Empress Maria Theresa as Queen of Hungary, wearing the crown of St. Stephen, with sword in hand.

Empress Maria Theresa On Horseback Inspecting Austrian Troops.

Austrian Infantry : Grenadiers of 2 Austrian regiments and the Hungarian regiment of Ujvary: Battle of Mollwitz fought on 10th April 1745 in the First Silesian War: picture by David Morier

The death of Eugene: Austria’s military weakness

The period unfolding opens with Austria’s army weak and poorly led. The policies of Charles VI left his inheritance vulnerable to pillage and invasion. Yet by the time his daughter’s husband was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, Austria and her armies had proved more than capable of surviving a war waged by many enemies. That such progress was possible from such inauspicious beginnings was the result of one young woman’s tenacity and courage.

The death of Prince Eugene on 20 April 1736 at the age of 73 came mercifully before the debacle of Wallis on the approaches to Belgrade. The Generalissimus fortunately did not live to see the Treaty of Belgrade (1739) sign away nearly all he had won twenty years earlier at Passarowitz. As his faculties faded, Eugene was dimly aware that the formidable army he had done so much to create was now enfeebled and complacent; its weakness caused largely by a combination of Imperial over-expansion and somnolent leadership.

Every honour was paid on his death to the memory of Eugene. After his death, his heart was sent to Turin and at the interment in the cathedral of Vienna, Charles VI and the principal members of his court assisted incognito at the ceremony. The pall was borne by sixteen generals and full Imperial honours were given in the course of three days of solemnities.

The army the Generalissimus left behind him was now bitterly divided by rivalries, notably over the character of Eugene’s able protégé Friederich Heinrich Seckendorf (1673–1763) who as a Protestant aroused some hostility and intrigue. Seckendorf’s critical reports of conditions prevailing among the troops in the Balkans were treated with suspicion and resentment. Writing to Bartenstein, one of the most influential of the courtiers and a man who had risen high in court circles from relatively modest origins, he noted, ‘Some companies of my regiment in Belgrade are thrust into holes where a man would not put even his favourite hounds and I cannot see the situation of these miserable and half-starved wretches without tears,’ concluding: ‘these melancholy circumstances portend in case of war the loss of these fine kingdoms with rapidity’.

Nor were Seckendorf’s strictures limited to the condition of the ranks. With a boldness that could not endear him to the snake pit of Charles’s court he informed the Emperor, ‘some of your generals are so incapable of discharging the duties of their station that Your Imperial Majesty must countenance the loss of his crown and sceptre’. Charles half-heartedly supported these views and allowed Seckendorf to introduce some reforms, but these were watered down by the military council. Meanwhile huge amounts of effort and vast sums from his treasury were given over to securing diplomatic recognition of the Pragmatic Sanction. In contrast, the army atrophied under parsimony and inertia.

Two years later in 1740 with Charles’s death, the direct male line of the House of Austria became extinct. Charles’s eldest daughter Maria Theresa succeeded with her husband Francis Stephen of Lorraine, who had had to cede his patrimony of Lorraine to win the hand of the Habsburg heiress as her consort. As Bartenstein had warned Francis Stephen, ‘No surrender; no Archduchess.’

All Charles’s energies had been devoted to ensuring that his daughter would be recognised as Queen of the Habsburg crown lands and that her husband would as a Habsburg consort be elected ‘King of the Romans’, implying that he would eventually be crowned Holy Roman Emperor. The thought that only a credible army could offer such a guarantee was seemingly lost on Charles and his advisers. They realised that Austria with her far-flung territories and weak administration was unlikely to survive the shock of a major war but in their efforts to put their trust in the Sanction and hope for the best they gravely miscalculated.

Maria Theresa and the new Prussian king: a study in contrasts

In the crisis that unfolded, Maria Theresa was to develop into the most impressive monarch of the eighteenth century. An unashamed innovator and moderniser despite her personal conservatism, she left her mark on every area of her realms. There would be no later Austrian or indeed Central European economic, administrative, public health, legal, educational or military institution that did not in some way trace its roots to her energetic reforming zeal and retain the imprint of her measures even centuries later. She also bore her husband sixteen children, observing, ‘One cannot have enough of them. In this matter I am insatiable.’

This great tribal mother, the icon for so many Central European aristocratic families for centuries afterwards, also redefined the relationship between the Habsburg monarchy and her peoples. She injected a new style of sovereignty into the Imperial house, eliminating the ‘forbidden zone’ that had surrounded the person of earlier Habsburg rulers in Vienna. She became truly popular with her subjects. During her reign nearly all vestiges of the Spanish Habsburgs’ elaborate and formal mystique were dismantled.

All these achievements would have been remarkable at any time in the history of Europe, even during a phase of relative tranquillity, but it is all the more astounding that a 23-year-old monarch brought this to fruition after inheriting a throne which was virtually bankrupt (only 100,000 florins were in the treasury and these were mostly pledged to the dowager Empress); a court which was bereft of good advisers; and an army of barely 30,000 effectives which was desperately in need of reform precisely at a time when the majority of her neighbours had come to the conclusion that the Austrian Habsburg realms were ripe for violent dismemberment.

