For the Austrian army it was indeed a moment to reflect on what had gone wrong in Italy and which reforms of tactics were now necessary. The practices of Guibert, the callous breaking of the rules of ‘civilised’ warfare, required a response. The Archduke Charles began to apply his considerable intellectual talents to thinking about new strategies to counter the innovative techniques of warfare used by the armies of Revolutionary France, now rapidly increased by the Levée en masse.
More formally, the Emperor and the ever-byzantine Aulic Council (Hofkriegsrat) focused on ‘essentials’. That meant first and foremost adapting the army’s appearance to the new era. The Adjustierungsvorschrift 1798 is a formidable document. Born in the aftermath of Napoleon’s victories in Italy and the surrender of Mantua, it is a clear attempt to breathe new life into an army fighting a modern war with an antique mentality.
The language alone was remarkable. Given that it bore the Imperial imprimatur it offered neither subtlety nor nuance in its condemnation of sloppy practices which by implication had cost the Imperial House so much blood and treasure in the fertile lands of the Po valley. The document was designed to shake the army out of its complacency and it brooked no argument.
For example the tendency of officers to wear items of civilian dress was described as a ‘dangerous delusion’ and a practice that not only ‘did not father a military spirit’ but was to be systematically ‘stamped out’ (ausgerottet). All luxury was to be eschewed and generals were not to appear in front of their men without their coats ‘fully buttoned’. Wigs were considered especially egregious and on these, along with the precise profile of officers’ porte-epée sword knots, the appropriate dimensions of command sticks and the amount of hair permissible under headdress, the new regulations were rigorous in attempting to impose a strict uniformity.
Visually the most significant development of the new uniform regulations was the phasing out of the old casquet headdress with its raised front (soon to be embraced and improved by the British army) in favour of a more impressive classical Roman-style helmet with a black and yellow crest. The crest was made of wool for other ranks and silk for the officers. Field and staff officers were to be equipped with helmets whose crests were made of a more luxurious ‘unturned’ silk.
The helmet, which was to be an imposing six-and-a-half Zoll high (16 inches), fitted the Josephinian legacy of relentless crusade towards total uniformity. It was to be worn by cavalry and infantry, and even Jaeger units, alike. Its front was adorned with a brass plate bearing the Imperial cipher. Ironically, this headdress would constitute one of the most expensive items of attire in the history of the Austrian army and would within ten years be replaced by a cheaper bell-topped shako.
While these regulations were implemented, Austria not only rearmed, she attempted to tie the dynasty to the army more closely. The Archduke Charles and his brother the Archduke John were both seen as figures to be exploited by the Emperor to raise the prestige of his House while at the same time ensuring that his own personal position remained uncompromised by any reversal in the fortunes of war. Thugut was convinced that in this way a certain counter to the prevailing zeitgeist could be organised to make sure the dynasty survived the storms that clearly were coming. That these tempests were on their way was the legacy of Campo Formio and a French army which needed to be supported by the loot and resources of countries outside France.
Austria had not been defeated. She had lost a few frontier battles but was still strong enough to bar an invading army. With Austria undefeated, Italy remained unconquered and the Napoleonic creation of the Cisalpine Republic as a satellite of France in northern Italy in 1797 remained vulnerable and flawed.
As a quid pro quo for digesting Venice, Austria had recognised the Cisalpine Republic where, by the order of the Directoire, Napoleon had declared the ‘people’ sovereign on 29 June. But in the new state, liberty after three coups d’état was equated with secularisation and the new regime of the Cisalpine Republic degenerated into arbitrary acts of violence and despotism. The earlier work of Joseph II was now brought to its logical conclusion: monasticism was abolished, the Papacy attacked, the churches and clergy pillaged. All religious orders were suppressed and all church property confiscated in two months of 1798. The secularisation of Italy was a tremendous revolution, again offering Vienna a great challenge: how could Austria tolerate Venetia continuing to apply the principles of the Ancien Régime alongside a revolutionary despotism aimed at driving the Catholic Church out of existence? These two systems could not survive side by side without an explosion. Thugut’s diplomacy had made certain that Campo Formio was the beginning of an immense general war, which would only end at Waterloo nearly twenty years later.
