In the middle of a night in March 1965, when I was 9, I woke to the sound of typing. I stepped into a short hallway leading to a long one that cut through my grandparents’ one-level, modern house in northern Westchester, where I was spending the weekend. My grandfather heard me and opened the door of his study, across the hall. An imposing man, he looked down, but his dark eyes were fixed on something other than me. I asked what he was doing. “I am writing,” he said. “About the war.”
“I was on the losing side,” he said, Germanic accent carving his English. “You are lucky. You are on the winning one.”
His five grandchildren — me, the youngest — called him Opa. He was a man of authority, in charge even of parents who were in charge, and it shook me to see him looking beaten. What did that? And how was I winning by just waking and breathing? I lay awake that night, pondering, but got no answers. I kept going back to his half-opened door in my mind as I got older, and understood that he meant his part in losing battles for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, losing Europe in his flight from fascism, and his view of the boy who stood free of that history.
He was writing a memoir called: “World War I as I Saw It.” Its typed sentences would cover 60 double-spaced pages on onion paper so thin, it was barely more solid than air. He didn’t sign it Fritz Arnstein, his name in Europe, but Fred Arno, as he called himself to avoid the anti-Semitism he found in America when he arrived here with his wife and two daughters (the elder one being my mother) in 1939.
He wrote his war memories in a study with built-in shelves filled with books about generals and battles. Omi’s art books filled other shelves. Opa urged me to read “The Memoirs of Field-Marshal Montgomery” long before I could make sense of them. This summer, which marks 100 years since World War I started, I’m thinking of his library for what it didn’t contain, because there were few books in 1965 on the fighting he lived through and wrote about.
Military historians who write these days about the Eastern Front of World War I stress how obscure it remains relative to the Western Front. After the war, images of endless trenches with hollow-eyed men and the moonscape of no-man’s land became symbols of war’s basic madness. Memories of the massive campaigns in the East got lost when the Russian Revolution riveted the world.
Winston Churchill titled one of his less well-known works, in 1931, “The Unknown War: The Eastern Front, 1914-1918.” It was eventually followed by Norman Stone’s “The Eastern Front,” a 1975 book esteemed for its skill at mining the subtleties of what happened in Eastern Europe during the stalemates and slaughters at the Somme and Verdun.
In 1999 the late John Keegan, in his “The First World War,” probed the Eastern Front while exploring the interaction of all the fronts. And younger historians like Timothy C. Dowling — with “The Brusilov Offensive,” his intensive 2008 study of Russia’s huge summer advance of 1916 — are scrutinizing single Eastern Front campaigns with a closeness they haven’t had. An increasing number of books have focused on Jewish soldiers who fought on the Eastern Front, including Marsha L. Rozenblit’s broad study from 2001, “Reconstructing a National Identity, the Jews of Habsburg Austria during World War I.”
Churchill wrote: “In the west, the armies were too big for the land. In the east, the land was too big for the armies.” He described the mobility of the giant forces that threw themselves at each other along a frontier of more than 1,600 miles — about the distance from New York to Denver. Crossing the lands of today’s Poland, Romania and Ukraine, it stretched far longer than the Western Front.
The main combatants in the East were the Central Powers — including the Germans and the Habsburg Dual Monarchy — against the Russian Empire. It was a conflict between the Russians and Austrians over Serbia after the assassination of the Habsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife that led to the much bigger “War To End All Wars,” as World War I was initially billed.
If the war was the original sin of the 20th century, it started in the East.
One way to distill the front’s lasting importance may be to unpeel its history backward, starting with today’s wrestling between Western powers and Russia over Ukraine, turning back through the Cold War, when the clash between West and East pitted Capitalism against Communism. The Nazis conquered the old Eastern Front, including Poland, where they carried out much of the Holocaust. In 1917, the Bolsheviks lost great swaths of the front when they hesitated in talks at Brest-Litovsk.
