Prince Liechtenstein and the modernisation of the Austrian artillery


Joseph Wenzel von Liechtenstein.




On 8 February 1748, a distinguished group of senior officers met in Vienna to coordinate military reform. Under the presidency of Lorraine, the detailed work was to be carried out by Liechtenstein and Harrach with the support of Wenzel Wallis with two gifted officers, Daun and Schulenburg. Of these, Liechtenstein and Daun were perhaps the most enterprising. The former was an Alpine prince whose rank, wealth and status were, as it is for his descendants to this day, on a different level to that of the high Austrian aristocracy. (The fabulous wealth of the Liechtenstein family was founded, according to legend, on the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone.) With their uniquely corrupt vowels inflecting their speech, their enormous height and practical materialist outlook at once both realist and solemn, the Liechtensteins consequently were always far removed from the atmosphere and frivolity of the Austrian court. Field Marshal Joseph Wenzel Liechtenstein was no exception and it was no coincidence that the arm requiring the highest quotient of intelligence, the artillery, fell to his responsibility. Wounded at the head of his Dragoon regiment at the Battle of Chotusitz, Liechtenstein had been very impressed by the 82 well-served Prussian guns, which had compared so well with the antiquated Austrian cannon. With his active military career cut short by his wounds he was determined to devote the rest of his life to giving the Habsburgs the best artillery in Europe.

Assisted by his immense private wealth – not a ducat needed to come from the Austrian treasury to finance his experiments – he invited at his own expense the foremost artillerists of Europe to advise him: Alvson from Denmark, the brothers Feuerstein from Kolín, Schröeder from Prussia, ‘Fire Devil’ Rouvroy from Saxony and even the formidable Gribeauval from France. By the time Liechtenstein had finished his reorganisation a few years later Austrian artillery would be established as among the finest in Europe, a reputation that would more or less endure until 1918. All these later successes were built on the foundation stone of Liechtenstein’s reforms in the 1750s.

These reforms had a geographical and ethnic dimension to them for Liechtenstein soon realised that artillery could not be left to ordinary soldiers of no education. In a move which was to prove far-seeing and have significant consequences for the development of the Central European arms industry later in the twentieth century, the Prince established the home of the Habsburg artillery arm unequivocally once and for all in Bohemia. He knew that the Bohemians of mixed German and Czech race were not only the quickest wits in the Empire but that they combined resilience with toughness, humour with imagination, practicality with energy and above all a sense of theatre with coolness under fire. How did he know this? He knew this because vast tracts of Bohemia and Moravia belonged to his family, who administered them with tremendous care and intelligence. Truly can it be said that Bohemia elevated the House of Liechtenstein to something beyond mere Alpine aristocracy. Placing the artillery headquarters in Budweis, he also ensured that his artillerists were paid a third more than the rank and file infantry.

When Wenzel Liechtenstein began his work, there were only 800 trained artillerists in the Habsburg army. By 1755 there were three artillery brigades made up of some 33 companies. In addition Artillery Fusilier regiments were created to assist the gunners in moving and defending the guns. As well as these a munitions corps and mining company were established. The artillery ‘park’ was also increased, with 768 3-pounder guns and several batteries of 6-pounder cannon. At Ebergassing near Vienna the cannon foundry was ‘modernised’ with a new range of horizontal drilling machines invented by a Swiss mechanical but illiterate genius called Jacquet. By the end of Maria Theresa’s reign there were more than 600 heavy 6- and 12-pounder pieces and the artillery arm numbered nearly 15,000 men. Standardisation of wheels and other parts of the guns was an important feature of the new weapons.

Drill and exercise were the natural concomitants of this huge increase in firepower and Liechtenstein insisted on full-scale training at least twice a week. By 1772, also by Imperial decree, a brown uniform with red facings was established to distinguish the corps from the white-coated rank and file infantry. Maria Theresa noted – she always took a keen and practical interest in these details – ‘it is important for the uniform to be conspicuous but not more expensive’. More than a century later at the 1900 Paris Exhibition a modern version of this brown and red uniform would win the first prize for combining elegance and practicality.

Not only were the uniforms distinctive, the levels of rank were also unique, with archaic titles such as Buchsenmeister (gunner) or Alt-Feuerwerker (second lieutenant) or Stuckhauptmann (captain) or Stuckjuncker (first lieutenant). The artillery was in its atmosphere more a medieval guild of kindred spirits with its own rituals and language than a conventional regiment of the army. Promotion to officer rank was strictly meritocratic and almost always proceeded from within the corps. Candidates were first trained in the Budweis artillery depot where they were schooled in geometry, ballistics, hydraulics and the science of fortification.

In 1757 the artillery Reglement (Regulations) noted: ‘We must seek in the artillery to encourage the men in their duties more through a love of honour and good treatment than through brutality, untimely blows and beatings.’

In addition to these reforms, the Empress, on Liechtenstein’s advice, established institutes (Witwen und Waisen Confraternität) to look after the families of artillerists, especially widows and orphans in Prague, Kolín and Landshut. At the same time Liechtenstein introduced a radical overhaul of ordnance. Anton Feuerstein as head of the Feld Artillerie Corps sought to pare weight down to a minimum by shortening and lightening barrels. Gun carriages also benefited from this practical approach. He established a common axle and just two types of wheel for all artillery pieces. This uniformity meant that spares could be made available in the event of breakdown.

Moreover, each gun was given a number which in turn was painted on every item of equipment down to the mop-cum-rammer to help every soldier identify with his artillery piece, for ‘both officers and men feel their honour is engaged when taking a close interest in the upkeep of their equipment and ammunition. Thus the entire ordnance is most carefully engaged.’

Above all, to ensure an instantly recognisable and practical appearance the gun carriages and wheels were to be painted in the Imperial colours, schwarzgelb (black and gold, or rather yellow), with the result that this application of oil paint offered ‘much better protection than before against damp and other climatic conditions. In this way ‘the greater durability of the wood repays the cost many times over’. Not even Austrian gunpowder was immune from Liechtenstein’s zealous reforms. Renowned for its combustibility and strength, it was made even more effective when packaged in linen cartridges which were bound together with a sabot.

The linen surface of the cartridge was then painted with a covered paste and finally coated with white oil paint. Thus the powder was compressed tightly together for maximum effect.

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