Maria Theresa Infantry Reforms





With regard to the infantry, the need for reform was far more pressing. Compared to the forced marches and parade ground precision of the Prussians the Austrian infantry were felt to be dogged and courageous but less agile and inventive. Such was the zeal with which successive reforms were introduced that at times all 44 regiments of infantry of the line which Maria Theresa had inherited in 1740 appeared to be in a permanent state of work in progress. Breakdown of companies, size of regiments, and numbers of grenadiers assigned to each regiment, as well as tactics, drill and dress, were constantly shifting under a veritable avalanche of experiments.

By 1769, the structure of the Austrian infantry had evolved into single regiments totalling 2,000 men each. These were broken down into three battalions and two Grenadier companies of between 120 and 150 men each. At first these grenadier companies were armed with grenades but gradually they came to be used as shock troops, the tallest and bravest in the regiment distinguished by their lofty bearskin headdress, general air of arrogant ferocity and curved sabres worn by all the men. As an added refinement the stocks of their muskets were of polished walnut as opposed to plain beechwood for the Fusilier infantry.

As the reputation of the Inhaber of the regiment often rested largely on the size and appearance of these men, attempts to combine the Grenadier companies into a single regiment or even into tactical units failed miserably at first. Nevertheless as one contemporary, Cognazzo, observed, ‘in our army it does a man good simply to give him a bearskin. He is less inclined to desert and will fight better.’9

Gradually the idea of combining these elite companies as ad hoc formations began to gather momentum, and the reforms of the infantry after 1748 certainly made it easier to detach each regiment’s two grenadier companies. This would be implemented with devastating effect on the battlefields of the next war. Pay and conditions meanwhile were improved, especially for s-u-b-altern officers, though the rich detailing of their uniforms inevitably caught the Empress’s eye and on 5 June 1755 she ordered that there should be ‘more economy in excess details’. Uniforms therefore came to be marked by simplicity and great modesty among the rank and file, relying on their elegance of cut and colour for effect in contrast to the heavier more ornate uniforms of Prussia and England, let alone France. In order to distinguish in the fog of battle one set of white-coated combatants from those of another country (for example France) the custom grew of adding a sprig of oak leaves in summer months or pine needles in the winter months as a Feldzeichen to each soldier’s headdress, a tradition that would outlive the abolition of white tunics more than a century later and remain synonymous with Habsburg service.

The modern reader might well question how white or pearl grey undyed wool could be a practical uniform for parades and battles. In fact undyed wool could be brought up with pipe clay to a dazzling white, while blue, red and green coats all lost their colour after a little wear owing to the deficiencies of eighteenth-century dyes. The Habsburg white was therefore an eminently practical colour and no attempt was made to change it. Regiments were distinguished by shades of red, green, orange, yellow, blue and black in the facing colour, and increasingly in the colour of their buttons.

In 1765, a new shorter and lighter infantry uniform was introduced following Maria Theresa’s injunction that the old uniform was unsatisfactory: ‘One of my principal ambitions is and always shall be,’ she wrote, ‘to make such arrangements as will promote the upkeep of the private soldier and alleviate his duties. Bearing this in mind I have decided to try out a new kind of uniform among my infantry regiments which will give the ordinary soldier’s body better protection against cold and wet and yet be no heavier to wear.’

The greatcoats that could be issued with this lighter uniform were a welcome comfort against inclement weather (and the last item any deserter chose to part with). But these improvements had followed years of failed attempts to shorten Austrian infantry coats in the teeth of opposition from vested interests. Thus fifteen years earlier Podewils had noted that Maria Theresa’s attempts to change uniforms by shortening coats had been frustrated by officers who had submitted vastly inflated costs for providing tents which ‘of course’ would be necessary if the coats had less material to protect their wearers from the vagaries of the weather.

