I have touched on this subject before but I think it is an issue which deserves going into further detail. As I have said before, one of my pet peeves is people who denigrate military service and, perhaps worse, those who denigrate the military achievements of entire countries or nations. Quite unjustly, Imperial Austria is one of those which often falls victim to this and, in the case of Austria, as with some others, the Austrians themselves, and their sympathizers, can sometimes be a hindrance rather than a help in refuting such a stereotype. One famous phrase that many pro-Austrian people often repeat is, “Others make war, but thou, O happy Austria, only marry”. This is in reference to the fact that the Austrian empire grew and expanded mostly through dynastic alliances and inheritance rather than conquest. This is true to a large extent but only up to a certain point. Some of the territory Austrians and Austrian-sympathizers made a great fuss about holding on to over the years was not gained by marriage but by war or political “horse-trading”.
|Austrian grenadiers on the attack at the Battle of Essling|
The point, which is true, is that Austria was never a thoroughly militaristic sort of country in the way that their fellow Germans in Prussia were. However, the Prussians tend to rank in a class by themselves in that regard and any comparison on that front is rather unfair. Yes, unlike Prussia, life in Imperial Austria did not revolve around the army but that does not mean the Austrians were without military achievement or great military heroes. However, another problem, aside from the stereotype of Austrians being more interested in music than the military, is that Austria does not fit into such a neat, national box as Prussia or France or The Netherlands. Where does the story of the Holy Roman Empire, old Germany, end and the story of Austria begin? Who is Austrian and who is not? This may seem arbitrary to some but it would seem ridiculous to me to restrict the story of Austrian military achievement to the German-Austrians just as it would be ridiculous to say that Napoleon should not rank as a great military figure of France simply because the blood in his veins was not French. So, some great names will be mentioned here who were not German-Austrians but who fought for the House of Hapsburg, who were part of the Imperial Austrian power structure and who won their victories with the troops, Germans, Magyars, Slavs and the like, which were under the Austrian Crown.
One could go back quite a way depending on, again, where one chooses to differentiate Austria and what became the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary from what had been the First German Reich. Emperor Charles V, for example, was quite a successful war leader and he was a Hapsburg but he was born in Belgium, was King of Spain and was overall so cosmopolitan that it would be hard to reduce him simply to the label of “Austrian”. He is as much a figure of Spanish history as he is of Austrian or German history and his larger-than-life presence is well represented by his famous quip that he spoke ‘Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse’. Later, in the Thirty Years War, Johann Graf von Tilly proved quite a successful military commander, fighting for the House of Hapsburg and he too was born in what is now Belgium and learned his trade from an Italian, Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma, who also fought for the Hapsburgs and who was considered the greatest soldier of his time. Alongside Graf von Tilly, it was Albrecht von Wallenstein who gained the greatest fame as commander of Imperial forces in the Thirty Years War and he was a native of Bohemia. One can argue over his merits as a man but as a military commander his record of success speaks for itself.
A commander who often seems to be overlooked who fought for the House of Hapsburg and who became something of a legend in his own time (even if often forgotten today) was an Italian from Modena, Raimondo Count of Montecuccoli. Here was a man who fought against the Pope, the Hungarians, the French and the Swedes in his long military career before gaining his greatest fame in battles against the Turks. Today he is not often remembered but he was ranked alongside Turenne and Conde of France as one of the greatest military leaders of his time (the mid 17th Century) and both of whom he faced at the end of his career. His victories, often won against extremely uneven odds were so remarkable that the Emperor made him a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire and awarded him the Order of the Golden Fleece.
|Prince Eugene of Savoy|
Certainly though, when one looks at the military history of Austria, one name can easily be given as a starting point due to how he was revered by the men who came after him in the ranks of what was ultimately the military forces of the Austrian Empire and later Austria-Hungary. That name was, again, an Italian one rather than a German one but one thoroughly associated with Austrian military glory and that was, of course, Prince Eugene of Savoy. It says something that this man, who first offered his sword to the King of France only to have it refused, would one day have his portraits hanging in Austrian military barracks for generations and as late as World War II both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy had warships named in his honor. Prince Eugene of Savoy was one of the great captains of military history and alongside the Duke of Marlborough from Great Britain won his greatest fame in the War of Spanish Succession (Queen Anne’s War to American readers). He was one of the most influential military commanders in world history and certainly can be easily classified as part of Austrian military history because his figure loomed so large throughout the rest of the Hapsburg reign over central Europe. Whether in the period of Empress Maria Theresa, Emperor Francis I or Emperor Francis Joseph, it was Prince Eugene of Savoy who was looked to as the example of great, victorious, military leadership for Austrian army commanders to emulate.
