Austria-Hungary also planned on a dual offensive: one against Serbia (after all, it was their fight against Serbia that had set the whole conflict off) and the other against the Russians. The Austrian chief-of-staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, decided that with his numerically inferior army, he needed to attack Russia quickly before Russia managed to fully mobilize. But first he would deal with Serbia; then, with that objective completed, Conrad could transfer his army’s full strength against the Russians. That, at least, was the plan. But like so many other plans in 1914, it transpired rather differently.
First, on 13 August, confident of an easy victory, Austria-Hungary launched its armies against tiny Serbia. The Austrian commander, Oskar Potiorek, who happened to be a passenger in the car when Franz Ferdinand and his wife were killed, hoped to deliver a victory in time for the emperor’s birthday on 18 August. The Austro-Hungarians displayed their barbaric side – shooting civilians and raping women. After four days of fighting at the Battle of the Jadar (16 to 19 August), Potiorek was forced into a humiliating retreat.
Vowing to return to Serbia at a later date, Austria-Hungary now prepared to face Russia. On 23 August, its armies struck at Poland from the Austrian province of Galicia. (Poland for the past century had not existed as a country but a region split between Russia, Germany and Austria.) Despite some initial successes, the Austro-Hungarians were again thoroughly defeated. The Russians counterattacked and took Galicia’s capital Lemberg, modern-day Lviv in the Ukraine (although the Austrians would recapture it in June 1915), and laid siege to the Galician town of Przemy´sl (now part of modern day Poland). The siege, which lasted (with a break in October to November) until the Austrian surrender in March 1915, was, at 150 days, the longest siege of the First World War.
In November, Austria-Hungary tried again against Serbia. This time they managed to capture the Serbian capital, Belgrade, entering the city on 2 December and embarking on a campaign of terror against its inhabitants. Less than two weeks later, on 15 December, it was back in Serbia’s hands and again, the armies of Austria-Hungary were forced into retreat by Serbian forces. Any joy in Serbia, however, was short-lived as hundreds of thousands of Serbs succumbed to a typhus epidemic.
Austria-Hungary was devastated by these defeats. For the remainder of the war, the once-great empire needed the continual support of its German ally. It was, for the German high command, akin to being ‘shackled to a corpse’.