‘They grossly exaggerated the expense of the covers of the pack horses to carry them and of the men to look after the horses so that the total bill reached an enormous sum and it was easy for them to persuade the Empress to give up the idea.’ Reforms of uniform in the infantry were accompanied by a complete modernisation of weaponry. In 1748, six regiments were rearmed with a musket designed by Johann Schmied, a lowly official with a creative mind. The gun proved effective but easily breakable. It was better than the 1722 muzzle-loading smooth bore musket with which the Austrians hitherto had been equipped. In 1754, Liechtenstein applied his considerable intellect to the problem and formed a commission of officers to examine the Schmied musket and three other muskets made by the Penzeneter factory. The best of each weapon was now integrated into the so-called Comissflinte which was able to deliver as consistently as the much-admired Prussian muskets. To ensure this was the case, all moving parts were to be kept ‘Mirror bright’ (Spiegel glänzend).

This addiction to polish had unfortunate consequences. As Cognazzo observed:

We polished our weapons unceasingly and in the course of time the barrels became so thin that after a few live rounds they were liable to burst and melt. … Many regiments scarcely got off eight or ten volleys before we saw hundreds of these beautiful gleaming muskets lying useless on the ground.

Maria Theresa also immersed herself in the shortcomings of her infantry’s drill, as was highlighted early on in the war at Mollwitz. In 1749 when peace offered a respite to address these deficiencies she issued a proclamation: ‘It has come to Our notice that Our Imperial infantry possesses neither a uniform drill nor consistent observation of military practice. These two shortcomings not only give rise to various disorders but promote a dangerous harmful and damaging situation …’.

Browne, Neipperg and Eszterhazy had all compiled their own drill manuals, while an earlier manual of 1737 was virtually ignored. The Military Reform Commission lost no time in attempting to impose some uniformity on infantry drill. In 1749 it published the Regulament und Ordnung des gesammten Kaiserlich-Königlichen Fuss-Volcks (Infantry drill regulations) drawing on much of these earlier manuals, old administrative manuals and indeed several conversations Maria Theresa had with a retired Prussian officer called Doss.

When Frederick heard of this manual’s existence he ordered his Ambassador in Vienna to acquire a copy, but in vain. The Prussian Ambassador noted that though every regiment was in possession of the book, ‘the penalty for communicating its contents is nothing less than dishonourable discharge. For this reason neither I nor any of the other foreign envoys have been able to obtain a copy.’

The drill and deployments – though modified notably after the Seven Years War and in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars in 1805 – remained largely in use up until the time of Radetzky and beyond, thus showing how these Theresian articles of military conduct endured for more than a hundred years. The Regulament laid down four lines of infantry to be drawn up, with the ‘tallest and best looking’ in the front line. The first in conventional fashion dropped to one knee when preparing to volley. The fourth line was a reserve and stood with shouldered muskets.

When receiving cavalry the first two rows of troops were expected to stand with bayonets pointed towards the horses’ chest and head while the third line aimed at the riders. Schrott (shotgun) cartridges were considered most effective at close range against cavalry. The bayonet charge as an isolated tactic was relatively rare, though some Austrian generals such as Khevenhueller fondly nurtured the notion of infantry storming positions without firing a shot. This tactic became more usual a generation or so later (e.g. the Young Guard taking Plancenoit at the pas de charge in 1815, or the struggle for Aspern in 1809).

It was still far more common for infantry to fire at each other from a range of a hundred paces or less until one side broke and withdrew. The Austrians aimed to fire five rounds a minute. While this was possible on the parade ground, it proved far more difficult in battle conditions. Moreover the muskets were inaccurate and the Austrian drill remained complex compared to that of the Prussians.

The Regulament was extravagantly detailed in prescribing the correct drill for all occasions. For example, there were no fewer than 27 pages on a soldier’s conduct on Good Friday and exhaustive rules for a soldier on duty accepting a glass of wine while in uniform. But less effective rules were laid down for actually training the men for battle. A paucity of NCOs, the backbone of any army, meant that in some battles several platoons were not allowed to be incorporated into the line of battle because they did not know how to load and fire.

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