Many of the soldiers fighting on all sides in WWI were Jewish, but the Eastern Front crossed centers of Jewish life — including the Pale of Settlement — in a way the Western Front didn’t.
A brilliant Russian campaign called the Brusilov Offensive shaped the war’s outcome in the East. It was named by the general who led it, Aleksei A. Brusilov. A career officer born in 1853, he was described by a teacher when he was 14 as having a “lively and even playful character.” His ingenuity in battle reflected those qualities.
S. Ansky, the Yiddish journalist and playwright (“The Dybbuk”) who traveled to Jewish communities on the Eastern Front between 1915 and 1917, wrote in his account that Brusilov put the brakes on anti-Semitic violence by his non-Jewish troops, and “demonstrated sympathy” toward both Jews in his ranks and Jewish civilians.
I feel guilty extolling his virtues. He was a lethal general who left scars on my family — literally.
Brusilov isn’t a household name. I certainly hadn’t heard it when I first touched a wound inflicted by one of his fighters. I was 5 or younger. Opa talked about a war for the vanished Habsburg Empire where he was born — in the port city of Trieste, to an assimilated Jewish family — and would roll his slacks above the scar that stretched across his knee. It looked like a long green worm. He’d hold my finger to its thick, waxy texture.
This was where Oberleutnant Fritz Arnstein, after three weeks of flight from Brusilov’s relentless advance in June 1916, had been shot. He’d point to where the bullet had entered and left him, and said the sniper was a Cossack. I figured Cossacks must be bad to fire at my grandfather.
Opa died of a heart attack in 1967, at 72. The next day, my mother called me to her bedroom, pulled a copy of the finished memoir from a desk drawer and told me Opa wanted me to have it after he was gone. For some reason, only then. I could read it when I wanted, but had to put it back.
I pulled it out when my parents were away and the house went quiet. I found a story broken into chapters. The first was dull. It was titled, ”My Life in London and the Start of the War.” It described his internship at a London law firm in the summer of 1914.
On page three, with the assassinations of Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife, things got serious, and I got interested. “It was the middle of July, when it happened suddenly, like a flash from the sky,” Opa writes. “Vienna sent an ultimatum to Belgrade, which under Russian influence was rejected.” The war was on.
In “Going Home,” he crossed the channel to join the Austrian army, landing in Holland and making his way by train across a quickly mobilizing Europe. His train moved slowly through Germany, meeting cheering crowds at almost every stop — “mass-hypnotism,” he said, admitting he gave in to it — on his way to Trieste.
Next I read a chapter titled “Military Training,” in which I found the first of several anti-Semitic incidents Opa experienced. He writes about it in dramatic detail:
“We were allotted young and untrained horses, which had been requisitioned for war-service, and I received a young gelding with a highly independent character and rather sneaky. Once we were riding on an enormous potato field and practicing how to attack an imaginary enemy at the edge of the field, galloping at full speed, standing in our stirrups, body and head forward and the right arm with the sabre in the hand stretched over the head of the horse and shouting ‘Hurrah!’ with the full power of our young lungs to give us courage and scare the enemy. At the peak of the excitement, my horse suddenly stopped and bucked. I went right over his head and like a bullet into the potato field.”
“Fortunately I did not hurt myself and was back in my saddle before you could count to three,” Opa continues. “But the attack was stopped, the captain, a Count Schoenburg, turned around and when he saw my dirty face and uniform he just remarked: ’Of course, the Jew.’ I felt terribly and would have liked to answer right away, but in the army you have to keep silent and swallow the offense, which I would not have done in civil life.”
I remember wondering if I could have swallowed the hurt, realizing it was one of those adult things I didn’t yet know about myself. I saw myself in front of Opa’s half-open door, his eyes diverted to the distant time that I was somehow being asked to contend with. As the memoir drew me in, in those months after he died, I still felt he expected something, that the reality of the text was a series of tests being imposed on me: Could I measure up as a soldier?
This became a more pointed feeling when I finally arrived at the section called “At the Front.”
