Miners, 1907 (Fortepan)

The great revolt in Pécs and the turn of Washington politics against the Monarchy

By April-May 1918, the Monarchy’s reserves started to run out. In addition to food and financial resources, this also meant the people. And mostly: spiritual reserves – soldiers rebelled, nationalities were stirred, workers got organized. The Czechs have almost had independence celebrations in Prague.  In Rome, emigration nationality leaders were getting more and more radical. The end of the process is well known: the dual Monarchy soon falls into pieces. May 1918 brings a decisive turn in diplomacy as well: the foreign minister of the USA starts to support nationalities attempting to break up the Monarchy.

“I am nineteen years old. I am fed up with the front, injuries, hunger and freezing. I will desert. If I fight, I want to know what for”, wrote Andrej Zlobec in 1918. The Slovenian soldier was quoted by Miha Sluga in his thesis at the University of Ljubljana in 2007. Sluge mainly examined the loyality of Slovenians enlisted in Austria in the First World War, this is why he wrote about one of the largest military rebellions of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the riot of the 17th infantry regiment at Judenburg (Styria). The majority of participating soldiers was of Slovenian origin on May 12, 1918. „Kdorjeslovenec, pojde z nami!” This was a motto of the rebels, meaning: “If you are Slovenian, join and come with us!”

Of course, this would not have been enough for the riot at Judenburg – according to Manfried Rauchensteiner, the author of the volume entitled The First World War and the End of the Habsburg Monarchy. Short rations and the reception of new uniforms made it cear for soldiers that they are soon transferred to the front. Soldiers of the regiment rushed into the “Jesuit barracks, plundered the stocks and ammunition dump and fought through until the railway station“. In Judenburg and its surroundings – as seen at the rebellion in Pécs 8 days later – civilians also joined the operation, or at least showed solidarity. “However, the military authority was alerted in Graz and help was sent to Judenburg. The riot was broken down. Almost all of the 1200 soldiers were caught”, wrote Rauchensteiner, stating that it was followed by a protest in Murau and also in Rakersburg on May 23. (The majority of participants was Slovenian in both.)

According to the compilation of the 5th Department of the Ministry of War, thirty soldier rebellions took place between April 11 and July 16, 1918, more than two-thirds (twenty-two) of which took place in May and early June, according to the book of András Siklós published in 1987 (A Habsburg-birodalom felbomlása, The dissolution of the Habsburg Empire). Pursuant to the book from the Kádár-era, riots did not take place on a nationality basis, Siklós does not consider the Judenburg incident a clearly Slovenian action either, and also stresses the support of civilians (Austrian-Germans lived in the neighbourhood of Judenburg). Just like regarding the riot in Pécs, to be discussed later, he does not stress the Serbian nature of the regiment enlisted in the region of Újviék, but points out the below quoting the research of László Szita: “almost all nationalities of the Monarchy were represented” in the unit. All analysts highlight – with various weights depending on the era and affiliation – the seditious effect of prisoners of war returning from Russia. So this is one of the reasons for the peace demands of rebels, but direct Bolshevik impact can also be detected in a lot of places, and rioters sometimes fought under the red flag (also in Pécs).

All rebellions in May and June were knocked over, but the spontaneous and disorganized actions showed that the morale of the Monarchy’s forces is dangerously deteriorating. Even Zoltán Czékus, the military historian of the Ludovika Academy in the Horthy-era, who faked the events subsequently – concealing the role of Hungarian and German soldiers in the riots – recognized in his work from 1930: “soldiers from the cankered residents of big towns could only be taken to the front in closed railway trucks”. That is, at that time, the Monarchy’s soldiers were transferred to the butcheries of the First World War, primarily the Italian front almost as prisoners. This is how common escapes have become by this time.

Pursuant to the publication of Czékus entitled Az 1914-18. évi világháború összefoglaló történelme (The summarized history of the world war of 1914-18), “between May 1 and August 31, 3000 deserters were caught and 80,000 soldiers were found in the hinterland who could not prove how they managed to get home.” The other extreme is represented by Márton Farkas, a historian of the Kádár-era, who said that the number of “green cadremen” and “slackers” could even reach eight hundred rhousand when considering the entire year of 1918. Green cadremen were deserters hiding in Herzegovina and Moravia, and generally in the Balkan mountains and in the Czech Republic, organized into gangs, operating almost as guerrillas.

