Siege of Genoa (1746)

Italy and the naval bombardment of Genoa in 1684

At the same time as Strasbourg was being swallowed up in the north, the French appeared to give a clue to their sinister intentions elsewhere in Europe when they occupied Casale, a fortress in the Montferrat forty miles east of Turin. The Duke of Mantua was one of those hard-up petty potentates who abounded at the time, and after being sounded by the French he willingly parted with his enclave at Casale in return for a bribe.

It was bad enough that Louis got Casale at all, for it supplemented Pinerolo as a base for French operations on the Italian side of the Alps. The way in which the enterprise was carried out was more significant still, because the occupying force and the subsequent reliefs marched straight across Piedmontese territory without the formality of gaining the Duke of Savoy’s leave. In a similarly cavalier fashion the French made a naval bombardment of Genoa in 1684, simply because the republic appeared to be too friendly with Spain. This drastic measure confirmed the impression that Louis regarded north Italy as part of his own domains.

Piedmont and neighbouring states in the War of the Austrian Succession.

War of Austrian Succession

At the beginning of 1745, during the War of Austrian Succession the situation was altogether, in favor of the tenacious Maria Theresa. France, however, had in the meantime found a new ally in Genvoa, irritated by Piedmont and Austria for the threat to their possession of the Finale (Treaty of Aranjuez May 7, 1745). With the help of the Genoese, the two armies of the French-Spanish under Maillebois and Gages, came into Piedmont from the Riviera and defeated the Austro-Piedmontese at Bassignana (September 28), then occupied successively Tortona, Piacenza, Parma, Pavia, Alessandria, Asti and Casale, while Philip of Bourbon finally took Milan in December 19, 1745. In the Netherlands, France were dominant. The valiant Marshal Maurice de Saxe won the Anglo-Dutch at Fontenay (11 May 1745) and occupied Tournai (May 22), Ghent (July 10), Bruges (July 18), Oudenarde (July 21) and finally Ostend (July 23). To threaten England the French organized, in the summer of 1745, the landing of Charles Edward Stuart in Scotland (August 4).

In Germany, the French influence was almost nil, while England, threatened by Stuart, tried to reconcile once again Maria Theresa and Frederick II. The latter, however, due to the stagnation of diplomatic negotiations sort a military solution: won against the Austrians in Bohemia, invaded Saxony, won the battle of Kesselsdorf (December 15), occupied Leipzig and Dresden. So achieved his goal: Maria Teresa gave up Silesia and made peace (Treaty of Dresden, December 25, 1745).

France was supported by Spain, Naples, Genoa, and Austria, had as ally the kingdom of Sardinia, England, the Netherlands. The landing of the Stuart in Scotland caused, in the autumn of 1745, a general uprising of the Scots and caused terrible panic in London. But this uprising was ended with the battle of Culloden (April 16, 1746). The only consequence was the opportunity, given to Maurice of Saxony, to extend the involvement of the Austrian Netherlands, beating an Austrian army in Rocoux in September, and threatening Netherlands. On the other hand, Carlo Emanuele III took up the arms in agreement with Maria Theresa. So he reoccupied Asti on March 8, 1746, expelled the Franco-Hispanic armies from Piedmont and Lombardy, won in battle of Piacenza (June 16), that caused the enemy’s retreat into Genoa. At this time, the King Philip V of Spain died (July 9) and his successor, Ferdinand VI, was inclined towards peace and the withdrawal of his troops from Italy. The Austro-Sardinian pressed the enemy down on the Riviera, and Marshal Botta Adorno, occupied Genoa on September 7, while Carlo Emanuele III blockaded Savona, took Finale and pursued the Franco-Hispanic Army to Varo. Genoa underwent three months of harsh occupation by Austria, but due to a violent popular uprising, adroitly directed by the Genoese government (5-10 December 1746) freed itself.

The revolt in the Portoria district in Genoa against the Austrians in 1746, led by Giovan Battista Perasso (1735-1781) known as Balilla, 19th century print. Italy, 18th-19th century.

The Austrian alliance invaded Provence, with British naval support, but they were pushed back in 1747, while the Austrians failed to regain Genoa, which had rebelled against their control. The Genoese revolt of December 1746, a successful popular rising, prefigured much that was to be associated with the revolutionary warfare of the close of the century. The swiftly changing course of the conflict in Italy indicated the volatile character of war in this period.

Meanwhile, Carlo Emanuele III was able to occupy Savona (18 December). From Vienna, he asked for an expedition against Naples to chase away the Bourbons. But England did not want an absolute Austrian domination in Italy. So, Provence was invaded, the military port of Toulon was occupied and France was forced to halt its operations in the Netherlands. The Austro-Sardinian forces advanced to Antibes, but then retreated (February 1747).

In the last major conflict in Italy prior to the French Revolutionary War, Franco-Spanish forces failed in 1743-4 to break through the alpine defences of the kingdom of Sardinia, the most important possessions of which were Piedmont and Savoy. Politics offered a new approach: by gaining the alliance of Genoa in 1745, the Bourbons were able to circumvent the alpine defences and invade Piedmont from the south. Initial successes, however, were reversed in 1746 and the Austrians and Sardinians won a decisive victory at Piacenza (16 June 1746), ending, for the remainder of the ancien regime a quarter-millennium of French efforts to dominate northern Italy.



The Reich proudly considered itself an independent body politic and refused to serve merely as a passive tool in the hands of its formal head, the Habsburg Emperor. Despite these structural limitations and the paralysing effects of confessional strife during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Reich’s financial and military help against the Turkish threat was central to the Habsburgs’ survival and even to their counter-offensive after 1683.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there were two armies linked to the Reich in some way, but nonetheless distinct. The first was the Imperial army proper (kaiserliche Armee), the Emperor’s own standing army which had no direct connection to the Reich except its designation. The second force was the army of the Empire (Reichsarmee), the true army of the Reich, raised and paid for by the Imperial Estates and only partially under the Emperor’s control.

In no way reflecting the true potential of the territories and almost always unsuccessful in battle, the Reichsarmee embodied the political and military weakness and fragmentation of the Reich in the eyes of many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historians. Even the most patriotic eighteenth-century Reich jurists would not deny that the Germany of the Ancien Régime was suited to anything but waging wars.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Reichsarmee remained a force only mobilized in times of need, to defend the Reich’s territory in the case of a formally proclaimed Reichskrieg (as declared against France in 1674, 1689, 1702, 1734 and 1793) or to secure peace against domestic trouble-makers formally denounced as such by the Imperial Diet (Reichsexekution, as for example against Prussia in 1757, but mostly police actions against lesser disturbers of the peace). The Reichsarmee was an auxiliary force, normally fighting side by side with the Emperor’s own troops, and rather unserviceable in case of offensive operations, for which it was never intended.

The basic troop quota for the Reichsarmee, the Simplum, was fixed at 24,000 horse and foot in 1521; its monthly pay or Römermonat soon became the standard unit of account in all financial matters of the Reich. Depending on the level of danger, the Simplum could be multiplied (Duplum, Triplum and so forth). With the Imperial Executive Ordinance of 1555, the executive and thus ultimately the military defence of the Reich was to a considerable extent devolved to the Imperial Circles.

Yet, for at least a century, civil war came before defence against external threats. Shortly after 1600, the previous century’s confessional strife finally produced two formal groupings, the Catholic League (1609) and the Protestant Union (1608), and both armed at the beginning of the Thirty Years War. The noble idea of a concerted defence of the Reich was abandoned in favour of petty actions in defence of the respective confessions. When the Emperor and the elector of Saxony, the leader of Germany’s Protestant rulers, concluded the Peace of Prague in 1635, their aim was the restoration of law and order throughout the Reich and the removal of all foreign armies from its soil. They agreed to raise a Reichsarmee, organizationally unified but confessionally mixed, with the Emperor nominally in supreme command. Funded by contributions from the Imperial Estates, it was to comprise some 80,000 men. There were problems from the outset, however, particularly regarding the high command, and many Protestant princes remained lukewarm.

In 1648, the Imperial Estates were granted not only the right freely to form alliances but also the ius armorum at once exploited by the more powerful rulers to create standing armies. In the end, the Emperor himself was to profit from the trained troops of these so-called ‘armed Estates’, the support of whom Vienna secured by means of subsidy treaties and political privileges. Such forces, moreover, were generally more effective than a hastily raised Reichsarmee, which had to be approved by the Imperial Diet and consisted of a mixed bag of contingents sent by medium-sized and smaller Estates. The Emperor’s Turkish War of 1663–64 is a good illustration of the potential kaleidoscope of troops making up the military aid from the Reich. The Rhenish League sent a 13,500-strong contingent to Hungary, while Saxony, Bavaria or Brandenburg fell back on units from their standing armies to supply auxiliary troops (4,500 men). The third element finally came from the Reich proper: the Diet, summoned to Regensburg for this very purpose in 1663, granted 20,900 soldiers – a sizeable contribution, even if only a small number ever got as far as Hungary.

During the revived struggle with France in the 1670s, Vienna tried again to institutionalize a Reichsarmee under the Emperor’s sole command. The prospects were favourable given the ‘patriotic enthusiasm’ provoked by an aggressive French policy of annexations along the Reich’s western border, yet the Emperor soon had to reduce his demands and accept the Reichsdefensionalordnung of 1681–82, which laid down the future fundamental principles of the Reich’s new military organization. The Simplum of the Reichsarmee was increased to 40,000 men (12,000 cavalry and 28,000 infantry), while the Triplum, i.e. 120,000 men, would usually be granted when a major war broke out. The Imperial Circles were given the responsibility of raising the contingents which together made up the Reichsarmee. The Austrian Circle, virtually identical with the Habsburg Hereditary Lands, alone accounted for 8,000 men of the 40,000 strong Simplum. The Habsburg contingent was a purely nominal part of the Reichsarmee, since it would be taken from the Emperor’s own standing army and operate as a separate force in its own right. The same was true of the forces to be provided by the ‘armed Estates’ whose territories often belonged to more than one Circle, but who fielded single contingents rather than divide their units up and amalgamate them into the Circle troops. Varying from Circle to Circle, the raising of troops was highly complicated, not least because of the political fragmentation of the Reich. In the particularly heterogeneous Swabian Circle, for instance, the fact that some 90 territories were responsible for raising 4,000 Circle troops resulted in a corresponding lack of cohesion among the latter. Hence Reiehstruppen were mostly deployed for defence purposes in order to relieve the actual fighting troops – the Emperor’s own units and the contingents sent by the ‘armed Estates’.

During the Nine Years War and the War of the Spanish Succession troops from the so-called ‘anterior Circles’ in fact bore the brunt of the defence against the French threat from across the Rhine. It was here, in southern Germany, that the Swabian and Franconian Circles, mustering some 24,000 men in the 1690s, mounted a concerted effort to ward off French aggression. Alliances between several Circles, so-called Circle Associations, could field considerable forces and thus play a role in high politics on a European scale. In 1697, an impressive league was created by the Franconian, Swabian, Electoral Rhenish, Upper Rhenish and Lower Rhenish-Westphalian Circles (‘Frankfurt Association’) with a view to raising a permanent army of 40,000 men in times of peace and 60,000 in times of war, but implementation of this scheme soon came to a standstill. In 1702, the Swabian, Franconian, Upper and Electoral Rhenish, Austrian and Westphalian Circles once more tried to set up an efficient association, which was to field more than 53,000 men (including 16,000 from the Austrian Circle alone) to defend southern Germany: via its individual members, this so-called ‘Nördlingen Association’ joined the Grand Alliance of 1701.

The disaster of Rossbach in November 1757, where Reich troops together with a French contingent were routed by the Prussians, was a serious blow for the ill-fated Reichsarmee, henceforth mocked as ‘Reißausarmee’ (run-away army). However, the scale of the Reich’s military effort should not be underestimated, and recent scholarship in this field has provided a more positive assessment.

The structure of the commanding generals (Reichsgeneralität) of the Reichsarmee, headed by the Imperial Field Marshal (Reichsgeneralfeldmarschall), was highly complex – particularly since, from the beginning of the eighteenth century, all positions had to be filled by both a Catholic and a Protestant. Among the outstanding Reich field marshals Ludwig Wilhelm von Baden (1655–1707) or Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663–1736) deserve particular mention. Prince Eugene, succeeding Baden as Catholic Imperial Field Marshal in 1707, was not only a field marshal in the Emperor’s own standing army, exactly like his predecessor, but also president of the Aulic War Council in Vienna. This was a typical overlap: Reich generals and Austrian generals rapidly came to be one and the same thing. In 1664, only a third of the Reichsgeneralität was staffed by Habsburg generals, compared to half in the 1670s. Eventually, around 1700, it was exclusively Austrian generals who acted as Reich generals, and most of them were German princes or members of the south German aristocracy.

VIENNA 27 September–14 October 1529

An Ottoman depiction of the siege from the 16th century, housed in the Istanbul Hachette Art Museum

Forces Engaged

Austrian: 16,000 troops and 72 guns. Commander: Philip, count palatine of Austria

Ottoman: c. 120,000–125,000 (some sources claiming 300,000) Commander: Sultan Suleiman.


Turkish defeat at Vienna was the high-water mark of Ottoman expansion in Europe, signaling the beginning of a long decline in Ottoman power.

Historical Setting

Europe in the 1520s presented to a potential outside aggressor a wonderful opportunity, just as the weakened condition caused by Byzantine-Persian hostility had opened the door for Islam to break out of Arabia in the seventh century. More than weakness, however, it was political rivalry in Europe that made the continent vulnerable. Politically, King Francis I of France and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, argued and fought over land that today is the Franco-German frontier, as well as control over northern Italy. France had a powerful military based on artillery and heavy cavalry, with which it won a number of victories. Charles, as head of the Hapsburg family, controlled not only the Holy Roman Empire (which consisted of Austria and parts of whatever countries bordered it) but also Spain, whose military power was based on the tercio, a phalanx of pikemen supported by smaller contingents of soldiers, each armed with the harquebus, a matchlock musket. Against these formations, cavalry made no impression, and, when the two armies met at Pavia in northern Italy in 1525, France came up the loser. Ferdinand not only was defeated, he was taken prisoner. During and after his captivity, he plotted revenge and pondered on possible allies.

Although Charles was enjoying this military success, he was bothered by Pope Clement VII in Rome. Although technically the Holy Roman Empire was supposed to be the defender of the Catholic Church, just which was the senior partner in the equation had been a point of difficulty since Charlemagne took on the job in 800. Clement resented Charles for controlling so much of Italy because, before his accession to the papacy, Clement had been Giulio de Medici, a wealthy and powerful figure in his own right. Thus, Clement’s attitude toward Charles meant not only a lack of political support but also a lack of religious support in dealing with the rise of the Protestant Reformation and the increasingly political activities of Martin Luther in Germany. Thus, Charles had his hands full with rivals in Rome, France, and central Europe.