|Austrian infantry, 1740|
Even with Prince Eugene of Savoy though, it is easy to look simply at his famous victories in the War of Spanish Succession and forget that most of his military career was spent fighting the Turks in the east. For all those who would denigrate the military abilities of the Austrians and other members of what became the Dual-monarchy of Austria-Hungary, one need only look at the very, very long period of bitter warfare that raged throughout the Balkans against the overwhelming might of the Ottoman Turks against which the Hapsburg lands stood as a bulwark in defense of Christendom. If the Austrians are such poor soldiers, one could justly ask how exactly it was that the Turks were ultimately pushed back from the very gates of Vienna to Constantinople? They certainly did not pack up and meekly march home of their own accord. This was only accomplished by a long series of conflicts in which men like Savoy and Montecuccoli and others, leading Austrians, Slavs and Magyars at times, defeated and pushed back what had been the most powerful empire in the world in its time. In centuries past it would have seemed laughable to portray the Austrians as effete music-loving dandies after so many years, even centuries, of being on the front line of the war for the very survival of western civilization. The country was known as “Ostmark” for a reason; it was the eastern barrier against which the invaders never passed.
|Baron von Laudon|
Moving into the 18th Century, Austria was not without military heroes and military achievements there either, it is only that they often tended to be overshadowed by others. A couple of examples will illustrate this. One was the Austrian Generalissimo Baron Ernst Gideon von Laudon. Never heard of him? Perhaps not, but you probably have heard of the Prussian King Frederick the Great. Well, Baron von Laudon was someone the fearsome Frederick probably wished he had never heard about because he was just about his most troublesome adversary. For military history experts, Baron von Laudon is known as one of the greatest captains of his time but, to the broader public, he was simply outshined by Frederick the Great. The undefeated Russian general, Alexander Suvarov, credited von Laudon with being his teacher in the art of war. Baron von Laudon himself had also learned some of his trade from another highly competent foreigner in Austrian service, Maximilian Graf von Browne, a son of Irish exiles. Although they were not always on good terms, Franz Moritz Graf von Lacy was another Austrian commander of the period worthy of mention. He played no small part in the great victory at Breslau for Empress Maria Theresa and later became a close confidant of Emperor Joseph II. Field Marshal Leopold Joseph von Daun was the third member of this trinity of Austrian military heroes and one who also defeated Frederick the Great at such battles as Kolin and Hochkirch. Empress Maria Theresa referred to him as the “savior of her states” and such sentiment was not unwarranted.
|Graf von Daun|
It is rather unfair that these men should be so overshadowed by King Frederick the Great of Prussia. “Old Fritz” certainly deserves his exalted place in the pages of military history. He and his Prussians worked military miracles but surely that should also mean that defeating so great a genius as Frederick was no mean feat and he was defeated on several occasions by the Austrian commanders mentioned above. Their victories were hard fought and fairly earned and they should not be shrugged off. However, it was also with the rise of Prussia that Austria becomes more easily set apart and the First German Reich had not long to live even on paper. As the reign of Emperor Joseph II came to a close the French Revolution erupted and it set events into motion which ultimately brought down the First Reich and caused to rise up in the aftermath the Austrian Empire. During those struggles the Austrians fought many battles, knew victory as well as defeat but also added glorious events and figures to the pages of their own military history. During what became known as the Napoleonic Wars, of course, the figure of Napoleon himself looms the largest and deservedly so, he was one of the best that ever was. However, it also took military leaders of the highest quality to eventually defeat him and Austria was not unrepresented in that group.
|Archduke Charles of Austria, Duke of Teschen|
Most people today may be more familiar with names such as the British Duke of Wellington or the Prussian Marshal Bluecher, perhaps even Russia’s old, one-eyed General Kutuzov but another name that should be just as familiar (even if it often is not) is that of Archduke Charles of Austria, Duke of Teschen. He was the brother of Emperor Francis I and the greatest Austrian military commander of his time and a very major thorn in the side to the French Emperor. He was certainly among the most capable of the enemies of Napoleon and gained fame for winning victories at such battles as Rastadt, Amberg and Wurzberg. He was not so successful in Italy but, upon returning to the Rhine, was victorious again at Biberach and Stockach. He was not always victorious but his victories merit him being better known than he is. The Duke of Wellington, after all, only faced Napoleon once, at Waterloo, administering his last defeat. Well, it was the Archduke Charles who gave Napoleon his first major defeat at the Battle of Aspern-Essling. He was also a gifted military administrator and implemented important reforms to the Austrian army that would pay dividends for a long time to come. It is probably no exaggeration to say that Archduke Charles was the most capable and persistent of Napoleon’s continental enemies.
