Pike Grey and the “K & K”

Earlier this year, I had begun to paint some 1st World War figures, starting with Serbian infantry, followed by some 1914-era French. Figuring that I’d like to turn my attention to the Great War once more, I’ve reached for some figures from a country that has been overlooked by plastic 1/72 scale manufacturers hitherto; Austria-Hungary. This is perhaps surprising given the nation’s size and significance to the conflict. In fact, only HaT and Strelets have made any Austro-Hungarian figures that I’m aware of at 1/72 scale.

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Contemporary WWI postcard depicting troops of Austria-Hungary in action.

Neither manufacturer has made sublime figures, in my opinion, but I’ve opted to go for figures by the Ukranian manufacturer Strelets. Strelets have recently manufactured an impressive new kit; the WWI Austro-Hungarian Honved (a Hungarian version of the Austrian Landwehr). However, I’ve gone for their earlier, and now increasingly rare, sets of “WWI Austrian Infantry” and “Austro-Hungarian Infantry in Gasmasks’.

 

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WWI Austrian Infantry…
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…and they also come in gasmasks.

The style of Strelets figures tends to prompt a polarised response from hobbyists but I must confess to being a fan. They’re not ‘beautiful’, but typically they’ve plenty of character and loads of crisp detail to hang your paint on.

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Going into the Great War, the Austro-Hungarian Army introduced a uniform colour known as “Pike-Grey” (“hechtgrau” in German) for general issue to the infantry in 1908. The main headdress in the field was the kepi, also coloured the same pike-grey. I’m unsure as to why the shade of grey was named Pike. ‘Hecht’ refers to the predatory freshwater fish, yet that is largely olive-green in colour with little in common with the light grey uniform shade.

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“We want to win and we have to win!” – The Central Powers of Germany and Ottoman Turkey, with Austria and Hungary (distinguished by the ornate knot on the trouser thigh).

A little history:

The empire of Austro-Hungary was inaugurated in 1867, being a dual-monarchy split between Austria and Hungary in place of the former single Austrian Empire. The empire’s full official and very wordy name was “The Kingdoms and Lands Represented in the Imperial Council and the Lands of the Holy Hungarian Crown of St. Stephen”. The new dual monarchy was formed following Austria’s defeat at the hands of an increasingly powerful Prussia in 1866, which marked the decline in power and influence towards Prussia (and consequently Germany) and away from Austria. The empire and it’s army was colloquially known as the “K und K”, or the Kaiserlich und Königlich, referring to the Empire being both Imperial and Royal (i.e of the Austrian emperor and Hungarian king).

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Christmas 1914 for a wistful infantryman of the “kaiserlich und königlich” army.

It was certainly a curious conglomeration, the Austro-Hungarian empire, which eschewed the increasing popular idea of nations bound by ethnic identity then sweeping Europe. The state instead consisted of many different ethnic groups speaking different languages (including German, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Ukranian, Croat, Slovenian, Italian and Romanian). Their ageing monarch at the outbreak of the war in 1914 had ruled these disparate lands for 66 years.

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The cataclysm began with the declaration of war by the Austro-Hungarian empire upon Serbia in 1914. As the other Great Powers were drawn inexorably into the conflict, the Dual Monarchy found itself faced with war against Russia to the east as well as Serbia and Montenegro in the Balkans to the south. In May 1915, another front opened with Italy’s entry into the war on the side of the Allies.

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Serbian cavalry charges Austro-Hungarian troops, December 1914. The Austro-Hungarian army broke and fled back across the Danube for the second time.

From the very beginning, things did not go well for the empire. It’s invasion into Serbia saw the K&K army ignominiously expelled to the dismay of the Emperor, being badly beaten by the Serbs at the battle of Cer. A second invasion later briefly took the Serbian capital Belgrade only for the army to be badly defeated and ejected once again by a Serbian counter-attack at the battle of Kolubara in the winter of 1914. Another front then opened with the Austro-Hungarian campaign in Russian-controlled Poland which was to prove another failure. A counter-offensive by Russia them also cost the Austrians many casualties and prisoners of war and resulted in lost territory.

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Austro-Hungarian troops engage the Russians in the Carpathian mountains.

With German and Bulgarian assistance however, the Austrians eventually managed to conquer Serbia and Montengro (see my earlier post on the flight of the Serbian army through Albania) but were confronted by renewed assaults by a re-equipped Serbian army and its allies, the French, British, Romanians and, latterly, the Greeks. Their heavy reliance on German help effectively made the Austrians increasingly subordinate to their allies. To the embattled Germans, fighting with an ill-equipped and beleaguered ally was akin to being ‘shackled to a corpse’ (a quote widely attributed to German General Erich von Ludendorff).

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K & K troops defending a mountain pass against Italian troops.

As the war progressed, Italy exerted great pressure on Austria-Hungary who, once again, required the assistance of German armies to turn the tide. The Russians withdrew from the war after the 1917 revolution but eventually, terrible food shortages and political strife at home, together with declining fortunes both in the Balkans and the Italian front, led to the empire’s own disintegration and collapse. The Czech, Slovaks and Hungarians eventually declared independence and forced the remainder of this once extensive ’empire’ to sign an armistice on the 3rd of November 1918, 8 days before the Germans did the same.

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Fierce combat against the Italians in the desperate Battle of Doberdò, 1916. Mountain warfare in the mountains was a feature of the war against the Italians.

Despite defeats, setbacks and poor equipment; and despite the fractured ethnic and linguistic nature of the empire, the Austro-Hungarian army had endured for four long years of war against the allies. In its battles across the mountains of the Alps and the Carpathians; in Italy, Slovenia, Serbia, Poland and Romania; against the Russians, Italians, Serbs, Montenegrins and others; the K&K army had suffered over 1 million military combat deaths (the 4th highest of any country in WWI) and a further 3 and half million soldiers wounded. It was a terrible price to pay for a defeat that would ultimately see its old empire disappear into history.


I’ll be presenting my Austro-Hungarian army of 34 figures, gas-masked or otherwise, soon.

Marvin