The Austrian Army circa 1800 Part I

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The Austrian Army at the very beginning of the 19th century was in a state of confusion, still reeling from the debacles of the First and the Second Coalitions. In these wars, the armies of the French Revolution and Consulate continually outperformed their Habsburg counterparts. The problems that confronted the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II (r. 1792- 1806), were broad: logistically, tactically, strategically, and politically, the armies suffered handicaps compared to the rapidly modernizing French. The army of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (r. 1740-80) had held off the greatest general of his day, Frederick the Great of Prussia (r. 1740-86). Her artillery was the envy of the world, and the infantry and cavalry accounted well for themselves. Following the Seven Years War (1756-63), a number of ‘reforms’ were attempted. The worst of these was an overhaul of the artillery arm. The result was a disaster, with several humiliating defeats at the hands of the Turks. Attempts to redress this situation succeeded only partially. Austria had the best artillery of the continental allies, but it could not compare to that of the French.

Throughout the reigns of the Emperors Joseph and Leopold, a number of changes were attempted in the infantry. Light infantry regiments were raised in 1798, but disbanded in 1801. The Habsburg commanders had no faith in the average troops performing well when not under the direct supervision of their officers. There were Jager battalions (elite rifle-armed light troops) and the Grenz troops (hardy frontiersmen from the Balkans with a traditional duty of military service), but there were never enough to counter the infuriating French swarm of skirmishers. To compound the problem, the Austrians were introducing greater discipline into the Grenzer to ensure their political reliability and make them more compatible with the rest of their army, but suppressing their old flair for irregular warfare.

The problems faced by the Austrian Emperor were in large part due to past Habsburg successes. Primarily through marriages, they had acquired many provinces with varied ethnic and racial populations – therefore, no universal language existed in the army. Further, many of these provinces owed no loyalty to the Austrians, just to the Emperor personally. This meant that the Hungarians, for example, believed they could decide among themselves how much they would support the war effort. As the Empire was teetering on bankruptcy in 1805, the regiments were dispersed to minimize the costs of upkeep and to aid recruitment. Whatever its economic advantages, such dispersal meant that mobilization was a long process.

The Emperor’s brother, the Archduke Charles, had set about reforming the army in 1801. He had taken power from the Hofkriegsrat, a military/civilian assembly, and had streamlined the logistical procedures. He was unquestionably Austria’s best field commander, but he had a knack of alienating the court personalities and the ossified high command. He had close favourites whom he allowed to dictate to others considered above their station. Charles was constantly at odds with a series of foreign ministers and a combination of his enemies worked to remove him from his position of power. They launched a two-front attack, playing on Francis’s paranoia regarding his brother’s popularity, while urging him to join the alliance against Napoleon. Charles was adamant that the army was in no shape to fight the French and that Austria needed further peace to get her financial house in order. To that end he even advocated recognizing Napoleon’s imperial status, humiliating as that might be for the oldest ruling family in Europe.

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INFANTRY

The army’s core was its German infantry, Upper Austrians in particular being considered ‘brave, laborious, industrious, intelligent and agreeable’. Conscription had operated across the Hereditary and Bohemian (western) lands from 1781, based on population rolls of each regiment’s district. All able-bodied men aged between 17 and 40 (with those aged 18-26 taken first) were liable unless exempted those exempted included nobles and priests; most skilled workers, including miners and workers in licensed factories; many townsfolk; and all free peasants and their eldest sons. The burden thus fell on junior sons of peasants and the urban proletariat. Service was for a tough 25 years (effectively life), except for bakers and equipment suppliers, who enlisted for three years. Prior to 1802, aside from complete incapacity, release was only possible when, through inheritance, purchase or marriage, a man acquired property or a business which he was required to run; but release was conditional on the district providing a substitute.

From 1782 to 1808 German regiments had Aushilfsbezirke (supplementary districts) in Galicia, and they were certainly productive: by 1802 Galicia’s population was contributing about 54,000 Poles and Ruthenes (Russians) to the army, and 11 regiments were transferred to Galicia in 1808 when the recruitment districts were changed. Moravian regiments retained their districts, which supplied half of their 3rd battalions.

The army contingent of Hungary (comprising Croatia, Hungary and Transylvania) rose steadily from 35,000 to 63,000, requiring 6,034 recruits per year. Renowned for their fighting spirit, the eastern provinces retained a feudal system to raise infantry, mainly from a peasant population ‘as rude and savage as the animals they dwelt amongst’. In the south the Serbs and Croats provided ‘doughty fighters [who] consumed vast quantities of strong liquors’, according to one contemporary commentator. Officered by local Saxons, who were ‘tall and more commonly fair than brown’ with ‘a high forehead, large blue eyes and an open cheerful countenance’, the Transylvanian regiments contained a mix of them, known for their ‘industry and sobriety’ and Vlach (Romanians) who were ‘rather lively, but of cunning, revengeful, indolent [and] brutal character… short in body, but of a strong, muscular strain [which] bears hardship with fortitude… His features are strong and expressive, his hair dark and bushy.’ The addition of ‘well-made brave, robust, and indefatigable’ Szeckels, with their reputation for ‘preceding the army and lying in ambush’, made them regular advance- and rearguard troops.

Apart from Galician regiments, the infantry were usually garrisoned in their home district. Some barracks, such as that of the Infanterie-Regiment 4 (4th Infantry Regiment) at Alserkaserne in Vienna, accommodated one battalion, but lack of purpose-built facilities meant most units were garrisoned in fortresses. Officers naturally enjoyed the best local houses, with some companies quartered in houses in the locality.

The recruit was formally enlisted at the garrison, and having sworn a resounding allegiance to the Emperor, received 3 Gulden, from which he had to purchase hairbands, comb, knife and fork, shoebrushcs and cleaning equipment. His pay didn’t go far – it had to cover his daily food, laundry and cleaning costs. His tunic was undyed ‘perlgrau’ wool (1769 Regulations), with a camisol (waistcoat) worn underneath. The regulations continued: ‘The uniform [must be] cleaned daily with a brush, and each piece cleaned with pipeclay and chalk [to render it white] and dusted down, shoes were to be polished every day’, and the leather maintained by ‘rubbing in unsalted fat regularly’. Both uniform and weapon were to be maintained in good order and the man ‘must not lose, exchange or sell any of it’ (1807 Regulations).

Those garrisoned in houses were fortunate: in barracks the man’s bed was ‘a wooden bed for two with a bed-end and a raised head board… on it a square pallias and straw bolster, a linen sheet, which the man could pull off to improve his uniform by cleaning it. In winter, a coarse blanket… which is like a board; in summer, he has nothing beyond his coat to cover himself with.’

A 1790 company comprised: Hauptmann (captain), Oberleutnant (1st lieutenant), Unterleutnant (2nd lieutenant), Fahnrich (ensign), Feldwebel (sergeant), four Korporals (corporals), two Tambours (drummers), eight Gefreite (lance corporal), a Zimmerman (pioneer) and 91 Gemeine (privates); Grenadiers were to maintain full strength at 99 Gemeine (no Fahnrich nor Gefreite), taking infantry as required – in 1795 the 4th Infantry Regiment’s grenadiers received 50 veterans from the 3rd Battalion.

The Feldwebel was effectively the company adjutant, a typically tough-minded, loud-voiced individual responsible for internal discipline, administration and drill. He organized distribution of bread in the rear tent line or at a convenient place in the garrison.

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