Prince Eugene of Savoy and his General Staff at the Battle of Zenta
The ‘first age of
Confidence, that critical of military factors, allowed the
Habsburgs’ army to assume the offensive rapidly. As it rolled the Turks out of
central and eastern Europe, the army became better disciplined and organised.
It was to become by the end of this period more than capable of holding its own
against any force in the world, thanks in no small part to that dazzling
architect of Habsburg military power, Prince Eugene.
A young, not very prepossessing or especially handsome youth
had arrived in Vienna that autumn of 1683. Small even by the standards of his
time, this man appeared almost crippled to his contemporaries, who found the
idea that he might want to make soldiering his career risible. His manner was
taciturn but his pride was Olympian and indeed he had much to prove. He had
been spurned in his quest for a military career by the court of Louis XIV and
his rage at this humiliation was unquenchable. When he arrived in Vienna he
made enemies at court almost by blinking but Kaiser Leopold recognised early on
that here indeed was a soldier of potential, though it is unlikely that even
Leopold realised the full extent of the military genius whose spindly frame
stood before him.
Eugene of Savoy like many a patriotic ‘old’ Austrian did not
possess a drop of what today would be called Austrian blood. By birth he was
Italian and his temperament and his rapidity of decision constituted what were
once considered typical Latin traits. By upbringing he was French and this
invested him with his limitless and rigid devotion to revenge and his obsessive
detestation of the French monarch Louis XIV. When many years later, after
France had come to regret all too painfully its rejection of Eugene, a message
from the French court gingerly enquired whether Eugene after all might consider
serving France and said that a dazzling career awaited him in the service of
Louis XIV. The Prince of Savoy demonstrated that he neither forgot nor forgave:
‘I should like to accept the invitation to return to France,’ he replied, ‘but
only at the head of an invading army to occupy it.’
Eugene had arrived with Lorraine’s polyglot relief force and
had performed bravely with energy and imagination at the raising of the great
siege. He was a natural choice to take a commission and perform a role in the
pursuit of the Turkish hordes. With Vienna saved and the besiegers in full
flight it was tempting to see the Ottoman lands as wide open for reconquest.
Vienna would no longer be a border city on the fracture line of two empires,
she would take her place – and this was the strategic significance of 1683 – at
the heart of an immense domain protected from Islamic intrusion by a vast
hinterland. This hinterland first and foremost was Hungary.
Asia, Metternich later quipped, began on the Landstrasse in
Vienna, and though the Landstrasse hardly existed in 1683 the dusty tracks to
the east of the Austrian city created (as they do even today) the sense of a
limitless expanse stretching far into an unknown world. Only the fortresses
offered punctuation marks on the horizon and one by one these would have to be
captured or destroyed. From 1683 to 1699 the war against the Turks would
pitilessly roll the Ottomans out of Hungary. But these were hard campaigns and,
as so often happens after moments of euphoria, they suffered at first from
excessive zeal and inadequate preparation.
On 27 September 1683, Lorraine’s cavalry entered the great
fortress of Pressburg, but further east at Barkan the Turks caught the Polish
hussars in an ambush which only Lorraine’s rapid deployment of his dragoons en
masse prevented turning into a rout. The following month, the fortress of
Esztergom, later to become the seat of the Hungarian bishops, was occupied and
returned to the Habsburgs after eighty years of Ottoman suzerainty and a siege
of six days. It really did seem as if nothing could stop the Imperial troops,
and the news the same week of Kara Mustafa’s execution for failing to take
Vienna raised morale further. By 1684, a coalition of the Venetian Doge, the
Habsburg Emperor and the King of Poland pledged to wage continuous war against
the Turk. With the capture of Visegrad in June the route to Buda, the key to
western Hungary, was open.
But Buda, or as the Austrians called it, Ofen, was a
formidable obstacle. Its ramparts were as thick as Vienna’s, but unlike that
city it lay not on a flat plain but on a dramatic rocky hill above the Danube,
dominating the surrounding landscape with its citadels and towers. A vast fleet
of barges and supply vessels was sent from Vienna down the Danube to provision
the siege forces with artillery and other weapons and victuals.
The Ottomans proved no less tenacious than the Viennese and
after a year Lorraine broke off the siege as his troops were decimated by the
terrible ‘Morbus Hungaricus’ or swamp fever, which persuaded the patriotic and
influential priest Marco d’Aviano to advise Lorraine that the siege should be
lifted, if only temporarily. By the time the siege was resumed a few months
later, the Turks had used the interval to strengthen their defences and once
again the Habsburg troops, though now reinforced by Prussians and Bavarians,
found they could make little impact on the fortress. Only with the arrival of
new guns in June 1686 did the siege resume progress and a breach on the Gellért
side of the fortifications allow the Bavarians to gain a foothold. After
several days of fierce combat, during which Prince Eugene’s hand was pierced by
an arrow fired at close range near the main gate, the city’s defenders began to
A summons by Lorraine to the Turkish commander to surrender
brought the reply that Buda would be defended ‘until my last gasp of breath’.