Despite the Pragmatic Sanction, Prussia, France and Spain harboured hostility towards the new Empress. In addition, her cousin and nearest neighbour, Charles Albert of Bavaria was about to challenge her family’s succession to the Imperial title. We have noted that this had been held almost without interruption by a Habsburg for more than three centuries, and was regarded as an almost mystical element of prestige in German-speaking lands. Barely had Charles VI been buried in 1740 when an envoy arrived from Munich to announce that Charles Albert ‘could not acknowledge the young queen as the inheritress and successor of her father because the House of Bavaria had legitimate claims to the hereditary provinces’.

Behind Bavaria stood, of course, the old Erbfeind France, which had encouraged the Bavarians to pursue this spurious claim. The Electors of Cologne and the Palatinate gave additional support, the latter sending a letter through the public post addressed to the ‘Archduchess’ Maria Theresa, a calculated impertinence. The King of Spain, even more archly, gave her no other title than Grand Duchess of Tuscany. As it became increasingly obvious that Maria Theresa’s inheritance would be disputed by most of her neighbours, the young sovereign’s advisers gave further proof of their enfeeblement. In the words of an eyewitness, ‘The Turks seemed to them already in Hungary, the Hungarians already in arms, the Saxons in Bohemia and the Bavarians approaching the gates of Vienna.’4 Before these various challenges could be settled, another even more striking blow was about to be aimed from the direction of Prussia. Frederick II, the new King in Prussia,* was without doubt an unusual personality.

He had mounted his throne in the same year as the young Austrian archduchess. As a child he had been forced to witness the execution of his favourite friend and lover on the orders of his father and he had turned his precocity into a powerful weapon of resistance to his father’s conventional morality. Frederick played the flute, composed music, read and discoursed with such revolutionary writers as Voltaire and embraced the mid-eighteenth-century ‘Enlightenment’, or at least some of its philosophical points of view. Brought up constantly rebelling against the straitjacket of Prussian Nüchternheit (lit. sobriety), he was the epitome of selfish, histrionic and unbridled egotistical arrogance.

As we have seen, he had served with the Imperial troops and had learnt much from contact with the great Eugene. He had seen at first hand the quality of the Austrian army and with the exception of its light cavalry he had not been impressed. His father had left him a treasury with some eight million ‘dollars’† more than enough money to wage two campaigns. Frederick had also inherited an army of 80,000 whose infantry was certainly at that time already reckoned to be the most consistently drilled and courageous of any in the world. These were powerful supports for any young monarch but Frederick also had vaulting ambition. He openly admitted he ‘wanted to make an impact’. Austria, now placed in the hands of a young, inexperienced girl surrounded by incompetent advisers, defended by an army long past its best with officers of notable mediocrity, was a target too irresistible to miss. He certainly failed to grasp the measure of Maria Theresa; and of Francis Stephen, whom he described as like a man given over to the pleasure of the hunt, ‘content to leave his realms, like a Gasthaus, to his wife to run’.

Frederick coveted Silesia, one of Austria’s wealthiest provinces: with its rich mineral deposits, it was the treasury of Bohemia. Geographically it pointed like a salient into the marches of Brandenburg with which it shared a common frontier of some forty miles. Moreover, its population was partly Protestant and might even – so Frederick fantasised – welcome the Lutheran Prussians.

Without warning – at this stage the Prussian King was an enthusiastic correspondent and disciple of Voltaire – Frederick marched into Silesia. He proclaimed it his in a manifesto which, riddled with pretensions and half-truths, laid claim to various principalities dating back to 1507 and, later, the Thirty Years War. Frederick gambled. Strangely, given the adulation of later biographers, not least in England, this strategy was not only destructive, it was also utterly devoid of long-term rational analysis. Later Frederick would admit with all the arrogance of an Enlightenment intellectual that ‘Ambition, the opportunity for gain, the desire to establish my reputation – these were decisive, and thus war became certain.’6 As Macaulay later noted: ‘On the head of Frederick is all the blood which was shed in a war which raged in every quarter of the globe … In order that he might rob a neighbour whom he had promised to defend, black men fought each other on the coasts of Coromandel and red men scalped each other by the great lakes of North America.’

Unfortunately for Frederick, his opponent was not a frivolous, light-headed ‘Wienerin’ of just simple easy charm and temperament. In Maria Theresa Frederick encountered a woman of singular intelligence and fortitude. He was to discover that beneath the rococo grace, redolent of Schlagobers and Gemütlichkeit, there was steel, and something else: a concept utterly alien to Frederick – integrity. A brief anecdote, much quoted, perhaps gives us the measure of the woman. One morning studying state documents over breakfast, she spilt a drop of coffee on one of the pages after dipping her customary kipfel into the cup. The sovereign ringed the offending mark with ink and scrupulously wrote in her neat hand in the margin that the stain was hers, for which she offered apologies.8 Frederick possessed neither integrity nor humility. Indeed, the ‘greatness’ of Frederick’s character for all its histrionics and drama does not in many points maintain its superiority when placed in comparison with that of his most tenacious opponent.

