Conrad von Hötzendorf was an objectively bad commander-in-chief, one of the worst generals in a war known for terrible leadership. It was hard enough that his army spoke a dozen languages. Much like the patchwork empire it was supposed to defend, the kaiserlich-und-königlich armee (k.u.k.) was cobbled together from different parts that didn’t quite fit each other. A turncoat named Alfred Redl had only just destroyed the entire Hapsburg spy network in Russia during 1913. Unprepared for modern warfare, cursed with sclerotic bureaucracy and limited infrastructure, the Austro-Hungarian empire was characterized by schlamperei, an attitude of sluggish muddling-through. Conrad failed to squeeze more prewar funding for artillery and aircraft out of his monarch, and as the war broke out he was continually distracted by his torrid love affair with a married woman.
Nevertheless, Conrad did succeed in getting eleven new field radio stations added to his army before the war, and this lone achievement was entirely out of proportion to Conrad’s failures. Only half-aware of the possibilities radio represented, he had made a crucial difference, for the empire would manage to muddle through all the way to the finish. Electromagnetism, the great force-multiplier of the new age, staved off defeat long enough to bleed the world dry.
Of the top five “great powers” in Europe on the eve of the Great War, Austria-Hungary had the fewest fixed radio transmission stations. However, the Evidenzbureau — Conrad’s intelligence section — had already developed radio surveillance assets for six years before the shots rang out in Sarajevo.
Russian meddling in the Balkans was the first spur to action. The fleet radio station at Pola intercepted diplomatic traffic between the radio station at Antivari in Montenegro. Searching his files, Evidenzbureau head Max Ronge discovered the Russian cipher was already cracked. When Italy invaded Libya in 1911, the Evidenzbureau carefully observed fresh volumes of Italian Army radio traffic: “it rained intercepted dispatches,” Ronge writes in his memoir. Collecting and decrypting these signals proved the utility of a systematic approach through a standing organization. Upon the outbreak of war in 1914, this three-year old infrastructure was ready once Russian troops had crossed the frontier in Galicia, and within a week of the first fighting the Evidenzbureau would have an enormous impact on what was otherwise a disastrous opening campaign.
Nothing could preserve the empire forever in a war of attrition. Nor was it possible to actually defeat the Russian colossus with radio energy alone. That victory would require German help, which would come only after the k.u.k. had bled its strength away in frozen Carpathian passes through the apocalyptic first winter of the war. Nevertheless, the Hapsburg army was only just able to stop the Cossacks at the gates of Hungary because they had pulled their fat out of the fire in Galicia.
According to the general who wrote the official history of Vienna’s war in the 1930s, timely intelligence from the radio stations at Cracow and Przemyśl provided early warning. After belated comprehension of the Russian trap closing on his army, Conrad withdrew in time to salvage it.
Yet the cost of this “victory” was grim. More than a million Hapsburg citizens were dead, wounded, or had been taken prisoner. Surrounded, the fortress at Przemyśl was forced to surrender. Writing in the week after a German-led offensive drove Russians back out of central Galicia, future art historian Lt. Pál Kelemen observes in Hussar’s Picture Book that “nobody rejoices in the way that people at home might expect.” Exhausted, “everyone has become indifferent, worn down by the everlasting tension; the shattered spirits cannot recover any more.”
Yet somehow, the empire would muddle through for more than three years, schlamperei to the end.
Rome abandoned their Triple Alliance with Vienna and Berlin at the outbreak of war. As the new year of 1915 heated up, once again the Evidenzbureau observed a spike in radio traffic. It was the diplomatic buzz created by Italy seeking a new alliance with the enemies of the empire. A flurry of messages between Rome and the Italian embassy in Berlin gave away the timing of their intentions, and the Italian Army was unable to achieve strategic surprise.
Instead, the Austro-Hungarian Navy sortied in a spoiling attack that targeted trains, harbors, and other coastal infrastructure. As the Italian Army attacked k.u.k positions along the border two days later, troops met only light resistance, and began to celebrate a stunning victory … until the artillery and machine guns crashed in from all sides. It was the damnable luck of the Italians to have the absolute worst general of the war, perhaps the only man who could ever be defeated by Austrians. Luigi Cadorna, a gigantic ego with zero imagination or talent, wasted their lives in eleven identical offensives along the same front. Once again, the Evidenzbureau had provided advance warning, and now the defensive tactics of the Western Front turned the Isonzo river into a charnel house on the scale of Galicia.
In their postwar analysis, the Italian Army concluded that “the enemy knew all our ciphers, even the most secret and most important.” Max Ronge, the last man to lead the k.u.k.’s intelligence division, called SIGINT “the great secret of the imperial and royal army.” Radio signals intelligence could not save the Hapsburg project forever, but it did extract a very high price from the killers of the empire.
Today it is fashionable to dismiss the Austro-Hungarians as backwards, and their army as useless. Even in 1914, the Germans famously worried that they might be shackled to a corpse. Yet it was the German Kaiser who abdicated first, and it was Woodrow Wilson at Versailles, not a decline of morale or a battlefield defeat, that ultimately killed the Hapsburg empire and disinherited its army.
However grim or dispirited, their fight continued to the bitter end, powered by the brand-new electromagnetic forces that defined their age.