Our troops standing at Gaza!

On the morning of May 9, 1916 the inhabitants of Jerusalem woke up to an extraordinary event. Four hundred Hungarian soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy’s army entered the city in a parade march.

Although the soldiers were just passing through on their way to the Negev desert, some important moments of their brief visit to Jerusalem were left to us in diaries and letters. From these we get to know that the soldiers, led by Franz Fellinger, the rector of the Austro-Hungarian pilgrim’s house visited the holy places of the city. A highlight of their visit was the solemn mass celebrated in the church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the music was provided by the orchestra of the Hungarian military unit.

The army chaplain and the staff of officers of the mountain howitzer division
after the holy mass in Jerusalem

During their brief sojourn in Jerusalem the soldiers were accommodated partly in the Austro-Hungarian pilgrim’s house, partly in the German pilgrim’s house Saint Paul. On 13 May they continued their march to the south, but their place was soon occupied by another unit of four hundred Hungarian soldiers who enjoyed the hospitality of the Holy City between 27 May and 1 June. The staff of officers of this unit, accommodated in the Austro-Hungarian pilgrim’s house, was even honored by the visit of the Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem Philipp Camassei. The Patriarch was received with military honors: the Hungarian soldiers formed lines in front of the pilgrim’s house, while the staff of officers was waiting at the entrance. At the arrival of the Patriarch the military orchestra started to play. The commander-in-chief accompanied the revered guest into the saloon of the house where he was entertained by a Hungarian Gypsy band of four. No source reveals how on earth a Gypsy band of four could be found all at once in Jerusalem. I regard it more probable that the quartet was improvised either from the Hungarian soldiers or from the military orchestra composed from the members of the battery.

But what were these eight hundred Hungarian soldiers doing at the middle of 1916 in Jerusalem under Ottoman jurisdiction? For the answer let us turn back the wheel of time by one and half year.

In February 1915 Ottoman Turkey, fighting on the side of the Central Powers, made an unsuccessful attempt to occupy the Suez Canal from the British. In spite of the fiasco, the Turkish general staff planned another breakthrough, this time counting with a support of the batteries of their allies. Already before the war, in the course of the common army exercises it was established that the mountain batteries of the Austro-Hungarian army could be used with great efficiency during an eventual desert offensive. (I would be curious to know in which desert this army exercise was carried out…) Thus in September 1915 Enver Pasha turned to the embassy of the Monarchy in Constantinople to ask for a battery support to a new offensive at Suez. The Monarchy, although reluctantly, but with the intention of maintaining the good relationship with the allies, decided to send two mountain howitzer batteries of altogether eight hundred soldiers in the spring of 1916 to Ottoman Palestine. The general staff had not much illusion concerning the efficiency of this division. When our Apostolic King Franz Joseph signed the mission’s command, he only noted with resignation: “Na ich glaub’ doch, die sehn wir nimmer!”

While the howitzers sent to the Suez front were provided by the prominent Škoda Works of Pilsen/Plzeň, the Marno mountain howitzer battery – K. u. k. Gebirgshaubitzdivision von Marno – destined to operate them was composed almost exclusively of Hungarian soldiers: the cadre center of one of the two batteries was Budapest and the other Kassa (now Košice, Slovakia). This is also attested by the few postcards with the indication “K. u. K. Gebirgshaubitzbatterie” that I have found on philatelic sites: both their senders and the addressees are Hungarians.

Distribution of the post at the battery

Some of them share the impressions of the visit to the Holy Land, like Lajos Lukács who wrote to his parents:

“…the mountain on the picture has the olive trees where the Lord Jesus sweated blood.
Kissing your hands, your son Lajos”

…but there are some in whose heart not even the magic of the Holy Land can ease the homesickness and the lack of their beloved at home:

“Dear good Erzsike! Why don’t you write? I know it is difficult, but you could write at least one or two postcards per week, because it takes months until an answer comes, as the post turns in almost a quarter of a year. Please write much about our little daughter and about yourself, too. Kissing and embracing all of you, your loving Jani.”

The address side of the postcard does not reveal whether Corporal János Ritt wanted to share his impressions of the Holy Land or the pains of his heart with Magda Ritt – his mother? his sister? – in Óbuda:

But let us now return to the beginning of 1916. The Marno mountain howitzer division was set off with great fanfarade to the Middle East in late February and early March. In Constantinople they were received with real Oriental splendour, and some days after their arrival the Sultan and Enver Pasha personally inspected the troops of their allies. The appearance of the division’s orchestra was a great success not only with the members of the local Austro-Hungarian and German colony but also with the Turkish public.

