Albrecht Friedrich Rudolf Dominik, Archduke of Austria (1817–1895) and the Battle of Custozza

Austrian field marshal, victor over the Italians in 1866, and leading military figure of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Albrecht Friedrich Rudolf Dominik, second Duke of Teschen, was born in Vienna on August 3, 1817. He was the eldest son of Archduke Charles of Austria, the only Austrian general to defeat Napoleon, in the Battle of Aspern-Essling (May 21–22, 1809). Charles encouraged his son’s inclination toward the military. Although Albrecht suffered from a mild form of epilepsy, it did not adversely affect his military career.

At age 13, Albrecht was commissioned a colonel in the Austrian 44th Infantry Regiment. Field Marshal Joseph Radetzky was his chief military adviser. Albrecht was named Generalmajor in 1840, Feldmarschall-leutnant in 1843, and General der Kavallerie in 1845. As commander of forces in Upper Austria, Lower Austria, and Salzburg, he had charge of troops in Vienna at the onset of the Revolution of 1848. On March 13, his men fired on the crowds in an effort to restore order. Although his troops were able to secure the city center, they failed to win control of the outer districts. Albrecht was himself wounded in the fighting. Following the resignation of Austrian chancellor and foreign minister Klemens von Metternich and the formation of an armed student guard, Albrecht ordered his troops to their barracks.

Albrecht took part in the subsequent effort to suppress revolutionary outbreaks against Austrian rule in northern Italy. Commanding a division under Radetzky, Albrecht played a key role in the victory over Italian forces led by King Charles Albert of Sardinia in the Battle of Novara (March 23, 1849). During 1851– 1860 Albrecht was governor of Hungary. The Italian War of 1859 passed him by as he was then in Berlin, engaged in a fruitless effort to secure an alliance with Prussia.

With war with Prussia looming, in mid-April 1866 Albrecht was appointed to command the South Army rather than the forces against Prussia. Here he faced onerous odds: 75,000 Austrian troops with 168 guns against 200,000 Italians with 370 guns. Yet Albrecht won a decisive victory over the Italians led by General Alfonso Ferrero La Marmora in the Battle of Custozza (June 24, 1866).

The charge of the 13th Regiment of Austrian Uhlans.

Battle of Custozza (June 24, 1866)

The Southern Army of the Habsburgs was made up of many fine regiments. The Archduke commanded barely 75,000 troops against a foe of 200,000 equipped with more than twice the amount of artillery he could muster. As his orders to his army upon declaration of war noted, this disparity in numbers was not at all intimidating: `Soldiers!’ he exhorted them. `Never forget how often this enemy has run away from you!’

Ably advised by his chief of staff, General John, the Archduke Albrecht waited for Marmora’s army to cross the Mincio. Albrecht hoped to disrupt Marmora’s army so as to render it incapable of uniting with another Italian army advancing from the south under Cialdini. To keep Marmora in check while holding Cialdini under observation required some forced marches across the northern Italian plains in scorching heat. Neck scarves and a proliferation of sun- protective materials punctuated the white tunics of Albrecht’s infantry, while his cavalry abandoned their heavy costume and headdress to adopt lighter blouses and, in the case of his lancers, soft caps. By the time the morning of the 24th dawned, the Imperial Royal Army had divested itself of all its Alpine kit and had come to resemble increasingly a lightly armed skirmishing force which, but for the absence of the colour of khaki, might have been recognisable on the North West Frontier a generation later.

Risking serious disruption had he been faced by a more energetic opponent, the Archduke wheeled his forces west to occupy the high ground around Villafranca. His V corps under Rodichad conducted the most punishing night march to Sona but neither Italian skirmishers nor cavalry patrols disturbed their deployment on the hills around Custozza. To the surprise of the Austrians, these hills had not been seized by the Italians. Only around the high ground east of Vallegio did the Italians blunder into the Austrians at 6 a. m. As Marmora rode up to the small eminence of Monte Croce shortly after dawn, he was staggered to see an entire Austrian corps (Hartung IX) moving towards him in three columns less than two miles away. The Italians were about to be swept back to their Mincio crossings in great style. With improvisation, Marmora hastily assembled a defence, ordering two divisions to march up to Villafranca where Albert’s wing was lightly defended by an Austrian division under Ludwig Pulz. As this deployment began, the quixotic opportunities which war affords the alert and energetic mind came into play.

Pulz was under strict orders to `maintain only contact’ with the Italian III Corps under Della Rocca. He was therefore mildly surprised to see four squadrons of his lancers, mostly Poles from Galicia under their colonel Rodakowski, line up in formation, lower their lances as their colonel drew his sword and gallop towards the Italian infantry in the early morning light. Pulz had expected the horsemen to be on a reconnaissance. With the feathers in their caps catching the sun and the pennants of their lances fluttering in the wind, the lancers’ charge threw up a huge cloud of dust.