|Joseph Graf Radeztky|
There were other, less lofty, Austrian commanders who earned laurels in the wars with France and it was many of the younger officers who tasted battle then who would command Austrian troops in the next great crisis that the empire faced, which was the Revolutions of 1848. The one figure who stands out the most, in this period of Austrian military history, was probably Field Marshal Joseph Graf Radetzky von Radetz. He was a beloved and highly successful general who was adored by his troops and played a critical part in a time of crisis that could easily have doomed the Austrian Empire. However, this is where unfair and unkind stereotypes can sometimes feed upon themselves. Probably his greatest hour of fame and glory came when his unflappable leadership proved the decisive factor in defeating the Italians in their first war for independence. In the years since, however, as many people have unfairly denigrated the military abilities of the Italians, defeating them has come to be seen as no great achievement and thus Graf Radetzky is all too often overlooked or dismissed as being of relatively little importance. Such thinking is an injustice to two peoples at the same time. As regular readers here will know, the stereotype of the Italians as being ‘no good at war’ is totally false. The Italians were darn good soldiers and defeating them was no small achievement. If one looks at the battles in which Graf Radetzky and his Austrians faced off against King Carlo Alberto and his coalition of Italians, one can easily see how close the Austrians came to defeat. The situation was, perhaps, not always as bad as it seemed but probably any other commander would have been panicked by the situation as it developed and pulled back, surrendering the victory to the Italians. Not Graf Radetzky. He kept his cool, was never flustered and so managed to pull off a decisive and hard fought victory for the Austrian Empire. It is unfortunate that the Austrians themselves often seemed to take such hard fought victories for granted as the government was almost always quick to give the military a lower priority when it came to spending. Later Austrian defeats, such as at the hands of the French and Italians and later the Prussians were due in large part to the army having been neglected by the civilian government. However, even in those days the Austrians still proved themselves excellent soldiers. The volunteers who went to Mexico, for example, to fight for Emperor Maximilian earned a matchless reputation and could often be found in the vanguard of any attack, acting as a sort of shock troops for the Imperial Mexican forces.
Finally, however, we must come to the First World War and it is perhaps this conflict which is most responsible for the unfair reputation Austria has come to have in military matters. It can sometimes seem that the only thing anyone remembers about Austria-Hungary in World War I was the phrase of one frustrated German that his country was ‘shackled to a corpse’, referring to Austria-Hungary. Hopefully longtime readers will know and new readers will look back at old posts to familiarize themselves with why this is unfair in greater detail. Suffice it to say that Austria-Hungary generally appears weak only because it was invariably compared to the German Empire which had none of the disadvantages that Austria-Hungary had to deal with. Austria-Hungary had a government that tended to spend less on the military whereas in Germany, with Prussia dominant, the army always came first. Germany was a nation-state whereas Austria-Hungary was a multi-ethnic patchwork with an extremely complicated organizational structure and bureaucratic infrastructure that was difficult to manage in the best of times. Germany had two major fronts to deal with, Austria had at least three and whereas Germans were all pulling in the same direction throughout all but the very end of the war, Austria-Hungary contained many dissident elements that were all too willing to be enticed by the enemy.
|Count Conrad von Hoetzendorf|
In any event, when evaluating the part of Austria-Hungary in World War I (a conflict which the Hungarian half of the empire was not happy about being a part of in the first place), there are a few things that should be kept in mind. For one, Austria-Hungary was undoubtedly a major military power, in fact one of the most militarily powerful countries in the world in 1914. The army was large, professional and they had superb artillery (which the Germans themselves made use of). The effective commander of the Austro-Hungarian army, Field Marshal Conrad von Hotzendorf, was probably the most respected military leader of his day, referred to as the greatest strategist in central Europe and was held in very high esteem even by the Germans. His plans have since often been criticized as overly ambitious and unrealistic but few care to remember that the ultimate campaigns by which Germany led the way to victory on the eastern front were all in keeping with his original strategies. It should also be kept in mind that Russian intelligence had obtained the Austrian plans before the war began, putting Austria-Hungary at quite a disadvantage. Nonetheless, some early victories were achieved, though at a great cost.
