The War of the Polish Succession 1733-5


Soldiers of the War of the Polish Succession

The array of rival powers took on a more familiar appearance in the 1730S, when the Bourbon powers of France and Spain stood once more shoulder-to-shoulder against Habsburg Austria. The cause of the quarrel was the support which the French gave to the candidacy of Stanislaus Leszczynski for the throne of Poland. The Russians had a candidate of their own, in the bulky person of Augustus III of Saxony, and with Austrian encouragement they occupied Warsaw on 10 October 1733. The French party among the Polish nobles might still have put up an effective opposition, if most of them had not taken refuge in the Baltic fortress of Danzig. With their enemies thus conveniently isolated and concentrated, the Russians began a long and muddled siege. Their Field-Marshal Münnich declared that ‘since the Russians have never besieged any fortress which may compare with Danzig, I am unaware of any engineer officer who has the experience to direct a successful siege of this strong and modern fortress’ (Vischer, 1938,347). Münnich arrived to take charge of the operation in person, but he was unable to move affairs along with any greater speed. Danzig finally capitulated on 30 June 1734, after 135 days of resistance, and the French party in Poland was as good as lost. Near to home, however, the Bourbon cause fared much better.

The Rhine

The events of the Rhenish campaigns of the 1730S could have been taken from anyone of the wars of the last three-quarters of a century. As always, the Empire had a garrison in the fort of Kehl, which was separated by a narrow channel of sliding brown river water from the French bank and, a little further away, the great fortress-depot of Strasbourg. As always, the fortresses of the Empire were in little state to offer resistance, and Kehl fell on 29 October 1733 after a two-week siege.

The archaic flavour was still more pronounced in the campaigning of 1734, when the 62-year-old Berwick came out of retirement and led the French army to the siege of the middle Rhine fortress of Philippsburg, which had been so often attacked in the days of the old king. One of the motives of the present siege was to reaccustom the troops to fire, after an interval of twenty years of peace. The army is willing enough, but physically not up to fighting a war. Sieges are particularly useful for getting soldiers used to the rigours of warfare. (Noailles, 1850, 285)

The Austrian army was kept at a distance by the last great circumvallation ever built in Western fortress warfare – a complex of lines and earthen bastions which extended for more than six miles.

Early on 16 June Berwick visited the trenches and climbed a parapet to gain a better view. This sort of thing was very dangerous, as Charles XII of Sweden had shown a few years before, and Berwick was promptly beheaded by a cannon shot. France lost with him a living link with the age of Vauban. Berwick had sometimes disagreed with the great engineer, but he was at one with him in his concern for the ‘grand principle of humanity’ (Berwick (continuation), 1779, 11,359), and the belief that systematic siegework was a good way of saving lives.

Seventy thousand Germans and Austrians advanced to the relief under the command of Prince Eugene, who was now merely ‘an honourable relic of olden times’ (Seckendorff, quoted in Kriegsarchiv, 1876-91, XIX, 238). Eugene refused to attack the circumvallation, much to the chagrin of the ambitious young Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia, who was attending the campaign. Philippsburg capitulated within sight of the army on 18 July 1734, and the Imperialists made no attempt to disturb the French hold on the Rhine for the rest of the war.


The rheumaticky Marshal Villars, another survivor of the old war, had meanwhile led an army of 38,000 French against Austrian Lombardy in 1733. They came at the invitation of King Victor Amadeus II of Piedmont-Sardinia, ‘the gate-keeper of the Alps’ (Foissac-Latour, 1789, 30), who was anxious to have the help of the Bourbons in pushing forward his eastern border. In return he promised to provide the French with siege artillery and ammunition which was not quite so generous as it seemed, for the French would henceforth be unable to attack a fortress without his consent.

The allies flooded over the plain of Lombardy, and brought the Austrians face-to-face with their age-old strategic problem of how to emerge from the Alps into northern Italy. Mantua was their only sizeable fortress, but it offered no satisfactory base for the army, being marooned in a malarial swamp dangerously remote from the exits of the Alpine passes. The Austrian commanders could see no alternative to launching blind offensives through the ‘strong’ north Italian countryside of ditches, dykes, small fields and massive cassines (farmhouses). So it was that the French were able to smash successive Austrian armies in 1734 at Parma, on 29 June, and at Guastalla on 19 September.

In 1735 the Austrian field army abandoned the garrison of Mantua to its fate and retired into the Tyrolean valleys. The French duly advanced to Mantua, but they were content to lay the place under passive blockade until a truce brought an end to hostilities in November. In the meantime Don Carlos, son of Philip V of Spain, had carved out a kingdom for himself in Naples and Sicily, the Austrians were direly short of troops and money, and their last stronghold fell in July 1735.

The affairs of Europe were settled in a complicated manner by the Preliminaries of Vienna, in October 1735. Don Carlos clung onto his Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. As some compensation the Emperor received Parma and Piacenza in northern Italy, and gained the reversion of Tuscany to his son-in-law, Prince Francis Stephen, who was to yield to France his native Lorraine, the untenable western bulwark of the empire. Victor Amadeus of Piedmont-Sardinia carried away from the war the prize for which he had entered it – a slice of the Austrian duchy of Milan, which included the fortresses of Tortona and Novara.

The Emperor Charles VI could never reconcile himself to the thought that he would have to be more polite to the Piedmontese than ever before, complaining that Milan

a completely open city, is now on the borders, and is a prey to whatever army chooses to cross the Ticino. Thanks to the territory he has gained, the King of Sardinia can pass the river at any time, and in future he will be able to make himself master of Milan whenever he likes. (Kriegsarchiv, 1876-91, XX, 247).

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