The Austrian Army of 1805


Lieutenant-General Kienmayer commanded the advance guard of Doctorov’s first column at Austerlitz. He was also the Austrian Chief of Staff and as such had been largely responsible for drawing up the Allied plan of battle, taking the leading role at the briefing of Austrian and Russian generals late on 1 December, (Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University)


Prince John of Lichtenstein. Prince John was an Austrian lieutenant-general entrusted with the bulk of the Allied cavalry at Austerlitz, forming the fifth column, and was in fact the senior Austrian officer present after the Emperor Francis. He fought mainly on the Allied right centre but was decisively defeated by Murat’s cuirassiers in the late morning. (Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University)

The Austrian army of 1805 was in large measure the creation of ‘the unfortunate General Mack’, the out-generalled commander of the Emperor Francis II’s army at Ulm. A Protestant – something of a rarity in itself in Catholic Austria – he had emerged to note in 1794 by writing Instructions for Generals, which stressed the all-importance of the offensive in campaigning. Five years later his reputation had taken a severe dent while commanding the Army of the Two Sicilies in Naples, a force about whom their realistic Bourbon monarch had remarked (of a proposed change of uniform in the interests of engendering higher morale), ‘Dress them in red, blue or green – they’ll run away just the same.’ Taken prisoner by the French, he had broken parole to return to Holy Russia. However, he had re-emerged from deserved obscurity in 1805 as the war clouds began to gather, and on 22 April had been appointed Chief of Staff (or Quartermaster- General, in Austrian terminology). This was a setback for the Archduke Charles, undoubtedly the ablest Habsburg commander of his generation, whose influence on the Aulic Council, or Hofkriegsrath (the Court War Council), an assembly of august grey-beards with supreme authority second only to that of their Emperor (a monarch with no claim whatsoever to military pretensions) over all matters pertaining to strategy. Certainly, as we have seen, Charles was awarded command of the army in north Italy – supposedly the most likely scene of decisive conflict in at least Vienna’s estimation – but the impressive optimism of Mack brought him command of the Danube army with special and specific responsibilities for cooperation with the Russian ally.

What Mack actually found on assuming command as Chief of Staff would have daunted a more realistic general. More than a decade of unsuccessful wars stretching back to 1792 had almost bankrupted the state, and defence spending had been halved as recently as 1804 – and many of the 350,000 troops nominally on the establishment had been disbanded to save their pay. The wagon trains and artillery teams had been broken up as a further economy.

To his credit, Mack had at once set to work to repair some of the damage. The aristocratic cavalry (possibly 58,000 strong, at least on paper) was the most satisfactory part of the army. It comprised eight regiments of partly armoured cuirassiers, six of dragoons, as many of light dragoons (or chevaulegers), twice that number of hussars and three of lancers. Most regiments had an establishment of eight squadrons, but these varied from 160 horsemen apiece in the ‘heavies’ to some 210 in the light cavalry. As the scion of a very minor Franconian family, it behoved Mack to tread warily among the holders of great titles and vast estates in the Empire who were the most influential cavalry commanders, but he did insist on a reduction of the habitual battle formation to two ranks. For the rest, he left well alone.