Meanwhile the Imperial War Council had agreed that the capture of Buda would
not bring offensive operations against the Turks to an end. A new war aim had
been formulated and this was nothing less ambitious than ‘the annihilation of
the Ottoman Empire’. A fresh artillery barrage a few weeks later breached the
main gate and the Imperial troops poured in, wreaking havoc on all traces of
humanity they could find, including women and children. Only with considerable
difficulty did Lorraine get his men under control as the pent-up bloodlust of
months took over and hundreds of innocent civilians were slaughtered with the
greatest brutality and mutilation. Of the 13,000-strong Ottoman garrison,
barely 2,000 survived.
With the fall of Buda in 1686 the great Hungarian plain and
the Danube routes to Belgrade were open and Leopold, true to his alliance with
both the King of Poland and Venice, pushed his forces south and east. The
following year, at the Battle of Nágyharsány, the defeat of the Hungarians by
the Turks at Mohács, a century and a half earlier, was avenged and a year after
that Belgrade was stormed.
The capture of Belgrade was a triumph which rang the church
bells throughout the Habsburg lands. It was the jewel in a campaign of conquest
that had pushed Habsburg power hundreds of miles down the Danube. But in the
uncertainty of war, which made Belgrade change hands with increasing frequency
over the coming century, the Ottomans launched a vigorous counter-attack. The
great city fell to the Ottomans the following year and the Habsburg forces’
grip began to weaken, beset by indifferent leadership and Ottoman tenacity.
Eugene had returned west to Austria’s second front, the war against his hated
foe Louis XIV, and it was only when peace was concluded in early 1697 that
Eugene returned to Hungary.
His reputation preceded him. Against France Eugene had
demonstrated that swiftness of movement which he had learnt during his
campaigning against the Turks. It was to make him famous; the Siege of Cuneo
was raised virtually as soon as the besieging French heard the Prince was
riding to that town’s relief. He had also learnt, as Wallenstein had at the
beginning of the century, that his cavalry, well handled, were some of the
finest the world had ever known.
The bridge at Zenta
But it was to be back on the eastern front at Zenta in 1697
that Eugene, now commander-in-chief, was able to harness all his military
experience to deal a crippling blow to the Ottoman Empire. In the fifteen years
since the Siege of Vienna, his army had become better equipped and trained to
deal with their eastern foe. Against an enemy that was formidable in
hand-to-hand combat and deadly in its use of the ‘arme blanche’, the Imperial
infantry had learnt the hard way to close ranks and maintain fire discipline.
Those units that failed to move swiftly could face immediate destruction. Contemporary
accounts are littered with descriptions of Imperial infantry cut to pieces for
failing to form a line before the enemy was within 20 paces of them. Eugene
imposed new training regimes which forced his men to react much more quickly.
Eugene invested his troops with a keen sense of the need for speed almost as if
his own sense of movement had been sharpened by his encounters with the
Ottomans. After the slow, methodical warfare on the plains of Piedmont his
lightning-like thought processes relished the fast-moving demands of eastern
warfare. In Hungary he almost allowed himself to be led by instinct rather than
planning. Nothing expressed this more vividly than his actions in the second
week of September 1697, which culminated in Zenta.
On 11 September one of Eugene’s scouts caught a solitary
pasha out riding without an escort. After failing to get any information from
him the Prince ordered his Croat horsemen to draw their swords and prepare to
cut off the pasha’s head, a command which unsurprisingly focused the Turk’s
mind more acutely than had Eugene’s earlier request.
The pasha began to explain: Ottoman forces were at that very
moment crossing the Tisza river at Zenta, not many miles from where they stood.
On closer questioning, the prisoner thought it would take the best part of the
day to effect the crossing. The pasha’s life was spared but Eugene immediately
leapt into the saddle and rode with his hussars to Zenta, ordering the rest of
his army to follow him at once. Eugene realised that he had been given a unique
chance to win a great victory. By the time he arrived at Zenta, with the bulk
of his cavalry, although the Ottomans had strongly entrenched the entry to the
bridge their army was still crossing the river.
