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The Habsburg Military

From the time the Habsburgs established hereditary rule over Austrian lands in the thirteenth century until the fall of the Habsburgs, at the end of World War I, their armies were among the largest and most significant in Europe. For 200 years, Habsburg forces formed a bastion defending the continent against repeated Ottoman campaigns to overrun Europe. In 1529 and again in 1683, the Turks were turned back only after reaching the gates of Vienna. Count Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg, who commanded the imperial troops in the city, broke the siege in 1683 with the aid of German and Polish forces under the Polish king, Jan Sobieski, then drove the Turks back into the Balkans, finally ending the Ottoman threat.

One of Austria's greatest military commanders, Prince Eugene of Savoy, in concerted operations with Britian's Duke of Marlborough, won a series of victories over the France of Louis XIV in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14). Wars fought with the Prussia of Frederick the Great over Silesia in 1740-48 (the War of the Austrian Succession) and 1756-63 were less successful. The monarchy's military potential during the eighteenth century was limited by the emperor's dependence on provincial diets for recruits and tax receipts. The nobles of the imperial lands who controlled the enserfed peasantry had no fixed obligation to provide soldiers to the Habsburgs.

Austria was prominent in the coalitions that tried to check Napoleon Bonaparte's ambitions but was forced to accept humiliating peace conditions after being decisively defeated in 1800, again in 1805 when Napoleon occupied Vienna after the Battle of Austerlitz, and finally after the Battle of Wagram in 1809. Yet Austria joined with the other great powers in the final campaign resulting in Napoleon's downfall in 1814.

Habsburg armies displayed their loyalty to the monarchy in 1848 and 1849, suppressing the revolutionary regimes that had swept into power in Vienna, Budapest, Milan, and Prague. In 1859 Austria was provoked into war with Piedmont and its supporter, the France of Napoleon III. The Austro-Piedmontese War lasted only three months, but both sides mobilized large armies. The Austrians were defeated after bitter fighting at Magenta and Solferino, the young emperor Franz Joseph assuming personal command during the battle at Solferino.

Prussia established its domination over other German states by its victory over Austria in the Seven Weeks' War in 1866. The critical battle was waged at Königgrätz (Hradec Králové in the present-day Czech Republic). The Austrians, armed with muzzleloading rifles, suffered 20,000 casualties and 20,000 prisoners. The battle overshadowed Austria's victories over Prussia's Italian allies at Custozza and in the naval Battle of Lissa (Vis) off the Dalmatian coast in which a smaller Austrian fleet of ironclads overcame the Italians by bold use of ramming tactics.

Following the end of the Seven Weeks' War, Austria experienced fifty years of peace until World War I broke out in 1914.

In spite of their size and distinction in individual engagements, Habsburg armies of the nineteenth century had known little but defeat in encounters with other major powers of Europe. The armed forces were often handicapped by uninspired or timid battlefield leaders. The principal cause of their failure, however, was the fact that, among the five great powers, which also included Britain, France, Prussia, and Russia, Austria allocated the lowest proportion of its revenue to its military establishment. Various political groups blocked adequate expenditures on the army. For example, the Prussian infantry, using breech-loading rifles in 1866, had four to five times the effective firepower of the Austrian infantry. The constant economizing was also reflected in the poor training of conscripts and in the quality of the notoriously underpaid company-grade officers. Tactics, based on frontal assault with fixed bayonets, were outdated. The quartermaster corps had a reputation for inefficiency and corruption.

The standing army of twelve corps had 240,000 men as of 1854. At its mobilized strength of 800,000, it was the largest in Europe, but the speed of mobilization and the capacity to move troops to the scene of battle was much inferior to that of the Prussians, who made full use of their growing rail system. As a matter of policy, conscripts were assigned to regiments far from their homes. A call-up involved slow train journeys for reservists; mobilization required eight weeks, nearly twice as long as mobilization of the Prussian army, which was organized by region.

The creation of Austria-Hungary (also seen as the Austro-Hungarian Empire) under the Compromise (Ausgleich) of 1867 separated the Hapsburg Empire into independent Austrian and Hungarian governments. Only the army, foreign affairs, and related budgetary matters remained joined under the emperor, who held supreme command of all forces in time of war. A new army law decreed universal three-year conscription followed by a ten-year reserve obligation. In practice, only about one in five of those liable to service were called up, and many were sent on leave after two years. The army of Austria-Hungary has been described as a state within a state. In an empire of ten nationalities and five religions, marked by ethnic conflict and sharp political and economic divisions, the army formed the only real bond among the emperor's subjects and the sole instrument through which loyalty to him could find expression.

