Why the Austrians lost

The Battle of Marengo, Louis-François Lejeune

It was the French revolutionary armies that had proved most innovating. Their striking success rested on various factors. The remarkable mobility which the French restored to warfare was crucial. It was based on the old principle, largely proscribed during the ‘age of cabinet wars’, that war should feed war. Increasingly fighting on enemy territory after 1793–94 and thus cut off from any logistical infrastructure, revolutionary generals were able, and even forced, to act more ruthlessly than their allied counter-parts who, trapped by the demands of coalition and defensive warfare, were expected to treat the theatres of war, mostly allied or own territories, with greater consideration and therefore remained strongly dependent on orderly provisioning from depots. The French revolutionary armies demonstrated to a disconcerted Europe what to live at the expense of enemy territory really meant. This ‘locust-strategy’, seldom seen since the seventeenth century, could of course redound to their disadvantage. At times, certain principal theatres of operations such as the Rhineland or the Palatinate were so exhausted that armies simply could not operate.

The structure of high command was yet another point where the French armies differed largely from their enemies, most notably the Austrians who concern us here. Significant emigration along with large-scale resignations during the first years of the Revolution followed by summary executions of either politically suspect or simply unfortunate generals during the Terror fundamentally transformed the French officer corps and high command, creating almost a tabula rasa from which a military meritocracy could rise rapidly however humble their social background. Continuous and often violent recasting at the top made sure that only the most talented, or at least the most fortunate, generals would remain at their posts. Against this background, the revolutionary army was of necessity a young army. Most of its leading generals were born in the 1760s and were thus in their twenties or thirties when promoted to army commands: Jean-Charles Pichegru was born in 1761, Jean-Baptiste Jourdan in 1762, Jean-Victor Moreau in 1763, Lazare Hoche in 1768 and Napoleon Bonaparte in 1769. The Emperor’s generals, by way of contrast, were at least one generation older. Sachsen-Coburg was born in 1737, Sachsen-Teschen in 1738, Clerfayt in 1733, Alvinczy in 1735, Beaulieu in 1725, Wurmser, almost deaf, in 1724 and field marshal Blasius Kolumban Bender (d. 1798), the defender of Luxemburg in 1794–95, as long ago as 1713. Archduke Karl, born in 1771, was a shining exception to the rule, but, after all, he was the Emperor’s brother. He could thus be promoted Feldzeugmeister in 1794 at the sensational age of 23 and put in charge of the Austrian army in Germany with the rank of Reichsgeneralfeldmarschall two years later without provoking a major outcry. On average, however, a certain senile decay coupled with the corresponding lack of mental flexibility and a conservative belief in the cautious norms of old-regime warfare seemed a characteristic feature of Austrian military leadership – affecting most of the 355 generals on duty in 1792 … and many of the staff officers. Advancement by seniority only was openly criticized as suffocating merit, encouraging adherence to established nostrums and discouraging initiative. The administrative top echelons, too, were staffed by elderly generals and swamped by paperwork. Count Michael Johann Wallis (d. 1798), president of the Hofkriegsrat 1790–96, was born in 1732 and Count Friedrich Moritz Nostitz-Rieneck (d. 1796), briefly his successor, in 1728. Field marshal Lacy (born in 1725), the great old man of cautious warfare and ‘military pedantry’, still exerted considerable influence behind the scenes.

As a military writer Karl, though an admirer of Lacy, criticized both the enormous bureaucratization and the excessive defensive-mindedness that characterized the Austrian way of waging war. He pleaded instead, as did Thugut, for a more energetic and daring approach, though he himself was no breakneck strategist. Even if dynastic historiography may have overrated his military abilities, the Archduke was undoubtedly the best, certainly the most successful Austrian general at this point. He was able to inspire his troops, while as an army reformer he advocated a more humane treatment of the common soldier in order to improve motivation and fighting spirit. The reduction of the term of military service from life to between ten and fourteen years in 1802 was one important step in the right direction.

Yet Archduke Karl’s control was by no means undisputed. The Habsburg war effort, unlike the French, in fact lacked a unified political and military command and, in addition, had to face the problems customarily inherent in coalition warfare, with political rivalry, especially vis-à-vis Prussia, hindering effective cooperation to a large extent. Thugut’s efforts to lay down the law in military matters lacked the omnipresent guillotine to enforce strict obedience from the Emperor’s generals but, instead, had to calculate with a latent spirit of contradiction, insubordination and even self-laceration. Rivalries in Vienna fuelled feuds between senior generals in the field and vice versa. In particular, Thugut, fearing the Archduke’s political influence, and Karl had a cat-and-dog life, and it was only after the former’s fall that, in 1801, Karl could take over as Minister of War to overhaul radically Austria’s military system. But even the suspicious Emperor had serious problems with his more charismatic brother. As half a century earlier, the crisis of the Austrian army was first and foremost a crisis of leadership. While all critics agreed that the rank-and-file fought bravely (even though desertion rates rose very sharply in 1795, particularly among recruits on their way to the front), many complained that officers, always grumbling and increasingly defeatist, and soldiers were too wide apart to create an esprit de corps. The French declared that it was difficult to vanquish the Emperor’s soldiers but easy to defeat his generals. Despite repeated defeats suffered at the hands of the allegedly ill-disciplined and inexperienced revolutionary forces, many old-regime officers – and even Thugut at the State Chancellery – still could not get rid of their arrogant contempt for the French army’s alleged shortcomings. By 1794 at the latest, the armies of the coalition, having gambled away their initial advantage, no longer outnumbered or outclassed the French. The principal reason for French military success, however, was France’s decision in the summer of 1793 to wage ‘total war’ and to mobilize all its resources against the enemy. Levée en masse and conscription, however defective and incomplete, put the French war effort on a radically new basis. Whereas old-regime powers were still shrinking back from full mobilization, which they considered socially and economically disruptive, the French set all their hopes on revolutionary élan and overall numerical superiority (which did not rule out that the French were outnumbered in individual battles and campaigns). In 1794, France fielded more than 1 million citizen-soldiers – at least on paper. But with some 800,000 men even the total effective strength of the revolutionary armies surpassed by far the totals which the entire First Coalition could muster (460,000 men in 1794 according to the most optimistic estimates). As there were no more serious manpower problems, French tactics and strategy could soon return to the ‘natural state’ of war with more willingness to accept high casualties, in contrast to the high price attached to trained soldiers in most Ancien Régime armies.