The Habsburg infantry he felt more confident about reforming. The ‘curse of Babel’ was insoluble in an army that drew its rank and file from the peasantries of a vast and multi-national empire. The basis of the infantry were the regiments (still with colonel-proprietors), the largest permanent formations that would be grouped in ad hoc ‘columns’ or brigades as need arose. Here Mack set to work with a reformer’s zeal, and with the Emperor’s blessing in June 1805 he imposed a standardized establishment. Each regiment was to comprise one battalion of grenadiers and four more of line infantry, each battalion to be made up of four companies. Allowing for a smaller grenadier establishment of 600 men to the more usual 800 soldiers in a line battalion, this theoretically produced a regiment of over 3,800 officers and men. But even Mack’s undeniable energy and flood of paper instructions and new regulations could not overcome three major problems. First, his new regulations were only issued in June 1805, and so war caught the Austrian army in the midst of implementing the changes: as a result some regiments had conformed, others not, and a conservative colonel was in a position virtually to ignore any changes he disapproved of amid the chaos of mobilization for war. Second, the army was equipped with a flintlock musket, or flinte, dating from 1754 (that of the French opponent dated from 1777 and was considerably superior). And, third, Mack could in no way influence the traditional Habsburg love for changing the composition of ‘columns’ or ‘corps’ on almost a weekly basis – which meant that no general ever knew his troops. It was one thing for Napoleon to create new corps d’armee in mid-campaign (as we have already seen in the case of Mortier’s VIII Corps in late 1805), but quite another for the Austrians to make frequent changes at lower levels (which Napoleon never did, his divisions and regiments remaining constant in organization and grouping). The end-result was a chaos that astounded even the Tsar’s generals.

But not all was hopeless in the Habsburg infantry. The Croatian light infantry from the militargrenze or ‘military frontiers’ were enthusiastic and redoubtable fighters, but unfortunately they were under-trained and never employed at this period as skirmishers after the French pattern already described above. Indeed, it was the rigidity of Austrian tactical concepts that formed one of their greatest weaknesses. Formal linear tactics of the 18th century type enforced by a strict discipline produced what were jocularly described as ‘walking muskets’. Not even officers dared break away from the dead hand of the regulations, and Mack’s well-meant intended tactical reforms came far too late to redeem the situation by the later months of 1805. The Austrians continued to place their faith in platoon, company or battalion volleys, delivered by formations drawn up three or four ranks deep in their distinctive white uniforms.

The Austrian artillery was another relic of a greater past in the 1750s. Organized into four regiments of sixteen companies (or batteries) apiece, it numbered barely 11,000 men all told. Drafts from infantry regiments were continually used to make up the gun-crews. Horses to draw the cumbersome pieces (far weightier than the French guns of the Gribeauval reforms had to be pressed into service from civilian sources each time war threatened. In 1805 the complement was only at half strength. Lighter cannon were invariably attached to infantry regiments and thus strong batteries were rarely organized, although some heavier pieces were trained in the Artillery Reserve. The standard guns were 3pdr, 6pdr and 12pdr cannon and 7pdr howitzers, but in every case their calibre was less than that of the French (lighter) equivalent. As for supply, Mack was dazzled by Napoleon’s reputation, and attempted to copy the French system (unsatisfactory though it often was) of ‘living off the countryside’. His quartermasters drew a great sigh of relief and promptly refused to issue not only food but even remounts and uniforms in some instances. In 1792, Austrian armies had always marched with at least nine days’ rations in cumbrous, slow-moving wagons. Now, in 1805, they moved even more slowly through a general shortage of horse teams but often without any rations. Even worse, their Russian allies were largely dependent on the Austrians for their supplies — even down to boots, shoes and tentage. The results can be imagined.

The Army Staff was – on paper – meticulously organized thanks to the earlier efforts of Field Marshal Lacy and proved unsurpassed in the production of paper and paperwork. Few armies have ever been so bedevilled with demands for so many daily returns to higher authority. As for military intelligence, its standard may be judged from the basic failure to comprehend the difference between the Russian and European calendars. But the Army Staff was efficient in providing guides, although this led to much friction with their Russian allies, who did not appreciate being told how to comport themselves on the march. Thus, behind an ostensibly impressive military facade, all was ‘mildewed’ in the Austrian army. It would see better days after 1805 when the gifted Archduke Charles and his relatively competent brothers received a freer hand to redesign the army, but in 1805 there was little hope for the Habsburgs against Napoleon’s magnificent and ruthless genius. And the hard lessons of the Ulm campaign were to be applied again with even greater effect on the frost-covered fields of Moravia.

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