Opa had a twin brother named Rudi, and they passed together through basic training and a series of safe postings in the first months of the war, then made an eight-day train ride from Vienna to the forward lines in March 1915.
My grandfather was the eldest of four brothers — by two minutes he never let Rudi forget. Almost immediately, Rudi lost his arm in trench fighting that March at the northern wing of the Eastern Front, in what is called Galicia, or Russian Poland. As Rudi lay in a hospital, Opa was ordered onto a troop train for a ride 1,600 miles south, to the Bukovina region, east of the Carpathian Mountains, which spanned the border of the Eastern Front.
The twins had a brother three years younger, Felix. I was stunned to learn, as I finished the memoir for the first time, that Felix was killed by a grenade on June 4, 1916. I also found details of how Cossacks chased my grandfather and shot him through his knee three weeks after Felix died. To the boy reading about these events in the mid-1960s, they poked out of a swirling miasma of history that seemed impossible to truly penetrate. Only a few weeks ago did I learn that both events happened amid the Brusilov Offensive. In fact, until earlier this year I’d never heard of it.
There’s no mention of Brusilov in Opa’s memoir. His account offers no hint of the offensive’s historical impact. He reports the first “terrible losses” of June 4, how the Russians “had succeeded to push us back but could not break our lines,” and — a skeleton of German grammar showing through his English — “the enemy had captured temporarily our trenches.” Over the years, I’ve read and re-read the manuscript, sensing the differences in it from the Western Front.
Opa describes trenches and the no-man’s land between them, but also surges of fluid movement utterly unlike the stasis in the West. His writing can be compelling, especially as English wasn’t his first language, but I kept feeling I was lost in fighting that lacked context. Opa’s memoir is a homemade artifact, not intended as literature, and reading it can be like hiking a complex path by just following the tips of someone else’s shoes. I saw factual pebbles and descriptive twigs, but with a limited sense of what lay around them. Turning the pages back and forth, I gradually figured out that Opa spent exactly one year in or near combat in the four-year war — from June 1915 to June 1916, when he was wounded and discharged.
When I was 10, my mother gave me a novel for boys that age, called “The Fire-Eaters,” a seductive piece of identity propaganda about Adam Levy, a Jewish kid who grows up to become a doughboy hero on the Western Front in 1918. Reading the realistic battles, Allan Jalon became Adam Levy.
I have Swiss family on my father’s side, and, in my early teens, an uncle in Basel — a member of the city’s Orthodox community — took me on a drive through the French countryside just over the Swiss border. He pulled up at the side of a narrow road, pointed me to a meadow, and took a nap under his hat while I entered a field that turned into sharp ridges. I almost stepped on a rusty curl of barbed wire. It was one of the trenches where the Adam Levys fought, I realized.
In the landscape of Opa’s memoir, though, I had no living relatives to give me personal tours of the war. I learned about Alsace. But where was Bukovina? At the time I had no idea.
I left my curiosity in limbo for decades. Life — school, career, marriage — made the present more compelling than the past. But on a morning about a year ago, I opened my eyes and realized that the July 1914 centennial of the first fighting in the war was just a year off. I went to the desk, where I keep the memoir and stared again at the names of unfamiliar rivers, the Pruth and the Czeremosz. I knew Czernowitz as the city where the great Holocaust poet Paul Celan grew up.
It was time to venture beyond the bleak allure of a Western Front that looked like a set for “Waiting for Godot” times a million to troll Google for details. They could be elusive because almost every town and city in Opa’s narrative is known in two or three languages: German, Romanian and Ukrainian. Because he was a German-speaking soldier, I’m sticking mostly to the German. Googling Pruth and Dniester, I got photos of lovely scenery in Romania and Ukraine.
Then, I typed “June 4, 1916,” and the words “Russian attack.”
Up came the image of Aleksei Brusilov — the first time I’d seen that name — an officer of some kind with layers of medals on his chest. He had an elegantly chiseled face, soft in some way, a long nose over a white handlebar mustache. The text said he was a Russian general, and it included the June 4 date.