Sultan Suleiman in Constantinople was not slow to see this. He was the ninth sultan of the Ottoman Empire, successor to a long line of able, resourceful, daring, and strongly religious rulers. He inherited an empire that stretched from the Persian frontier in the east to Morocco in the west, as well as much of the Balkans. He also inherited a military that in its own way was as impressive as anything Charles or Francis could put in the field. The pride of the Ottoman army lay in two arms: the heavy infantry and the artillery. Since the days of the second sultan, Ala ed-Din, the Ottoman government had accepted for taxes payment in kind in the form of male children of Christian families. They became slaves, were raised as Moslems, and from their youth trained as soldiers. They developed into a fearsome unit called the Janissaries, completely dedicated to their faith and their sultan and, in the service of both, ready to go anywhere and fight any enemy. The Ottoman Turks had also learned from western Europe the craft of casting artillery, and they had far outstripped their teachers. The Ottomans produced the largest guns of their day, and with them they captured Constantinople in 1453 after it had stood unconquered for more than a thousand years. Heavy siege guns were the Turks’ specialty, and many cities became Ottoman possessions because of those weapons, just as many armies fell before the talent and élan of the Janissaries.

Although Suleiman was an open-minded and interesting political ruler whom the Europeans viewed as a man with whom they could do business, he was also caliph of all Islam, thanks to the recent acquisition of Egypt and deposition of the last spiritual leader. Suleiman was therefore bound by the tenets of his faith to spread Islam and convert the unbelievers or exact tribute from them. As such, he conducted campaigns against the Persians, and he also looked to extend his political and religious dominion into Europe. He was also contacted by the vengeful King Francis, who encouraged an invasion to threaten Charles’s eastern front and correspondingly weaken his French frontier.

Suleiman’s venture into Europe began in the summer of 1526 when he captured Buda and placed Hungary under his sway, promoting John Zapolya, governor of Transylvania, to the Hungarian throne as his tributary monarch. That throne was contested, however, by Ferdinand, archduke of Austria and king of Bohemia. While Suleiman was campaigning in Persia in 1528, a rebellion broke out in Hungary. Some of the rebellious factions claimed to be fighting for Ferdinand’s cause. Once his Persian problems were settled—at least temporarily—Suleiman made ready to march on Ferdinand’s home city of Vienna and add Austria and the Holy Roman Empire to his own Ottoman Empire.

The Battle

Suleiman led his army out of Constantinople on 10 April 1529. When Ferdinand heard of this, he called a council in Bohemia to gather an army. For the most part, his requests went unanswered. Lots of promises were made by Austria and Bohemia and the empire, but few troops actually arrived. Charles was busy with trouble in Italy and had to keep an eye on both Francis and Clement. In Vienna, meanwhile, the 250-year-old city walls, no more than 5 feet thick, were in many places badly in need of repair. They could not be mended with masonry, as there was no time, so for the most part dirt and the debris of the suburbs were used because the outlying houses were razed to open up a field of fire before the city walls. The official in charge in Vienna was Philip, count palatine of Austria. He was assisted in his job by two talented men, Graf Nicholas zu Salm-Reifferscheidt and William von Roggendorff. Graf Nicholas oversaw the wall repairs, gathered in as much food and ammunition as he could, and expelled from the city as many women and children as he could to ease the supply burden. During the siege itself, he oversaw the placement of the artillery, seventy-two guns of widely varying size and caliber. When the siege began, the city was defended by a garrison of 22,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. Between the garrisons that Suleiman had absorbed along his line of march, reinforcements commanded by his lackey King John Zapolya, and innumerable camp followers, the Ottoman force that stood before Vienna on 26 September 1529 was possibly as large as 150,000 people[including camp followers], although it included probably 80,000 Turkish soldiers and another 6,000 Hungarians.

The Ottoman advance had been a wonder to behold. Many of the Janissaries advanced up the Danube in boats, stopping with Suleiman for 5 days at Buda to recapture the city and massacre the defenders. News of that action, as well as the activities of some 20,000 akinji (ransackers) that were devastating the countryside all along the line of march, motivated the defenders in Vienna to fix their walls as best they could. The first contingent of Turks arrived in sight of Vienna on 23 September and skirmished with the Viennese cavalry. By 27 September, the city was surrounded, and Suleiman sent a delegation to demand its surrender. The delegation was comprised of four captured cavalrymen, fabulously dressed in Turkish clothing. The sultan stated that an immediate surrender would end in no occupation of the city but for a few functionaries, and he would have breakfast there on the morning of 29 September. Resist, and the city would be destroyed so thoroughly that no one would ever again find a trace of it. Graf Nicholas, de facto commander, sent back four richly dressed Turkish prisoners; they carried no answer at all, which was answer enough.

The fate of Vienna in reality lay neither in the city walls nor the attacking army, but in the weather. The summer of 1529 was the wettest anyone in southeastern Europe could remember, and the supply wagons, vital to supporting the immense force before Vienna, lagged far behind. Worse still for the Ottoman cause, the massive siege artillery also could not be moved along the muddy roads. The artillery that Suleiman had with him were 300 small pieces that lacked the destructive power necessary to break down even these old walls.

Suleiman’s only alternative was to mine the city walls. This involves digging a tunnel from one’s own protected trenches under the walls of the enemy and then filling the tunnel with gunpowder and exploding it. The collapsing tunnel would then collapse a section of wall. Such operations began immediately, but the defenders were lucky enough to learn the placement of the mines from a deserter. They quickly countermined, either digging their own tunnels under those being dug by the Turks in order to collapse them or digging at the same level, which resulted in underground battles, in which the defenders tended to be the more victorious. Not all of the mines could be discovered, however, and some of them worked. The breaches, which were occasionally large enough to ride several horses through abreast, could not be exploited. Behind the walls, the defenders had dug trenches and built wooden palisades from which they beat back the attackers. The breaches were held by the same stolid pikemen that had won the battles of western Europe, and the swords of the Janissaries were of little use in the cramped confines of the battle. A major battle in one breach on 12 October resulted in the Janissaries leaving behind 1,200 dead.

On the night of 12 October, Suleiman held a council of war. The supply wagons had not arrived, and the countryside was not providing nearly enough food to support his army. The city was proving unexpectedly tough. Winter was approaching. The defenders had won every encounter in the breaches that had been created, and the attackers’ death toll was between 14,000 and 20,000, primarily Janissaries and aristocratic cavalry. For the first time in their history, the Janissaries complained that they were being sacrificed. To do just that had been their duty and indeed their entire life for nearly two centuries. Suleiman offered them a huge bonus for one more attack. On 14 October, another mine blew up, but the collapsing wall fell outward, creating such a pile of rubble that it was impossible for the attackers to rush the breach. The pikemen once again stood firm in the face of the Janissary onslaught, and once again they turned the attackers away.

That night, the Ottoman army struck its tents, which had covered the plain outside Vienna for as far as the eye could see. In massive bonfires, they burned everything that they could not carry and then threw their prisoners in the flames as well. The army marched away the next morning as it snowed.

A relative handful of men saved western Europe from Ottoman invasion. At first it seemed that little had changed, however. John Zapolya still ruled in Suleiman’s name in Buda, and Hungary was part of the Ottoman domain. Although Suleiman returned 3 years later to finish the job he had started, a spirited resistance at the town of Guns (modern Koszeg, Austria)

and a major deployment of European troops under Charles V once again convinced him to return home. Another uprising in Persia diverted Suleiman’s attention, so he made peace with Ferdinand and turned his armies eastward. He returned to Europe in 1541 to recapture Hungary from Ferdinand’s invasion, but he went no farther.

Suleiman presided over the Ottoman Empire at its zenith, both in power and territory. After him, the long line of talented sultans ended. His son, Selim (called “the Sot”), had none of his father’s talents. From Selim’s rule forward the Ottoman Empire began a long decline until by the nineteenth century it was regarded by the world as “the sick man of Europe.” Had Suleiman captured Vienna, he could have wintered there and proceeded the following season to invade Germany. Any sort of cooperative moves by France would have placed the Holy Roman Empire in a vise. That would have served Francis’s aims in the short term, but he certainly overestimated his influence on the sultan. Islam could well have triumphed against a divided enemy.

Within the Ottoman military, the zenith passed as well. Vienna marked the beginning of the end for the Janissaries, for their once invincible front had been shattered. They could be beaten, and not only did their enemies know it, but so did the soldiers themselves. The bribe they were offered for that final attack was proof that their élan was no more. “The Janissaries themselves degenerated from the mighty force they had been. They used their power to improve their personal lives, at the expense of the state” (McCarthy, The Ottoman Turks, p. 164). “The Janissaries were to turn into unruly Praetorian guards, who made and unmade sultans, and this was perhaps inevitable. But even determinism must admit that Vienna started them down the long slide” (Pratt, The Battles That Changed History, p. 149). The elite force that had been the instrument of Ottoman expansion became the instrument of internal instability.

The decline in quality leadership after Suleiman was compounded by the success of the previous Ottoman line. The empire by the middle of the sixteenth century was too large to be efficiently governed by the overly centralized authority in Constantinople. Although the limits of the empire were (for the most part) as far as an army could march from Constantinople in one campaign season, that was still too large for the nature of imperial rule. Because their primary enemies at that time were the Holy Roman Empire and Persia, only two complete armies could maintain authority. To create them would mean an increase in cost and a corresponding decrease in quality, especially with the decline of the Janissaries. Thus, the Ottoman Empire could not expand its borders any farther. Conquest and booty had always been a major contributor to the economy. Over the following century, the Turks began to experience a rise in unemployment and banditry, which the weakening government could not successfully address. Unfortunately for the Ottoman Empire, Vienna spelled a change of fortune: just when a strong and visionary ruler was vital to maintain or expand the empire, the talent pool dried up.

References: Barber, Noel. The Sultans. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973; Clot, Andre. Suleiman the Magnificent: The Man, His Life, His Epoch. Translated by Matthew J. Reisz. London: Saqui Books, 1989; McCarthy, Justin. The Ottoman Turks. New York: Longman, 1997; Parry, V. J. A History of the Ottoman Empire to 1730. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976; Pratt, Fletcher. The Battles That Changed History. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956.

SÜLEYMAN I (1495–1566).

Ottoman sultan during whose reign Ottoman power reached its apex. Also called Süleyman the Lawgiver (Kanûnî) or Süleyman the Magnificent. The son of Selim I, he ascended to the throne on the death of his father (1520).

His earliest acts included the rehabilitation of prisoners, exiles, and those who suffered under the harsh rule of his father. Süleyman I issued laws protecting life, property, and honor and promoting lawful administration. The principle of merit was reinforced in promotions and in appointments to administrative positions. Administrators who acted arbitrarily during the rule of his father were tried. Measures were taken to prevent injustice in the collection of taxes.

In the reign of Süleyman I, Ottoman territorial expansion reached Vienna in Central Europe and the Indian Ocean in Asia. The period was also rich in political events. The first serious incident was the rebellion of the beglerbegi of Damascus, Canberdi Ghazali, who declared the independence of Syria (1521). This rebellion was suppressed quickly. When the Hungarians refused to continue the payment of the annual tribute, Süleyman launched a military campaign against the kingdom; in August 1521, Belgrade was conquered. The next move was to the Aegean island of Rhodes, which was governed by the Knights of St. John. Conquest of this island in December 1522 secured the sea connection between İstanbul and Egypt.

Süleyman I became closely involved in European politics when the mother of the French king Francis I—who had been captured by the Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, at the Battle of Pavia (1525)—sent a letter to İstanbul asking for help in the release of her son. The Ottomans, considering an alliance with France a means of preventing Habsburg domination in Europe, attacked and defeated Hungary (Battle of Mohács, August 1526) and appointed Janos Szapolyai as a vassal king. Thus Süleyman I became able to exert direct pressure on the Habsburgs. When Charles V’s brother, Archduke Ferdinand, ruler of Austria, claiming to be the king of Hungary, occupied Buda and expelled Szapolyai, the Ottomans responded in force and reestablished him (September 1529). Süleyman, in order to discourage Ferdinand’s ambitions in Hungary, laid siege to Vienna (October 1529). The issue of Hungary led to a new war with the Habsburgs, in which Güns and Graz were besieged (1531–33).

A formal military alliance between the Ottoman Empire and France was concluded in 1536, and capitulations were granted to French merchants. As part of a joint plan to attack Charles V, French forces entered northern Italy while Ottoman forces attacked Venetian ports in the south (1537–40). A naval campaign resulted in Ottoman victory at the Battle of Preveza (1538). This gave the Ottomans the upper hand in the Mediterranean until their defeat at the Battle of Lepanto (1571).

When Szapolyai died in 1541, Ferdinand besieged Buda, and Süleyman was again forced to move against the Habsburgs. After the Austrians were pushed out, Hungary became a beglerbegilik, administered from İstanbul. During the Ottoman-Habsburg war of 1541–47, the towns of Esztergom and Stuhlweissenburg (Istolni Belgrad) were conquered (1543). Meanwhile the Ottoman navy, headed by Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha, occupied the Habsburg fortresses of Messina, Reggio, and Nice (1543). The Ottoman-Habsburg peace of 1547 stipulated the payment of an annual tribute by the Holy Roman Empire to İstanbul.

The peace of 1547 was terminated by Habsburg attempts to take control of Transylvania (1550). This move was repulsed, and the Ottomans attacked the Habsburg strongholds of Eger, Malta, and Tripolitany, conquering only the last (August 1551). At the same time, Süleyman I approached the Protestant princes of Germany and urged them to cooperate with France against the Catholic Habsburgs. By this he aimed to increase disunity among the Christians. Though a peace agreement was signed in 1562, renewed hostilities led to an (unsuccessful) Ottoman naval expedition to Malta (May–September 1565). When the Habsburgs refused to pay the annual tribute or evacuate the Transylvanian towns of Tokaj and Serencz, Süleyman I launched his last military campaign. He died during the siege of the fortress of Szigetvar (September 1566).

Ottoman engagements in the East during the reign of Süleyman I aimed at preventing the extension of the Shia influence of Safavid Iran in Anatolia and at expanding Ottoman domination over Islamic countries. A military campaign against Iran of 1533–35 resulted in the conquests of Tabriz (Azerbaijan) and Baghdad (Iraq). When the brother of the Safavid Shah Tahmasb I, Elkas Mirza, revolted against Iran and took refuge with the Ottomans, Süleyman used this opportunity to begin a second campaign against the Safavids (1548–55). During this war, Van (eastern Anatolia) and Azerbaijan were reconquered, and Georgia was annexed. These acquisitions were ratified by the Ottoman-Iranian peace Treaty of Amasya (May 1555).

Süleyman I’s reign witnessed the extension of an Ottoman naval presence from the western Mediterranean to eastern Africa and the western coasts of India. When Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha left Algiers to Ottoman rule (1533), the western Mediterranean entered the Ottoman area of naval activity. The governor of Egypt, Hadım Süleyman Pasha, led the Ottoman Red Sea fleet toward the south and conquered Aden (Yemen) but was unable to take the fortress of Diu (Gujarat, India) from the Portuguese (1538). After Basra (in Iraq) came under Ottoman rule (1538), Suez and Basra became the main Ottoman naval bases for operations in the Indian Ocean.