Frederick calculated that his campaign would be swift and easy, with the ‘Rape of Silesia’ accomplished in weeks. In fact the swift little campaign he so gaily embarked upon was to condemn him to a lifetime of often desperate fighting at ruinous expense in blood and treasure. ‘Fighting Maria Theresa,’ he would later moan, ‘is like dying a thousand times a day.’

Before it was all over more than twenty-five years later Prussia, not Austria, was on the verge of total extinction, saved only by what must have seemed the miraculous death of his other determined foe Elizabeth of Russia. The Prussia that survived just held on to Silesia but she was bankrupt, a basket case: her economy ruined and her manpower decimated. Even as a military leader Maria Theresa could claim superiority. After all, she bequeathed an army immensely stronger than the one she had inherited, so unlike the ruined armies of Frederick. Prussia’s military power indeed was so drained that a generation later Napoleon could wipe it out in less than an afternoon on the plains of Jena and Auerstadt. Unlike Austria which would fight five coalition wars against Napoleon, Prussia’s weak efforts before 1813 showed that the shattered legacy Frederick left his country would take more than a generation to heal, and then only thanks to the presence of a unique combination of single-minded men.

Silesia seized: Mollwitz

The beginning for Frederick, as for many a later megalomaniac, was promising. He achieved total surprise; neither his ambassadors nor his relations were informed. Just before his troops entered Silesia in 1741, he sent an ambassador to the Austrian court with a draft convention offering support for Maria Theresa in the struggle to defend her other kingdoms if Prussia were ceded Silesia. This was merely a gesture and he did not expect it to be received in Vienna as anything more. But Maria Theresa’s refusal even to receive the Prussian envoy, Count Gotter, while Prussian troops menaced her possessions caused dismay in Berlin, where the hope of an eventual settlement after the initial incursion ran high.

The few Austrian troops – barely 3,000, the majority of whom were invalids or raw recruits under Maximilian von Browne in Silesia – were swiftly routed; a few fortresses, their defences decayed after years of neglect, held out but Frederick arrived at the head of 20 battalions and 36 squadrons on Christmas Eve, entering Breslau (today Wroclaw in Poland), the capital of Silesia on New Year’s Day. Though at first the Prussians were greeted by the Protestant majority, they swiftly seized the revenues of the province to pay for the equipment of the entire Prussian army. Maria Theresa noted acidly that its revenues hitherto had barely covered the expense of two of her Cuirassier regiments. Browne was driven back to Moravia. The so-called strongest fortification, Glogau, put up some resistance but it had a garrison of just 1,178 troops, of whom half were retired invalids, and just 17 guns.

Maria Theresa was let down not only by her advisers in this moment. Long-standing allies were equally fickle. Holland and England both counselled accommodation with Frederick. George II was especially afraid of a conflagration with France. He also feared that his native Hanover, or as he termed it his ‘country seat’, would be overrun by Prussia if he supported Austria. Russia and Poland, which had initially pledged troops, swiftly backtracked while acknowledging the integrity of the Austrian cause. Of the ‘Pragmatic Sanction’ there was no more talk. The young sovereign was learning an important lesson in European power politics: that weakness only brings out the worst in governments. It is said that when she finally received from her counsellors a correct appreciation of precisely how dire the financial and military straits in which she found herself were, she left the room and, alone, burst into tears.

It did not help that her two most experienced generals, Wallis and Neipperg were languishing in jail following the debacle in Turkey of the previous year, which had resulted in their being court-martialled. Maria Theresa moved swiftly to liberate them and Neipperg marched at the head of a sizeable force in March 1741 to eject the Prussians. The Prussian army by the first week in April, rejoined by Frederick, came face to face with the Austrians under Neipperg at Mollwitz. It was to be Frederick’s first taste of military action in all its raw brutality and it was a deeply unpleasant experience for the Prussian monarch.

The series of wars that had closed Charles VI’s reign had highlighted Austria’s military weakness. It is therefore surprising that, given the abuses and disorders rampant in the Habsburg forces, the Austrians gave as good an account of themselves at Mollwitz as they did. The battle was certainly far from a foregone conclusion. The superb drill of the Prussian army was viewed with a certain disdain by the Austrians. After all, had not their own army been trained on the battlefield rather than the drill square? The Austrian officer corps was less cohesive socially and ethnically. Also, in its love of frivolity, sardonic wit and Milde und Munifizenz (Mildness and munificence), it was far removed from the class of tough, small-time landowners bred on the barren windswept Lutheran estates of Prussia who officered Frederick’s army. Neipperg their commander exuded black humour and was much admired for his repartee. His luck on the field of battle that April day would require it.

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