After reading some more, I slipped into melancholy. The date had acquired a black border in my mind. My great-uncle Felix had a narrow, handsome face. His dark eyes look directly at the viewer in the one photo I’ve seen. He wears a dress uniform, in careful studio lighting, but seems relaxed. Opa writes that Felix was a half head taller than he. He was 19 when he died.
I kept at the memoir, reading and rereading my way through savage fighting that Opa saw in the fall of 1915, putting Russians on the run north of the Dniester River, following him into a 1915–1916 winter filled with boredom. Then, between pages 43 and 55, I found crushing Russian attacks and panicked retreats. Was this the Brusilov Offensive?
I went back online and saw mention of Dowling’s book, published by Indiana University Press, the first in English devoted exclusively to the offensive. I got it and found description and analysis by a specialist in both Austrian and Russian history. Dowling used material from military archives in Moscow, where he worked in the U.S. Embassy for a time, and in Vienna. He taught at the Vienna International School before taking up an appointment at the Virginia Military Institute.
Military history, even in Dowling’s clear style, was hard going for me, a freelance reporter who usually writes about the arts: “Pflanzer-Baltin ordered the 3rd and 8th Cavalry Divisions into the area to screen the retreat; the 800 men remaining in the 8th Cavalry Division, however, proved insufficient to hold the Russians along a 14-kilometer front.”
I still couldn’t tell if Opa was experiencing Brusilov. I emailed Dowling, who agreed to read the memoir. Yes, he wrote back: “I think you can certainly say that the military events here —particularly your grandfather’s wounding and his brother’s death— were part of the Brusilov Offensive. The dates, the geography and the units match up with the Austro-Hungarian Seventh Army’s disastrous encounter and retreat.”
John Keegan, in “The First World War,” inserts a lament that “these titanic battles on the Eastern Front” are “difficult to represent at a human or individual level.” He writes that, compared with the Western Front, “Personal reminiscences are very rare.” Most of the Russian army, he states, consisted of peasants who couldn’t read or write. The better-educated Austrians left “equally few recollections of service in the ranks,” which he ascribes to their pain as “the disaster of the war was overtaken in personal experiences by the even greater upheaval of the Habsburg empire’s collapse.”
Opa enlisted in the Habsburg cavalry as an “Einjahriger Freiwilliger,” an officer’s candidate, and his roles at the front included dispatch riding, carrying messages among officers, crossing trenches and rivers under fire on horseback, and fighting on foot.
He was promoted to Oberleutnant — the equivalent to an American first lieutenant — in the fall of 1915. This was in Bukovina, the southwestern wing of the Eastern Front. Austria-Hungary’s relatively liberal policies toward Jews enabled them to become officers in the military, unlike in Germany. For him, the promotion was clearly the high point of the war. He was given command of a 60-man platoon. “At the time I was still ambitious,” he writes, and the memoir conveys his drive to “distinguish myself” with his fighting ability.
Rozenblit, in her book, writes that Jews’ loyalty to Austria-Hungary stemmed largely from their chance to fight a “Jewish holy war” against czarist Russia, “home of pogroms and state-sponsored anti-Jewish oppression.”
If she’s right, Opa was an exception. One feels how driven he was to prove himself equal or superior to other men in his descriptions of his battlefield successes. He describes winning a silver medal for bravery first-class in his first major battle, capturing 200 Russian soldiers, a number that seemed wild to me until I read in Keegan’s book that many Russians preferred Austrian captivity to the czar’s army. He expresses general historical interest in the Cossacks as “the czar’s personal guards” after killing a few, but not as a Jewish avenger.
He did have an avenger’s spirit, though, when his integrity as a Jew risking his life as an Austrian was questioned.
