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The trail of war cemeteries – District III

The area of today’s Gorlice District III was in WWI the scene of bloody and fierce battles between two enemy armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire allied with the German Empire and the Russian Empire. For several months the area served as the main front and in May 1915 a decisive operation of WWI, the Gorlice Operation, took place there. The process of building graves started in 1915 and was the biggest of this type in the whole Europe. The soldiers fallen in the Gorlice Battle were treated equally and with respect regardless of their nationality or the army they had served in. read more

The analysis of military activities in the area of District III has to go back to November 1914 when the Russian army reached as far as Kraków, climbed the Carpathians and reached Hungary. At the beginning of December the counter-attack was launched by the allied Austro-Hungarian and German armies and as a result the Russian army was pushed back onto the line of Dunajec and Biała rivers. Simultaneously, Russians were driven from most of the territory of Hungary. When the memorable year 1915 began there were two fronts in Galicia: 1st one – western, stretching from the mouth of Dunajec to Tarnów along the river Biała to Gromnik and then through Rzepienniki, Łużna, Siary, Sękowa, Małastów to today’s area of Bardejów situated in Slovakia, and 2nd one – southern, determined by the ridge of the Carpathians. Later, in all the villages and towns of the western front war cemeteries were created.

At the time the Russian army was virtually driven from area of the Carpathians, kept its positions in the Dukla Pass and in the region of Ondawa and Laborycza rivers in Hungary, south from Dukla as well as in the valley of Latorycza river. West Galicia was an area of fierce battles, among other places, in Tarnów and Zakliczyno where later trench battles took place. The enemy armies assumed trench positions which at times did not exceed the distance of 0.5 km. Although almost daily clashes took place in the Galician front, the winter campaign was not very successful. Main battles took place in the above mentioned places, such as Tarnów, Zakliczyn and Gorlice. At the end of February 1915 these towns found themselves between the lines of enemy armies as a result of army positions.

Failing to see the chances to break through the front, Russians decided to finish the fighting by reaching the Hungarian Plain. Until April 1915 fierce battles were taking place in the Carpathians. However, they did not achieve the expected effect. On 1 April the offensive of the Russian army, called the Easter offensive, began. However, it collapsed when the army was stopped by spring melt. At the end of April Russian positions were located from Rzepiennik Strzyżewski, through Góra Zamczysko, Las Kazimierzowski, the village of Staszkówka and nearby hills: Wiatrówki, Pustki nad Łużną as far as Gorlice. Apart from standard techniques used for digging trenches such as reinforcement with planks, barbered wire entanglements, bunkers and trenches, the Russians secured the area with minefields. The line of Austrian trenches ran from Ciężkowice through Biesna, Wola Łużańska to Łysa Góra near Gorlice and was reinforced a similar way to the Russian one.

In April at the conference in Berlin the allied forces determined the details of the operation which was supposed to end the battles in this sector of the front (Russians did not attach much significance to the battles which were taking place in Gorlice). The main attack was to be launched by 11th German army under the command of Gen. August von Mackensen and 3rd and 4th Austrian armies under the command of Archduke Józef Ferdynand. As a result of all the activities being kept secret the allied outnumbered the Russian army three times. Moreover, the date of the attack was changed at the last moment from 4th to 2nd May.

As early as on 28 April saturation artillery gunfire began and on 2 May 1915 the attack on Russian positions located near the villages of Łużna and Gorlice was launched. The first day was successful – the frontline was moved 10 km to the west. On that day 20,000 were killed and 17,000 taken prisoners of war.

The battles of the Pustki Hill, which had an enormous strategic significance, were particularly fierce. The hill was defended by 31st Russian Infantry Division which considerably developed and reinforced defensive positions by digging several lines of trenches. 12th Kraków Infantry Division under the command of Gen. Paul Kestranek fought Russians on the Pustki Hill. The Division consisted of 56th Wadowice Infantry Regiment under the command of Col Mollinary and 100th Cieszyn Infantry Regiment under the command of Lt Col Pittel. The whole operation was commanded by Gen. Metz and Gen. Tadeusz Rozwadowski commanded the artillery.

