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The Fortress  By  cover art

The Fortress

By: Alexander Watson
Narrated by: Laurence Dobiesz
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Publisher's Summary

Brought to you by Penguin. 

From the prize-winning author of Ring of Steel, a gripping history of the First World War's longest and most terrible siege. 

In the autumn of 1914 Europe was at war. The battling powers had already suffered casualties on a scale previously unimaginable. On both the Western and Eastern fronts elaborate war plans lay in ruins and had been discarded in favour of desperate improvisation. In the West this resulted in the remorseless world of the trenches; in the East all eyes were focused on the old, beleaguered Austro-Hungarian fortress of Przemysl.

The siege that unfolded at Przemysl was the longest of the whole war. In the defence of the fortress and the struggle to relieve it Austria-Hungary suffered some 800,000 casualties. Almost unknown in the West, this was one of the great turning points of the conflict. If the Russians had broken through they could have invaded Central Europe, but by the time the fortress fell their strength was so sapped they could go no further.

Alexander Watson, prize-winning author of Ring of Steel, has written one of the great epics of the First World War. Comparable to Stalingrad in 1942-3, Przemysl shaped the course of Europe's future. Neither Russians nor Austro-Hungarians ever recovered from their disasters. Using a huge range of sources, Watson brilliantly re-creates a world of long-gone empires, broken armies and a cut-off community sliding into chaos. The siege was central to the war itself but also a chilling harbinger of what would engulf the entire region in the coming decades, as nationalism, anti-Semitism and an exterminatory fury took hold.

©2019 Alexander Watson (P)2019 Penguin Audio
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History

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  • A. J. Taylor
  • 07-18-22

Empires Collide

The Fortress: The Great Siege of Przemysl by Alexander Watson is the epic tale of the longest siege of the First World War. Beginning on 14th September 1914, the reader can see that it is one of the very early clashes of the war, before the horrors and stalemate set in, which we all so readily associate with this fateful conflict. It is almost like the last touch or battle of the old world before so much disappeared and changed.

This was clear, as tactics concerning the use of the new artillery which could be loaded and fired without repositioning (allowing fire rates to dramatically increase), machine guns which gun devastate infantry like no combat had ever seen and trench warfare which baffled commanders in how to break down, were all utilised for the first time with shocking consequences. Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Austrian chief of staff believed in the very early stages that sheer willpower of the infantry solider would be enough to overcome the enemy. This had disastrous consequences, even claiming the life of his son. By the end of the siege tactics had massively developed, for example, first the Russians and the Austrians utilised night offensives, even removing all bullets to ensure rifles did not go off to alert sleeping enemy soldiers.

Przemysl was one of two major fortress towns in Galicia, (north eastern Austria-Hungary and now southern Poland) with the other being Krakow, further west. Reinforced in the late 19th century as a safeguard against Russia it became the Hapsburgs version of Stalingrad in WWII. The fortress must hold at all costs, not only strategically, but also symbolically. When it was finally lost to the Russians in March 1915 it was politically a disaster for the Austrians, destroyed the moral of their armies and civilian population and encouraged neighbouring states, such as Italy and Romania to enter the war against time to stake their claim in different Hapsburg lands. For the Russians, it cost too much and came too late. They had already suffered colossal defeats to the Germans in the north (Tannenberg being the most famous), whose attentions were turning south. When the Germans retook the city soon after they found it abandoned without a fight.

The story of Przemysl is one typical of a siege in certain ways, the starvation, the debauchery, the desperation are all played out. However, the end of the siege does not end the suffering. As Watson explains the area is in the so called ‘Bloodlands’ and would encounter trauma, violence and misery for over 30 years. The worst was yet to come. The calmer and happier it days of old Hapsburg Przemysl have be bled forever from the region, but some of the old buildings survive and with this book the memory lives on too for all those who suffered in such as nonsensical war.

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  • mr Edward c Gowlett
  • 01-02-22

Perhaps a good book but with terrible narration

The narrator read the book in a slightly bizarre, utterly disinterested tone. It was almost as if each development or battle was just a bit tiresome to him and to the point that it rather ruined the book.

Moving onto the book itself, I read and listen to a lot of military history and found this heavy going. I think it would be more interesting with access to the accompanying maps but on the whole I found the author far more interested in the sociopolitical make up of the forts defenders than the story of the siege. Further, if your interest lies at the tactical level or in the stories of some of the individuals, which I think brings such books to life, this book is not for you.

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  • Nathan Obady
  • 06-28-21

Great narration, a very compelling tale

A critical period of European history, little understood until now, ethnic cleansing long before the Reich

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  • Dropshort2000
  • 01-10-21

Oooops

Oooops because I now need to read more on the Eastern Front. A fantastic, well written book. When reading about the Western Front I can visualise the locations the author is referring too and link that location to battles and offensives and how they fit into the overall historiography of the FWW. I had to keep stopping to look at maps and key events to try and understand where the Siege of Przemysl fitted in. A book to definitely revisit once my understanding of that front improves.

Notwithstanding all the above, a great book which takes the reader to the heart of the siege, wonderfully researched and written. A must for those with a FWW interest. Naively I wasn't aware antisemitism was so rife in the FWW on the Eastern Front, i wrongly assumed it was a SWW phenomenon. More reading needed on my part.

Recommended.

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  • AS
  • 11-18-20

Great Historical Account

A truely mesmorising account of the life and death of the Przemysl Fortress complex. Great individual accounts of soldiers and inhabitants of the city and the incompetence of the Habsburg military class during WWI.

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  • Jan Wammen
  • 09-09-20

Microcosmos

The Fortress was a microcosmos of Austria-Hungary and decisive in the first part of the war.

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    3 out of 5 stars
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  • William
  • 01-26-20

Dry as a bone factual review of the history of the region

Clearly narrated but the content was dry. It jumped back and forth in time in an apparent attempt to add colour and depth. Sadly did I not live up to expectations set by the publisher’s blurb.

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  • Mat P
  • 03-05-21

Meticulous and moving history of a Fortress city

An in-depth study of the fortress city of Przemysl that explores not only the 1914-1915 siege but also the history of the Polish state, the Austro-Russian contest for Eastern Europe and most impressively a detailed history of the Poles, Ukrainians and Jews who inhabited the city and suffered under the boot of two opposing empires.