Much of the memoir for the winter of 1915–1916 involves long stretches of boredom broken by occasional patrols wearing white camouflage through a snow-bound no-man’s-land. During one of the dull days, there was another anti-Semitic incident. His fellow officers were playing a monopoly-like dice game with cutout paper horses racing on a barracks floor. The officers, he writes, “played all horses, except mine, because they said that a Jewish horse could not win.”
“I put my money on the other horses and only one penny on mine, fully aware that, if my horse won, this one penny would bring me all the money waged in the race. Well, my horse won and not only once, but twice, consecutively.” As he collected his money, a Lieutenant Kathreiner turned to him “with a red face” and declared: “This is Jewish luck!”
Opa tells how he “could not stand it any longer, grabbed him at the throat.” The two fight, and Opa challenges him to a duel. Just in time, a commanding officer hears about it and calls it off, forcing the men to shake hands and focus their energies on the common enemy. Opa writes that he went on to have “worse” encounters with the anti-Semitic Kathreiner, but he doesn’t get specific.
Such incidents take on a new force when one reads about the sacrifices the Arnstein family made, amid the anti-Semitic tensions Opa describes.
According to Rozenblit, about 300,000 Jewish soldiers served in the Habsburg forces. She writes that they “suffered high casualties and received large numbers of medals for their bravery.” The story of my great-uncle Felix is about one assimilated Jewish soldier who gave his life for the empire.
In the spring of 1916, Felix graduated from officers candidate school, and Opa writes that he ended up commanding a platoon “not far away from me.” He tells how they “visited each other very often and while I had considered myself superior because I was three years older, the common danger closed us together and we became the best of friends.”
That May, the cavalry division to which both men belonged was transferred to the southeastern corner of the front between the Dniester and Pruth Rivers. It was, they understood, a “very important section of our front,” near a village called Dobronoutz. They were in a forest of birch trees. Bukovina, the memoir points out, means “land of birches” in Romanian. Again, “Felix was not far away.”
The brothers rotated between stretches at the front and time behind the lines, where they enjoyed spring days in barracks located “in a lovely clearing in the forest.” In Dobronoutz, my grandfather made “a great discovery!”: a bathtub. It was dirty and rusty, but it held water, and “when I stretched my tired limbs, smoked a cigarette and relaxed, it felt like heaven.”
At one point, Felix pays Fritz a surprise visit and teases him about being selfish with the bathtub. He asserts his right to it as an officer fresh from the frontlines. The scene conveys the mutual admiration that grew between the brothers at the front: “He was half a head taller than I, very good looking and the only one who could beat me in chess more often than I beat him.”
It was May, and British, French and Russian commanders were well into planning for an offense on the Eastern Front to divert German-Austrian resources from the Western Front before the giant assault at the Somme, which they decided would start on July 1 as an all-out effort to end the war. General Joseph Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, had proposed the idea. Czar Nicholas II personally reviewed it in February 1916 and committed to it. Dowling says the Russian high command met on April 14, 1916, and Brusilov stunned his fellow generals by declaring that he could defeat the Habsburg forces along a 280-mile section of the Eastern Front without much of an advantage in men or weapons and against the well-fortified Austrian trenches in Bukovina.
Dowling, who has edited a volume of World War I memoirs, emailed me that Opa’s is unusual for the way it moves back and forth between the front and the home front.
A home leave was the last time he saw Felix. The four Arnstein brothers were together with their parents for the first time since the war began. Opa writes that their mother — Amalia was her name — took them to a “garden party for some charity and walked with her 4 sons, 3 of them in uniform, through the crowd. It was a lovely day [at the] end of May. We met and talked to many friends and at supper mother told us that she had been very proud.”
A few days later, Fritz takes Felix to the station to go back to the front. Soon after, Rudi, discharged after losing his arm and back at the university, takes his twin to the train for the 24-hour trip to Czernovitz.
The capitol of Bukovina was Austrian now, but had already changed hands before. Jews played key roles in the city’s cultural and political life. There were also important Hasidic communities among the villages dotting the area. Opa, from multiethnic Trieste, never mentions this. Maybe the old Habsburg diversity (along with nationalist impulses that had sparked the war) was too familiar to notice.
