Saxons to Vienna 1683

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Saxons to Vienna 1683

In 1683, so far, most men had discussed the great crisis of the day from a distance. Vienna was remote, beleaguered, and they pondered its probable fate in courts and townships between Madrid and Podolia. They continued to do so, but the meeting at Hollabrun signified that the Habsburg government was at length fusing together widely dispersed forces into a combined armament capable of relieving the city. When Sobieski and Lorraine and Waldeck met, it was as if the curtains had been pulled back, though only by an inch or two and for a moment, to disclose the possibility of an astonishing and decisive feat of arms. The Danube, the hills of the Wiener Wald, and the numbers of the enemy, had always appeared formidable obstacles to success. On closer inspection they still looked formidable, and yet it seemed possible to overcome and even to profit from them.

One other powerful force, from Saxony, had also been brought into the arena by this date.

Leopold’s ministers, when the Sultan’s army entered Hungary, sent Lamberg once more to John George in Dresden and to Frederick William in Berlin. They continued to think in terms of the defence of the Empire, but hoped that a satisfactory agreement with the greater German princes would free more Habsburg troops to deal with the Ottoman advance. A fresh negotiation began in Dresden, but was soon overshadowed by the Elector’s dispute with his Estates. They refused to pay for his increasingly numerous standing army, while he insisted on larger grants of supply. Then the dreadful news from Vienna reached them, to be followed hot-foot by Lorraine’s special envoy the Duke of Sachsen-Lauenburg, appealing for immediate aid.

John George’s military ardour was at once fired by the prospect of a catastrophe which his initiative might help to avert. He had in any case to face the threatening implications of a permanent Ottoman encampment within striking distance of the routes northwards from Moravia and Austria. But he also argued like his neighbours in Franconia: it happened that at the moment he was maintaining numerous troops ready for action; that his own subjects objected strongly to the cost; and that the Turkish assault on Austria made their employment in the Empire unlikely because the Empire would have to acquiesce in a peace dictated by France. If, and the if was important, the Habsburg lands paid the costs, an expedition to Vienna looked like the reasonable temporary solution of a serious problem. The crisis of 1683 in fact forced the Dresden government to use a tactic which was popular enough in the early history of German standing armies. In the next few years Saxon and Brandenburg and Hanoverian regiments, dispensable at home, would be hired out to fight for the Habsburgs in Hungary or for Venice in the Morea. These arrangements were often the result of the most exact and bitter bargaining; but John George proved on this occasion a somewhat careless politician.

He had taken his decision by 22 July without insisting on precise agreements about supply, or the command of his forces in the field. Sachsen-Lauenburg assured him that the Habsburg government was certain to satisfy him on the first point; the Elector vaguely felt that the second could cause little trouble because he himself was setting out at the head of his army. Lamberg wrote from Berlin to lay that he intended to come back immediately to Dresden, in order to complete detailed arrangements for the line of march through Bohemia, and the provisioning of the Saxon regiments. The Elector still had qualms that Frederick William of Brandenburg would secure more favourable terms from Leopold, and he therefore instructed his envoy Schutt to negotiate with the Habsburg statesmen at Passau. Schutt was to ask for the army’s pay and supply on the march and during the campaign, for winter quarters, and also for a solution of current frontier disputes affecting forestlands claimed by both Bohemia and Saxon mining enterprises; if possible, Saxony wanted territorial concessions. It sounded grasping enough, but all these requests were robbed of their menace by John George’s prior decision to go to Vienna.

This was the position on the last day of July, and the Elector left Dresden on 11th August.38 The bustle in and about the city was tremendous. On 4th, 5th and 6th, some 7,000 infantry and 3,250 horse and dragoons were mustered on a great meadow by the banks of the Elbe, to be ceremonially reviewed by John George on 7 August. A first-class artillery officer and expert on fortifications, Caspar Klengel, selected artillery from the Dresden arsenal: 16 guns, 2 petards, 87 carts, 351 horses and 187 men were inspected on the 10th. The Elector’s own household and staff, when the expedition set out, amounted to 344 persons. Meanwhile members of the Saxon Diet produced a final catalogue of their doubts, debts, and grievances, in a not so humble petition. Commissaries of the Saxon and Bohemian governments met in conference, they settled how fast the army should march and how often it should rest. The Saxons undertook to cross the Bohemian frontier on 13 August and the Austrians agreed in rather airy and imprecise terms to find the supplies which would be required in Bohemia.

The Saxon soldiers now began to move southwards. It was at once apparent that communications and commissariat were entirely inadequate in their own country. They must have put to one another the question, were conditions likely to improve across the border in Bohemia?

A bare recital of dates in the month of August, and of places passed, seems to record the steady progress of the expeditionary force. It went over the heights to Teplice, and reached Lovosice by 16 August. Here it divided into two main bodies. Most of the cavalry moved up the Elbe valley, crossed to the right bank of the tributary Ultava (the Moldau) and then rode over the plains east of Prague, arriving in the uplands of southern Bohemia by the last day of the month. Meanwhile, the infantry and the Elector himself reached Prague on the 20th, followed the obvious southerly route to Tabor, turned south-east, and joined the cavalry in the neighbourhood of Nová Bystrice. They were now half-way between Prague and Vienna.