During the rule of Süleyman I, Ottoman civilization produced its major classics in art and literature. Poets like Bâkî and Fuzulî; prose authors like Celâlzâde Mustafa Çelebi, Kınalızâde Ali Çelebi, Latifî, Lutfî Pasha, Sehî Bey, and Taşköprülüzâde İsameddin Ahmed; jurists like Ebussuud Efendi; and architects like Mimar Sinan produced their works in these decades. At the same time, signs of institutional decline were to be observed toward the end of Süleyman’s life.


Contacts between the Germans, in the general sense, and the Ottomans dates back probably to the battle of Nikopolis (1396). The Habsburg Empire and the Ottomans, as neighboring powers, confronted each other following the Ottoman occupation of Hungary (1526). Janos Szapolyai, who was appointed by Süleyman I as the new king of Hungary, was attacked and expelled by Ferdinand I. This development triggered an Ottoman expedition in 1529 against the Habsburgs to restore Szapolyai; Vienna was besieged for the first time. In 1533 a peace was made, by which Ferdinand I acknowledged Ottoman suzerainty. Warfare continued between the Habsburg Empire and the Ottomans, in which the latter were dominant until the wars between 1593 and 1606. The Treaty of Zsitvatorok (1606) terminated the Austrian vassalage.

The new military superiority of the Habsburg Empire over the Ottomans was marked by the period following the second Siege of Vienna (1683). The warfare between the Holy League and the Ottomans between 1683 and 1699 proved to be disastrous for the latter. By the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699) the Ottomans had to abandon Hungary, Croatia, and their suzerainty over Transylvania to the Habsburgs. After 1699 the Ottomans entered into a state of constant defensive warfare against the Austrians. The Habsburg Empire, collaborating with Russia and Venice, tried to penetrate deeper into the Balkans. The result of the war of 1714–18 was the loss of northern Serbia, including Belgrade, and Temesvar, to Austria (Treaty of Passarowitz, 1718). The Ottomans were able to regain Belgrade and Temesvar during another war, 1736–39 (Treaty of Belgrade, 1739). The last major war between the Habsburg Empire and the Ottomans took place between 1788 and 1791; the ensuing Peace of Sistova (Ziştovi) did not alter the borders.

During the 19th century the Habsburg Empire continued to increase its political influence in the Ottoman Empire, with a view to domination in the Balkans. In order to attain this goal, Austria presented itself as the protector of the interests of the Balkan Catholics—that is, Albanian Catholics. The increasing rivalry between the Habsburg Empire and Russia in the Balkans and the interest of the latter in the Balkan Slavic nationalist movements led the Austrians to support Albanian nationalism. The Russo-Ottoman War of 1877–1878 and the Congress of Berlin secured the Austrian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, formally annexed in 1908. During World War I the Habsburg Empire and the Ottomans were allied.

French Military 1850-80 Part I

Napoleon III Takes Power

That year revolutions ignited by economic distress swept Europe. Paris, that powder keg of revolutionary passions, erupted in February. King Louis-Philippe, despised for his cautious and inglorious foreign policy, abdicated and fled to England. The Second Republic was proclaimed by Paris radicals, but France became embroiled in internal troubles. Such was the need felt in the country for a man of order that the presidential election held on 10 December produced a result undreamt of by the revolutionaries of February when they introduced universal male suffrage: a Bonaparte was restored to power in France.

Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was elected President of France by 5.5 million votes: far ahead of his nearest rival. Born in 1808, he was the nephew of the great Emperor, on whose knee he had been dandled as a child and whose legend he revered. After Waterloo Louis had lived in exile in Switzerland with his mother Hortense Beauharnais, and spoke French with a German accent. During disturbances in Italy in 1831 he had sided with the revolutionaries against the Austrian regime there. After both his elder brother and his cousin, ‘Napoleon II’, died in 1831–2, Louis assumed the role of Bonapartist pretender to the French throne. His pamphlets, notably Napoleonic Ideas (1839), promoted the myth Napoleon had woven around himself in exile on St Helena: of Napoleon the Liberal, Napoleon the friend of nationalities working for a united Europe, who had been thwarted by the reactionary monarchies. However, his first attempts to exploit his uncle’s legend against King Louis-Philippe ended in farce. An attempted military rising at Strasbourg in 1836 was a debacle and earned him a sentence of exile. A second attempt, a landing at Boulogne in 1840 with a boatload of volunteers and mercenaries who had joined him in London, was quickly overpowered by royal troops. This time Louis was imprisoned in the damp northern fortress of Ham. He escaped disguised as a workman in 1846 and fled to London where, supplied with money by his rich friends and English mistress, he was well placed to take advantage of events unfolding in 1848.

In the presidential campaign his supporters adeptly promoted the power of the Bonaparte name, using images that appealed to classes who had never before had the vote. Not for the last time, bourgeois professional politicians underestimated the powers of this unimpressive figure, whose tendency to stoutness, drooping eyelids, and hesitant, heavily accented delivery belied his political skills and determination. As Prince-President, he swore to defend the Republic and toured the country, promoting himself as the only man who could defend both liberty and order and reconcile internal divisions that lately had made France seem ungovernable. Continuing radical disturbances rallied conservatives to him as a man of order. Catholics approved of a new education law favouring religious schools, and of the despatch of an expeditionary force to protect the Pope from revolutionaries at Rome. Louis-Napoleon’s championship of universal male suffrage against the bourgeois politicians of the National Assembly who tried to restrict it made him appear a defender of democracy.

His appeal to many groups, combined with shrewd appointments of supporters to key posts, put him in a strong position to extend his presidency, which was due to end in 1852. The National Assembly, however, blocked his attempt to achieve this legally. Louis, with careful planning by his inner circle and the support of reliable generals and his police chief, staged a coup d’état on the night of 2 December 1851, the anniversary of his uncle’s victory at Austerlitz. The Assembly was locked out; its leading politicians were arrested and imprisoned.

‘Operation Rubicon’ did not go as smoothly as planned, however. On 3 December a Deputy of the National Assembly, Dr Baudin, was killed on a Paris barricade. Next day over a thousand protestors manned barricades in the city. Troops opened fire and killed dozens of them and bystanders too. In the provinces over 26,000 people were arrested, half of whom were deported, banished or imprisoned. Throughout the nineteen years of his rule, the ‘crime of 2 December’ blighted Louis-Napoleon’s attempts to win over a hard core of opponents to accept the legitimacy of his regime. Nevertheless, the great majority of French voters supported him when he sought popular endorsement of his coup. He had brought something new to European politics; a dictatorship resting on popular approval, but supported by strict censorship, police surveillance and electoral manipulation. Pressing his advantage, in November 1852 he sought approval for restoration of the Empire and got it by 8 million votes to 250,000, with 2 million abstentions. With effect from 2 December 1852 he declared himself Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, and shortly promulgated a constitution that preserved the forms but not the substance of parliamentary government.

To calm fears at home and abroad that the return of the Empire meant war, he declared at Bordeaux in October 1852 that ‘The Empire means peace’, and that his focus would be on internal improvements like building roads, railways, dockyards and canals. He was careful to cultivate his uncle’s old nemesis, Great Britain. Despite his peaceful professions, he cultivated the army, recreated an elite Imperial Guard, and frequently appeared in military uniform, in deliberate contrast to the black-coated dullness of Louis-Philippe’s court. Like all French governments since Waterloo, he nurtured hopes of burying the 1815 treaties. Unlike the Bourbon monarchs, but like the republicans of 1848, he sympathized with the cause of nationalities in Europe. He might be expected to act in their favour where opportunities arose.

A Franco-German Crisis, 1859

A shift in Great Power relations came sooner than anyone foresaw, as a result of the Crimean War of 1854–6, in which Britain and France combined to defeat Russia’s attack on the ailing Turkish Empire. The defeat her army suffered at allied hands at the long siege of Sebastopol exposed Russia’s weaknesses and discouraged her from active intervention in European politics for two decades while she undertook internal and military reforms.

The war had another important consequence for European and German politics: it isolated Austria. Like Prussia, Austria had wished to stay neutral, but Russian forces at the mouth of the Danube intruded on her vital interests. Her long resistance to joining the western camp won her no friends; yet her eventual signature of an ultimatum to Russia weighed heavily in Russia’s decision to accept peace terms. Russia regarded Austria’s action as rank ingratitude for the military help she had received in 1849, and an intolerable betrayal by a fellow conservative power. In future Austria could expect no Russian help if she needed it; indeed, Russian court circles desired to see her punished. Prussia, which had not intervened against Russia and had a common interest in keeping the Poles suppressed, was on the contrary seen as Russia’s only friend in Europe.

If Russia and Austria were losers, victorious France gained prestige. Napoleon III’s army had acquitted itself well, albeit at the cost of 95,615 French lives. It had made up the majority of allied land forces and had shown itself less incompetent than any other in the field; even if the latest communications technology, the electric telegraph, had proved a mixed blessing. One French commander-in-chief in the Crimea, Canrobert, had resigned in despair over orders wired direct from the Emperor in Paris. The 1856 peace conference was held in Paris, where Napoleon invited the delegates to banquet and waltz at the Tuileries Palace and savoured his moment as arbiter of Europe. His chances of founding a stable dynasty improved when the Empress Eugénie gave birth to a healthy male son, Louis, the Prince Imperial.

In 1858 Napoleon exploited his diplomatic and military advantages in the hope of ‘doing something for Italy’. Having long desired to help the Liberal and national cause there, he secretly agreed with the Kingdom of Piedmont to drive the Austrians out of the parts of Italy they had occupied since 1815. Napoleon was mixing idealism with opportunism, for he had the chance to achieve military success, weaken reactionary Austria while she was isolated, create client states in northern Italy, and regain Nice and Savoy as the price of his support. Yet, as conflict became imminent, his resolve faltered, even once he was sure of Russia’s neutrality. Napoleon was finally pulled over the brink only when, provoked by Piedmontese military preparations, Austria obligingly declared war in April 1859.

The Italian campaign showed how much warfare had changed since Waterloo. The French army was transported by railway and steamship, debouching over the Alps and to the port of Genoa in three weeks. At close hand there was much that was chaotic about French supply arrangements: Napoleon lamented privately to his War Minister that ‘What grieves me about the organization of the army is that we seem always to be … like children who have never made war … Please understand that I am not reproaching you personally; rather the general system whereby in France we are never ready for war.’ Yet to outside observers it seemed that the French army was again proving itself the best in the world. With no interference from the sluggish Austrians it completed its concentration, outmanoeuvred the enemy and marched across the north Italian plain, winning bloody battles at Magenta and Solferino in June. If little tactical brilliance was on display, French troops showed the superior élan and willingness to get to close quarters that made them so formidable. Their senior commanders, driven by the instinct that getting close to the enemy was the path to honours and promotion, included men who would command armies in 1870. The courtly aristocrat Maurice MacMahon, already distinguished for his successful assault on the formidable defences of Sebastopol in the Crimea, won his marshal’s baton and the title of Duke for his performance as a corps commander at Magenta.

Decorations, promotions, and victory parades in Milan and Paris were one side of French success in Italy, but another shocked European opinion. Solferino, a savage battle involving 300,000 men, produced 36,000 casualties by the time a thunderstorm of extraordinary violence put an end to fighting. With none of his uncle’s ruthless indifference to high casualties, Napoleon III was sickened by what he saw and smelled on the battlefield next day. In a famous pamphlet, the Swiss traveller Henry Dunant described the horrors of the battlefield. The army medical services were overwhelmed. Dunant’s lurid description rallied widespread support for the initiative of a group of Swiss philanthropists, who in 1863 founded the International Society for Aid to the Wounded, later known as the International Red Cross. The Society’s efforts gave birth to the Geneva Convention of 1864, which laid down an international code for the humane treatment of wounded enemies and prisoners of war, and conferred neutral status on medical personnel. Prussia was among the first and most enthusiastic states to sign the Convention. France signed too at the Emperor’s behest, despite the reservations of military men who had no wish to see hordes of civilian volunteers working in the battle zone.

This was for the future. In the wake of Solferino Napoleon decided to end the war. He and Emperor Franz Josef of Austria met and agreed peace terms at Villafranca on 11 July. It was not simply that Napoleon had little stomach for further battles. Typhus was spreading in his badly fed army, camped under the torrid Italian sun. He had conquered Lombardy for Piedmont, but if he wanted to force the Austrians out of Venetia he faced a long and difficult war for which there would be diminishing support in France. Revolutionary support for Italian unification in central Italy was getting out of hand, threatening the Papal territories around Rome and alarming French Catholics. Worryingly, too, Prussia was mobilizing her army.

In the German states, Napoleon’s war in Italy was execrated as naked aggression against Austria. Fear that Napoleon’s next goal would be the Rhine revived enthusiasm for and debate about German unity as nothing else could. Newspaper and pamphlet denunciation of French ambitions was as virulent as in the crisis of 1840, and much slower to subside. Yet popular sentiment did not produce cooperation between Prussia and Austria. As she had in the Crimean War, Prussia obstructed proposals for the German Confederation to mobilize forces to support Austria. Finally, in mid-June, Prussia mobilized six of her nine army corps, but as the price of her support sought command of Confederation forces on the Rhine front. The suggestion made sense while Austria was under attack in Italy, but her mistrust of Prussian ambitions in Germany was such that she refused to yield precedence on this point. For the Austrians too, Prussian mobilization provided an incentive to make peace rapidly.

Even without an ultimatum, Prussia’s show of strength was sufficient to cause Napoleon alarm for his eastern frontier. He feared that the Prussians could put 400,000 men on the Rhine in a fortnight. This expectation was slightly exaggerated. Helmuth von Moltke, the studious and methodical Prussian Chief of General Staff, worried that in the present state of the German railway network – much of which was still single-tracked – it would take at least six weeks to move a quarter of a million men to the frontier. At all events, Napoleon concluded that he was in no position to fight the Prussians while continuing his campaign against Austria. Peace was concluded. The Prussians demobilized from 25 July, and the French eventually withdrew all their forces from Italy save for a garrison to protect the Papal territory of Rome, which Catholic opinion at home demanded. As his price for accepting the transfer of the central Italian states to Piedmont, Napoleon received Nice and Savoy following plebiscites in all the affected areas. The recovery of these two territories on France’s south-eastern border was his first reversal of a loss France had suffered in 1815: a gain which boosted the popularity of his regime at home. The other powers, and particularly the German states, were greatly alarmed that it might not be his last. After his Italian adventure it was hardly surprising that Napoleon III was feared as the ruler most likely to disturb the peace of Europe.