As Rodakowski galloped forward, he was joined by seven more squadrons of lancers, which had been assigned to watch the Verona road. This breakdown in discipline was at first interpreted as a sophisticated feint. Pulz explained to a puzzled staff officer watching the scene unfold that, despite Edelsheim’s heroic charge at Solferino, there was no real precedent in the Austrian army for the charge of a single light cavalry brigade towards two infantry divisions supported by artillery and twenty squadrons of heavy cavalry.

Pulz, looking on, heard artillery and infantry volley fire open up in response to Rodakowski’s charge and felt compelled to support his horsemen, so he advanced with what was left of his cavalry. 2 Another 300 horsemen thundered off. As an impetuous cavalry commander, Rodakowski had engaged the Italian infantry at their weakest point, the gap between the two divisions, and had succeeded in disrupting some of the Italians. But the majority of the Italian infantry had seen the threat in good time and had formed square. With withering volley fire they had easily repulsed the attack, which cost Rodakowski half his command. As the lancers wheeled around it looked as if they were facing the same fate that had overtaken Edelsheim at Solferino and Lord Cardigan at Balaclava, twelve years earlier.

Some, perhaps no more than a troop, of Rodakowski’s lancers had penetrated beyond the infantry. Their appearance, however brief, had a stupendous effect on the excitable Italian troops milling around the supply wagons to the rear of Della Rocca’s troops. The Italians, promptly fearing being ridden down by enemy horse, excitedly took to their heels. The panic gathered momentum and infected even the Italian reinforcements marching up to support Della Rocca. Suddenly a horde of riderless horses and fleeing Italian infantry began to charge back towards the Mincio, where they imagined safety awaited them. By 9 a. m., the bridge at Goito was a mass of fugitives screaming that the `Tedeschi’ (Germans) were coming to slaughter them.

The front line of Della Rocca’s troops held firm but the Polish charge had a demoralising effect on them and they dared not advance for fear of an Austrian counter- attack, even though this sector of the Austrian line was thinly held and could not have withstood a vigorous push by the two Italian divisions.

Rodakowski’s charge, as brilliant (and indeed more effective) as that of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, was a poor start to the battle for the Italians. Albert’s rather thin left wing was the Achilles heel of the Austrian deployment that day and could have proved the beginning of severe problems for the Austrians had it been correctly evaluated and exploited by the Italians, something Rodakowski’s 500 men had rendered impossible.

Elsewhere the battle, though less dramatic, was also not developing as the Italians had planned. On the Austrian right, an Italian division under Cerale was caught in the flank by an Austrian infantry brigade under Eugen Piret containing several `crack’ grenadier battalions and some skirmishing Croats well concealed in the woods on the Italians’ other flank. Within minutes the Italians were fleeing again back to the Mincio, offering only stubborn resistance at the village of Oliosi where repeated attacks by the Austrian grenadiers were repulsed with heavy loss for nearly an hour.

The Austrian Stosstaktik, so disastrous in the Swiepwald two weeks later, proved more successful against the Italians, though almost as costly. Sirtori’s division fell back under the pressure of the Austrian bayonet charges but inflicted heavy casualties on Bauer’s brigade (660 of Bauer’s men fell in less than fifteen minutes as they advanced).

Nowhere this day did the Austrian frontal attacks prove as expensive as at Monte Croce, where two Austrian brigades from IX Corps (Hartung) were virtually annihilated as they attempted to dislodge well dug- in Italian infantry under Brignone. More than 2,500 Austrians were lost in these poorly executed and coordinated attacks, which fizzled out owing to lack of reinforcements.

By 10 a. m. the crisis of the battle had arrived for the Austrians. Everywhere along their line they had failed to seize any strategically important ground and their numbers were dwindling. A concerted push by the Italians, who were fighting well, would unmask the deficiencies of the Archduke’s command and his weakness in numbers, with potentially catastrophic results for the Habsburg army.

After nearly three and a half hours of intense fighting, the Austrians had shown aggressive spirit and it was this which finally demoralised the Italians. Despite their strong defence of Monte Croce, Brignone’s troops began to panic because the Austrians simply kept re- forming into new lines, advancing again: white- coated troops with bands playing and bayonets lowered. Riding `to safety’, on Marmora’s advice, the Italian King instantly saw his troops’ weakness and tried to reinforce them, but to no avail. The Brignone line broke after the fourth assault by the Austrians and the sight of the tall Hungarian grenadiers advancing put even their rearmost lines to flight.

As Marmora rode to try to rally Brignone’s men, he noticed that the nearby heights of Custozza also appeared to be occupied by white- coated troops. These were the soldiers of Böck’s brigade, Romanians, often decried as unreliable but advancing in good discipline. The Italian reinforcements came up, and an Austrian brigade under Scudier, which had advanced up the heights of Custozza, panicked and withdrew rapidly (an act for which their commanding officer Anton Scudier would be court- martialled after the war).

