Joseph Roth

The Radetzky March 3

The war refused to start. It hung fire, as occasionally thunderstorms will hang fire for days before breaking out.
On the third day came the command to withdraw, and the batallion got into marching order. Officers and men alike were disappointed. A rumour spread that two miles east of them, an entire regiment of dragoons had been pulverized, and that enemy Cossacks had already broken through into the interior. The troops marched westward in grim silence. They soon realized that this was an unplanned retreat, because at the crossroads and in the villages and small towns on their route, they encountered a confused mixture of all sorts of forces.

The high command issued contradictory orders. Most of these were to do with the evacuation of towns and villages, and the treatment of pro-Russian Ukrainians, Orthodox priests and spies. Hastily formed courts martial handed down hasty judgments. Secret informants supplied unverifiable reports on peasants, priests, teachers, photographers, civil servants.

There was no time. They were in a hurry to retreat, but also in a hurry to punish the traitors. And while ambulances, baggage columns, field guns, dragoons, uhlans and infantrymen met up in various configurations under the incessant rain on the softened roads, while couriers galloped this way and that, while the inhabitants of the little towns fled west in endless hordes, surrounded by the white terror, laden with chequered white and red feather beds, grey sacks, brown chairs and tables, and blue oil lamps – while all this went on, in the little church squares of the villages and hamlets, the shots of hastily assembled firing squads executed the hasty death sentences, and ominous drum rolls accompanied the monotonous judgements of the courts martial, and the wives of the slain lay screaming for mercy in front of the muddied boots of the officers, and flickering red and silver flames shot out of huts and barns, sheds and outbuildings.

Translated by Michael Hoffman

Joseph Roth: “The Radetzky March” (London: Granta Books, 2002), 346-348.

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Joseph Roth


Initially a pacifist who had been declared unfit for war service, Joseph Roth (b. September 2, 1894 in Brody, East Galicia, d. May 27, 1939 in Paris) volunteered for military service with the Feldjäger batallion in 1916 and spent the rest of the war with the news service in Galicia. The war and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy – his “strongest experience,” as he later wrote – inspired his greatest novel, The Radetzky March (1932).