French Military 1850-80 Part II

Napoleon III Watches the Rhine

In setting out to coerce Austria out of Germany, Bismarck knew that the diplomatic situation continued to favour Prussian ambitions. Neither Russia nor Britain was inclined to an active role in European politics. France, however, remained a key piece on his chessboard. Before making any final decision for war he had been at pains to ensure her neutrality. He had visited the Emperor at the storm-swept resort of Biarritz in south-west France in October 1865 to reassure him that no anti-French alliance had been made at Gastein; nor had Prussia guaranteed Austria’s possession of Venetia, in which the Emperor made clear his close interest. Napoleon listened politely to Bismarck’s suggestions that an enlarged Prussia would be no threat to France, significantly raising no objection. Although no definite commitments apparently were asked for or given on either side, the outcome encouraged Bismarck to reassure Wilhelm that France would not stand in Prussia’s way.

Napoleon seemed to be in an excellent position as the quarrel between Austria and Prussia deepened. Military experts thought Austria the stronger party, but a long war was likely from which France might reap rewards. If he favoured any side, Napoleon seemed to lean towards Prussia, which was a force for change and might prove a useful protégé and even ally in northern Germany. A weakened Austria would enable France to gain influence in the South German states. It would also allow Napoleon to fulfil his promises made in 1859 by liberating restless Venetia from Austrian rule, thereby perhaps restoring his tarnished prestige and influence in Italy. Napoleon encouraged the Italians to ally with Prussia, so facilitating the war.

Would the Emperor ask any reward for his neutrality other than Venetia for the Italians? Napoleon dropped hints to the Prussian ambassador, mentioning the frontiers of 1814 and the Bavarian Palatinate, but declined to specify what he might demand. ‘I cannot point to an item of compensation; I can only assure you of my benevolent neutrality: I shall come to an understanding with your king later,’ he intimated in March 1866. In May he hinted to the ambassador that the Austrians were making overtures to him and that: ‘The eyes of my country are turned towards the banks of the Rhine.’ He appeared to be playing a clever hand, keeping his options open to exploit the situation whatever the outcome of an Austro-Prussian War.

Although Napoleon’s diplomacy was secret, enough was known to inform a powerful public attack. Adolphe Thiers, leader of the French Government in the 1840 crisis, had been imprisoned and exiled briefly by Louis-Napoleon after the coup d’état of 1851. He had returned to politics in 1863, being elected to the Legislature. On 3 May 1866 he gave a superb performance in the Chamber, pushing the boundaries of criticism permitted by the imperial regime. He pointed to the dangers of encouraging Prussia’s aggressive designs and questioned the wisdom of France promoting a new German power and Italian unification. Thiers saw no advantage in revising the 1815 settlement of Germany. Stung by the attack and the stir it created, Napoleon declared at Auxerre three days later that he ‘detested’ the treaties of 1815.

The Emperor’s speech alarmed business circles and the public. Was he about to embark on some new foreign adventure? There was a run on the stock exchange. Ever attentive to public opinion, which strongly favoured peace and neutrality, Napoleon called for a European Congress to settle current disputes. To Bismarck’s relief, Austria would accept only on condition that no power should gain territory, effectively killing the proposal.

In the last days of peace, in June 1866, Napoleon nevertheless could be confident that his diplomacy would win Venetia for the Italians however the war turned out. In return for his pledge of neutrality, the Austrians undertook to surrender Venetia to him if they won. They also agreed verbally that, if they beat the Prussians, Napoleon could have Belgium, and the Rhineland would become a buffer state. Thus, as Prussian troops marched south, it seemed that Napoleon might gain handsomely from the war without shedding a drop of French blood. The Austrians, in desperation, had already offered him his price. Bismarck, meanwhile, was taking a double gamble, both on the military outcome of the war, and on the unspecified reward France might exact for neutrality.

French Army Reform

In the wake of Sadowa, on 30 August 1866, Napoleon signed a decree to re-arm his infantry with breech-loading rifles. The weapon adopted was the Chassepot, named after its inventor Alphonse Chassepot, who for a dozen years had been developing and improving it with encouragement from the Emperor and Marshal MacMahon but in the face of resistance from the War Ministry. Tests of the latest model showed it to be a fine weapon, with a range of 1,200 metres; twice that of the needle gun, to which it was superior in all respects. It could fire six or seven 11mm rounds per minute, and the ammunition was sufficiently light to enable the infantryman to carry ninety rounds with him. It could be fitted with a fearsome-looking sabre-bayonet. Production was put in hand in French arsenals and by contracts placed abroad, and by mid-1870 the army had over a million Chassepots. The weapon was tried out against tribesmen in Algeria, and most spectacularly against Garibaldi’s men at Mentana. ‘The Chassepot worked wonders,’ wired General de Failly to Paris, to the horror of Liberals everywhere, but the news seemed to give assurance that French infantry would be able to meet the Prussians on better than even terms.

Great hopes were placed too on a secret weapon, the mitrailleuse, a machine gun resembling a cannon with a barrel consisting of twenty-five rifled tubes. By inserting pre-loaded blocks, fired by a rotating hand crank, the ‘coffee grinder’ could fire 100 rounds per minute, albeit into a small area, and had an effective range of 1,500 metres. Napoleon had funded development himself up to its adoption in 1865, and five years later 215 were stored ready for use. Beyond a few trained teams, no one knew much about using the new weapon, and it had yet to be tried in battle; but taken together the new armaments would surely give great advantages to the tactical defence.

French weaponry might be a source of confidence, but when Napoleon opened the Legislature in February 1867 he urged that ‘A nation’s influence depends on the number of men it can put under arms.’ However, in pressing for a greatly enlarged army, the imperial government faced a dilemma. If it sounded alarmist about the threat from Prussia it would contradict its own claims to foreign policy success, and could raise tensions that might precipitate a war. Its political credit had sunk so low that its programme was vigorously opposed in the country on the basis of Napoleon’s past record rather than on any dispassionate assessment of the danger to France.

The French army in the 1860s required a seven-year term of service. Men reaching the age of 21 were subject to conscription, but a lottery system gave them a reasonable chance of escaping the obligation to serve. If a conscript drew a ‘good number’ in the lottery, he was free of any further obligation. Even if he drew a ‘bad number’ and was drafted into the ‘first contingent’ of the army, budgetary limitations meant he was unlikely to serve his full term. For the Legislature jealously guarded its right to fix annually the size of the contingent required and the military budget. If the conscript was drafted into the ‘second contingent’ he might have to do only a few weeks’ training in the reserve before being sent home, though he remained subject to recall in wartime. Or he might be in an exempt occupation, and even if he were not the system enacted in 1855 allowed those with money to buy themselves out of the army.

The funds raised from these payments went towards bounties that encouraged serving soldiers to re-enlist, and towards hiring replacements. In theory this provided a long-service force of seasoned professionals; in practice it reinforced a tendency for the army to be the home of ‘old soldiers’ in every sense of the term, supervised by ageing NCOs with some bad ingrained habits. The 15 per cent of soldiers who were hired replacements were viewed as a mercenary element that damaged morale and effectiveness. Promotion in the army was slow, initiative and study were frowned upon, and the stultifying routine of overcrowded barracks far from home, low pay, hard discipline and hard drinking scarcely encouraged educated and ambitious young men to enter the ranks if they could possibly avoid it. Budgetary restraints also kept the army below strength: 390,000 men in 1866, including non-combatants, compared to half a million at the time of the Crimean War.

Napoleon, long an advocate of universal military service, wanted to overhaul the system radically to increase the regular army to 800,000 men, and to form a new territorial army – the Garde Mobile – on the lines of the Prussian Landwehr, that France could call upon for home defence in wartime. As War Minister he replaced the ageing Randon, who was unconvinced of the case for change, with its ablest advocate, Marshal Niel, who tried to steer army reform through the Legislature during 1867.

The plan to extend military obligations met determined opposition from many quarters. Republicans saw it as a sinister plot to foment war by an untrustworthy authoritarian regime. Their faith in the efficacy of the levée en masse that had saved revolutionary France from invading Prussians and Austrians in 1792–3 remained deep-rooted. Jules Simon advocated the Swiss militia system on the premise that the breasts of patriots who kept a rifle over the hearth would, given a few weeks’ training, be a more than sufficient bulwark against the conscript hordes of foreign despots. The Peace League, which had been born from the Luxembourg crisis, pleaded that in the mid-nineteenth century Europe should be moving towards a brotherhood of nations, and that there should be no place in a prosperous and progressive society for anachronistic militarism. Many bourgeois, though enamoured with histories of France’s military glory, were aghast that they would no longer be able to buy their sons out of military service, and at the prospect of higher taxes. Peasants too resented the blood tax that would take them from the plough. On the right, conservative generals were comfortable with the existing system and indignant at the suggestion that a long-service professional army, toughened by combat in Algeria, Italy, Mexico and the Far East, could not see off double their numbers of enemy conscripts. They found their spokesman in Thiers, who extolled quality over quantity and ridiculed claims about the number of men Prussia could put in the field. This supreme confidence in French military excellence was widely shared, even by those convinced that a war with Prussia was on the horizon. Government supporters feared that universal conscription would be so unpopular that they would lose their seats at the next elections, and Rouher shared their assessment.

Although Niel’s law was finally enacted in February 1868, concessions had eroded the government’s original proposals. The Legislature’s right to decide the size of the annual intake, the lottery, the two-tier contingent system and the right to buy oneself out of the regular army were retained. Conscripted men in the first contingent would serve a total of nine years, including four in the reserve. Men in the second contingent would go straight into the reserve and serve five months. In theory, the obligation to serve five years in the new Garde Mobile would catch all those who escaped service in the first contingent: those who had drawn a ‘good number’ in the lottery, those who hired replacements, those in the second contingent who had completed their time in the reserve, and some who had been exempted from army service. The value of the Garde Mobile was vitiated, however, by the restrictions placed on its training by a Legislature mistrustful of the regime’s militarist designs. Instead of the twenty-five consecutive days of annual training sought by Niel, training was limited to a derisory fifteen days with no overnight stays in barracks.

In his 1869 message Napoleon assured the nation that the reform had been a great success. An official circular declared that the army was now so well prepared to meet all eventualities that France could be ‘confident in her strength’. These claims, and the figures published to support them, may have been intended to mislead the Germans, but they were a delusion. The Niel law resembled universal military obligation sufficiently to make the government deeply unpopular, but failed abjectly in its aim of doubling the number of trained men available for call-up in case of war. The Garde Mobile soon proved a farce. Attempts to muster it at Paris, Bordeaux and Toulouse led to serious disorders. After Niel’s death in August 1869 his successor, Edmond Le Bœuf, did not repeat the experiment, and in July 1870 the Garde Mobile was formidable on paper only. Little provision had been made even to equip it. Partly Le Bœuf was governed by budgetary constraints, just as the government could obtain only a fraction of the funds requested for the programme of modernizing the eastern fortresses begun after Sadowa. But he also shared the scepticism of the upper echelons of the military, who had overweening confidence in the regular army and despised the very idea of a citizen militia. Indeed, they feared that arming and training one would put guns in the hands of revolutionaries who might overthrow the regime.

The unpopularity of conscription merged into a wider wave of discontent that seemed to herald the approaching end of the Second Empire. Relaxation of laws governing the press and public meetings in 1868 produced a proliferation of newspapers and a ‘revolution of contempt’ directed at the regime. Amid this rising tide of criticism and ridicule, the most stinging attacks appeared in La Lanterne, a pamphlet by the aristocratic vaudeville satirist Henri Rochefort. His mordant wit made it a runaway best-seller and a dozen editions were published before the government banned it. In November a young lawyer from Cahors, Léon Gambetta, made a slashing courtroom attack on the Empire while defending the revolutionary Charles Delescluze for organizing a subscription to erect a memorial to Baudin, the half-forgotten deputy who had been killed during the 1851 coup d’état. The charismatic, passionate and eloquent Gambetta emerged as foremost among a new generation of republicans impatient for change to whom the reputation of Napoleon III as the ‘man of order’ who had saved the country from anarchy after the 1848 revolution meant nothing.

In 1869 France seemed bound for revolution, and the government to have lost its grip. It was often a handicap to be identified as a government candidate in the elections that summer and the big cities voted heavily against the Empire. The elections were accompanied by riots in the cities, and by a wave of industrial unrest which saw striking miners shot down by troops. Although socialists and representatives of the extreme left did not do well in the elections, the results were an impressive showing for republicans. Opposition candidates polled 3.3 million votes against 4.4 million for government candidates. Gambetta was elected for the working-class Paris district of Belleville, standing on a radical platform that included a condemnation of standing armies as ‘a cause of financial ruin’ and ‘a source of hatred between peoples’. However, he opted to represent a Marseilles constituency where he had also been elected, and at a byelection for Belleville in November Rochefort, returned from exile in Belgium, was elected in his place.

Although Napoleon continued to command the political centre ground, he slowly made concessions in the face of mounting opposition. He granted the Chamber additional powers. Rouher resigned, though he remained a confidential adviser and became President of the Senate. In December the Liberal Émile Ollivier, a former republican, was invited to form a ministry. This appeared to Napoleon to be the best way of saving his regime, though it created tensions among its loyal supporters. Those, including the Empress, Baron Jerome David (another nephew of Napoleon I) and Rouher, who believed that the imperial government needed more authoritarianism, not less, would await their opportunity to sabotage what they saw as the dangerous experiment of the ‘Liberal Empire’.

An Alternative Battle of Austerlitz, 1805

Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz, by François Gérard (Galerie des Batailles, Versailles)

Allied (red) and French (blue) deployments at 1800 hours on 1 December 1805

The decisive attacks on the Allied center by St. Hilaire and Vandamme split the Allied army in two and left the French in a golden strategic position to win the battle.

The weather had turned bitterly cold and the news of the defeat of the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar had further dampened French morale. The astonishing victory at Ulm, where the Austrian General Mack’s advance army had been surrounded and compelled to capitulate, though just two months earlier, seemed a distant memory. Even after the surrender of 60,000 Austrian troops and the occupation of Vienna, the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, refused to come to terms with the Emperor of the French. The reason for this was the belated arrival of the Russian army, the other major participant in the Third Coalition of countries opposed to France along with Great Britain. Tsar Alexander’s men gave the Coalition force a decided numerical advantage, and Francis insisted in fighting on.

For his part, Napoleon needed a rapid resolution to the conflict. He was 700 miles from home and outnumbered. Back in France, the departure of the Grande Armée, and Nelson’s victory off the Spanish coast, had encouraged the supporters of the deposed Bourbon monarchy to rebel once again. There was also the possibility that Prussia, which was known to be mobilising its forces, would join the Coalition. Somehow Napoleon had to draw the Austrians and Russians into a battle on ground and under circumstances of his own choosing – and quickly. But how?