THE SECOND AND THIRD COALITION WARS
Although Austria’s armies had a mixed record against Napoleon, the fact remained that her forces were the only reliable ally England possessed. If Revolutionary France was to be contained, the Austrian army was the only instrument capable of doing so. The army continued to be in the forefront of every campaign. That it survived the hammer blows that now rained down upon it was a tribute to the long-lasting effect of reforms a generation earlier.
Barely was the ink dry at Campo Formio than Britain, Russia, Naples and Turkey began to see the ambitions of Revolutionary France in an ever darker light. As these countries drew together, it was apparent that the key to any credible coalition against Napoleon remained Austria. After much promise of gold on the part of London, Austria on 22 June 1799 formally signed a new alliance with Britain.
This war would bring new areas of campaign for the French, notably Egypt. For Austria, Italy would continue as a major theatre of hostilities. But the French remained obsessed with the Rhine. They therefore threatened Germany, which brought them inevitably into conflict with Vienna.
The Swiss campaign
In the event, when war came, it was Switzerland that was to be the first battlefield to draw blood. Then as now, the Alpine lands were a strategic factor. They offered Paris the chance to cut the shortest lines of communication between the Austrian forces on the Danube and the Austrian army on the Po. Moreover, a strong position in Switzerland could always threaten any plans the allies might have for the invasion of southern France. An army of about 30,000 men under Masséna pushed east into the Engadine but soon faced a much stronger Austrian force under Hoetze and Bellegarde, a capable general of Saxon extraction. At Feldkirch the French were repulsed in some style. This encouraged the Swiss, unenthusiastic about the French occupation, to rise up and threaten Masséna’s lines of communication.
Meanwhile the French general Jourdan, nicknamed by his soldiers ‘the anvil’ on account of his always being beaten, crossed into the Black Forest at Basle where he promptly found himself face to face with the Archduke Charles at the head of 60,000 seasoned troops. On 21 March 1799, the Archduke attacked near Stockach, sending Jourdan reeling back towards the Rhine. At the crisis of this battle, the Archduke put himself at the head of six battalions of Hungarian grenadiers and twelve squadrons of cuirassiers in order to break up the attack on his right flank. It was an early sign of that complete disregard for his own person which became one of Charles’s hallmarks as a military leader. This physical courage was to be a feature of the Archduke’s generalship as much as his intellectual qualities.
Although the Austrians had fought well, it was their superiority in numbers that had, more than anything, carried the day. The Austrian grenadiers, formed into powerful elite tactical units following recent reforms, performed well. Notwithstanding his personal bravery, the Archduke was persuaded to relinquish the leadership of this attack to Karl Aloys zu Fürstenberg fifteen minutes after it started. Fürstenberg was promptly felled by case shot, forcing the Archduke to resume command.
Jourdan’s losses were about 5,000. The hotly contested woods of Stockach had cost the Austrians several thousand casualties as well. In typical Austrian style Charles contented himself with having put the French Army of the Rhine out of action rather than pursuing it and destroying it. To risk a battle when one’s opponents were already demoralised and defeated was not the Habsburg style and the Hofkriegsrat Aulic Council decreed that crossing the Rhine was too risky an operation. The Archduke was ordered to await reinforcements from Bellegarde and the arrival of Korsakow’s Russian corps. Jourdan was in any event already a broken man. Masséna on taking over the remnants of his army was horrified at the condition in which he found the troops.
Six weeks later, strengthened and reinforced, the allies renewed their attacks on the French positions around Zurich and the Archduke’s army crossed the Rhine near Constance. The French could not face such a concentration of forces and by mid-June the Austrians were in Zurich and the French had been driven off the St Gotthard Pass. Here the Archduke halted once again, though for practical reasons. His opponent, Masséna, had been re-inforced and had constructed a formidable defensive position on the Limmat behind Zurich. Reconnoitring the position, Charles saw immediately that to storm it would cost him many casualties. Critics of the Archduke in Vienna had already begun to play on the tensions between him and his brother the Emperor. Charles felt he could not risk putting a foot wrong with the cream of the Habsburg army if he was to enjoy the support of the court and government. Ideally, Charles envisaged a convergence attack but the other prong of this scheme, General Hadik’s men, had just been sent to join the Russians in northern Italy.