The real Battle of Gorlice began on 2 May when intensive artillery gunfire of over 1000 cannons began. The attack was launched directly after the gunfire. The allied armies were advancing and defeating Russians. Russian soldiers who were not putting up resistance were taken prisoners. Whilst going deep into the forest the attacking armies came across positions of machine guns which were invisible for the artillery. The Pustki Hill was captured at about 11, 1700 Russians were taken prisoners and the estimated losses on both sides amounted to over 1200 people.

After the success on the Pustki Hill, the offensive was successfully continued. When Austrian army reached Krosno on 8 May, the Gorlice Operation was considered successfully completed. The frontline settled at the eastern end of Galicia by the end of July 1915. The losses that Russians incurred in Łużna, Gorlice and earlier clashes in the Carpathians determined their defeat.

The area covered with graves

When the battles in West Galicia ceased, the area was covered with graves of the fallen soldiers from all armies. In 1915 the project of creating war cemeteries which aimed at organising numerous graves scattered in this large area began. The originators intended it to be a permanent and correct way of commemorating the fallen regardless of their nationality. The whole area where the battles took place was divided into 10 districts and Kraków which was a separate, eleventh district.

The Department of War Graves (K.u.K Kriegsgraber-Abteilung ) was created from the Austro-Hungarian Army and Maj. Rudolf Broch was the head of it. It consisted of three sections: Clearing of Battlefields, Records of the Fallen and Construction of the Cemeteries. The first two sections collected about 60,000 bodies from the battlefields and 43,000 out of these were exhumed. The bodies were identified from the uniforms, documents and personal belongings. Some of the killed soldiers were buried in temporary graves when the battles were still taking place. They were mostly shallow graves which posed a risk of epidemic outbreak.

Each of the ten districts was supervised by an officer who had engineering or artistic qualifications. Their responsibilities were the identification of the area, the choice of the right place, a technical project, an artistic concept and the supply of building materials.

As a result, the Department of War Graves built about 400 cemeteries. All of them were given numbers and were marked with stone posts which can still be found.

In District III there are 54 cemeteries which in total cover the area of 31, 682 m2. The majority of them (34) are independent complexes. Two of them were built near small chapels which had been built there before, one – near a cross, three more were Jewish graves. Considerable majority of the cemeteries hold the bodies of soldiers from the three participating armies and as many as five were built for the soldiers of the enemy Russian army. These complexes were usually located in exposed places such as hills, mountain passes, slopes – where the battles took place. The cemeteries used to be situated near main traffic routes which made and still makes it easy to reach them.

The main architect of the cemeteries in District II was Hans Mayr, German by descent, lieutenant, an architect and a construction engineer. He studied in Vienna and was the main architect of the cemeteries in District III “Gorlice” throughout the existence of the Department of War Graves. He designed as many as 53 out of 54 cemeteries. The only one which was not designed by him was the cemetery no. 91 in Gorlice. More importantly, he created two projects of cast-iron grave crosses which were standardised and can be seen in each cemetery. The distinctive feature of his project was a tall central cross made from beams and topped with a metal semicircular cover.

Following the war cemetery trail

The trail in District III – war cemeteries, runs along trunk highway no. 28 and a district route no. 977 from Biecz to Grybów thus crossing District III. It includes the most important and most beautiful war cemeteries in the region. The trail was planned in such a way that a visitor is given an opportunity to see as many cemeteries as possible and not too away from main roads while the cemeteries were selected not only on account of their beauty but mostly their diversity – a visitor will have the chance to see beautifully renovated cemeteries as well as the forgotten ones with single graves and the walls falling into pieces. The trail in total covers 100 km.

Stop 1 – Biecz

The first complex is cemetery no. 106 in Biecz which is located on the hill in front of the Corpus Christi collegiate church. Whilst planning the cemetery trail trip in District III it is worth starting the journey from Biecz. The cemetery, beautifully designed in terraces, arouses the interest in visiting the other ones. Cemeteries no. 107, 108 and 109 are also situated in Biecz.

Stop 2 – cemeteries at the foot of Łysa Góra

The next stop along the trail is situated below the summit of Łysa Góra on the border of two villages: Pagorzyna and Wójtowa. This is cemetery no. 103. In order to get there one needs to devote some time but the complex, which is undergoing renovation, is definitely worth seeing. Cemetery no. 102 is located nearby, towards the village of Wójtowa.