The broader stakes in Bukovina included control of the Dniester River to the east of Czernowitz, the Pruth, a key east-west water boundary, and the Carpathians farther west. The area’s rich farmland had fed empires and armies for centuries. It was early summer. Fields were full of wheat and other early summer crops when Brusilov gave the order to launch the offensive at 1 a.m. on June 4. The Russian guns began their barrages three hours later.
At first, Dowling reports, the firing didn’t alarm the Austrians, though it wasn’t long before they realized it was so accurate, vital telephone links were being cut by artillery. It was “not overwhelming,” stopped awhile, then resumed: “slow, steady, accurate.”
A British military observer, watching his country’s Russian allies work, reported that the “fire continued all day methodically with careful observation after each shot.” It was “chiefly directed upon the passages cut through the enemy’s wire during the day to prevent all possibility of repair.”
Casualties the first day were not great. Dowling never mentions the village of Dobronoutz, where my grandfather’s brother was killed: “He was fighting hand to hand in the trench, when a hand grenade hit and killed him instantly,” Opa writes. But Dowling cites Russian breakthroughs on June 5 at other nearby towns in the bucolic region that spread out north and northeast of Czernovitz. That morning, Russians streamed through a 4,000-yard-wide sector “criss-crossed with ravines that limited the range and effectiveness of the Austro-Hungarian artillery.”
On June 6, about 6,000 men died on each side in fighting near a well-defended, Austrian-held town called Okna. Austrian officers were accustomed to assaults by masses of Russians at once, crowds of men relatively easy to mow down with machine guns. But the selective flashes of movement against them now confused them with their speed and focus. Something new was happening and Austrian commanders ordered their units to retreat.
Military commanders may not always be humanists, but good ones are intellectuals. What they do or fail to do, despite the difficult fact that they destroy lives and property with professionalized effort, depends on their ability to translate the conditions offered them into ideas that achieve their aims. They study established ideas, and some make a point of seeking new ones.
Brusilov was an unusual warfare Modernist among his peers. He made more of less, focusing on improving the training of his soldiers and the quality of their equipment over traditional Russian reliance on mass assaults, which had allowed the Austrians to mow them down with machine guns. Still, the overall number of men fielded on both sides that June was huge, about 650,000 Russians (including more than 50,000 cavalry) on their Southwestern Front, and almost 500,000 on the Habsburg side, including 30,000 German troops that fought with the Austrians. They had 22,000 cavalry.
Rather than spread his resources thin, Brusilov persuaded fellow members of the Russian general staff to concentrate them in more compact groups along the 280-mile line, a distance more than half of the whole Western Front. The idea was to approach Austrian defenses through corridors plotted by careful intelligence to exploit weaknesses, projecting combined forces of artillery, infantry and cavalry.
Brusilov used recent advances in artillery explored by his counterparts on the Western Front, French and German, and prepared hard, making sure that he had sufficient quantities of shells. Norman Stone writes a chapter on the shell shortages that had plagued the Russians. Brusilov used aerial reconnaissance to an extent unprecedented on the Eastern Front, developing maps of Austrian positions as good as the Austrians’ own, learning locations and strengths of guns and men. He used disinformation techniques, hiding preparations in plain sight by mixing phony work with real.
My grandfather’s memoir describes ground-shaking trommelfeuer, drumming fire by heavy cannon, from previous barrages on his sector. The Allies picked up the method, to kill trench-dwellers before an attack across no-man’s land, from the Germans. Brusilov disdained trommelfeuer for creating an illusion of effectiveness — one British commanders fell for, disastrously, at the Somme.
The sector of the front where the offensive came at the Austrian Seventh Army — including my grandfather’s platoon — was at one of those sites of Brusilov’s selective artillery shooting.