Even if their number did not reach 800 thousand, deserters must have wandered around in the territory of the dualist state in hundreds of thousands. According to Rauchensteiner, in 1918 “in the first months, as one of the consequences of rebellions, the number of military court proceedings nearly doubled. (…) 133,040 soldiers were found guilty only in May. The incidents were discussed by 3000 military prosecutors.” The book written jointly by Tibor Hajdu and Ferenc Pollmann (A régi Magyarország utolsó háborúja, i.e. The last war of the old Hungary) quotes Sarkotić colonel-general, the commanding general of Bosnia–Herzegovina–Dalmatia. The general reports on the increasing force of “green cadremen” in Montenegro and the Herzegovina borderland already at the beginning of the year, on February 14. “some gangs already have machine guns and hand grenades, which shows that Serbian elements cross our lines.”

Fear from Serbians was not unjustified. And they did not have to wait much for the same to happen in the Eastern part of the Monarchy as well after riots of Slovenian soldiers in Austria (from May 12). In Pécs, Count Zichy, the bishop of the town is said to have asked Emperor and King Charles IV already in April 1918 to remove the 6th infantry regiment, recently relocated there and made up of soldiers enlisted around Újvidék, from the town. The ratio of Serbians therein is debated,  but in any case, it was definitely revealing that the Monarchy’s command did not care about the suggestion of the Bishop of Pécs, since the regiment was relocated from Bácska exactly in order not to provide a fire trap for a possible national conflict together with the local population. The command could, around Újvidék, be primarily afraid of Serbians, however hard László Szita and András Siklós strived to prove in the Kádár-era that the regiment was not clearly Serbian. The issue of nationality did not cause such a problem to Márton Farkas, the author of the military history study from 1968: in his opinion, the regiment was relocated from the region of Újvidék to segregate it from Serbian population in Bácska. (However Farkas also details Communist and Socialist ideological impacts that affected the soldiers.)

Knowing the region of Újvidék, the debate on the impact of nationality is not surprising: if someone has already been to this town and its neighbourhood, memories of mixed nationalities (Hungarian, Serbian, German, Slovakian and many other nationalities, like a mosaic) can be found, but in addition to Hungarians, Serbians made the most impact on the region. Even more, the army had information about the rebellious mood of Serbian soldiers in 1918 and it did not want them to station in Délvidék, near the families and local communities of soldiers, this is why they relocated the soldiers enlisted here to Pécs.

However, Pécs also had information about the “Serbian” unit commanded there and knew that members of the 6th infantry regiment started to make friends with local workers, especially miners of the nearby mine camp. This is when authorities made the biggest possible mistake. The military command knew about the bad mood and ordered military leaders in Pécs to “occupy” the soldiers with the organization of celebrations. This is the time when the fatal mistake was made: „Sakk-matt Szerbiának” They organized a musical-dancing performance entitled “Chess-Matte to Serbia” on May 19, 1918, Whit Sunday. (This is the topic of the retrospective article of the paper Tükör written by Artúr Molnár in 1964.)

The celebration outraged the audience, made up partly of Serbians and partly of local civilians. “Stop the incitement”, murmured the protesting crowd, demanding peace. They were eventually assaulted by the police and the gendarme on the shocking performance. The event, which degenerated into an anti-war demonstration, already showed that it was not only Serbian soldiers who were fed up with the massacre, but some part of the residents of Pécs too. Though the authorities arrested several people, it did not stop more serious and bloody outcomes from happening.

The situation worsened by Whit Monday, since they wanted to send a part of the 6th infantry regiment to the front. According to Farkas, by this time, complaints on harsh treatment and bad catering were everyday. In April 1918, several prisoners of war returning from Russia joined the unit, after quarantine and only four weeks of leave. (You can read about the quarantine of prisoners of war who returned from Russia in a previous article.)

The farewell party of the marching company took place in the morning of May 20 in the barracks named after Archduke Friedrich, but the event was not like imagined by Antal Tomics commander: for a given sign, the soldiers who were lining up formed smaller units and attacked – among others – the armoury. Here, the officer holding the key shot one of the attackers, but the other soldiers killed him with his bayonet, and wounded another officer as well. This is when the rioters got hold of around two thousand infantry weapons (rifles) and twenty machine guns. Afterwards, Imre Pálmai captain reported the following to the chief of staff in addition to the casualties: “Five hundred people returning from Russian captivity got hold of machine gun ammunition after break-in for the occasion of the establishment of the marching company”.

