the 30000 fallen of 1914-18”
Positions at Zwinin I still recognizable as earthen ramparts
The Zwinin 2011 View of Orava
German postcard of the First World War from Kosjowa
Literature and sources
- Friedrich von Friedeburg: Carpathian and Dniester Battle, Berlin 1924.
- Franz von Gottberg: The Grenadier Regiment Kronprinz (1st East Prussian) No. 1 in the World War, Berlin 1927.
- Fritz Schillmann: Grenadier Regiment King Frederick William I (2nd East Prussian) No. 3 in the World War 1914-1918, Berlin 1924.
- Alfred Bulowius and Bruno Hippler: Infanterie-Regiment v. Boyen (5th East Prussian) No. 41 in the World War 1914-1918, Berlin 1919.
- Georg Dorndorf: The Infantry Regiment No. 43, Oldenburg 1923.
- Mönkeberg, Carl: Unter Linsingen in den Karpathen; Berlin 1917.
- From the Swiss Major Tanner: Frontberichte eines Neutralen, Volume 1, Berlin 1915.
- Hansch, Johannes; Wedling, Fritz: Das Colbergsche Grenadier-Regiment Graf Gneisenau (2. Pommersches) Nr. 9 im Weltkriege 1914-1918, Berlin 1929.
- Graf v. d. Schulenburg-Wolfsburg: Geschichte des Garde-Füsilier-Regiments / nach den amtlichen Kriegstagebüchern und persönlichen Aufzeichnungen, Berlin 1926.
- Dominik Richert: Beste Gelegenheit zum Sterben. My Experiences in the War 1914-1918, edited by Bernd Ulrich and Angelika Tramitz, Knesebeck, Munich 1989, ISBN 3926901152.
– Collection of images, videos and audio files
- Report after the storming
- Pictures of the Zwinin
- ukrainian-Russian map of the mountain massif
- Search for clues 2007 on the Zwinin
- Mönkeberg, Carl: Unter Linsingen in den Karpathen; Berlin 1917, p. 42.
- Hansch, Johannes; Wedling, Fritz: Das Colbergsche Grenadier-Regiment Graf Gneisenau (2. Pommersches) Nr. 9 im Weltkriege 1914-1918, Berlin 1929, p. 161.
- Graf v. d. Schulenburg-Wolfsburg: Geschichte des Garde-Füsilier-Regiments / nach den amtlichen Kriegstagebüchern und persönlichen Aufzeichnungen, Berlin 1926, p. 74.
- Hansch, Johannes; Wedling, Fritz: Das Colbergsche Grenadier-Regiment Graf Gneisenau (2. Pommersches) Nr. 9 im Weltkriege 1914-1918, Berlin 1929, pp. 162-163.
- Graf v. d. Schulenburg-Wolfsburg: Geschichte des Garde-Füsilier-Regiments / nach den amtlichen Kriegstagebüchern und persönlichen Aufzeichnungen, Berlin 1926, p. 75.
- Mönkeberg, Carl: Unter Linsingen in den Karpathen; Berlin 1917, p. 44.
- “Vom schweizerischen Major Tanner: Frontberichte eines Neutralen”, Vol. 1, Berlin 1915, p. 172.
- The Austro-Hungarian Army Report, Vienna, April 10, 1915, The Deputy Chief of the General Staff. v. Hoefer, Field Marshal Lieutenant
- The Austro-Hungarian Army Report, Vienna, April 25, 1915 The Deputy Chief of the General Staff. v. Hoefer, Field Marshal Lieutenant
- Friedrich von Friedeburg: Karpaten- und Dniesterschlacht, Berlin 1924, pp. 71-72.