My grandfather missed the opening day of the Brusilov Offensive. The memoir suggests that he arrived back at Czernowitz from his leave in Vienna on June 5 or the morning of the June 6, and fellow officers told him about “the terrible battle we had just been through. The Russians had succeeded to push us back but could not break our lines,” he writes, “mainly thanks to the heroic resistance of our regiment, which had stopped their advance east of Dobronoutz. The regiment had suffered terrible losses.”
At first, he is told his brother is just missing. But someone finally tells him the truth. He wants to write his parents about it himself, before the official letter arrives. “That night I could not sleep,” he writes, in the memoir’s most heart-breaking scene of family loss. “I wrote and rewrote in my mind the letter… I knew only too well, that words could not console them, but I wanted at least to try. Now I know, that I must have used many slogans, which are common place in war, about the honor to die young fighting for the fatherland, about the rapture of the battle and a hero’s death and many more, but what else could I do?”
He hastily mailed the letter and joined the Austrians’ sweeping westward retreat toward the Carpathians.
“The Russians had attacked with overwhelming force north of our position, cracked our line and advanced deeply in our flank and possibly even our rear,” he writes. “In order to avoid encirclement, we had to march for 24 hours, a distance of about 50 miles, with hardly a rest, always ready for combat and prepared to attack any enemy force, which would have tried to stop us.”
The writing suggests shock at his pursuers’ relentlessness. He’d taken part in action not long before that had crushed attacking Russians. Then, the Austrians thought the Russians were a mess. Then, they were. Now, Dowling writes: “The Austrian Seventh Army, incapable of defending open ground, continued to retreat.”
Opa writes that he “lost all feeling for time.” It isn’t simple panic, he describes, but a tactical retreat, as Austrians stop to fight, leaving small groups in villages to cover withdrawals by larger ones and ambushing Russian units that advance too far and get isolated. Opa writes that one of the most terrifying nights he spent as a soldier came when he was left behind with a small group to slow down the larger Russian force as his regiment retreated across a river. He held his position until dawn, then fled himself.
Dowling writes that Austrian commanders decided to make a stand on the ground between the Pruth and the Dniester. Opa contradicts this, writing that his platoon “finally reached the river Pruth, without seeing any enemy, who must have swarmed around us, crossed the river on a new Pontoon bridge and were safe. After all troops had reached the south shore of the river, the pontoon bridge was removed, to prevent the Russians to follow us.”
The memoir describes movement across swift rivers, steep banks in places, open fields edged by forest, forests giving way to farms. Such details animate John Keegan’s point that the eastern side of the first industrialized war was fought in an agrarian landscape, not the denatured killing fields of the Western Front. My grandfather repeatedly refers to natural beauty, noticing a synagogue in the middle of a meadow, asking a farmer who was tilling his field for directions. I picture the land knowing that, beneath his feet on the flight to the West, the empire to which it has belonged for centuries is crumbling beneath his feet.
After the Pruth, Opa writes, an Austrian general realizes the Russian forces behind them are “much stronger and superior to his and ordered the general retreat” behind the next river, the Czeremosz: “The water was cold and deep and we had to carry our guns and ammunition over our heads….” And one mid-June night, he’s grateful that “night had arrived and the dark always helps the weaker force and was our friend.”
There are more fields, another river, more running and fighting, until Opa crosses a clearing in a forest, and turns back. With his binoculars he sees “fur caps and dark uniforms” darting through woods on the other side. He’s encountered Cossacks before. On a winter patrol that past December, he led a team of three white-camouflaged snipers who killed three Cossacks dancing at night at the edge of a trench. Now, he thinks he’s out of their range, but one opens fire. “I threw myself behind a tree, but too late. I felt a hit on my left kneecap, and when I looked down, my breeches were already soaked in blood.”