Gorlice – beautiful panorama and the most important cemetery in District III

Along the trail cemetery no. 87 in Gorlice which is situated opposite Henryk Klimontowicz District Hospital needs to be visited. Due to this location the cemetery offers an exceptionally beautiful panorama of the city.

One of the biggest and most monumental war cemeteries no. 91, a prominent cemetery of District III, is situated in Gorlice. Interestingly, it is the only complex in the region which was not designed by Hans Mayr but Emil Ladewig. Also, three other cemeteries from WWI can be seen here: no. 88, 89 and 90.


Cemetery no. 95 in Stróżówka is situated near the road from Gorlice towards Łużna. It cannot be missed. The complex is in superb technical condition and surrounded by oak trees. It looks particularly beautiful in spring and autumn. Also, cemeteries no. 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97 are situated in Stróżówka.


The next complex along the trail is cemetery no. 63 in the village of Pętna, previously ruined and almost inaccessible but thanks to the renovation works which took place in 2006-2006 very much resembles the original.


Cemetery no. 66 is situated on the hill slope in the town of Małastów. Initially, it was visible but with time the complex and the whole area became overgrown with thick forest. In 1993 the cemetery was renovated. Also, cemetery no. 65 in Małastów is well worth seeing.

Ropica Górna

Cemetery no. 67 in Ropica Górna is the next cemetery along the trail, is located at the foot of Korbut Hill thus perfectly visible from the main road. Its picturesque location on a meadow slope and splendid spruces near the wall attract visitors’ attention.

Although reaching another cemetery requires some effort and involves a two-kilometre walk, cemetery no. 78 in Ropica Górna is undoubtedly worth the effort. At the top of the hill there is a massive back wall which was built from joined stone posts called pylons. In Ropica Górna there are also cemeteries no. 68 and 67.


Similarly to the previously mentioned one cemetery no. 80 in Sękowa is also situated on the hill slope, south-east of the village. Initially, the location provided great exposure and visibility but with time, like in most cases, the slope became overgrown and at the moment the cemetery is hidden amongst trees.


Also, cemetery no. 75 in Szymbark along the trail from Gorlice towards the region of Nowy Sącz needs mentioning. It is in a very good condition, all crosses have been preserved and on various occasions they are decorated with flowers and ribbons.


In the parish cemetery in the village of Łosie war cemetery no. 71 is situated. In 1994 it underwent extensive renovation and at the moment it fully resembles the original one as each element was reproduced in detail.


The last stip along the trail is Grybów and cemetery no. 130a. It is exceptional for two reasons: firstly, it is an example of Jewish graves and secondly, it is one of the least tidy memorials. The fallen soldiers were buried in the western part of the local Jewish cemetery.

Discovering the mysteries of the Battle of Gorlice...

It is recommended for visitors to Gorlice who are particularly interested in the Battle of Gorlice to visit the local museum which is situated near cemetery no. 91 in 7-9 Wąska Street. In the Regional Museum of Polish Tourist and Sightseeing Society, Department in Gorlice, numerous mementoes from WWI were gathered. The museum was founded in 1957 and has been running for 55 years. Permanent exhibitions related to the history of the town and the region are staged here as well as occasional exhibitions.

The biggest attraction of the museum is the waxwork room which was created to commemorate 90th anniversary of the Battle of Gorlice. Extensive exhibition of weaponry (firearms as well as side arms which were used by the two fighting armies), uniforms, numismatics as well as the 5 x 2.5m model of the “Gorlice Operation” at a scale of 1:5000 which attracts a lot of interest from visitors can be found there.

Also, the museum in Gorlice houses an extensive collection of documents on war cemeteries from WWI. The exhibits are supplemented with charts, military maps and sketches as well as soldiers’ personal belongings.

Comments: Research is still being done on archival documents thus the given number of soldiers buried in a particular cemetery is subject to change.

Regional Museum website:

Detailed information about the Battle of Gorlice:

List of the soldiers killed in WWI:

Data on cemeteries:

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