The rioters did not stop: they invaded the neighbouring Fejérváry barracks (pursuant to other sources, soldiers there also joined the rebellion, and these sources name the barracks Fehérváry). Then “they fled the town”, according to Artúr Molnár. Pursuant to the indictment of Mihály Gerő military judge-captain on October 10, 1918: “The behaviour of rioters did not vanish without affecting the civilian population of the town, ans especially the worker class, where many took the side of rebels […] by supporting them with guns and participating actively in street fights. But the rebellion especially affected the mining population of Pécsbányatelep, about an hour from the town. The element, always dissatisfied anyway, fully identified itself with the behaviour of rioters, and joining them, became their active supporter.”

Pursuant to Farkas, the riot in Pécs was one of the largest and most organized rebellions of the history of the Austro-Hungarian army. Around 2000 people from the supplementary units of the 6th infantry regiment – according to the contemporary wording, “saturated with Bolshevik doctrine” – started the attack against military points of the town on May 20. According to Farkas, the evolution of events exceeded the notion of “military protest” and reached the level of armed uprising.

The rioters armed themselves under the leadership of a lieutenant and some non-commissioned officers. Some of them settled in barracks to defend themselves and the other officers fled. Hesitating members of the troop were held in isolation. Afterwards they occupied the Fehér Farkas inn, the suburban station and a technical school and then attacked the centre and launched a team to the miners at the mining settlement in Pécs. The counter-attack of troops deployed by the military commandant of Pécs – who were, as described by military historians, quite “low-spirited” – were beaten off by the rebels at the first go and then scattered the attackers in street fights. Meanwhile garrison troops of Siklós and Villány arrived in Pécs only in the afternoon to defeat the rebels owing to the sabotage of railway workers. According to Farkas, this is when the rebels made a mistake: “they did not attempt to eliminate or at least turn the lines of the forces sent against them”. Thereby they gave time and opportunity for Pillepich General, Military Commandant, to settle his forces and deploy the crew of the 9th infantry regiment from Kassa who had just arrived on foot.

According to Farkas, the troops from Kassa were misled through “nationalist incitement”, thereby persuading them to attack the most important objects in the hands of the rebels, i.e. the main and the suburban station. The military kommandatura of the town soon recaptured the weakly protected stations after the rebels could not cut Pillepich off the outside world and he managed to receive additional support teams.

Let us now have a look at the events from the perspective of  Rezső Pillepich General, “Garrison Commander” of Pécs: as soon as he learnt about the riot, he ordered alert and mobilized the 8th honvéd regiment, the 52nd k. u. k. regiment, the 19th honvéd infantry regiment, students of the cadet school as well as the garrison troops of Siklós and Villány. (We have mentioned that the latter two arrived in Pécs only with delay.) Even 200 gendarmes arrived to Pécs to “contain the population”. However, the 9th honvéd infantry regiment from Kassa took the lead in defeating the rebels. They were heading to the Italian front when they received the command: to leave the trains at Pellérd and attack the town. Later hill batteries of the unit shot the rebels who had been stuck in the cemetery in Budai út.

But what did miners do? They were led by György Berta, a Corporal on leave, who was a miner himself. With the guns provided by the rebels, they took over power in mines, disarmed the mining guards, at first captured and later executed the commanders, Zsombor Herszényi Colonel and his adjutant, Károly Meissner Captain. Though the press did not report on the rebels, there are several news reports on the death of Herszényi and Meissner in newspapers from 1918. Five days later the paper entitled Világ quoted “the official communication of the kommandatura of the imperial and royal depot hospital” under the title Officer Deaths, referencing Pécsi Napló. According to this report, “Sándor Molnár Reserve Lieutenant of the imperial and royal 6th infantry regiment died”, his funeral was arranged with military honour. The report is then continued as follows (owing to the news ban, without reporting on the events in Pécs): “Also, according to official reports, Zsombor Herszényi Lieutenant colonel and Miklós Meiszner Sergeant Captain of the 19th infantry regiment died on the field of honour.” For officers, the wording “on the field of honour” might have given some clue to those who could read between the lines. Death reports also include the names of János Szemöly (pursuant to Népszava‘s article on May 26: Szemők), Paja Dobanovacski and maxim Csizmár infantrymen of the 6th infantry regiment. The fact that we know these names indicates that they must have also been killed by the rebels (probably during the events in Pécs, not at the mining area), since pursuant to an article of Tükör from 1964, the ones executed for rebellion were buried in unmarked graves. On May 26, Népszava could not report on what had happened either, but reported on the death of Isza Popov infantryman of the 6th infantry regiment and István Majoros infantryman in the article entitled Military deaths and military funerals.