The combined enemy force, some 90,000 strong, was positioned towards Olmütz on the Morava River, in the present day Czech Republic, but then in the eastern regions of Francis’ empire. The Austro-Russian army had secured communications running back through Poland and Silesia. If Napoleon tried to attack the allied army, it could quite easily fall back on its lines of communication, and in doing so, further elongate the Grande Armée’s already severely over-stretched supply chain. Indeed, the French army was in poor shape, with their weapons, equipment, clothing and shoes all showing the signs of excessive wear. If the allied army did withdraw, the French were in no position to follow and if Prussia did declare war on France, Napoleon might well find his armies cut off from France and surrounded by enemies. Rarely had Europe’s finest general found himself in such a predicament.

The Field of Battle

The principle Austro-Russian force was concentrating at around Olmütz, some thirty miles to the northeast of Brünn (today’s Brno, the Czech Republic’s second largest city) and it was the area in the region of Moravia’s historic capital that Napoleon scouted to gain an appreciation of the ground to see if it could offer him any advantage. It was following one such reconnaissance that the soldier-historian Philippe-Paul, comte de Ségur, famously described an incident on the journey back from Wischau: ‘ turning off towards the south he entered a high plain contained between two embanked streams running from the north to the southwest.

‘The Emperor slowly and silently went over this newly discovered ground, stopping several times on its most elevated points, looking principally towards Pratzen. He carefully examined all its characteristics and during this survey turned towards us saying, “Gentlemen, examine this ground carefully, it is going to be a battlefield; you will have a part to play in it.” This plain was indeed to be within a few days the field of the Battle of Austerlitz.’

Having chosen his battleground, Napoleon had to bring on the action that he sought, and induce the Tsar and Francis to commit their troops to battle. He proposed to do this by pretending to be weak and worried, hoping that the prospect of defeating the great Napoleon would prove too tempting an opportunity to dismiss. Consequently, he planned to place a proportion of his army close to the main Austro-Russian force. This small, but significant French body, would give all the appearance of being isolated and within striking distance of the allied force. Hopefully, this would tempt the Tsar to attack and, once committed, Napoleon would then spring his trap, with the rest of Grande Armée suddenly appearing, to pounce on the unsuspecting enemy. It would a highly dangerous operation which would require perfect arrangement and impeccable timing.

Corps de Armée

Such an operation was only made possible because of the manner in which Napoleon had organised his army. It was divided into seven corps, whilst varying in size depending on the talents of its commander or the assignment it had been tasked with, each of which was a force of all arms capable of holding off an enemy of similar or larger numbers for at least a full day until reinforced. This meant that the corps in front of the Austro-Russian army could hold their own until the other corps marched to deliver the decisive blow. Added to this was the creation of a cavalry reserve of such a size that it could crash through the enemy’s line at the critical moment in a battle. This reserve totalled around 22,000 men including two full divisions of heavy cuirassiers.

Everything, though, would depend upon Napoleon’s brilliant chief of staff, Marshal Berthier, to bring all the Grande Armée’s corps together at the right moment. A corps of 30,000 men on the march took up five miles of good road, sixty guns with their caissons required two and a half miles, and 6,000 cavalry, riding four abreast, extended for about four miles. The length of such a column made it necessary for the corps to move along several parallel roads, keeping in mind the need for lateral communications if the situation required a sudden change of plan.

A Weak Front

The corps of Murat (Cavalry Reserve), Lannes (V Corps) and Soult (IV Corps) were to advance towards Wischau and Olmütz (present-day Olomouc) and occupy Austerlitz and the adjacent Pratzen Heights, with one cavalry brigade pushed towards Olmütz. This move would give all the appearance of an aggressive approach by Napoleon, indicating that he was still on the offensive. This was an obvious double-bluff. It would appear that Napoleon was putting a bold face on a rapidly deteriorating situation in the hope this would frighten the allies into remaining cautiously on the defensive. The Tsar, whose army constituted by far the bulk of the allied force and therefore who dictated strategy, would see through this and attack this comparatively small body of French troops which amounted to no more than 53,000 men. By 25 November, the move forward by this detached force was completed and Napoleon now had to wait to see if Tsar Alexander would take the bait.

Command of the Austro-Russian army was nominally under the command of Field Marshal Mikhail Illarionovich Golenishchev-Kutuzov, though he had to take orders from Alexander. The Tsar saw what he thought was a golden opportunity and wanted to attack immediately, as did many of the Austrian and Russian generals. Kutuzov saw no need for such action and the Emperor Francis, on whose territory this was all taking place, urged caution. If the allies were defeated, the Russians could simply abandon the expedition and return to Russia, whereas Francis would be forced into a humiliating capitulation. Francis, therefore, had the most to lose.

With all this in mind, an allied delegation was sent to Napoleon to discuss the possibility of an armistice, but in reality to get a closer look at the state of the French army. Napoleon played his part to perfection, being charming and accommodating and indicating that he was only too happy to consider discussing terms.

This did the trick. It seemed clear that Napoleon was in some trouble and would happily accept a negotiated way out of the difficulties he was in. Never had there been a better chance for any of France’s enemies, in ten years of almost continual warfare, to strike such a blow. The Tsar had indeed sniffed the bait, and was about to swallow it.

The Eve of Doom

On 28 November, Austro-Russian troops attacked Murat’s outposts and pushed them back towards Soult’s corps. This was attended by impossibly high armistice demands from the Tsar and the Emperor. With this Napoleon knew the allies were going to fall into his trap and urgent messages were sent to the other corps commanders to march for Brünn with all speed. Marshal Bernadotte’s I Corps and Marshal Davout’s III Corps were soon on the road, with a thick cavalry screen ahead of them to conceal their movements from the enemy. Napoleon would still be outnumbered, but only slightly so, and he would have surprise on his side.

Before committing his troops to battle, the Tsar wanted confirmation that he was doing the right thing, and to allay the fears of those around him that doubted the wisdom of attacking Napoleon. So another delegation was sent to the French camp. Once again, Napoleon put on a display which made the returning Count Dologorouki tell the Tsar that ‘the French army was on the eve of its doom’.

Believing that he had convinced the enemy, Napoleon started the moves that would draw the enemy into his clutches, by ordering Soult to abandon Austerlitz and the Pratzen Heights, and in doing so to give all the appearance of near-panic. Kutusov was quick to take advantage of the French withdrawal and occupy the Heights.

No-one would relinquish the high ground if they were intent upon attacking, or even holding a defensive stance. The French, it seemed, knew the game was up and that they had better withdraw or be annihilated. To confirm this, the rest of the French cavalry pulled back from Wishau, again in an apparent state of disorder, followed now by the slow but increasingly confident Austro-Russian army. But as the Tsar’s men lumbered towards Austerlitz, Bernadotte’s I Corps arrived secretly behind Napoleon’s front, on 30 November, with Davout and the III Corps just a day’s march away. The following day was spent by Napoleon inspecting his troops and ensuring that everything was in place for the battle on the morrow.

He also issued an Order of the Day, which, rather than just appealing to the soldiers’ patriotism and sense of honour as such addresses usually did, actually explained an element of his plans for the battle:

‘SOLDIERS – The Russian army is before you, come to avenge the Austrian army of Ulm …

‘The positions which we occupy are formidable, and while the Russians march upon our batteries I shall attack their flanks.

‘Soldiers, I shall in person direct all your battalions; I shall keep out of range if, with your accustomed bravery, you carry disorder and confusion into the ranks of the enemy. But if victory is for a moment uncertain, you shall see your Emperor expose himself the foremost to danger; because victory must not hesitate an instant today, when, above all, the honour of the French infantry is concerned, which bears with it the honour of the whole nation.

‘Note that no man shall leave the ranks under the pretext of carrying off the wounded. Let everyman be filled with the thought that it is vitally necessary to conqueror these paid lackeys of England who so strongly hate our nation.’

As well as taking them into his confidence regards his plans, Napoleon was using clever psychology here, in that if the men did not see Napoleon at their head, they knew they were on course for victory and would keep on fighting, believing they were succeeding.

That evening Napoleon slept until 22.00 hours and then rode around part of the battlefield with twenty men of the Chasseurs à Cheval de la Garde Impériale, narrowly being captured by a party of Cossacks. He returned through the French camp. It was a foggy, moonless night and the Chasseurs lit torches of fir and straw to light the Emperor’s passage. ‘Seeing in the light of their torches a group of mounted officers approaching them, the soldiers quickly recognised the Imperial party, and many torches were lit,’ recalled Pierre Daumesil, ‘Soon the entire French line was ablaze, and repeated shouts of “Vive l’Empereur!” echoed across the Goldbach stream to the Russian lines. Regimental bands added their music to the exhilaration of the moment.’ Napoleon was moved by the scene, and as he later settled back in his tent, he was heard to murmur: ‘This has been the finest evening of my life.’ The following day would be remembered as the worst of his thirty-five years.

The Fog of Austerlitz

The field of battle for 2 December 1805, stretched from the villages of Welatiz and Bosenitz, just to the north of the road from Brünn to Austerlitz in the north, to the lake of Satschan, about six miles to the south. From east to west it spread from the Goldbach stream to the town of Austerlitz itself. The ground is slightly hilly but fairly open, dominated by the Pratzen plateau, with a wide, swampy region running northeast from the Satschan lake, along the River Littawa, on the eastern base of the plateau towards Austerlitz. On the day, the Austro-Russian army amounted to something between a little more than 85,000 to almost 88,000, compared to the 73,000 which Napoleon would eventually have under his command.

The fog of the night had not lifted when dawn broke on 2 December which hindered the assembly of the Austro-Russian formations. The allied plan, devised by the Austrian General Franz von Weyrother, was to direct the main effort against the seemingly weak French right, which was held by Soult. This would cut Napoleon’s line of retreat back to Vienna. As the French flank was being turned, another strong body would attack along the Olmütz-to-Brünn road on the French left, which also appeared to be held by a single corps, that of V Corps. What von Weyrother did not know was that already Bernadotte had joined Lannes, and Davout was closing in upon Soult. Von Weyrother’s plan also called for other columns to move from the Pratzen Heights as the French reeled under the blows of the two flanking columns to strike at the French centre to complete the victory. There were two complimentary flaws in this plan. The concentration of effort on the two flanks meant that the allied centre was very weak, and the Pratzen Heights – the high ground that dominated the battlefield – would be abandoned. Apparently General Langeron pointed out these dangers but his concerns were ignored. Napoleon, it was argued, was looking for a way out of the dangerous position he was in and he would never dream of sending troops to actually attack. This, though, was exactly what Napoleon hoped would happen.

Once the Russians and Austrians were on the move, a mass of 65,000 men would erupt from behind the Santon stream at its confluence with the Goldbach to confront the allied main force, whilst the divisions of Vandame and Saint-Hilaire (16,000 men and two batteries of artillery), would seize the Pratzen Heights. This would split the allied army in two, and whilst the enemy’s right flanking move was held by Lannes corps, the main French force would wheel round to the south and crush the left half of Kutuzov’s army. It was a brilliant and ambitious plan but, if the Russians abandoned the Heights, it could hardly fail.

First Moves

Tsar Alexander was anxious for the start of the great victory he visualized and, as the minutes ticked by he finally voiced his growing frustration. He addressed his commander in chief: ‘Mikhail Illarionovich why haven’t you begun your advance?’ Kutusov replied ‘I am waiting for all the columns of the army to get into position.’

‘But we are not on the Empress’s Meadows [a parade ground near St Petersburg], where we do not begin a parade until all the regiments are formed up!’

‘Your Highness, if I have not begun it is because we are not on parade, and not on the Empress’s Meadow. However, if such be Your Highness’s order …’

Ready or not, the Austro-Hungarian divisions moved off, and by 06.00 hours most of the attacking formations were on the move. General Buxhwden was in overall command of the main striking force which would crush the French right, and it was the five battalions of General Kienmayer’s 1st Infantry Brigade of his Advance Guard, leading the way, which first came into contact with the French as the Austrians approached the village of Telnitz on the banks of the Goldbach. The Austrians, anxious to show the Russians that they could fight as well as themselves, assaulted the village ‘with great resolution’. The ground, though, was difficult as the Goldbach at this point ran in ditches, behind which was a low height covered with vineyards and houses. Telnitz was held by a battalion of line infantry, the 3rd, as well as the Légion Corse. ‘Covered behind the inequalities of the ground,’ wrote the nineteenth century historian, Adolph Theirs, ‘these clever tirailleurs, taking cool aim at the hussars that had been sent forward in advance, brought down a great number of them … The Austrians, tired of a murderous conflict productive of no result, assaulted the village of Telnitz in a body of five united battalions which did not succeed in penetrating into it owing to the firmness of the 3rd of the line, which received them with the courage of well-tried troops.’

The other columns of Buxhwden’s force (First Column, Lieutenant General D. Doctorov; Second Column Lieutenant General A. Langeron; Third Column Lieutenant General I. Przbyswski; Fourth Column, lieutenant generals M. Miloradovich and J. Kollowrath) followed but not in the coordinated fashion that Von Weyrother would have hoped, but Kutuzov had predicted. Eventually, though, the allied main force overpowered the French left wing and Davout’s corps had still not reached the battlefield.

This was a critical moment in the battle. All Napoleon’s calculations were based on being able to hold back Buxhwden until he had taken the Pratzen Heights and broken through the Russian centre. Fortunately, Berthier’s arrangements proved to be satisfactory as usual, and the first until of III Corps finally marched into view. Corporal Blaise was with Heudelet’s division which was ordered to counter-attack: ‘General Heudelet put himself at our head and we marched boldly forward in battle order until we were halted by a ditch which was too large for us to cross. General Heudelet thereupon ordered our colonel to move us over a bridge away to our left. This necessary movement was the cause of our undoing, for the soldiers were so eager to come to grips with the vaunted enemy infantry that they disordered their ranks … and when we tried to reform our battle order under heavy fire, some Austrian hussars … in the thick smoke and fog which was a feature of the day, wounded a great many of us and captured 160 man including 4 officers.’

Despite such setbacks, Davout’s men helped recover Telnitz, only for a renewed assault by General Doctorov’s column to succeed in recapturing the village. Though the allies had the upper hand in the south, the easy breakthrough which had been anticipated by von Weyrother, upon which the whole of his plan depended, had not yet happened. This was in part because the Russian Second Column had become involved in what has been described as a massive traffic jam caused by the decision from the Russian staff on the Pratzen Heights to move the Fifth (Cavalry) Column across the front of Langeron’s men, causing a delay of almost an hour. All this meant that the French right was holding, just as Napoleon hoped it would, and the battle was developing exactly as Napoleon and anticipated.

Crossing the Goldbach

Eventually, though far later than had been planned, Langeron arrived on Doctorov’s right followed by Przbyswski’s Third Column on the right. Telnitz was retaken and the allies began to cross the Goldbach. It seemed that by sheer weight of numbers that the allies were overcoming the French. Then, as they crossed the stream, they were attacked by General Bouchier with six regiments of dragoons, followed by the rest of Heudelet’s infantry, and the Russians were thrown back in disorder. Davout’s men continued to push forward, taking advantage of the confusion in the Russian ranks. Astonishingly, a total of only 10,500 Frenchmen had not only stopped, but driven back, more than 50,000 Russians and Austrians. Often in history smaller, well disciplined and organised, bodies of troops, have defeated much larger enemy forces which are much harder to control and manoeuvre. Such was the case on the morning of 2 December on the banks of the Goldbach stream.