This record is deceptive. Only feverish negotiation, and hard riding by the negotiators, kept the army moving forward. On the day John George entered Bohemia, and on the next day when he rode to Teplice, a whole sequence of envoys reached his headquarters: the tireless Lamberg still shuttling between Brandenburg, Saxony and Passau; the Bohemian commissioners, who now announced that they were not empowered to provide supplies gratis to the Saxon troops; and a messenger from Schutt, to state that his discussions at Passau had not led to an agreement. Indeed the Habsburg ministers turned down every one of John George’s demands: for winter quarters, supplies, the supreme command in the field, and territorial concessions of any kind. They simply continued to ask blandly for his help and of course, from their standpoint, they correctly assumed that the Elector would find it difficult to draw back. The Saxon counsellors conferred angrily at Teplice. The diary of one of the most influential, Bose, says that the case was argued for an immediate return to Dresden. Lamberg intervened, pleaded, and finally secured a fresh statement of Saxon grievances with which he hurried off to Passau. The Elector said that he was determined not to advance beyond Prague until he received a satisfactory answer. The paper in Lamberg’s hand repeated his original demands, but the envoy himself now saw that only one point was crucial: if the Habsburg ministers wanted the Saxon army, they must at least co-operate in finding the necessary food and forage; nor could the Saxons be expected to pay for these. The other demands could be evaded, as before, by sensible diplomatic inaction. The army moved on. The Elector delayed a few hours longer to enjoy the hunting and to admire the scenery.

What happened in Teplice happened in Prague. Schutt’s message had been followed at a slower pace by a polite letter from Leopold, echoing the negative response of his councillors. The reply to the Saxon ultimatum carried by Lamberg had not yet come in. Once again the Elector sent off a messenger, Friessen, who was to state that the Elector proposed to advance no farther than two days’ march beyond Prague unless he got a satisfactory answer. Prague, so the diarists report, was an enjoyable city, the entertainment given in the Duke of Sachsen-Lauenburg’s palace was excellent; the Elector went sightseeing but, once again, he finally moved forward on 22 August without waiting for Leopold’s reply.

He was still trying hard to find more money at home. He required his administration in Dresden to raise a loan of 200,000 thaler; they said, dryly, that it was out of the question. He required the Estates of Upper Lusatia to find him 30,000 thaler. In both cases he wanted actual currency, his great need of the moment, not credit. Household economies at the Dresden court were also discussed; but there is no evidence that any of the suggestions provided extra money. The Saxon army simply continued to take from the rural population what it needed to keep moving. Payment was no doubt the exception rather than the rule, and no doubt the requisitioning of enough supplies for 10,000 men looked a hopeless business on the mountainous threshold of Bohemia round Teplice. But a week later in the central plain, just after the harvest, it was easier. For this reason, the threat to withdraw became less and less pointed; and John George knew that while the Elector of Brandenburg still held back, the Elector of Bavaria and the King of Poland were hurrying forward to take part in what might prove a glorious and exciting crusade. He and his officers were now near enough the Danube to smell battle.

Farther to the east, the cavalry continued to advance. The men and baggage of the infantry and artillery, with the Elector’s staff, passed through Votice and got to Tabor on 27 August. At both towns, soothing assurances came in from the court at Passau. Leopold accepted the Saxon demand for the free consignment of supplies during the march through Habsburg territory to the theatre of war. He also offered supplies for the coming campaign, provided that these could ultimately be charged to the account of the Saxon government. He left John George in full command of his troops, though reserving his own ultimate authority and the possible claims of the King of Poland. In general terms he accepted the principle that the Saxons could claim winter quarters in Habsburg territory, if these should be judged necessary; but said not a word about an adjustment of the northern frontier in the Elector’s favour. Bose, in his entry for 25 August, noted that ‘the whole court expressed itself satisfied’, and it seems as if the Habsburg assurances were just generous enough at a moment of crisis to silence John George’s more exacting councillors. At Votice, also, another diarist recorded items of news beneath the notice of serious politicians: the 26th was a heavy thunderous day, four musketeers were court-martialled for plundering, and one was executed.

Not long afterwards the two parts of the Saxon army began to knit together again. From Nová Bystrice Bose and Flemming were sent to the Emperor, now at Linz. The Saxons started crossing into Austria on the day that John Sobieski and Lorraine entered Ober-Hollabrun fifty miles east of them. They marched steadily forward, through Waidhofen which belonged to Lamberg’s family, and through Horn which belonged to Count Hoya. The troops camped in the open, and the Elector quartered comfortably in the residences of these great landlords; from the windows of the palace at Horn it was possible to survey the whole encampment of the Saxon army on 2 September. On the 3rd the men rested, and then made their way to the Danube. They reached Krems on 6 September. The last few days had passed without incident, although there was considerable nervousness about the alleged marauding of the Poles, with whom the Saxons were coming into contact for the first time. For one night most of John George’s regiments quartered on an island in the stream of the Danube. The Bavarians and Franconians were already over on the right bank of the river. The Poles were coming up on the left, farther downstream. The Saxons, in fact, now merged into the large and rapidly expanding army of relief, one of its best organised contingents.

The Saxon Mars and his Force: The Saxon Army during the Reign of John George III 1680 – 1691 (Century of the Soldier) Paperback – March 4, 2020 by Alexander Querengässer (Author)

This is the first detailed study of the origins of the standing Saxon army. Created by elector John George III (r. 1680-1691), it quickly won its laurels in the battle of Vienna (1683) and later in campaigns against the Ottomans and the French. This book gives a broad analysis on this army, dealing with topics like finances and organisation, uniforms, tactics and an overview of its campaigns.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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