|Arz von Straussenburg|
One of those who distinguished himself was Colonel General Viktor Graf Dankl who won a hard fought, 3-day battle against the Russians at Krasnik, the first major victory for Austria-Hungary in the war (most of his army, by the way, was made up of Slovakian and Polish troops). The Gorlice-Tarnow offensive was also a major victory for Austria-Hungary though many, unfairly, tend to discount any victory achieved in cooperation with the Germans as being attributable solely to Germany rather than Austria-Hungary. This is quite an injustice considering that, for example, the Gorlice-Tarnow offensive was planned by Conrad von Hotzendorf though it was a German general who commanded the combined forces in the operation. Field Marshal Svetozar Boroevic von Bojna, a Croat - Serbian Orthodox officer from what is now Croatia, was considered one of the best defensive generals of the war and Colonel General Artur Arz von Straussenburg also distinguished himself in a number of victories, earning the respect of his countrymen as well as the Germans for his actions against the Russians and Romanians. His role as chief of staff, against Italy, did not go so well but it was not solely due to him.
|Austrian submarine U-5|
All too often it is forgotten that while the Germans may have ultimately taken the lead on the Russian front, Austria-Hungary contributed to virtually all of those victories as well as those in the south. The Austro-Hungarian forces also performed well, overall, on the Italian front despite often being heavily outnumbered with only the mountainous terrain as a major advantage. Austria-Hungary produced a number of “ace” fighter pilots during the war and showed considerable talent at sea despite having only limited forces. The Austrian submarine fleet, though few in number, actually had a higher ratio of hits per torpedoes fired than the German submarines did with Captain Georg Ritter von Trapp (later made famous by “The Sound of Music”) becoming the most successful Austrian submarine commander of the war. Austria-Hungary, though ultimately defeated, put up a heroic fight against long odds against the Russians, Serbians, Italians, Romanians and others while also sending military forces to assist the Germans on the western front and the Ottoman Turks in the Middle East. All things considered, it is quite amazing that Austria-Hungary was able to do as well as they did for as long as they did against the powerful forces arrayed against them.
|Generaloberst Lothar Rendulic|
World War I, sadly, brought with its termination the end of Austria-Hungary, the end of the Austrian Empire (the Kingdom of Hungary lingering for a while in name at least) but even with the defeat and collapse of 1918 the military legacy of Imperial Austria was still felt for some time after. Some of the young officers who learned their trade fighting for the Kaiser of Austria would also rise to prominence in World War II. Some, like the aforementioned Ritter von Trapp, refused to serve after the union with Nazi Germany, but others still fought for their country regardless of their opinions about the government. Three Austrians would rise to the rank of Colonel-General in the German armed forces of World War II and one of the most notable was General Lothar Rendulic. Rendulic served in Yugoslavia, Scandinavia and on the Russian front as a divisional, corps, army and army group commander, earning the nickname of “The Austrian Fireman” even though, while born in Austria, he was ethnically Croatian rather than German-Austrian. He earned quite a reputation as a commander who could come into a bad situation and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Of course, not all of his record is good but on the purely military side of things, he was one of the best and he first learned his trade fighting for the Austrian Emperor rather than the Austrian corporal.
There are, of course, many other names that could be mentioned and other victorious battles that could be talked about, from the Siege of Vienna in 1529 to Caporetto in late 1917 but hopefully the point has been made. Austria may not have the reputation of being a militaristic power (or even desire such) but that does not mean it lacks in ability. Austria has a long and illustrious military history full of many great war leaders and great achievements. It is extremely unfortunate that most of it has been lost thanks to the current Austrian republic which does not even seem to consider defense of the national territory to be a priority, preferring to leave itself at the mercy of others respecting its position of absolute neutrality. True, Austrian leaders gained much by marriage but Austria made war quite often as well and has a record that any Austrian can be justly proud of. I also know from experience that there are those who are going to accuse me of "forgetting" their favorite Austrian military figure. I can hear you now asking, "Why didn't you mention Prince Schwarzenberg or Andreas Hofer or..." whoever your choice may be. I did not, of course, forget them but mentioning every Austrian who achieved military success would make this already lengthy post turn into a rather large book. And that fact should make the point quite well that those who denigrate the martial prowess of Imperial Austria are the ones showing themselves woefully ignorant of the actual facts of the matter.