‘It was not yet eight o’clock,’ wrote Captain Segur, one of Napoleon’s aides-de-camp, ‘and silence and darkness were still reigning over the rest of the line, when, beginning with the heights, the sun suddenly breaking through the thick fog disclosed to our sight the plateau of Pratzen growing empty of troops from the flank march of the enemy columns. As for us who had remained in the ravine which defines the foot of the plateau, the smoke of the bivouacs and the vapours which, heavier on this point than elsewhere, still hung around, concealed from the Russians our centre deployed in columns and ready for the attack.’

Napoleon turned to Soult, who was to lead the assault upon the Pratzen, and asked him, ‘How long will it take to move your divisions to the top of the Pratzen Heights?’ The marshal replied, ‘Less than twenty minutes, Sire, for my troops are hidden at the foot of the valley, concealed by fog and campfire smoke.’ Napoleon hesitated for a moment, and then said, ‘In that case we will wait another quarter of an hour.’ Napoleon wanted the last of the allied columns to leave the heights before delivering the blow that would decide the battle, and end the Third Coalition.

But the sun which shone on the Pratzen Heights suddenly penetrated the mist that had concealed Soult’s division. The wary Kutusov, who had been opposed to the entire idea of attacking the French at all, immediately understood what he saw – a large body of French infantry that had not been engaged which was poised to cut right through the Austro-Russian line. The normally lethargic Russian general was a bustle of activity. The troops still on the Heights preparing to march down the slope were halted and orders were sent recalling Kollowrath’s Austrians and Miloradovitch’s twenty-five Russian battalions which were descending on the left towards Sokolnitz.

Napoleon had waited too long. For many years afterwards, Russians and Austrians who had been at the battle, would talk of the ‘sun of Austerlitz’, which had shed its light on the French, and shone its glory upon the Tzar and the Emperor of Austria.

Another few minutes and Miloradovitch would have been engaged and unable to extract his troops in time. But Kutusov’s urgent appeal reached the Russian general in time, and he wheeled his battalions round and headed back up the slope before Soult could begin his advance.

It was a race for the top of the Heights, but, despite the speed of the French columns, it was a race the Russians were always going to win. As Soult neared to within 200 yards of the summit, he saw the dense line of green-jacketed infantry stretched across the skyline.

To loud cries of ‘Vive l’Empereur’ Thiébault’s and Saint-Hilare’s divisions attacked with their usual impetuosity. But the Russians were stern opponents, and after a single volley, the men of the Novgorod, Apsheron, Little Russia and Smolensk regiment strode out purposefully, bayonets levelled.

The clash of arms was a terrible one, but weight of numbers and gravity was in the favour of allies. As the French were slowly pushed back, two brigades of von Lichtenstein’s cavalry, which had also been summoned by Kutusov, crashed into rear of Soult’s isolated regiments.


Witnessing the confused scene on the slopes above, Napoleon knew that the battle hung in the balance. True to his word, he galloped up the Heights to show his men that the result was in doubt. But when the French troops saw their Emperor, it only served to confirm what they knew – they were in trouble. Instead of galvanizing them into greater efforts, it had the opposite effect. It was clearly a case of every man for himself.

The French soldiers had never known defeat under Napoleon. They had supreme confidence in him, believing he would never fail. All that was shattered in moments. Napoleon watched the Grande Armée dissolve in front of him. It was the end of the dream.

The news of the French defeat soon reached Berlin and King Frederick William responded quickly, ordering those regiments that were fully mobilzed to take advantage of the situation, cutting off a large part of the retreating French infantry divisions. The Grande Armée was destroyed. So sluggish had been Kutusov’s pursuit, Napoleon could well have rallied his men and, with the help of reinforcements from France, held the allies on the Rhine, but the intervention of the Prussians proved fatal to what was to prove to be Napoleon’s weak grip on his adoptive country.

Though there was still a strong army in the south fighting the Austrians in Italy, there was little hope for France. Whilst Napoleon dreamt up ambitious schemes to attack the approaching enemy columns, his marshals knew that the only way to avoid France being overrun was to remove Napoleon. So it was, that on Christmas Eve, 1805, Louis XIII returned to Paris and was installed in his capital. Napoleon, however, was granted generous terms by the allies and he was permitted to retire with dignity to Corsica, the island of his birth. His had been a great adventure – until it came to an end on a low range of hills to the north of Vienna.


The Battle of Austerlitz was probably Napoleon’s greatest victory, which resulted in the destruction of the allied army. Around 27,000 Austrians and Russians were killed, wounded or taken prisoner, amounting to more than thirty per cent of the total allied force. This happen because Tsar Alexander had taken over command of the allied army from Kutusov, who had shown nothing but distain for von Weyrother’s plan and had argued against attacking Napoleon in the first place. Once Napoleon saw the Russians moving off the Pratzen, he send Soult’s IV Corps up the slope to push through the now extremely thin allied centre, cutting Kutusov’s army in two. Supported by Bernadotte’s corps and the Imperial Guard, Soult then swung round to the south, trapping Buxhwden’s force against the Satschan lakes. The allied troops tried to escape across the frozen lakes, and seeing this, Napoleon ordered up twenty-five cannon to fire upon the ice. The effect of the cannon balls, crashing onto the ice which was already under severe strain from the thousands of fleeing soldiers and the heavy artillery teams, began to crack. Though the number of men drowned in the freezing water was thought to have been many thousands, when the lakes were drained shortly after the battle only a few corpses were recovered. What the breaking of the ice did was block the allies only line of retreat, which why as many as 12,000 became prisoners.

The day after the battle the Emperor Francis sought an armistice, whilst the remnants of the Russian army retreated to the east. When news of the scale of the Austro-Russian defeat reached London, Prime Minister William Pitt is reported to have said, in reference to a map of Europe, ‘Roll up that map; it will not be wanted these ten years.’ He was proven, at least partially, correct. The Third Coalition was brought to a speedy end and the map of Europe was redrawn. The principle effects of this was that Napoleon created a grouping of the western German states, called the Confederation of the Rhine, to act as a buffer between France and Prussia. These states were formerly part of the Holy Roman Empire. Robbed, therefore of much of his authority Francis relinquished his title and the Holy Roman Empire, which had stood for almost 900 years, ceased to exist. Its demise was unquestionably one of the factors that enabled Prussia to become the dominant Germanic country which, in 1871, absorbed the smaller German states to form the German nation that we know today.


Prince Eugene of Savoy and his General Staff at the Battle of Zenta

The ‘first age of heroes’

Confidence, that critical of military factors, allowed the Habsburgs’ army to assume the offensive rapidly. As it rolled the Turks out of central and eastern Europe, the army became better disciplined and organised. It was to become by the end of this period more than capable of holding its own against any force in the world, thanks in no small part to that dazzling architect of Habsburg military power, Prince Eugene.

A young, not very prepossessing or especially handsome youth had arrived in Vienna that autumn of 1683. Small even by the standards of his time, this man appeared almost crippled to his contemporaries, who found the idea that he might want to make soldiering his career risible. His manner was taciturn but his pride was Olympian and indeed he had much to prove. He had been spurned in his quest for a military career by the court of Louis XIV and his rage at this humiliation was unquenchable. When he arrived in Vienna he made enemies at court almost by blinking but Kaiser Leopold recognised early on that here indeed was a soldier of potential, though it is unlikely that even Leopold realised the full extent of the military genius whose spindly frame stood before him.

Eugene of Savoy like many a patriotic ‘old’ Austrian did not possess a drop of what today would be called Austrian blood. By birth he was Italian and his temperament and his rapidity of decision constituted what were once considered typical Latin traits. By upbringing he was French and this invested him with his limitless and rigid devotion to revenge and his obsessive detestation of the French monarch Louis XIV. When many years later, after France had come to regret all too painfully its rejection of Eugene, a message from the French court gingerly enquired whether Eugene after all might consider serving France and said that a dazzling career awaited him in the service of Louis XIV. The Prince of Savoy demonstrated that he neither forgot nor forgave: ‘I should like to accept the invitation to return to France,’ he replied, ‘but only at the head of an invading army to occupy it.’

Eugene had arrived with Lorraine’s polyglot relief force and had performed bravely with energy and imagination at the raising of the great siege. He was a natural choice to take a commission and perform a role in the pursuit of the Turkish hordes. With Vienna saved and the besiegers in full flight it was tempting to see the Ottoman lands as wide open for reconquest. Vienna would no longer be a border city on the fracture line of two empires, she would take her place – and this was the strategic significance of 1683 – at the heart of an immense domain protected from Islamic intrusion by a vast hinterland. This hinterland first and foremost was Hungary.

Asia, Metternich later quipped, began on the Landstrasse in Vienna, and though the Landstrasse hardly existed in 1683 the dusty tracks to the east of the Austrian city created (as they do even today) the sense of a limitless expanse stretching far into an unknown world. Only the fortresses offered punctuation marks on the horizon and one by one these would have to be captured or destroyed. From 1683 to 1699 the war against the Turks would pitilessly roll the Ottomans out of Hungary. But these were hard campaigns and, as so often happens after moments of euphoria, they suffered at first from excessive zeal and inadequate preparation.

On 27 September 1683, Lorraine’s cavalry entered the great fortress of Pressburg, but further east at Barkan the Turks caught the Polish hussars in an ambush which only Lorraine’s rapid deployment of his dragoons en masse prevented turning into a rout. The following month, the fortress of Esztergom, later to become the seat of the Hungarian bishops, was occupied and returned to the Habsburgs after eighty years of Ottoman suzerainty and a siege of six days. It really did seem as if nothing could stop the Imperial troops, and the news the same week of Kara Mustafa’s execution for failing to take Vienna raised morale further. By 1684, a coalition of the Venetian Doge, the Habsburg Emperor and the King of Poland pledged to wage continuous war against the Turk. With the capture of Visegrad in June the route to Buda, the key to western Hungary, was open.

But Buda, or as the Austrians called it, Ofen, was a formidable obstacle. Its ramparts were as thick as Vienna’s, but unlike that city it lay not on a flat plain but on a dramatic rocky hill above the Danube, dominating the surrounding landscape with its citadels and towers. A vast fleet of barges and supply vessels was sent from Vienna down the Danube to provision the siege forces with artillery and other weapons and victuals.

The Ottomans proved no less tenacious than the Viennese and after a year Lorraine broke off the siege as his troops were decimated by the terrible ‘Morbus Hungaricus’ or swamp fever, which persuaded the patriotic and influential priest Marco d’Aviano to advise Lorraine that the siege should be lifted, if only temporarily. By the time the siege was resumed a few months later, the Turks had used the interval to strengthen their defences and once again the Habsburg troops, though now reinforced by Prussians and Bavarians, found they could make little impact on the fortress. Only with the arrival of new guns in June 1686 did the siege resume progress and a breach on the Gellért side of the fortifications allow the Bavarians to gain a foothold. After several days of fierce combat, during which Prince Eugene’s hand was pierced by an arrow fired at close range near the main gate, the city’s defenders began to tire.

A summons by Lorraine to the Turkish commander to surrender brought the reply that Buda would be defended ‘until my last gasp of breath’. Meanwhile the Imperial War Council had agreed that the capture of Buda would not bring offensive operations against the Turks to an end. A new war aim had been formulated and this was nothing less ambitious than ‘the annihilation of the Ottoman Empire’. A fresh artillery barrage a few weeks later breached the main gate and the Imperial troops poured in, wreaking havoc on all traces of humanity they could find, including women and children. Only with considerable difficulty did Lorraine get his men under control as the pent-up bloodlust of months took over and hundreds of innocent civilians were slaughtered with the greatest brutality and mutilation. Of the 13,000-strong Ottoman garrison, barely 2,000 survived.

With the fall of Buda in 1686 the great Hungarian plain and the Danube routes to Belgrade were open and Leopold, true to his alliance with both the King of Poland and Venice, pushed his forces south and east. The following year, at the Battle of Nágyharsány, the defeat of the Hungarians by the Turks at Mohács, a century and a half earlier, was avenged and a year after that Belgrade was stormed.

The capture of Belgrade was a triumph which rang the church bells throughout the Habsburg lands. It was the jewel in a campaign of conquest that had pushed Habsburg power hundreds of miles down the Danube. But in the uncertainty of war, which made Belgrade change hands with increasing frequency over the coming century, the Ottomans launched a vigorous counter-attack. The great city fell to the Ottomans the following year and the Habsburg forces’ grip began to weaken, beset by indifferent leadership and Ottoman tenacity. Eugene had returned west to Austria’s second front, the war against his hated foe Louis XIV, and it was only when peace was concluded in early 1697 that Eugene returned to Hungary.

His reputation preceded him. Against France Eugene had demonstrated that swiftness of movement which he had learnt during his campaigning against the Turks. It was to make him famous; the Siege of Cuneo was raised virtually as soon as the besieging French heard the Prince was riding to that town’s relief. He had also learnt, as Wallenstein had at the beginning of the century, that his cavalry, well handled, were some of the finest the world had ever known.

The bridge at Zenta

But it was to be back on the eastern front at Zenta in 1697 that Eugene, now commander-in-chief, was able to harness all his military experience to deal a crippling blow to the Ottoman Empire. In the fifteen years since the Siege of Vienna, his army had become better equipped and trained to deal with their eastern foe. Against an enemy that was formidable in hand-to-hand combat and deadly in its use of the ‘arme blanche’, the Imperial infantry had learnt the hard way to close ranks and maintain fire discipline. Those units that failed to move swiftly could face immediate destruction. Contemporary accounts are littered with descriptions of Imperial infantry cut to pieces for failing to form a line before the enemy was within 20 paces of them. Eugene imposed new training regimes which forced his men to react much more quickly. Eugene invested his troops with a keen sense of the need for speed almost as if his own sense of movement had been sharpened by his encounters with the Ottomans. After the slow, methodical warfare on the plains of Piedmont his lightning-like thought processes relished the fast-moving demands of eastern warfare. In Hungary he almost allowed himself to be led by instinct rather than planning. Nothing expressed this more vividly than his actions in the second week of September 1697, which culminated in Zenta.

On 11 September one of Eugene’s scouts caught a solitary pasha out riding without an escort. After failing to get any information from him the Prince ordered his Croat horsemen to draw their swords and prepare to cut off the pasha’s head, a command which unsurprisingly focused the Turk’s mind more acutely than had Eugene’s earlier request.