But let us now return to miners: armed workers were marching against Pécs. This is when they bumped into the 9th regiment from Kassa. They proved to be weak against permanent military and were soon scattered. Pursuant to Farkas, a group managed to get into the town and joined the rebels, others were forced to the mining settlement, stopped fighting and hid their weapons.

Meanwhile rebels fighting in the town were forced back to the two barracks, a larger group were stuck in the suburban cemetery, where soldiers from Kassa broke them with infantry cannons and machine guns. Finally rebels were wiped out with a concentric attack in the town. However, some of them managed to break out and started to flee to Pécs’s mining settlement as well as Mohács. Most of them were killed since by that time the mining settlement had been occupied by the permanent forces, and the South Slav population did not openly support rebels in the small villages around Pécs. (They were probably hiding fugitives since some of them managed to reach “green cadremen” in Bosnia and some turned up in Bácska later. Fighting was continued in villages around Pécs and in the woods of Mecsek for days, smaller groups of resistance were dissolved with punitive expeditions, Farkas wrote.

Artúr Molnár quotes the report of the chief prosecutor: at around 6 p.m. peace and quite was restored in the town. The military summary court began its operation already on the first day. Pursuant to various data, 12-15 people were sentenced to death in the next four days. (According to Farkas, 15 out of 165 persons under summary proceedings were executed. According to Molnár, they were buried in unmarked graves.)

According to Farkas, during various subsequent proceedings, defendants declared themselves to be communists, the devotees of the Socialist Revolution and warriors of national liberation. As we have already mentioned, contemporary press could not report on the rebel and its defeat, but we have found a report in Világ from May 30. According to the short news entitled A pécsi háziezred (Local regiment of Pécs), “At the General Assembly of the Municipal Committee of Pécs in May, at the suggestion of Géza Wintner editor, committee member, they decided that the town will turn to the common minister of war with a sign, requesting the relocation of the old local regiment of the town, 52th infantry regiment back to Pécs and the relocation of the 6th infantry regiment back to Újvidék “. This request was again not heard by the involved persons, pursuant to subsequent news in autumn, the regiment was still stationed in Pécs.

But what happened meanwhile in big politics? Nationalities were now turning more and more firmly against the Monarchy. Emigration and nationality politicians of the monarchy virtually came to the same platform in April-May 1918, according to József Galántai. This was also indicated by the two events of the “oppressed peoples” of the Monarchy: mostly emigration was unified in the congress in Rome on April 8, but there were also representatives of the national minority prisoners of war from the Monarchy. In addition to the Yugoslav, Czechoslovak and Polish national committees, the Serb Skupstina and Transylvanian Romanians were also represented. “The Italian government supported the Congress, which ruled by decision that the oppressed nations of the Monarchy do not want to continue to live in the state framework of the empire and demand independent statehood. This decision undoubtedly reflected the mood of the Monarchy’s nationalities, which was most evident from appearances of domestic Czech politicians in May and June. These moves started on the celebration at Prague on May 15: the 50th anniversary of the Czech national theatre was celebrated by the representatives of the Czech, Slovakian, Southern Slavic, Polish, Italian and Romanian nationalities of the Monarchy along the model of the Roman congress,” wrote Galántai. The Monarchy’s dissolution was foreshadowed by the foundation of the Romanian unity movement in June: its organization was founded in Paris (National Committee of Romanians of Transylvania, Banat, Bukovina).