Eugene immediately had his cavalry attack the entrenchments
in close formation, achieving almost complete surprise. The Turkish defenders
panicked and began to withdraw on to the bridge, where they were overcome by
indescribable confusion and terror. Attempts to rally failed and, as Eugene’s
infantry came up an hour later with the artillery, the entrenchments were
stormed and volley after volley was poured into the mass of Turks on the
bridge. His artillery pounded the forces on the other side of the river. Within
six hours the devastation was complete. Twenty thousand Turks lay dead or
wounded and more than 10,000 had been drowned as the crowded bridge collapsed
under Austrian shellfire. Eugene lost just 350 men. So dazzling was this
victory that the victors captured not only the Sultan’s seal, treasury and
harem (some eighty strong) but also the entire Ottoman baggage train, including
nearly a hundred camels.
Austrian Army 1700-22
The Treaty of
Karlowitz and the reorganisation of the Military Frontier
The political consequences were no less dramatic. Within less
than eighteen months the Treaty of Karlowitz was signed, on 26 January 1699,
ending centuries of Ottoman power in Central Europe. Turkey was obliged to
surrender Hungary and even parts of Bosnia, which Eugene had raided returning,
according to a contemporary account, with ‘many beautiful Turkish women’. The
picturesque land of Transylvania though nominally independent would henceforth
be governed by Austrian appointees. At a stroke the entire eastern frontier of
the Habsburg Empire had been shifted many hundreds of miles to the east. Even
the Military Frontier, the fortified borderlands between the two empires, had
to be reorganised to incorporate these new territorial acquisitions.
Originally created, as we have seen, in 1553 as a form of
cordon sanitaire running from Senj across Sisak to Durdevac, the Military
Frontier had been financed by the Styrian nobility and administered by the War
Council in Graz. From the 1630s, the Habsburgs had encouraged immigration from
the Turkish provinces, offering the privilege of internal self-administration
and freedom of religion for the settlers along the Military Frontier so that
many Serbs of Orthodox religion found refuge in what gradually became one long,
armed encampment where every tenth inhabitant was under arms.
After the Treaty of Karlowitz this frontier was now vastly
expanded to include Lower Slavonia, Illyria and the Banat. New units of locally
recruited cavalry known as Serežan were engaged for piquet and police duties
among a population that was extremely mixed but, thanks to the continuous
skirmishing, increasingly made up of resourceful and practical men, natural
warrriors often capable of rising rapidly through the ranks. This huge
extension of the Military Frontier would feed the tactics and manpower of the
Balkans into the Imperial standing army for its campaigns in the coming
century, giving Austrian arms a reputation for dash and style.
Politically, Karlowitz marked decisively the decline of one
empire and the rise of another. Throughout south-eastern Europe Christians
rejoiced at the fall of the Turkish oppressors. Optimism and euphoria abounded.
From Mount Athos a group of Orthodox monks made a pilgrimage all the way to
Vienna to lay at the feet of the Emperor Leopold a beautiful icon of the Virgin
Mary. They were convinced that within months the Imperial armies would liberate
the entire Balkan peninsula.
It was not to be. Left to their own devices, no doubt
Leopold and Eugene would have seen Karlowitz as a brief armistice. They
contemplated pushing the Turks further back and reconquering, again, Belgrade,
left by the Treaty of Karlowitz in Turkish hands. But the completion of this particular
‘Austrian mission’ in the east was never to happen, though several wars would
still be fought against the Ottomans throughout much of the next years. It
would be more than a century before the monks of Athos and Greece were, in
Metternich’s memorable phrase, ‘condemned to life’, and then Austria would play
no significant role in the struggle for Greek independence.
Marlborough (l) and Eugene (r) went on to spectacular success in an enduring partnership throughout the war.
War with France
Austria, secure to the east, now turned towards her other
great ‘mission’ whereby she contributed forcefully to the balance of power in
Europe. This mission meant that she could not be indifferent to the activities
of Louis XIV of France.
The issue of who would succeed to the Spanish throne at the
beginning of the eighteenth century after the death in 1700 of the infirm and
childless Charles II, son of Philip IV, was not one any Austrian Habsburg could
regard with Olympian detachment. When Louis XIV proposed uniting the Spanish
with the French throne the response could only be war. Not for the last time
would Austria become the lynchpin of a coalition whose aim was to prevent
mainland Europe from falling under the dominance of a single power.
While shifting the focus of the Austrian Habsburgs
dramatically from the east to the west, the War of the Spanish Succession would
provide the world with extravagant confirmation that as a military power the
Habsburg armies were a force to be reckoned with. Hard though it might be to
imagine a more dazzling victory than Zenta, Prince Eugene was about to
demonstrate with the Duke of Marlborough his brilliance even more impressively
than he had on the parched plains of Hungary. The small Bavarian village of
Blindheim, not far from the banks of the Upper Danube, was surrounded by lush
grass and fertile fields.