The pasha began to explain: Ottoman forces were at that very moment crossing the Tisza river at Zenta, not many miles from where they stood. On closer questioning, the prisoner thought it would take the best part of the day to effect the crossing. The pasha’s life was spared but Eugene immediately leapt into the saddle and rode with his hussars to Zenta, ordering the rest of his army to follow him at once. Eugene realised that he had been given a unique chance to win a great victory. By the time he arrived at Zenta, with the bulk of his cavalry, although the Ottomans had strongly entrenched the entry to the bridge their army was still crossing the river.

Eugene immediately had his cavalry attack the entrenchments in close formation, achieving almost complete surprise. The Turkish defenders panicked and began to withdraw on to the bridge, where they were overcome by indescribable confusion and terror. Attempts to rally failed and, as Eugene’s infantry came up an hour later with the artillery, the entrenchments were stormed and volley after volley was poured into the mass of Turks on the bridge. His artillery pounded the forces on the other side of the river. Within six hours the devastation was complete. Twenty thousand Turks lay dead or wounded and more than 10,000 had been drowned as the crowded bridge collapsed under Austrian shellfire. Eugene lost just 350 men. So dazzling was this victory that the victors captured not only the Sultan’s seal, treasury and harem (some eighty strong) but also the entire Ottoman baggage train, including nearly a hundred camels.

Austrian Army 1700-22

The Treaty of Karlowitz and the reorganisation of the Military Frontier

The political consequences were no less dramatic. Within less than eighteen months the Treaty of Karlowitz was signed, on 26 January 1699, ending centuries of Ottoman power in Central Europe. Turkey was obliged to surrender Hungary and even parts of Bosnia, which Eugene had raided returning, according to a contemporary account, with ‘many beautiful Turkish women’. The picturesque land of Transylvania though nominally independent would henceforth be governed by Austrian appointees. At a stroke the entire eastern frontier of the Habsburg Empire had been shifted many hundreds of miles to the east. Even the Military Frontier, the fortified borderlands between the two empires, had to be reorganised to incorporate these new territorial acquisitions.

Originally created, as we have seen, in 1553 as a form of cordon sanitaire running from Senj across Sisak to Durdevac, the Military Frontier had been financed by the Styrian nobility and administered by the War Council in Graz. From the 1630s, the Habsburgs had encouraged immigration from the Turkish provinces, offering the privilege of internal self-administration and freedom of religion for the settlers along the Military Frontier so that many Serbs of Orthodox religion found refuge in what gradually became one long, armed encampment where every tenth inhabitant was under arms.

After the Treaty of Karlowitz this frontier was now vastly expanded to include Lower Slavonia, Illyria and the Banat. New units of locally recruited cavalry known as Serežan were engaged for piquet and police duties among a population that was extremely mixed but, thanks to the continuous skirmishing, increasingly made up of resourceful and practical men, natural warrriors often capable of rising rapidly through the ranks. This huge extension of the Military Frontier would feed the tactics and manpower of the Balkans into the Imperial standing army for its campaigns in the coming century, giving Austrian arms a reputation for dash and style.

Politically, Karlowitz marked decisively the decline of one empire and the rise of another. Throughout south-eastern Europe Christians rejoiced at the fall of the Turkish oppressors. Optimism and euphoria abounded. From Mount Athos a group of Orthodox monks made a pilgrimage all the way to Vienna to lay at the feet of the Emperor Leopold a beautiful icon of the Virgin Mary. They were convinced that within months the Imperial armies would liberate the entire Balkan peninsula.

It was not to be. Left to their own devices, no doubt Leopold and Eugene would have seen Karlowitz as a brief armistice. They contemplated pushing the Turks further back and reconquering, again, Belgrade, left by the Treaty of Karlowitz in Turkish hands. But the completion of this particular ‘Austrian mission’ in the east was never to happen, though several wars would still be fought against the Ottomans throughout much of the next years. It would be more than a century before the monks of Athos and Greece were, in Metternich’s memorable phrase, ‘condemned to life’, and then Austria would play no significant role in the struggle for Greek independence.

Marlborough (l) and Eugene (r) went on to spectacular success in an enduring partnership throughout the war.

War with France

Austria, secure to the east, now turned towards her other great ‘mission’ whereby she contributed forcefully to the balance of power in Europe. This mission meant that she could not be indifferent to the activities of Louis XIV of France.

The issue of who would succeed to the Spanish throne at the beginning of the eighteenth century after the death in 1700 of the infirm and childless Charles II, son of Philip IV, was not one any Austrian Habsburg could regard with Olympian detachment. When Louis XIV proposed uniting the Spanish with the French throne the response could only be war. Not for the last time would Austria become the lynchpin of a coalition whose aim was to prevent mainland Europe from falling under the dominance of a single power.

While shifting the focus of the Austrian Habsburgs dramatically from the east to the west, the War of the Spanish Succession would provide the world with extravagant confirmation that as a military power the Habsburg armies were a force to be reckoned with. Hard though it might be to imagine a more dazzling victory than Zenta, Prince Eugene was about to demonstrate with the Duke of Marlborough his brilliance even more impressively than he had on the parched plains of Hungary. The small Bavarian village of Blindheim, not far from the banks of the Upper Danube, was surrounded by lush grass and fertile fields.

In the war that was coming, Kaiser Leopold did not find it easy to ally himself with the Protestant maritime powers, England and the Netherlands. But the world had changed and it was a sign of Leopold’s intelligence as a monarch that he possessed the ability to realise that he must adapt to the new circumstances and draw the correct conclusions from events. He was, understandably, outraged by the Pope’s support of France, whose diplomatic machinations had taken every advantage of Leopold’s difficulties in the east. With the Ottomans defeated, Leopold did not flinch for a moment from defending the interests of his house and from entering battle for the Spanish inheritance even though in military strength and statesmanship he was far inferior to his French cousin. (Louis XIV, like Leopold, was also the son of a Spanish Habsburg mother.)

The war began in a rather understated way on the north Italian plain near Legnagno. A French army under the dry and unimaginative Nicolas Catinat had occupied and fortified the Rivoli defile above Verona to ensure that a patchwork of Italian possessions remained loyal to Louis XIV. Catinat was encouraged by the court to demonstrate boldness and defeat the Habsburg troops as soon as possible should they descend from the Tyrol. Unfortunately for Catinat, Eugene was at the summit of his abilities in 1701 and his troops, fresh from the war of movement and energy in the east, were as keen as their commander to gain ascendancy over their French enemy as soon as possible. Eugene raised the old military art of the feint to new levels of sophistication. The Italian campaign of 1701–2 was subsequently overshadowed by the glittering victories of Blenheim and Oudenarde but this opening of the war revealed all Eugene’s armies’ qualities which later were so admired by the Duke of Marlborough.

As Catinat was expecting Eugene to approach via Rivoli, the Imperial commander wasted no time sending out messages en clair that this was precisely what he was doing. At one point Eugene proved so successful in giving the impression that he was entering Italy along the Adige that even his corps commanders believed this was their planned route. In fact Eugene had long decided to descend on the Italian plain through Vicenza further to the east. By guaranteeing Venetian property and keeping a firm grip on his troops to ensure that the agreements with the Veneto land-owning families were respected, the secret was well kept. Any soldiers found looting were summarily executed, much to the relief of the locals, who gradually came to welcome the Imperial troops and prefer them to their French foes. A key part of Eugene’s great success in masking his real intentions was the support of the Venetians of the plain whose understandable antagonism to a foreign army was powerfully reduced not least by Eugene’s excellent relations with the local clergy. By 27 May Catinat had to report to Paris that, despite his ‘vigilance’, Eugene had succeeded in reaching the Venetian plains without giving battle.

Where Eugene was bold, Catinat was cautious and in a fierce cavalry engagement on the Mincio, Eugene forced the French to retreat over the Oglio in a strange series of manoeuvres which is sometimes called the Battle of Carpi. The news of this engagement, coupled with the fact that the army of Louis XIV had not, contrary to popular belief, defeated or even hindered Eugene’s deployment, was enough for Paris to sack the hapless Catinat and send the aged Villeroi to replace him.

Villeroi in his early seventies was an experienced general but, at this stage of his career, rich years at court had sapped his appetite for risk. ‘It is difficult,’ Louis XIV said later to him, ‘at our stage of life to have much luck.’ As soon as he was established on the plains of Lombardy, Eugene set about constructing a powerfully defensive position in front of the fortress town of Chiari. He was aware that the French would be encouraged to take the offensive and his plan now was to create an anvil of such strength that the hammer-blows of the French would prove incapable of making any serious impression. For supplies he raided the estates of the wealthy Mantuan aristocracy while giving strict orders that the possessions of the less well off inhabitants were to be untouched.

The position at Chiari was well suited to Eugene’s ends. Streams protected his forces on three sides and the earthworks he set about constructing with the fortress at his rear offered no scope for surprise cavalry attacks. His infantry was arranged into a solid line three ranks deep. Thus drawn up they waited until the French infantry had dressed their lines and advanced to within 15 paces. At this moment they let fly three volleys of such withering effect that within an hour Villeroi had suffered nearly 3,000 casualties.

The news of the French defeat resounded around Europe, emboldening the maritime powers to sign the second treaty of the Grand Alliance. The Austrian infantry had proved capable of being stubborn in defence and were well drilled against what were then considered to be the finest foot soldiers in Europe.


The seizure of Cremona

Villeroi fell back on Cremona, where events took a picturesque turn. After five months of careful consolidation following his victory at Chiari, Eugene again took the offensive. His army was still well provisioned and disciplined. He had executed forty-eight soldiers for looting houses around Mantua and, continuing his excellent relationship with the local clergy, had been informed by a Father Cossoli, a priest in Cremona, of a secret route into that town via one of the sewerage canals.

While Eugene formed two columns to approach the two main gates of the town before dawn, he detached 400 soldiers under an intrepid Scot, Captain Francis Macdonnell, to enter the town by this clandestine route, await the quiet moment before dawn, then emerge and open the gates from within. The plan was executed the night before the first day of February when temperatures were low enough to prevent the worst of the vermin and stench of the canal from demoralising Macdonnell’s men as they crouched awaiting their moment to strike.

The Austrians achieved complete surprise. One gate was seized and more than a thousand French soldiers were slaughtered in their beds as one of Eugene’s columns entered the town. Villeroi himself was captured and, it is said, was only saved from being bayoneted in his bed by the quick-witted Macdonnell.4 Villeroi promptly offered Macdonnell not only a commission but an entire regiment in the French army if he would return to France with him, but the Scottish officer politely refused.

The news of Villeroi’s capture spread through the town as the morning wore on. But Eugene had not reckoned with the 600 men of two Irish regiments in the French service commanded by Dillon and Burke. One of the Austrian columns approaching from the other side of the river Po had been delayed. The Po Gate and the Citadel roused by the firing in the rest of the town had not been overwhelmed as Eugene had planned. They were held by men of the Dillon regiment and the Irish took up a strong position around the Citadel, giving the Austrians their first check of the day. Even fierce hand-to-hand fighting failed to dislodge them. At first Eugene ordered Villeroi to tell the Irish to lay down their arms but Villeroi merely shrugged and, pointing to his surrendered sword lying on the floor, observed: ‘I should be delighted to oblige but I am no longer in command here.’

Eugene then asked Macdonnell to tell the Irish that they would all be slaughtered if they did not surrender immediately and that greater honour and improved pay and conditions awaited them in the Austrian service where many Irishmen had made splendid careers as officers. To this ultimatum the Irish replied that their pride was insulted by so ‘ungenerous an offer’ which they felt was ‘unworthy of a great prince’ who would ‘surely know the true value of honour and loyalty’. As an added expression of their ‘disappointment’ they felt compelled to keep Macdonnell prisoner.

The Austrians resumed the attack but without much success. After two hours of fierce fighting Eugene gradually realised that without his second column entering the Po Gate he could not dislodge the Irish and that with every minute that passed the town which at dawn had fallen into his hands as a prize would become, with the imminent approach of a large French relief force, a trap. By mid-afternoon Eugene broke off the action. Well might he later report that Cremona had been ‘taken by a miracle; lost by an even greater one’.

Aside from the Irish heroics – Louis XIV would increase their pay and honour them generously on their return to France – it had been a bad day for French arms. Eugene’s withdrawal and the subsequent inconclusive action at Luzzara in no way detracted from the lustre that surrounded his leadership and the quality of his troops. Louis XIV realised that his taunting of the ‘Abbé Eugene’ and his refusal to offer the Prince a commission in the French army all those years ago had been an expensive gesture.

Nevertheless, whatever the vicissitudes of the campaigns in northern Italy, along the Rhine French arms and those of their allies, the Bavarians, were victorious. There, one German town after another trembled at the thought of the almighty French army. If French prestige were to be destroyed it would have to be here.

Marlborough and Eugene cooperate

The presence of the Bavarians – for neither the first nor the last time on the side of the Habsburg’s enemies – implied a threat to the crown lands and even Vienna. Eugene was hastily recalled and though there is some controversy over the exact authorship of the plan that was next devised, it is clear that Eugene immediately saw that the army of the maritime powers under Marlborough would need to travel from the distant Lowlands all the way down the Rhine to the valley of the Upper Danube if the French threat was to be met.

Marlborough’s march to the Danube is rightly seen as one of the great feats of his generalship. Eugene had grasped immediately on his return to Vienna as head of the Imperial War Council that the junction of his forces and Marlborough’s in the valley of the Upper Danube was the best way to defend the Habsburg marches. He wrote to Marlborough suggesting he withdraw his forces from the northern to the southern sphere of war and by happy coincidence Marlborough’s judgement ‘exactly coincided’ with his own.

This was the first sign of the strong sympathy between the two men whose relationship was to be so critical for Europe over the next six years. Where Eugene was mercurial in mood, neurotic and highly strung, the more stolid Marlborough enjoyed more earthy pleasures. Despite their different temperaments and attitudes they formed a partnership that is still considered one of the most successful in the history of modern warfare. Their combined talents all but destroyed France as a military power, and their personal differences were sublimated in their respect for each other’s military skill.

Marlborough’s execution of the march to the Danube was faultless, keeping the French guessing that an attack was being prepared against Alsace until it was too late for the French marshal Tallard to stop the British, Danish and Dutch troops reaching the Danube. Eugene performed a no less notable ‘ruse’ in marching his men during the same days, over similar terrain. He also gambled on the French army in Alsace misinterpreting his intentions and left a small screen of troops to engage in much activity along the Rhine while he stole away. At the same time a network of Austrian spies in a campaign of calculated disinformation reported that Eugene’s troops were heading for Rottweil to the west. Eugene’s movements in fact were contrived to give the French every reason to think he was to remain in the neighbourhood of the Upper Rhine. Raising the Siege of Villingen he ordered the breaches to be repaired. In every order and disposition he appeared determined to remain where he was. His movements were arranged with ‘a masterly penetration of his enemy’s mind’.