In Italy meanwhile the French were also checked. Schere, leading a fumbling attack on Vero, was beaten off by Kray at Magnano in the first week in April. By 6 April the French were behind the Mincio and by the 12th they had fallen back behind the Adda. In Rome and Naples, French troops were ordered to evacuate. Everywhere the military genius of Napoleon was absent, and indifferent leadership compromised French arms. When the Russian Suvorov joined Kray with his 30,000 men the allies could deploy 90,000 men and the Russian was made commander-in-chief. Napoleon was unimpressed; he described Suvorov as having the soul but not the brain of a great commander.
On 21 April Serurier’s division, left imprudently on the left bank of the Adda, was attacked by Suvorov and the Austrians. In a brisk action at Cassano, the French were virtually annihilated by an Austrian cavalry charge led by Melas, a talented officer and a Greek born in Transylvania. Once again the Austrian cavalry, in particular the Chevauxleger squadrons, proved that they were the most formidable horsed arm in Europe. Everywhere, the French fell back, heading for the safety of the Ligurian Alps. By late May, the Russians were in Turin, having defeated the French with Austrian help at the ferocious Battle of Novi.
At Novi, the French under Joubert effectively deployed their new tactic of mobile skirmishing infantry. The Austrian grenadiers were repeatedly driven back by swarms of French sharpshooters carefully positioned around their exposed flanks as they advanced. It fell to a young Austrian colonel who was Melas’s adjutant to see and suggest that the key to the French position was the right flank and ask for two brigades (Mitrovsky and Loudon) to help storm the position. This movement late in the day finally disordered the French whose commander Joubert fell with a bullet through his head just where the fighting was at its most violent. The Loudon Brigade of Grenadiers took their objectives at the point of the bayonet spurred on by the young colonel whose name was already becoming a legend: Radetzky.
In his official bulletin to the Emperor, Melas brought this name to wider attention:
I can find neither the words nor the expressions which can do justice to the courage and heroism of the army on this day. … Finally I cannot fail to mention to his Majesty the conduct of Lieutenant Colonel Count Radetsky who in so many moments displayed decisiveness, courage and restless energy and in this battle organising and leading the attack columns which contributed significantly to our victory.
Meanwhile another French force under Macdonald, which had evacuated Naples and attempted to menace the allied lines of communication, was caught by a combined Russo-Austrian force under Suvorov at Trebbia. In nearly three days of fierce fighting Macdonald lost more than 10,000 men and nearly all his guns. After barely three months, the French position in Italy had crumbled. In July both Alessandria and Mantua, which had been defended by French garrisons, had surrendered. Novi and Trebbia simply completed the picture of Gallic gloom.
Fortunately for the French, the old evil of malaria had once again sapped the Russian and Austrian soldiers’ strength and, for the moment, exhaustion prevented pursuit. Moreover, as was often to happen between the Russians and the Austrians, there emerged tensions at the level of command. Relations between Suvorov and Melas were cordial and the Russian made much use of the staff infrastructure the Austrian High Command put at his disposal but the allies moved at a slower pace than their opponents. Their failure to prevent Macdonald escaping with the remnants of his defeated army to join up again with Moreau showed that the Austrian military command had not digested the lesson that the new era of war exacted a high price for lethargy.
Moreover, there were political difficulties. Thugut in Vienna was unamused to hear that Suvorov single-handedly had restored the Piedmontese monarchy. Vienna was also understandably cautious at the prospect of invading France. A vigorous thrust towards Grenoble might have brought the entire edifice down but Vienna as usual was concerned with her own long-term interests, and these dictated action nearer to home. If there were to be an invasion of France then it would have to be through the old Austrian crown lands of Lorraine so that, when the time came to make another peace, these provinces could be under Habsburg occupation.
Archduke Charles withdrawn: Napoleon returns
Thus the fateful decision was taken to shift the bold Archduke Charles away from Zurich where he had achieved so much and move him back to the tributaries of the Rhine. In his place would come the Russians under Korsakow, a far less gifted commander than Suvorov. This weakening of the allies in Switzerland essentially doomed the coalition. As a British diplomat observed, ‘le vrai général’ in Austria was not Melas or the Archduke but Thugut.
