There is a great deal more to this book than an account of the longest siege of the Great War, one that stalled the Russian advance and saved the Central Powers from defeat in 1914. It reveals, in microcosm, everything that was mad, bad and dangerous about the Austro-Hungarian Empire in its final stages, and more besides.
Przemyśl was in 1914 a provincial town in Galicia, the part of Poland seized by the Habsburgs in 1772. In the 1870s it was selected as the site for a bulwark against possible attack by Russia and work began on an elaborate system of defences. By 1914, seventeen principal and eighteen subsidiary forts had been built around the perimeter of the town, which measured forty-eight kilometres in circumference. These monsters of brick and concrete covered with earth were by then obsolete, as were most of their guns.
The town was home to a civilian population of some 46,000, made up of Poles, Jews and Ukrainians (known as Ruthenes). At the time of the siege, it was also home to a garrison of around 85,000 reserve troops aged between thirty-seven and forty-two years old, officered by