Leaving some eight battalions at Rottweil, he headed off towards the valley of the Neckar with about 15,000 troops. These he had chosen for their mobility and nearly one third were cavalry: his best cavalry, including the formidable cuirassiers, then considered among the elite of the Habsburg troops. Suddenly from the moment Eugene reached Tübingen a curious thing happened. All this open and rather unhurried activity ceased. Eugene and his 15,000 men abruptly, and to the consternation of the French spies, simply disappeared. Behind him a fog of rumours and ill-considered reports, contradictory and fantastic, were all that was left. Eugene headed towards Höchstädt on the Danube and would soon be within shouting distance of his ally.

As had been the allies’ intention all along, Marlborough now aimed to disrupt the freedom of movement of the Franco-Bavarian force under Marcin and the Elector of Bavaria, who were centred on Augsburg, threatening the approaches to Vienna. The Franco-Bavarians reacted with predictable hostility and began marching north to threaten Marlborough’s supply line. The Franco-Bavarians would cut this supply line once they reached the northern bank of the Danube and so they obliged Marlborough to march in parallel with them back north. Unwittingly, this only brought Marlborough closer to Eugene.

On 8 August the Franco-Bavarians were approaching the Danube crossing at Dillingen when Tallard was suddenly brought intelligence that Eugene was on the other side at Höchstädt with 39 squadrons and 20 battalions. Eugene’s rapid and secret march had achieved the utmost success. He had been helped by the slowness of communications of those times: a message could barely cover a hundred miles and might take several days to arrive. Movements could be disguised by a combination of disseminating contradictory messages and carefully planted cavalry screens.

In this case the effect on the morale of the Franco-Bavarians was dramatic. With no inkling of his existence Eugene had brought reinforcements the size of a third of Marlbrough’s forces to within striking range. Moreover, as the reports confirmed, Eugene’s leadership had ensured that these were all disciplined and highly trained troops serving under a soldier whose name was already invested with the prestige of countless battle honours. Eugene’s sudden appearance not only transformed the equation of power on the Upper Danube but it allowed Marlborough, who had been finding his ally, ‘Turkish’ Louis of Baden, something of a trial, a perfect opportunity to rid himself of this narrow-minded pedant and dispatch him to the Siege of Ingolstadt.

One serious obstacle remained before these two commanders could effect the junction of their forces: the Danube. On the same day that Tallard was apprised of Eugene’s arrival, the Savoy Prince crossed the Danube to hold a council of war with his English ally. Marlborough agreed that the northern bank of the river was the key to his lines of communications and so dispatching 3,000 of his cavalry to follow Eugene back, he began preparing for the rest of his army to cross the river.


Eugene’s position was perilous, as he was barely a day’s march away from a Franco-Bavarian force that was three times the size of his own. An urgent message to Marlborough spurred the Englishman to march his infantry through the night. Before dawn on 11 August Marlborough had crossed the river at Merxheim with twenty battalions while a further column was crossing the river at Donauwörth. By the afternoon of the following day the two allies were together at the head of an army of 52,000 men made up of Danes, Hessians, Austrians, English, Prussians and Dutch. Marlborough’s achievement was all the greater for the fact that his artillery arrived only by the following day.

The French and their Bavarian allies chose to deny Marlborough further progress along the Danube, convinced that rather than risk an indecisive action the allies would retreat northwards along their lines of communication. A strongly fortified position, the lynchpin of whose right flank would be the village of Blindheim five miles away from where Eugene and Marlborough stood, was prepared by Tallard and the Elector. But if the French and Bavarians thought Marlborough would shun battle they were mistaken. At two in the morning of Wednesday 13 August, the allies broke camp and began their march westwards towards Blenheim, as Marlborough’s scouts called the village of Blindheim. Eugene and Marlborough had surveyed the battlefield from the church tower of Tapfheim the day before and, despite the care with which the French were laying out their position, it was clear that it was a battleground made for a bold frontal attack.

By seven o’clock the allied columns began to deploy in line about a mile away from the Franco-Bavarian position still shrouded in the early morning mist. Eugene’s troops took rather longer to arrive on the allies’ right flank because the hills of Schwennenbach and French artillery made their deployment far from painless. The ground was ‘so embarrassed with brambles, hedges and other encumbrances that there was no marching by columns’. By half past twelve the Prince was ready and within an hour the entire line on both sides was engaged.

From the beginning Eugene had subordinated himself to Marlborough and both men had agreed that the key to the French position lay between the villages of Blindheim and Oberglauheim. Eugene’s task was to hold the numerically superior forces of the Elector and Marcin while Marlborough attacked the French line on the allied left flank and centre. The French centre was weak; too many regiments had been crammed into Blindheim but when the first attack went in against the village, Marlborough’s forces were repulsed, with heavy loss.

In contrast to the war of movement and dynamic ebb and thrust familiar to those who had served Eugene in the east, the initial phase of the battle here was a textbook example of that perfection of restraint with which the disciplined armies of the eighteenth century fought in western Europe. When a distance little longer than a cricket pitch separated the advancing English from the French palisades a volley from the defenders crashed out, felling one in three of the attackers. Still the British regiments, obedient to their officers, reserved their fire until their leading officer gave the agreed signal by touching the woodwork of the outer palisade with his sword, whereupon they too volleyed but failed to make any impact on the carefully constructed defences.

Any attempt to turn the French line from here was doomed to failure and Marlborough, who had lost a significant part of his force in the failed attempt to storm the village, renewed his attack against the weaker French centre, this time with more success. His cavalry, though inferior in number and stationary, saw off a violent attack by the French Gens d’Armes elite household cavalry, an event which later analysts of the battle would regard with significance as indicating that the French cavalry were in a less robust form than might have been expected. Despite the tremendous feats of arms performed by the infantry, Blenheim would be decided by cavalry and in particular the cavalry of Prince Eugene, which was comprised, though by no means exclusively, of several regiments of Austrian horsemen (Lobkowitz, Styrum and Fugger’s Dragoons and Cuirassiers).

Eugene’s infantry brigade made up of Prussians and Danes initially carried much before them but soon the Franco-Bavarian numbers began to tell and by about 2.30, Eugene’s position was becoming desperate as the enemy cavalry and artillery began to shatter his lines. The pressure of these attacks mounted and first the Prussians and then the Danes began to withdraw behind the little Nebel stream. Eugene was about to commit his reserves to stem this crumbling edifice of his infantry, which threatened to engulf his entire wing, when a message from Marlborough arrived asking for urgent cavalry reinforcements as his centre came under renewed pressure from repeated French cavalry attacks. All Marlborough’s centre was pressed and shaken. His cavalry had just been caught while still in the disorder of forming on the further bank of the Nebel. Here was the crisis of the battle and had the French commanders comprehended it correctly they would no doubt have deployed their reserves – idle and unused around Blenheim – to roll the English centre back across the river and slaughter it in the marshy land beyond.

It is the most remarkable testament to the powerful bond Eugene and Marlborough had formed during their very brief acquaintance that at the moment when Eugene’s own forces appeared to be facing their greatest peril of the day, he, without hesitating, ordered Fugger’s brigade of heavy cavalry to ride immediately to Marlborough’s aid. Eugene knew the battle would be decided on Marlborough’s front and with his swiftness of thought lost not a second in ordering support to his embattled ally.

Fugger, scion of a wealthy family from Augsburg which though situated in Bavaria was a ‘Reichstadt’ and therefore no friend of the Elector of Bavaria, was not a man to be trifled with. He had earlier rejected a plea from the Dutch infantry for help on the ground, that he answered only to Prince Eugene. Now he needed no further prompting and made haste to correct his earlier reserve towards his allies. The three squadrons of his own cuirassiers plus three further squadrons of the Lobkowitz Cuirassiers reinforced by some of Styrum’s Dragoons came thundering across the battlefield and crashed into the French cavalry in flank, permitting Marlborough’s demoralised Dutch infantry – who were about to be swept away – to reform.

As in so many battles, the line between utter defeat and outright victory was extremely thin. In less than twenty minutes the great threat to the allies’ centre had been resolutely met, thanks to the discipline of a few hundred fresh Austrian cavalry engaged with the rapidity of perception that was their commander’s hallmark. The French cavalry were literally ridden off the battlefield first by the Austrians and then by a counter-charge of Marlborough’s united cavalry. It was as if the tables had been turned in a few minutes. The pressure was now on the French with their line crumbling and their powerful right wing still holding Blenheim but bottled up and isolated, unable to affect the outcome of the battle.

As Tallard would later poignantly write: ‘I saw one instant in which the battle was won; if the cavalry had not turned and abandoned the line.’ The French centre was exposed by the rout of the French cavalry. Further weakened, it severed into two disconnected parts. Tallard and the Elector of Bavaria lacked the empathy of their opponents and they made little attempt to coordinate. Blenheim itself surrendered as darkness fell, adding 10,000 prisoners to the 12,000 casualties on the Franco-Bavarian side.

The political consequences of this day were even more significant than the character of the military success. It was the first great defeat Louis XIV had suffered and utterly destroyed all the stratagems with which he had dreamt of menacing Vienna and advancing a Franco-Bavarian force along the valley of the Danube. It sealed in blood the bond between Catholic Vienna and Protestant London and between Marlborough and Eugene. At the same time it put paid to any chance of a Hungarian insurrection and threw the Bourbons on to the defensive. For five years the myth of French invincibility would remain shattered until on the great palisades of Malplaquet the French defence recovered its stubbornness.

After Blenheim the two victors went their own ways. While Marlborough, after due adulation in London, defeated the French in another great though more modest victory at Ramillies, Eugene returned to Vienna to be feted by a grateful court. Both men were lavishly rewarded. In Vienna in addition to a fine Palais near the cathedral along the Weihburggasse, the Prince was given ground to construct the magnificent Schloss Belvedere under the design of Lukas von Hildebrandt. Further east on the Marchfeld, the hauntingly beautiful Schloss Hof, immortalised by Canaletto, was another gem to be added to the victor’s laurels. Eugene, the unlikely warrior whose fearless courage bordered on hysteria on the battlefield, became a great patron of the arts and the Belvedere remains to this day one of the great triumphs of Austrian baroque.

Turin: The attack of Prince Leopold of Anhalt Dessau.

The Siege of Turin: Oudenarde and Malplaquet

It was not to be long before the sound of the guns would take Eugene on the road to war again. He was determined not to allow the year of 1706 to pass without some great action. It was time to deal with Louis XIV’s ambitions on the Italian peninsula again. Checked on the Danube and in the Lowlands after his defeat at Ramillies, Louis wanted to undermine the Habsburgs’ allies around Turin. The French invested the city and occupied the surrounding land and Alpine foothills.

Another army would have to make its way from the Alpine fastnesses of the Tyrol down to the Piedmontese foothills. Eugene marched with only 24,000 mostly Austrian and German troops across the Alps, ascending mountains and crossing rivers through country occupied by his enemies. To everyone’s astonishment he arrived in time to relieve the besieged garrison, venturing an attack on the French at four o’clock in the morning on 7 September 1706 notwithstanding his inferiority in equipment and numbers. The French were prepared and their artillery decimated Eugene’s front ranks until the Prussians on Eugene’s left wing under Prince Leopold of Dessau broke through the French entrenchments on their third attempt and put their obstinate opponents to the bayonet. This encouraged Eugene’s right wing, made up of Palatinate and Gotha troops, leavened with some Württemberg regiments, to push forward. At the same time Count Daun who commanded the garrison erupted from the citadel with several thousand troops, further disordering the French lines that were now pressed upon two fronts.

The Prussians mounted the ramparts first and in a letter to Zinzensdorf, Eugene generously acknowledged the Prussians’ valour noting: ‘The Prince of Anhalt has once more done wonders with his troops at Turin. I met him twice in the thickest fire and in the very front of it, and, I cannot conceal it, that in bravery, and especially in discipline his troops have far surpassed mine’.

The raising of the Siege of Turin added further laurels to Eugene’s reputation, and although the Prussian infantry under his command had distinguished itself, the Austrian garrison had also fought with great vigour and courage. The confusion of the French had greatly increased as a result of their rear line being attacked by Daun, whose troops wounded the senior French commander, Marcin and the Duke of Orleans. Marcin, who was captured, died the following day. His troops left more than 5,000 dead on the battlefield and twice as many wounded. Barely 16,000 survivors fled over the Alps into France, all that remained of an army which had at one point been reckoned at nearly 60,000 strong. The abandoned supplies were stupendous. More than 200 cannon and 80,000 barrels of powder as well as standards and treasure fell into Eugene’s hands.

The strategic effects were even more spectacular as the French rapidly lost one place after another in Italy and were forced to conclude a general capitulation according to the terms of which they evacuated Italy entirely. On hearing the news of Turin, Marlborough wrote: ‘It is impossible to express the joy it has given me but I really love this Prince [Eugene]. This glorious act must bring France so low that … with the blessing of God we have such peace as will give us quiet for all our days.’ By 1707 France had lost a third of the Spanish inheritance she claimed and the Habsburg Emperor had secured Lombardy and the Netherlands by the two great battles of the previous year.

On 11 June 1708 at Oudenarde, the two allied commanders again formed an invincible duo, Marlborough’s mood visibly lifting when he was joined by Eugene after a string of British losses in Flanders. Their opponents, the Dukes of Burgoyne and Vendôme could not abide each other. Once again at a critical moment in the battle, Eugene’s cavalry rode against their old opponents, the French Household dragoons, though with less effect this time. Nevertheless, the left wing of the allies under Eugene never let Marlborough down and this great battle was won, as at Blenheim, because of the cohesion of command.

Oudenarde opened the way for Eugene to attack and take by storm the citadel of Ryssel, hitherto regarded as impregnable. France was now utterly humbled north as well as south of the Alps and the dreadful winter of 1708 forced her into further concessions though not as many as Eugene and Marlborough desired. Both men agreed not only that no single possession of the House of Austria should be in French hands but that Louis XIV should assist in expelling his own grandson Philip from Spain. Not even defeated France could bear such extreme humiliation, and war began again. In the Netherlands the great armies limbered up for another sanguinary struggle.

At the outset of the great Battle of Malplaquet, Eugene received a graze to the head from a passing shot. It was almost an omen, because this victory was more bitterly contested than any other in the campaigns to date. The French retired from the field exhausted but in good order. They had given a good account of themselves and had shown resilience when pushed. Their defensive position, the bloc, was formidable and this battle cost Marlborough many of his finest regiments. The French were not pursued by Eugene’s horse which in one final melee had fought their opponents to a standstill but were themselves so exhausted that they were incapable of harassing the French further.

It was to be the last of the great duo’s victories but they could look back on an undefeated partnership that had restored the balance of power to the Continent. Nonetheless, Malplaquet marked the point at which France would be pushed no more. France sued for terms and one by one her network of fortresses was surrendered but the complete destruction of France was no longer deemed possible and any plans for a march on Paris to fulfil the promise of total revenge were abandoned after the Tories took over in London and Marlborough was recalled and dismissed. With the death of the Emperor Joseph I on 17 April 1711 all enthusiasm on the part of England to support Austria began to wane.