Usually, when we think about the First World War in Europe the image of the western front line appears before our eyes. In France this conflict is called ‘the Great War’ and some of the famous battlefields were at Verdun, Marne and Ypres.
The Eastern European front line is sometimes forgotten and we should remember that many battles took place in the territories of today’s Poland. When World War 1 ended in 1918, Poland was able to regain its independence, after many decades of foreign rule.
Polish people had been living under three partitions: Prussian, Austrian and Russian, and the Polish soldiers fought for all 3 of these armies, sometimes against each other. Just another dramatic fact in our turbulent history.
Many crucial battles of the Eastern Front took place in Galicia, in the Austrian partition.
In 1914, Russia began the successful invasions of Austrian Galicia and German East Prussia. They were moving west and in December 1914, they reached the Kaim hill, located on the outskirts of Kraków. By the end of the year the Russians were controlling almost whole territory of Galicia.
The Russian and Austro-Hungarian armies continued to clash in and near the Carpathian Mountains, throughout the winter of 1914 and 1915.
In the Spring of 1915, the Gorlice-Tarnów offensive began. It started as a minor offensive by the Germans, trying to relieve Russian pressure on the Austro-Hungarian army. This whole operation resulted in the total collapse of the Russian army, causing their hasty retreat back to the East.
So the small, forgotten villages in poor Galicia played out the important role in the history theatre.
In this area of today’s Poland, there remain only a few tangible traces of those dramatic events.
What makes the biggest impression on us are the Galician World War 1 cemeteries.
Let’s start from the beginning. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was well known for its maniacal, obsessive, sometimes absurd bureaucracy. There was huge number of the officials and all kinds of clerks in the whole empire, working in all sorts of offices and departments. Even the emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria called himself ‘the first civil servant’.
It is no wonder that in 1915 the Austrian War Ministry established the Kriegsgraber Abteilung – ‘Department of War Graves’. Its main goals were to record lists of the dead, exhume corpses from the battlefields for reburial, as well as the design, construction and decoration of war cemeteries. These tasks were carried out wherever the Austrian armies fought their battles: in Serbia, Italian Dolomites, Eastern Carpathians, Volyn, and of course in Galicia.
This task was completed only in Kraków and Western Galicia, mostly thanks to the outstanding commanders of the area: Rudolf Broch and Hans Hauptmann.
The Department of War Graves and the Imperial-Royal Military Headquarters from Kraków, divided the whole area of Western Galicia to 10 districts. These ten districts were: Żmigród, Jasło, Gorlice, Łużna, Pilzno, Tarnów, Brzesko, Dąbrowa (currently Dąbrowa Tarnowska), Bochnia, Limanowa.
Each district had its main cemetery architect. 400 cemeteries were designed and created by the most prominent and well known Galician architects of that time. In the whole area of Galicia, a spectacular charitable action took place to collect money for the cemeteries construction. Each district had one main, representative cemetery, with a chapel and parade ground. All projects were created with incredible attention to detail, sometimes referring to the ancient military symbols, sometimes to traditional national architecture, with the respect to the religion of the victims: there are latin crosses, three-arm orthodox crosses and even typical Muslim grave of the Bosnian soldier (on the cemetery in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, outside the 10 districts).
It is significant to note that from the beginning of the project, soldiers of both armies involved in the conflict, were buried in the cemeteries. This was a beautiful, noble gesture, to honor all of the fighting soldiers, and also the enemies. This is not without reason that the First World War is sometimes also called ‘The Gentleman’s War’.
So, while visiting the cemeteries, we can see there grave stones of Hungarians, Czechs, Rusyns, Poles, Croats, Russians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Armenians, Georgians…
>In the cemeteries, there are often inscriptions or poetic maxims, referring to the universal values and honor.
Here are some examples:
‘We were longing to fight, we have found peace’
(cemetery no.11 in Wola Cieklińska)
“In life at odds, in death reconciled,
Together their bones are buried here,
Because no matter who they were,
What they meant then,
It matters they remain faithful. “
(cemetery no. 123 on the Pustki hill)
‘In a peace-cup
Wood surrounded us softly
Died in action
Like in the battle we lived’
(cemetery no. 42 in Sieklówka)
‘Don’t ask who was as enemy,
Thousands of heroes faithful to the oath died in the fight.
Victims rested in straight rows of graves,
Angel of death took them under his protection in heaven,
Free from hatred’
(cemetery no.8 in Nowy Żmigród)
One of the greatest examples of the war cemeteries from Galicia is the one on Pustki hill, in the village of Łuzna: 1200 soldiers from opposite belligerents, among them lots of Polish people fighting in Russian and Austrian armies are buried there. The battle of Gorlice took place between May 2 and 5, 1915. The fights on the Pustki hill lasted just a few hours. Imagine this: 1200 victims, died in the dramatic fights and bayonets assaults. This necropolis makes a huge impression. Space was designed by the architect Jan Szczepkowski. The system corresponds to the conduct of the fighting. The graves mark the places of the duels. Climbing in the beautiful beech forest to the top of the hill, along the way we discover even more crosses, and more and more new mounds of graves. Most of the graves are at the top, where the most dramatic assaults took place, and where the architect chose to place the chapel. Destroyed in the fire in 80’s, the chapel is currently under renovation and in 2015, for the 100th anniversary of the Gorlice offensive, the works should be completed.
This place, with both its beauty of the Carpathian forest, light-exposed trees, and the sad memories from a difficult history, is very moving for our imagination.
The other cemeteries worth seeing are in Nowy Żmigród, Wola Cieklińska, Staszkówka.
Some of them are beautifully renovated, with fresh flowers and candles brought here by some official delegations from Slovakia, Hungary, Austria.
Some of the cemeteries are destroyed, hidden in braided tangle of bushes and tall grass.
Many of them are beautifully located, composed with the natural surroundings, designed with the use of the natural terrain elevation, existing chapels and road shrines, and many old trees.
They are not only incredible monumental pieces of art, but most of all a gesture of honor and old-fashioned habits, to dignify the defeated opponent. It is said that the 1st World War, in spite of its cruelty, was the last one with such gentlemanly and chivalrous values.
These cemeteries are definitely the places worthy to see and to feel the twists and twirls of Galicia history.
Watch the interesting documentary about the traces of First world War in Western Galicia (the video is only in Polish, however contains great pictures from different war cemeteries):
Interesting websites and sources:
Jerzy J. P. Drogomir, Polegli w Galicji Zachodniej 1914-1915 (1918) – “The dead in Western Galicia 1914-1915(1918)”
Book published by the Tarnów’s regional museum. It is a complete list of cemeteries, including all projects, documentation and lists of identified buried soldiers, with army belonging and military ranks.
The online database of military cemeteries in Poland. It includes war cemeteries from different periods, not only from the First World War along with lists of soldiers buried in Western Galicia.
Great online collection of German postcards from World War I.
Special thanks to James for editing and language correction.