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.


Portrait of Prince Eugene of Savoy by Jan Kupecký. Shown here in late middle age.

Austria, Grenadier zu Pferde (Horse Grenadiers) 1730 by Rudolf von Ottenfeld

Eugene’s military reforms and Austrian white

Eugene was keen to incorporate lessons learnt from his campaigning next to Marlborough. In his role as President of the Imperial War Council, he had initiated a number of reforms to the Imperial forces which further emphasised the distinctive character of the army he had led to victory in both eastern and western theatres of war.

His experience of all three infantry had led him to the firm conviction that a greater degree of uniformity was necessary if efficiency was to be maintained and even improved. He had been impressed by many aspects of Marlborough’s war machine, not least the steadfastness of his infantry and its fine drill. He had also seen at first hand the hardiness of the Prussians under his command and their stoical ability to survive the fiercest of attacks. Above all, Eugene’s experience of effective cavalry screens in his campaigns with Marlborough and the great value of mounted scouts in his campaigns against the Ottomans encouraged him to favour the development of light cavalry.

It is interesting to note that according to at least one authority (Ottenfeld) the Austrian cavalry officers were deliberately chosen to include a small but significant proportion of soldiers who had risen through the ranks. Eugene, whose detestation of all things to do with Louis XIV’s military machine was legendary, strongly believed that one of the defects of the French military system was that its officer caste was too remote from its other ranks. An officer cadre that was drawn too exclusively from one narrow level of society bred complacency and inertia. It was important that the ‘best families’ produced a great share of the officer corps but the social distance between the French cavalry officer and his troopers was in Eugene’s view simply too wide.

These views would have a long-term effect on the social make-up of the Habsburg officer corps. Unlike that of France or, notably, Prussia whose officer corps was exclusively drawn from the Junker families, it would not be bound entirely by the hierarchy of social origins. Even the British army was dominated well into the twentieth century in its upper echelons by the Anglo-Irish Protestant ascendancy: most of the field marshals of the Second World War were from Ulster. The Austrian army at this stage in its development embraced diversity and social mobility.

Eugene also addressed the issue of recruitment of all arms with a reforming zeal. He consolidated the system whereby regiments recruited in particular areas (Bezirk). He was convinced that local people who knew or were related to each other would fight best together in the same regiment. The regiment should recruit ‘the relatives and people who are known’ to men already serving.

Eugene also insisted on the highest possible standards of physical appearance. ‘Manly faces and a good figure’ were among his requirements. Convicted criminals and deserters were banned from recruitment, the latter on account of the inevitability that they ‘having deserted once will certainly desert again’. Because an army had many requirements in its day-to-day activities in peacetime, Eugene believed that priority should also be given to craftsmen in the recruitment process. Above all, where possible the men should be ‘good young people from good homes’.

The reforms bore fruit and accompanied a significant expansion in the numbers of regiments in the Habsburg forces. Between 1697 and 1710 Infantry regiments increased from 29 to 40 in number. Each regiment was composed of 12 companies, each of 150 men. Cavalry expanded too. By 1711 the seven Cuirassier and one Dragoon regiment of the decade earlier had been increased to 20 Cuirassier regiments, 12 Dragoon regiments and, notably, five Hussar regiments.

This new establishment demanded a concomitant overhaul of military expenditure. In 1699 Leopold I had initiated a system whereby part of each soldier’s pay was retained for equipment and uniform costs. Officers continued to pay for their own full dress and battle equipment and uniforms. Pay was standardised between regiments, the normal daily rate for an infantryman being two and two-thirds kreutzer and, for a cavalry soldier, 5 kreutzer. The pay was increased in the ranks as and if the soldiers received promotion to non-commissioned rank (e.g. corporal: 4 kreutzer). The captain detailed to oversee regimental payments was instructed to ensure each soldier was given a receipt (Zettel) detailing all deductions from his pay for equipment. This is an early example of the bureaucracy that became a hallmark of all things military for the Habsburgs.

Alongside these financial innovations, Prince Eugene and the Imperial War Council attempted to introduce more consistency in the regimental uniforms, still largely at this stage in the hands of the regimental colonels. As ‘pearl grey’ wool was the cheapest and easiest material to conserve, this colour, which under the Danubian sun bleached easily to a lighter shade of off-white, began to be more and more widely adopted. It was still not by any means ubiquitous until in 1707, on 28 December, Eugene, as President of the War Council, issued a decree allowing only three regiments (Osnabrück, Bayreuth and Wetzel) to wear green or blue. Six months later, on Leopold’s death, the new Emperor, Joseph I, approved an order insisting on ