Friday, June 24, 2011

Monarchist Military: The Austrian Volunteer Corps

When Archduke Maximilian of Austria, after some great initial hesitation, accepted the offer of the throne of Mexico his brother, the Emperor Francis Joseph I, was certainly not pleased. Nonetheless, once the decision was made the prestige of Austria-Hungary was somewhat invested in the enterprise and he agreed to allow the formation of the Austrian Volunteer Corps to go to Mexico to fight alongside the soon-to-be-organized Mexican Imperial Army. Recruitment began in 1864 in Laibach, Slovenia and volunteers came from all corners of the Hapsburg empire. There was even an effort to take advantage of this occasion as an opportunity to rid the empire of some of those who had proved troublesome in rebellions in the years prior. Single men of the Catholic faith were preferred in the hope that they would put down roots and settle in Mexico. There were Austrians, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and almost every other ethnic group of Austria-Hungary represented in the formation.

In all the initial strength of the Austrian Volunteer Corps was 6,800 men. These were organized into three light infantry battalions, the “Kaiser Maximilian” Hussar regiment, a lancer regiment, three batteries of mountain artillery, two companies of pioneers and an assortment of support personnel such as gendarmes, medics transport and so on. General Franz Graf von Thun-Hohenstein was appointed to command the corps and upon their arrival in Mexico they were supplemented with some loyal Mexican brigades to form the II Territorial Division, under Major General Thun, based out of the historic city of Puebla. Lorenz rifles were the standard weapon for the infantry while the cavalry carried an assortment of pistols along with their sabers or lances. Most of the troops also grew beards and seemed to intentionally wish to take on a rough and rugged “frontier” appearance. Their “look” proved to match their abilities as well as they earned a reputation as an elite force amongst the soldiers fighting for Emperor Maximilian against the republican bandits.

Not surprisingly, the Austrians (nor the Belgians who they were initially grouped with) did not get along very well with their French allies. There was little love lost between the two groups and eventually many came to resent the Belgians as well who enjoyed the full support and favor of the Belgian-born Empress Carlota whereas Emperor Maximilian tended to hold back in such areas for fear of being seen as showing favoritism to the sons of his former country over his adopted homeland of Mexico. The Emperor was always concerned with showing that he had embraced Mexico and the Mexican people whole-heartedly, that he was one of them and not the instrument of any foreign power. However, the Austrians more than proved their worth, despite being probably the most multi-lingual force on the continent. The infantry spoke German, the lancers spoke Polish and the hussars spoke Hungarian as a rule and all in a country where the official language was Spanish and working side by side with another army speaking French!

Although they had only been intended to provide security for the Emperor, the French were hard pressed in dealing with the guerilla tactics of the republicans and the Austrians saw extensive combat. Although operating primarily in eastern Mexico, they brought the Sierra del Norte under control, pacifying the area and obtaining a ceasefire from the local rebel leader. Because of their effectiveness, Austrian companies with their own cavalry and artillery were often organized into “flying columns” to stamp out guerilla attacks as they appeared. Austrian companies were also often attached to units of the Mexican Imperial Army to strengthen them. By 1865 things were going well militarily but north of the Rio Grande the United States was able to crush the southern Confederacy and bring their full diplomatic and military weight to bear in seeing the Mexican Empire destroyed.

The French, already war weary, were encouraged to begin pulling out. In Austria-Hungary, national pride had been aroused and a considerable relief force was assembled (there always being more volunteers for service than could be accepted) but these were never dispatched as the United States intervened, threatening to declare war on Austria-Hungary if any additional assistance was sent to Maximilian. Meanwhile, they dramatically increased their own assistance to the republicans and the tide turned against Maximilian. Still, they fought bravely to the bitter end. At the disastrous battle of Santa Gertrudis, while the other imperial forces were wiped out or surrendering, the Austrian companies decided to go down fighting, affixed their bayonets and charged into the enemy ranks. Still, with the cause seemingly lost, many were ready to go home. When it was decided that their unit would be disbanded and the troops placed under the command of the unpopular General Leonardo Marquez most of the Austrians decided not to re-enlist and 3,428 of the remaining 4,500 returned to Europe.

There were though about a thousand men who remained, ready to fight to the death alongside Emperor Maximilian who had determined to stay in Mexico no matter the circumstances. These men formed the majority of the 18th Line Infantry regiment and the ostentatious “Red Hussars” and they represented probably the most effective and reliable units in the Mexican Imperial Army at that time. However, when Maximilian left for his fateful last stand at Queretaro he purposely did not take these regiments with him, leaving them behind in Mexico City. He wanted his final battle to be a purely Mexican affair and to show that his loyal Mexican brigades had the unqualified faith of their Emperor. Some Austrians found ways to tag along anyway but their number was negligible. The remainder were surrendered along with Mexico City on June 21, 1867 bringing a final end to the heroic Hapsburg adventure in the New World.


  1. Was the flag at the top of the page the official flag for the empire? I´ve never seen it before.

    1. That's just the Mexican tricolor with the Hapsburg rather than Mexican arms, it seemed appropriate for the unit in question but I don't know if the corps had an official flag or if they did what it looked like. I've never seen anything on that. I just put that one together.

    2. kudos, looks RAD (identify as a mexican living in Austria)

  2. Great post! Where do you have the picture with the austrian medical volunteers from?

    Cornelia G.


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