"Documenting the life of the Hungarian community in New Zealand"
- Az új-zélandi magyar közösség lapja.
Issue 79 - March 2005
Your most interesting December in Hungarian History" [Magyar Szó, issue 78] revived my fading memories. They flooded me over several nights. Under an inner urge, I decided to pass on to you some historical facts of possible interest, entwined with my personal life and also that of my family.
On December 14, 1921, the day the citizens of Sopron decided in the plebiscite that the old city should remain part of Hungary, rather than be attached to Austria, my mother turned 20. The following year she married my father and in another year she delivered her only child, me. The family grave in St Michael's cemetery in Sopron records the date of the first burial of my ancestors in 1730. While growing up, I heard many details of the activities of my mother's family during those stirring days in 1921. My favourite uncle, one of the 4 pharmacists of the town, was enraged about the fact that, after some 400 years of the co-existence, often unhappy, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Austria, in accordance with the Treaty of Trianon, accepted a slice of mutilated Hungary. To the end of his life he stuck to his resolution that he would never again set foot on Austrian soil, a few kilometres away. His brother and many of his friends lived across the newly drawn up border. The royal honour of the freedom of the city was bestowed on my hometown in 1277.
I was emotionally even more affected by your references to the southern Polish village of Limanowa, some 230 km north-west of Hungary, 55 km south-east of the city of Krakow. The major participant of the battle on December 11, 1914 was the 9th Imperial and Royal Count Nádasdy Hussar Regiment, established in 1688. It participated in 66 major battles in Europe. Over this period 13 of its officers received the Order of Maria Terezia, the highest award of the Empire. Twenty four members of all ranks received the Gold Medal of Valour, an equivalent of the Victoria Cross in the British Empire. Loyalty, respect for its traditions and not surprisingly considerable pride in serving in this famous regiment, dominated the personal conduct of its members. It was not a coincidence that, generation after generation, descendants of many of the well-known old families chose service in the regiment as a lifetime career. Names such as Apponyi, Bethlen, Esterházy, Hunyady, Nádasdy, Széchenyi, Teleky, together with many others are recorded in my volume of the history of the regiment between 1904 and 1918. The base for replacements for the regiment of men, armaments and equipment during the World War I was in Sopron.
The significance of the battle of Limanowa was that a spontaneously ordered counter attack by the commander of the regiment not only halted the overwhelming Russian advance to the west in an apparently hopeless situation, but stopped further attempts of this kind. Some Polish legions also participated, as our allies, in the fighting in this region. Several written accounts report the orders of the commander, Colonel Muhr, in semi-darkness at dawn: "Forward boys! Long live the king!" Among the fallen was the colonel himself. The fact that Archduke Charles attended the funerals two days after the battle indicates the degree of importance which the Empire attached to this heroic event. After the death in 1916 of Franz Joseph, the old emperor of Austria and king of Hungary, Charles followed him on the dual throne. To my knowledge 812 men, mainly cavalry, are buried in the cemetery of Limanowa, a subject to which I will return later.
The Order of Maria Terezia and a title were posthumously awarded to the much respected commander of the regiment, Colonel Ottmár Muhr of Limanowa. Our history records many battles we won in wars which we lost.
You may wonder why I have gone into the details of a relatively small event of the Great War. My dedication since my early childhood to the hussars originates from my deep attachment to my father. He served the entire period from 1914 to 1918 engaged in fighting the imperial Russians with the 16th Hussars.
After Trianon Hungary was permitted to sustain an army of 30,000. Within these limitations, soon to be disregarded, the government also set up skeletal frames for 4 cavalry regiments. One of those was the 3rd Royal Hungarian Nádasdy Hussar Regiment with its headquarters in Sopron. As a captain, my father was posted to this regiment in 1922. He served there for 16 years. Sadly he died relatively young, just before his intended promotion to the rank of general. One year later in 1943 his son graduated as a second lieutenant of the cavalry from the Hungarian Military Academy in Budapest. Strong traditions, respected also by the Ministry of Defence, made it inevitable that his son too was assigned to the Nádasdy Hussars. Colonel Muhr of Limanowa had three sons. One was a lawyer and two joined our regiment. One, a captain, was killed in action in 1941, when Hungary unfortunately joined Germany in the invasion of the Soviet Union. The other, also a captain, commanded the 2nd squadron of the regiment. In 1944 I was deputy commander of the 1st squadron, comprising 283 men and 308 horses. I remember him with affection, being in many ways a wise mentor of the 21 year-old lieutenant.
During my life time the Battle of Limanowa was remembered each year on the 11th of December, when those, even remotely related to the Nádasdy Hussars, gathered at a mass held in the church of the inner city of Budapest. This year too here in Christchurch I received a reminder for this event. In the 1970s Muhr's oldest son, the lawyer, visited Limanowa. His report following such a memorial mass was tearfully received by the audience. He found the graves of those soldiers who lost their lives around that region in 1914 in impeccable order. The loyal Poles, then comrades in arms, respected our dead as if they were their own folk.
I conclude with an example of the strong cavalry traditions which bound us old hussars. After the occupation of Hungary by the Red Army in 1945 and the subsequent establishment of a communist system, former officers of the cavalry faced exceptionally hard times. As perceived representatives of the bourgeoisie and suspected infiltrators of the new socialist society, members of the aristocracy were placed at the very bottom of the new Stalinist social order. Commoners like me were viewed in the same way. The Soviet system did not recognize military service as a duty imposed on its citizens by the state. I was told during an interrogation in 1946, which cleared me as a potential fascist, that by fighting against Stalin, I had committed a crime. As a consequence to these changes a very large proportion of my cavalry friends emigrated, even before 1956. Those of us in the West have, however, never stopped thinking of our comrades in arms, humiliated for decades in Hungary. An association of former hussars was formed in the free world. Its sole purpose was to keep track of those at home and those scattered over continents. Undefined annual contributions of the members enabled this body to send a modest Christmas gift each year to each former hussar or his widow. After 40 years this tradition is about to reach its end. There are hardly any hussars or eligible widows left.
I do realize that the sentiments of an octogenarian cavalryman have little appeal to post-war generations who were fortunate to be spared the ravages of senseless war. However, old soldiers should be permitted to recall difficult times, shared in the spirit of noble traditions with friends and to grieve for those whom they have lost. Without being aware of it, they served a meaningless cause.
Thank you for triggering these memories at my sunset. Thank you for your remarkable contributions, as a native Kiwi, to the understanding of the complex history, the culture and the role of outstanding individuals of our loved country, Hungary.
Magyar Szó Issue 79- March 2005