There’s a page about his wound being dressed by a fellow soldier in the woods, his ride after he manages to get on a horse to a field hospital — the pain in his knee as he has to jump irrigation ditches. He gets to a field hospital at the foot of the Carpathians. A doctor sees no infection. He falls into exhausted sleep next to a young Hungarian officer who’d been shot through the bladder. The Hungarian dies during the night. Carried by fellow soldiers, finally in a farmer’s cart, Opa makes it over the mountains, down to a Hungarian town called Mischkolz, and takes a train to Vienna.
There he wakes up from surgery to see that “my poor mother was fighting tears and my father was so pale as I had never seen him before.” And he tells them his story, the one he’ll write 50 years later, “the whole thing, about Felix, my retreat, the skirmishes I had been in, how I was wounded and came home.”
The number of men who didn’t make it home is incalculable. Yale historian J.M. Winter writes in his exhaustive overview, “The Experience of World War I,” that “no one will ever know how many men perished.” He estimates nine million, the population of New York City when his book appeared in 1988. Dowling puts the number of Russian dead for the summer of 1916, when the Brusilov Offensive was the major effort, at one million, with another million injured. In June and July 1916, more than 407,000 enlisted Austrians and officers were killed, wounded or captured.
The offensive unraveled through the summer and fall, when other generals stopped sending Brusilov supplies and reserves. The Austrians mounted sporadic counter-attacks, but by November 1916 they’d achieved little beyond the deaths of another 300,000 men. Pressure was taken off the Allies in the West, but things there went so badly, it didn’t help.
In 1917 the Germans enabled Lenin’s trip from Zurich on the famous “sealed train,” possibly the shrewdest move of the whole war, and a decisive one for world history. They won their gamble when Lenin pressed for a Russian withdrawal from the war, the Bolsheviks lost sway in the 1917 peace talks and Russia lost a lot of what Brusilov had claimed in his offensive.
Battlefield success and a human touch with his soldiers made Brusilov a hero amid Russia’s political upheaval. Parting with other high officers, he supported the revolution, briefly becoming supreme commander of the army and fleet under the provisional government. He died in 1926 in Moscow. The Nazis would apply Brusilov’s targeted, combined-forces approach to the Blitzkrieg attacks they made across a new Eastern Front for their ill-fated Russian invasion.
In January 1920, my grandfather and my grandmother, who he met and married in Vienna, returned to Trieste. Fascism had already taken root in the city’s border town nationalism, and Benito Mussolini soon became prime minister. His ascent began the long build of Fascist power that would later result in the Arnsteins’ departure from Italy after anti-Semitic laws were passed in 1938.
Back home in 1920, though, Opa tried to find his place. He experienced the sort of exile-at-home that became common across the former empire, as cities changed hands and old loyalties dissolved. A man who liked the opera less for the singing than for the friends he met at intermission, he noticed a chill in the air.
“I had been away for four years. The city had a new look. It had become Italian and some of my old friends looked the other way when we met, because I had been an Austrian officer and therefore an enemy,” he writes on the memoir’s last page, then added: “It took years until this attitude changed and I must say never completely.”
And me, after re-exploring Opa’s memoir this centennial year, where am I? I still have his dark eyes in front of me, looking down from above his wide shoulders in the doorway. I hear him telling me — absurdly — that I’m a winner for being able to stand free of his history. I have pushed the door open as wide as I could, trying to get in there with him and make believe that what happened to him also happened to me. I wonder, at times, what good comes of that. Did I pass the test? What have I learned, beyond the degree of violence that men can do to each other in the name of national pride and individual ambition or just because they have gotten helplessly swept up into the fight?
I recently found a book of essays written during World War I by Hermann Hesse called, “If the War Goes On….”
The first essay is dated, September 1914, 100 years ago. In it, he writes: “The nations are at each other’s throats; every day countless men are suffering and dying in terrible battles.” Then he concludes: “Precisely this wretched World War must make us more keenly aware that love is higher than hate, understanding than anger, peace than war. Or what would be the good of it?”
Contact Allan Jalon at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story "My Opa's Story of World War One's Other Fight" was written by Allan M. Jalon.