POLISH SERVICEMEN IN THE AUSTRO-HUNGARIAN ARMY ON THE EVE OF POLAND'S INDEPENDENCE (Zolnierze polscy w armii austro-wegierskiej w przededniu odzyskania przez Polske niepodleglosci)
During World War I Austro-Hungarian army units with a regional base had a fair share of Polish recruits. In general, Poles made up c. 8% of the military. Until the end of the war an estimated 700 thousand Poles served in the ranks; 90 thousands of them died. The greatest losses were registered in Galicia during the first twelve months of hostilities. By comparison, casualties in the third and fourth year of the war amounted to c. 30% of the death toll of the first twelvemonth of 1914-1915. At first, units with a large number of Polish soldiers were deployed mainly on the Eastern front line. After 1916, however, an increasing number of them were sent to the Italian front. In any theatre, the Polish units were dependably loyal: the scale of desertions remained well below 1%. That figure did not rise until 1918, when pacifist and anti-Austrian sentiments came out into the open as the food situation in the forces deteriorated in the winter and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk put an end to war between the Central powers and Russia (signed on 3 March 1918). While the decline of discipline proceeded at the fastest rate in the rear regiments, the military as a whole reeled under the impact of an unprecedented flu epidemic (nearly two-thirds of frontline troops had to be hospitalized). More shockwaves came in October 1918 from the Italian and Serb fronts. As some regiments with a large proportion of Polish troops refused to fight on, the Italians took the initiative and pressed for a decisive battle. It took place at Vittorio Veneto, where the Austro-Hungarian defence lines could hardly halt an Italian offensive which led to the capture of Triest and brought about a speedy end of the war on the southern front. After Vittorio Veneto the meltdown of the Austro-Hungarian army became unstoppable. While some soldiers surrendered to the Italians, others took advantage of the confusion and set out for Poland. The rear regiments manned by Poles did not hold out much longer. The appeals of politicians and frantic efforts of some of the officers were all in vain: the men simply wanted to lay down their arms and go home. That seems to have been the motivation of the rank-and-file soldiers. Unlike the officers and some of the non-commissioned officers they did not intend to join a Polish army. If the new Polish army could boast of any former Austro-Hungarian servicemen, they came primarily from the 38,000 prisoners-of-war who had been captured on the Italian front and then transferred from the POW camps to the embryo Polish regiments in Italy and France (these units did not come to Poland until June 1919). In the first phase of the reconstruction of an independent Poland and the struggle for its borders the former soldiers of Austro-Hungarian army played a marginal role at best.
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