On the way to the lodgings after the parade in Constantinople

The troops continued their way in late March, first on train and then crossing the Taurus Mountains on hackeries. In Damascus they got on train again and after crossing Jerusalem they arrived to the Negev desert on 12 April. In the town of Beersheba they joined their Turkish allies. Here, in order to get accustomed to the unusual terrain and climate, they regularly held route-marches. The longest one was in May from Beersheba to Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem and back to Beersheba: 170 kms all in all. Not without a break, however, because on this occasion they had the memorable rest and visit to Jerusalem.

Reconnaissance riding in the desert

In August the joined Turkish and Hungarian troops made a second attempt to capture the Suez Canal.

This attempt failed as well, but thanks to the Hungarian battery, the British counter-attack was successfully stopped and the front line stabilized. The battery units remained on the front for a while, and in November they retired for their winter lodgings to Bethlehem.

Tooth treatment on the front

In the birth town of our Saviour the wayfarers were lodged by the Salesian and Carmelitan monasteries. Here they received on 23 November the news of the death of Franz Joseph, for whom on the following day they celebrated requiem in the Church of the Nativity. Two days later in the courtyard of the Salesian monastery the soldiers took solemn oath for the new Austrian Emperor and Hungarian King Charles.

The Hungarian soldiers share aid to the famine-struck inhabitants of Bethlehem.

In 1916 the Hungarian soldiers celebrated Christmas in peaceful circumstances in Bethlehem. Let us hear a brief quotation from the division’s official diary to illustrate the atmosphere of the feast:

“In the Church of the Nativity from ten o’clock in the night a special place was closed off with bars for the Austro-Hungarian men of the rank and file, and at eleven the whole division entered in a torchlight procession, accompanied by the orchestra. At twelve in the night His Eminence the Latin Patriarch of Syria and Palestine celebrated a pontifical mass, thus providing a great service to the division and to the inhabitants of Bethlehem. During the midnight mass the orchestra of the howitzer battery No. 2/6 played Haydn’s German Mass, while at the Transubstantiation the military choir sung the Stille Nacht. These impressive intermezzi had a great impact on every devout participant. After the reception of the Patriarch, the two batteries organized an elevating ceremony of distribution of gifts on the free place in front of their lodgings where, standing before the Christmas tree decorated with a beautiful halo, the battery commanders and the army chaplain held a captivating festive speech to the soldiers, to everyone in their own mother tongue. Then every soldier was richly provided with the gifts of the unit commanders as well as of the War Welfare Office and the “Black and Yellow Alliance” of Beirut.”

After the August failure, the Turkish army definitely gave up the idea of a Suez breakthrough. The British, however, in March 1917 launched a massive counter-offensive against the Turkish and Hungarian troops. They did it to their own destruction, as the Hungarian battery, which was waiting for the British attack on the forefront, severely stroke the enemy. While the losses of the Hungarian troops were minimal, they included the chief commander of the division himself, Captain Wladislaus Ritter von Truszkowski, who fell in close combat. Besides him also fell Sergeant Mihály Nagy as well as artillerists János Lázár and Kyrilla Bene, while chief artillerist Lajos Gonda, severely wounded, died after the battle. All of them were buried in a garden in the back lines of the battery. Who knows whether their tombs are still standing somewhere in Gaza?

The corpse of Captain Truszkowski was exhumed shortly after the battle and was buried with military solemnities in the crypt of the Assumptionist fathers on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

Burial of Captain Truszkowski in Jerusalem

Between 17 and 19 April the British repeated the attack at Gaza, this time also using tanks, but this attempt ended with heavy losses as well, due to the howitzer firing of the Hungarian battery, which was covered by the cactus grooves at man height.

The British losses were catastrophic. Only on 19 April they lost 6444 men, while the Hungarian artillerists had one single wounded by the end of the battle.

A British tank shot up by the mountain howitzer batteries in the second battle of Gaza

In October 1917 a third British attack was launched by the new commander-in-chief General Allenby. This time the breakthrough of the reorganized and reinforced British troops was successful at Beersheba, although only at the cost of several days of hard fighting. Even if the advance of the British could not be stopped any more, the Hungarian batteries successfully covered the retreat of the Turkish troops.

British battery attacking the retreating Austro-Hungarian troops

Later the Hungarian battery units participated in two battles in the Jordan valley, and they retreated from Palestine in the direction of Aleppo.

The sinister prediction of Franz Joseph proved unfounded. By the end of the war the batteries only suffered minor losses, and after they embarked in Constantinople together with the other Austro-Hungarian units fighting on the Turkish front, they arrived through Trieste to Hungary in the spring of 1919.

2 comentarios:

Irina dijo...

Fantastic photos and the material in general!

Studiolum dijo...

A Roncskutatáson bekötötték a poszt angol változatát. Mivel ott nem tudok kommentelni, ezért itt írom meg az esetleges érdeklődőknek (már aki idáig eljutott, és közben nem vette észre a magyar zászlócskát az elején, meg a Magyarul gombot a végén), hogy a poszt magyar nyelven is létezik.