French commanders were under instructions to seek clear-cut decisions in open battle, and employed skirmishers (tirailleurs) to weaken the enemy lines and then mass-attacks in column-formation to win through. Offensive and even aggressive warfare triumphed over old-regime manoeuvring and the defensive and methodical cordon-system to which the Austrians in particular adhered. The superiority of the French artillery thoroughly modernized in the final decades of the Ancien Régime was an additional trump-card, while the Austrian regimental artillery largely proved a failure because it squandered fire power by dispersing the guns along the front line. Furthermore, the Austrian army had too high a proportion of cavalry, which often proved more of a burden and had little opportunity to intervene in its traditional role as the decisive arm on the battlefield. The battle of Würzburg in 1796 was the principal exception.

Despite the human cost of France’s military expeditions across the continent for many French families, the nationalization of the military effort by full mobilization after 1793 and the creation of the sense of fighting to save the Revolution were important foundations of French success. Although we should avoid idealizing French enthusiasm, France’s citizen-soldiers were fighting to defend a political community and political values. There was no comparable unifying national effort and of course no revolutionary élan in Austria; historic privileges even protected important parts of the Monarchy, most notably Hungary, from having to pull their full weight. The Habsburg army remained ‘primarily a dynastic instrument’, as Gunther Rothenberg once observed. A handful of exceptions confirm the rule. As we have seen, the French threat to Vienna in spring 1797 unleashed an outburst of patriotic enthusiasm in the capital. The city of Vienna and the university raised volunteer units that marched out to the accompaniment of a brand-new anthem, the famous Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser cribbed from the English ‘God save the King’ but set to music by no less a composer than Joseph Haydn. The Tyrolean militia performed very well in 1796–97 as they had done against the Bavarians at the beginning of the century; in the face of a French invasion in summer 1796, even the peasants in Vorarlberg showed more energy than the local authorities and helped drive the French back.

Self-organizing popular resistance against the French flared up in all theatres of war when plundering and requisitioning went too far, as was the case in northern Italy, Swabia and Franconia in 1796: the revolutionary armies, contrary to what had been announced in 1792, simply could not spare the huts of the peasants and plunder the palaces of the aristocrats. Guerilla warfare was tolerated from above and even actively encouraged by allied commanders (as in Anterior Austria where the provincial militia was called up in 1793) when it could be expected to support regular operations. In January 1794 Emperor Franz II called for a general arming of the population along the Franco-German border, but the Imperial Diet refused to back this. Yet old-regime governments were traditionally suspicious of subjects in arms outside the regular army. Despite its increasing manpower problems after 1794, the Habsburg Monarchy, almost as populous as France, stuck to its system of limited conscription as introduced in 1770–81. The only concession to the pressures of war was a cautious reduction of exemptions and even appeals for voluntary enlistment. Whatever the limitations of the Konskription system, nothing would be more erroneous than to depict a battle between French and Austrian forces simply as a confrontation between motivated citizens-in-arms and reluctant mercenaries. Once again, the differences were more subtle and gradual than established textbook clichés might suggest.

Finally, in 1808, with a view to the imminent show-down against Napoleonic France, Vienna went one step further, instituting a regular militia (Landwehr) in the Austro-Bohemian provinces. This was certainly no levée en masse, but it provided useful support for the line army and allowed the Monarchy to make better use of its rich native manpower potential which the extremely high standards of the recruitment system let slip to a large extent, while at the same time fertile recruiting grounds had been lost following the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. Despite widespread initial reserve (shared by a sceptical Archduke Karl) some Landwehr and volunteer units fought bravely in the campaign of 1809 and helped Karl gain the first victory ever won over Napoleon in a land battle at Aspern near Vienna (21/22 May 1809). But it was only in 1868 that universal conscription, demanded by reform-conscious officers as early as 1796, was introduced in Austria and Hungary.

As Albert Sorel put it, the Habsburg Monarchy may have always been one idea and one army behind, yet it always had an idea and an army – even if both seemed increasingly superannuated in the age of the French Revolution and Napoleon. Within just a few years revolutionary France had clearly outdone Europe’s most highly militarized monarchies, Prussia and Austria.

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