In addition to the two Defence Ministers, who were in charge of the Austrian Landwehr and Landsturm on the one hand, and the corresponding Hungarian forces on the other, there was the common War Minister, who was head of the Imperial War Office, which administered the common army. The regular army and navy are institutions of the joint monarchy, but their administration was marked by that strange mixture of federal union and international alliance which characterizes the relations of Austria and Hungary; thus, although they were common institutions, the army and navy were governed by separate if substantially identical laws, passed by the two Parliaments. The working of the system depended upon harmony between the two Cabinets, for there was no possible means of compulsion if either half of the monarchy should refuse to raise its quota of recruits. The special military bodies of Austria and Hungary formed a reserve, but cannot be commanded to march out of their own States without an order from their respective Parliaments. In spite of the concessions necessarily made to the autonomy of the two parties in the monarchy, which cause certain complications in the army system, the military organization of the Empire was efficient.

The army, although her official language and the words of command are German, was not a homogeneous unity, but a loosely jointed set of polyglot brigades. The Hungarian "Honved" (second reserve) was drilled and commanded in Magyar; her non-commissioned and even many commissioned officers did not understand German at all. In all "field regiments," with the exception of those recruited from the German provinces, few noncommissioned officers could speak, scarcely any caould write or even read, the army language, and the percentage of reserve officers who were able to write and speak German fluently was growing smaller every year. Although there were many officers who spoke two or three of the different languages of Austria, there could naturally be but few who were able to understand all the tongues: Magyar Polish, Czech, Routhenian, Roumanian, Slavonic, Croat, Slovak, Servian, Bosnian, and Italian.

Nevertheless, Austria-Hungary gave the impression of being a highly militarized nation. British historian Edward Crankshaw noted that not only the emperor but most males in high society never wore civilian clothes except when hunting. Select regiments of the army were splendidly outfitted, but, with a few dedicated exceptions, the officers, so magnificent on the parade ground, "shrank . . . from the arbitrament of arms as from an unholy abyss."

Regiments were organized along linguistic lines, although German was the language of command. Ethnic factors did not prevent recruitment of non-German speakers to the officer corps or their regular promotion. Hungarians, Croats, Serbs, Poles, Italians, Czechs, Slovenes, and Romanians could be found in senior positions. In the more prestigious units, most field-grade officers owed their ranks to birth or wealth. As of 1900, a majority of the officer corps in the Austro-Hungarian army were native German speakers, although only one-fourth of the empire's total population was German speaking.

The Austro-Hungarian Army remained, next to the Crown, the most popular and powerful prop of the State. It lent a helping hand in cases of disaster, exercised an educational influence on the bulk of the population, and was rarely guilty of brutality even in the repression of disorder. The spirit in which it was administered was, on the whole, tolerant and non-aggressive- at its best (to repeat the words of the Chlopy Army Order) a spirit "which respects every national characteristic and solves all antagonisms by utilizing the special qualities of every race for the welfare of the great whole."

It stood to reason that this high spirit cannot be evinced in every detail of military organization, nor in the working of all military departments. Red tape and mandarinism, to which Austro-Hungarian officials are more prone than those of any Continental people except, perhaps, the Russian tchinovniks, flourish exceedingly in the AustroHungarian War Office, the Ministries for National Defence, and in the Commands of the various Army Corps. But, in the Army, the personal control of the Monarch, or of the Archdukes representing him, sometimes placed a check upon officialism, whereas in a civilian bureaucracy the wheels of the bureaucratic machine would go on unhindered in crushing the life and the individuality out of men.

One typical case was that of General Galgotzy, a splendid old soldier who was for many years the idol of the army and whose name recurs in a hundred anecdotes. During the occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina a road had to be built in haste. The work was difficult, funds were short, and time pressed. Galgotzy undertook the work and did it for a trifling sum, thanks to the devotion of his men. Then he reported: "Road built. Twenty thousand florins received, twenty thousand florins spent, remains nothing. Galgotzy." Shocked by so terse a statement, the military audit officials demanded of Galgotzy a detailed account of florin and kreutzer, with vouchers. Galgotzy ignored the demand, which was presently repeated in peremptory tone. Then he rejoined: "Twenty thousand florins received, twenty thousand florins spent. Whoever doubts it, is an ass." Thereupon the chief audit official solemnly drew the Emperor's attention to Galgotzy's irreverent reply and suggested a reprimand. The Emperor blandly inquired, "Do you then doubt it?"

The Austrian soldier, when in a fully trained organization, was the equal of any other. The infantryman was not as good as the German, French, or British foot soldier, nor could he be compared with the Italian Arditi or Bersagleri, but this was the fault of his training, his organizational training, and the faulty staff work of the larger units. Individually, he was just as brave and fought just as intelligently as any other individual, considered as such. He was better on the offensive than in defense. The Austrian artilleryman was the best on either side; perhaps he was second to the Frenchman in handling the lighter guns, but certainly he was second to none in the manufacture and the handling of the heavier Skodas. In view of post-war impressions regarding the Austrian soldier, it is well to remember that in October 1918, Austria was the only one of four Central Powers which was as yet unbeaten. Germany wa being whipped to her knees, Turkey had already quit, and Bulgaria was pleading for an armistice. Austria alone was in her old position and was planning an offensive.

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Page last modified: 23-05-2019 18:56:24 ZULU