A British expeditionary force of perhaps no more than 25,000 men might at this stage have ended the war, but no such force materialised and Masséna’s brilliant delaying tactics gave Buonaparte time to develop his strategy of threatening both the Danube valley and northern Italy. The stage was set for the moment when Napoleon returned from his triumphs in the shadows of the Pyramids and political victory in Paris to assume control over the armies he had led to victory barely a year earlier.
While the Archduke returned with his troops towards Mannheim, Mássena saw his chance. He faced only 45,000 Austro-Russian troops and the Russian contingent was inferior in quality and leadership. Mássena had been re-inforced and he now commanded 70,000 troops. On 25 September he attacked his opponents arranged in front of Zurich and sent them reeling. The French hold on Switzerland was consolidated further by movements that neutralised Suvorov’s and Korsakow’s attempts to renew the offensive.
Had the international situation been a conventional one, a negotiated peace might at this stage have been possible but Napoleon needed a dazzling military victory to shore up his domestic success after his elevation to First Consul. His regime needed glory as well as order to survive. Moreover, in Thugut he had a diplomatic adversary who was unwilling to concede defeat even if it meant the prosecution of a ‘war to the knife’. Events were all moving in Napoleon’s favour. The Russian–Austrian relationship was deteriorating as Thugut’s war aims were perceived by the Russians to have let them down in Switzerland. Thugut had become annoyed with his Russian partners over Piedmont and these feelings were reciprocated when the Austrians claimed Ancona. The Tsar had had enough of Austrian friction. He abruptly instructed his generals to begin their withdrawal. Russian troops would cease to be a relevant factor by February 1800. By holding Switzerland, the French had frustrated any attempt to invade the south of France.
The Austrians still possessed two fine armies in the field. That under Melas in northern Italy numbered nearly 110,000 men, while under Kray, in southern Germany, there was an even stronger force of 145,000. Napoleon would need to destroy one of these if his aims were to be realised. As their destruction would open the road to Vienna, the forces of Kray were Napoleon’s preferred target. But political problems soon arose over this.
Chief of these was Moreau, who commanded the French Army of the Rhine. He was both stubborn and unimaginative. Even after the events of Brumaire, Napoleon’s position was not so powerful that he could remove as prestigious a commander as Moreau. Moreover as First Consul there was a legal issue as to whether Napoleon could hold command in the field. Therefore Napoleon tried to foist on to Moreau his plan for the destruction of Kray by a swift march to outflank and annihilate the Austrian right wing. But Moreau found the strategy too bold and risky. As Napoleon wrote later from St Helena, ‘Le plan que Moreau ne comprend pas’ would have to be executed in northern Italy, very much Napoleon’s second choice, as a victory there was unlikely to end the war.
While Moreau advanced along the Danube sluggishly, Napoleon entered Italy along the most difficult and westernmost of the passes, the St Bernard. He had hoped to cross using the lower passes of the Simplon and St Gotthard but Melas was on the move and he could not risk debouching on to Melas’s troops. Moreover, if he was to rescue all that was left of the army of Italy at Genoa and Suchet’s forces on the Var, time was of the essence. Moreau meanwhile pushed Kray back, capturing some of his depots and taking some 12,000 Austrian troops prisoner. But the decisive battle was skilfully avoided by Kray, who kept his army together in a well-executed withdrawal that deprived Moreau of the ‘battle without a morrow’ which was always Napoleon’s aim.
In Italy, Melas’s troops were thinly spread with some 30,000 of his men pinned down by Suchet on the Var. A further 25,000 of his troops invested Genoa.This made it difficult for Melas to cover all the passes. Apart from a brisk defence at the formidable fortress of Bard where Captain von Bernkopf’s garrison held out for ten days from 21 May until 1 June, Melas’s troops held the Val d’Aosta lightly. The news of Bernkopf’s heroic stand did not reach Melas until Napoleon had managed to pass the bulk of his army over the Alps. When Bernkopf finally surrendered, Napoleon razed the fortress to the ground.