Scudier’s precipitate withdrawal opened a small but dangerous gap in the Austrian centre, which could have been exploited with serious consequences had not Rodic’s corps stormed the Monte Vento and Santa Lucia heights. There, the Austrians discovered evidence of Italian atrocities committed against some captured Jaeger troops, two of whom had been stripped naked and beaten to death before being hanged with leather from their uniforms.

Rodic’s men, notably Piret’s brigade supported later by Moering, neutralised the effects of Scudier’s withdrawal. Custozza became a fragile point d’appui for the Italians. Flanked on either side by Austrians, they withdrew at around 3 p. m. Panic, the greatest enemy of the Italian army that day, took hold across Marmora’s front. Sensing his moment, the Archduke now ordered a grand envelopment but, as Pulz rode towards Villafranca, he found thousands of Italians laying down their arms without a fight as Della Rocca began withdrawing. Everywhere the Italians were breaking, with the exception of the few brave men who had filled the gap vacated by Scudier – and they were about to be ejected by three Austrian brigades. Only the valiant Granatieri di Sardegna saved Italian honour that day, withdrawing in perfect order around 5 p. m. The battle ended after the Austrians brought up a couple of batteries to blow to bits any remaining Italian defenders of Custozza who lingered.

As the Archduke Albert surveyed the scene from the heights he saw a vast shattered Italian army in headlong retreat. Later historians and some of his own officers have severely censured him for not ordering an aggressive pursuit but this was not the Habsburg tradition, as we have seen. Albert, like his father before him, knew that the dynasty could never afford to take the risk. Those who criticise Albert for `timidity’ miss the point. This was not how the Habsburgs waged war, especially, in Albert’s phrase a `defensive war’.

Victory was really concerned with honour and could only be tactical because Venetia had already been surrendered to all intents and purposes. Moreover, to effect a crushing pursuit Albert would have needed fresh troops. The Austrian casualties were high. Nearly 9,000 Austrian dead and wounded, including some 400 officers, lay scattered around the battlefield.

Many of the survivors had been in action without interruption for more than 18 hours. Without exception they had fought bravely against an opponent who enjoyed significant numerical superiority. (In the event the absence of the Italian Cialdini’s corps somewhat evened the numbers out.) In the blistering heat of those June days on the north Italian plain, many of Albert’s troops were utterly exhausted. Some had died of heatstroke; many others were dehydrated and ill. V Corps under Rodic was the only force capable of conducting a pursuit, but to what end? One Italian army was crushed; it did not need to be destroyed. Moreover, like his father, Albert had a realistic view of his strategic gifts and knew that he was no Napoleon.

Any advantage that might have accrued to Austria by this victory and that of Count Wilhelm Friedrich von Tegetthoff over the Italians in the naval Battle of Lissa (July 19–20) was more than offset by the Austrian defeat in Bohemia in the Battle of Königgrätz (July 3). Although Albrecht was named Oberkommandeur (commander in chief) on July 10, 1866, Feldzeugmeister Ludwig von Benedek’s crushing defeat at Königgrätz prevented further military action against Prussia, and Austria was forced to conclude peace with both Prussia and Italy. Albrecht’s victory remained the one bright spot for Austria in the land war and was accorded an eminence that it did not perhaps deserve.

Albrecht continued as Oberkommandeur until 1869, when Emperor Franz Josef I assumed that position. Albrecht then became Generalinspekteur (inspector general), holding that post until his death and carrying out an extensive reform of the Austro-Hungarian military establishment based on the Prussian model. In 1869 Albrecht published Über die Verantwortlichkeit im Kriege (On Responsibility in War).

Extremely conservative in his political views, Albrecht also advocated preventive war against Italy and, following the 1878 Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, urged military action to secure additional Balkan territory to include Salonika. Albrecht was advanced to Feldmarschall in March 1888. He was also made Generalfeldmarschall in the German Army in 1893.

Albrecht continued in his posts until his death at Schloss Arco in the Tirol on February 18, 1895. There is an equestrian statue of him in Vienna near the entrance to the Albertina museum (his former city residence of the Palais Erzherzog Albrecht, which houses Albrecht’s extensive art collection). A conservative and even reactionary figure in many ways, Archduke Albrecht was primarily a bureaucrat rather than a field general but nonetheless carried out important reforms in the Austro-Hungarian Army that helped prepare it for its great test in World War I.

Further Reading

Kann, Robert A. A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526–1918. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

Marek, George R. The Eagles Die: Franz Joseph, Elisabeth, and Their Austria. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.

Palmer, Alan. Twilight of the Habsburgs: The Life and Times of the Emperor Francis Joseph. New York: Grove, 1994.

Rothenburg, Gunther E. The Army of Francis Joseph. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1976.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.