However, according to Galántai, leading politicians of the Monarchy did not estimate well the weight of these steps even at this time: On the joint meeting of the council of ministers on May 30, they were disputing about the South Slav issue (Czechs were not even brought up). “Apart from the common ministers and the two prime ministers, the Croatian governor and the provincial head of Bosnia and Herzegovina also turned up. All of them equally stressed that nothing can be achieved through pure violence against the South Slavic movement and a constructive step shall be taken.” However, they disagreed on what exactly should be done, and the emerging steps were far behind the nationality demands. Galántai also emphasizes that Austrian and Hungarian decision makers “were also incapacitated because of their internal conflicts” and that the Council of Ministers “ended without any results“. How much the leadership of the Monarchy did not perceive the severeness of the situation is shown by the fact that the Hungarian Prime Minister Wekerle raised the annexation of Dalmatia to Croatia, but with the stipulation that the relationship of Croatia should remain unchanged with Hungary. Even more: he would have annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina to Hungary as “a balance”. He offered Polish territories (the Congressional Poland) to Austria, which was impossible already at that time because Germans insisted on this region as well.

Austrian Prime Minister Seidler outlined a more sensible solution, but, of course, protected Austria’s interests: he wanted a trialism within the monarchy, i.e. form a South Slav unit from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Dalmatia – but the territories inhabited by Slovenians would have remained under the rule of Vienna. We do not continue the list of unviable ideas, since Croatians, Serbs and Slovenians had by then largely agreed to want a Yugoslav unitary state. The Austrian idea was somewhat more realistic because the Croatians had not yet completely broken up with the Monarchy, according to Hajdu and Pollmann, so the trialism (with a unified South-Slavic state) seemed feasible for them as well. However, trialism (the extension of the Hungarian-Austrian dualism) was dismissed by the political ally of Istvan Tisza, István Burián, the newly appointed common Foreign Minister, on the ministerial council on May 30. So the Hungarian elite proved to be completely unable to reach a compromise with the South Slavs even in the last months before the Monarchy was overthrown.

By contrast, Masaryk, the creator of the future Czechoslovak state, looked at (and shaped) the events more closely.  As it turns out from his book entitled A világforradalom 1914–1918 (World revolution 1914-1918): “At home they also felt that the situation had improved favourably for them. The meeting of oppressed nations of Austria, held in May 1918 in Prague, in the building of the National Theatre, was effective: Italians were also represented. The analogy with the Roman congress is trivial”, he wrote, referring to the events of “oppressed peoples”. How much he was right was depicted best by the change of behaviour of the US: After the congress in Rome, Lansing Foreign Minister called for Wilson in a memorandum to stir up the nationalities of the Monarchy (according to Hajdu and Pollmann) and afterwards the US government “openly embraced the decisions of the congress in Rome”. The Slovaks agreed to join the Czechoslovak unity on a secret meeting in May 1918. The situation was further escalated by the fact that the Romanian National Party did not adopt the budget in the Hungarian House of Representatives on 25 April – this was unprecedented during the war.

Afterwards the days of the Monarchy were indeed numbered – however, the elite of especially the Eastern half of the empire, i.e. Hungary, did not realize it.

Beszélgetés Pflanzer-Baltin báró vezérezredessel = Pécsi Napló, 1917. október 13.
Tiszti halálozások = Világ, 1918. május 25.
Katonahalálok és katonatemetések = Népszava, 1918. május 26.
A pécsi háziezred = Világ, 1918. május 30.
vitéz Czékus Zoltán: Az 1914–18. évi világháború összefoglaló történelme. Budapest, 1930.
Molnár Aurél: Jeltelen a sírjuk = Tükör, 1964. december 15.
Farkas Márton: Katonai felkelés Pécsett 1918 májusában. In: Hadtörténelmi közlemények. 1968/3. 412-423.
Galántai József: Magyarország az első világháborúban. 1914-1918. Budapest, 1974.
Siklós András: A Habsburg-birodalom felbomlása. 1918. A magyarországi forradalom. Budapest, 1987.
Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk: A világforradalom. 1914-1918. Budapest, 1990.
Miha Sluga: Lojalnost slovenskega vojaka med prvo svetovno vojno. Diplomsko delo. Ljubljana, 2007.
Hajdu Tibor – Pollmann Ferenc: A régi Magyarország utolsó háborúja. 1914-1918. Budapest, 2014.
Manfried Rauchensteiner: Az első világháború és a Habsburg Monarchia bukása. Budapest, 2017.

Written by: Iván Miklós Szegő