In the war that was coming, Kaiser Leopold did not find it
easy to ally himself with the Protestant maritime powers, England and the
Netherlands. But the world had changed and it was a sign of Leopold’s
intelligence as a monarch that he possessed the ability to realise that he must
adapt to the new circumstances and draw the correct conclusions from events. He
was, understandably, outraged by the Pope’s support of France, whose diplomatic
machinations had taken every advantage of Leopold’s difficulties in the east.
With the Ottomans defeated, Leopold did not flinch for a moment from defending
the interests of his house and from entering battle for the Spanish inheritance
even though in military strength and statesmanship he was far inferior to his
French cousin. (Louis XIV, like Leopold, was also the son of a Spanish Habsburg
The war began in a rather understated way on the north
Italian plain near Legnagno. A French army under the dry and unimaginative
Nicolas Catinat had occupied and fortified the Rivoli defile above Verona to ensure
that a patchwork of Italian possessions remained loyal to Louis XIV. Catinat
was encouraged by the court to demonstrate boldness and defeat the Habsburg
troops as soon as possible should they descend from the Tyrol. Unfortunately
for Catinat, Eugene was at the summit of his abilities in 1701 and his troops,
fresh from the war of movement and energy in the east, were as keen as their
commander to gain ascendancy over their French enemy as soon as possible.
Eugene raised the old military art of the feint to new levels of
sophistication. The Italian campaign of 1701–2 was subsequently overshadowed by
the glittering victories of Blenheim and Oudenarde but this opening of the war
revealed all Eugene’s armies’ qualities which later were so admired by the Duke
As Catinat was expecting Eugene to approach via Rivoli, the
Imperial commander wasted no time sending out messages en clair that this was
precisely what he was doing. At one point Eugene proved so successful in giving
the impression that he was entering Italy along the Adige that even his corps
commanders believed this was their planned route. In fact Eugene had long
decided to descend on the Italian plain through Vicenza further to the east. By
guaranteeing Venetian property and keeping a firm grip on his troops to ensure
that the agreements with the Veneto land-owning families were respected, the
secret was well kept. Any soldiers found looting were summarily executed, much
to the relief of the locals, who gradually came to welcome the Imperial troops
and prefer them to their French foes. A key part of Eugene’s great success in
masking his real intentions was the support of the Venetians of the plain whose
understandable antagonism to a foreign army was powerfully reduced not least by
Eugene’s excellent relations with the local clergy. By 27 May Catinat had to
report to Paris that, despite his ‘vigilance’, Eugene had succeeded in reaching
the Venetian plains without giving battle.
Where Eugene was bold, Catinat was cautious and in a fierce cavalry
engagement on the Mincio, Eugene forced the French to retreat over the Oglio in
a strange series of manoeuvres which is sometimes called the Battle of Carpi.
The news of this engagement, coupled with the fact that the army of Louis XIV
had not, contrary to popular belief, defeated or even hindered Eugene’s
deployment, was enough for Paris to sack the hapless Catinat and send the aged
Villeroi to replace him.
Villeroi in his early seventies was an experienced general
but, at this stage of his career, rich years at court had sapped his appetite
for risk. ‘It is difficult,’ Louis XIV said later to him, ‘at our stage of life
to have much luck.’ As soon as he was established on the plains of Lombardy,
Eugene set about constructing a powerfully defensive position in front of the
fortress town of Chiari. He was aware that the French would be encouraged to
take the offensive and his plan now was to create an anvil of such strength
that the hammer-blows of the French would prove incapable of making any serious
impression. For supplies he raided the estates of the wealthy Mantuan
aristocracy while giving strict orders that the possessions of the less well
off inhabitants were to be untouched.
The position at Chiari was well suited to Eugene’s ends.
Streams protected his forces on three sides and the earthworks he set about
constructing with the fortress at his rear offered no scope for surprise
cavalry attacks. His infantry was arranged into a solid line three ranks deep.
Thus drawn up they waited until the French infantry had dressed their lines and
advanced to within 15 paces. At this moment they let fly three volleys of such
withering effect that within an hour Villeroi had suffered nearly 3,000
The news of the French defeat resounded around Europe,
emboldening the maritime powers to sign the second treaty of the Grand
Alliance. The Austrian infantry had proved capable of being stubborn in defence
and were well drilled against what were then considered to be the finest foot
soldiers in Europe.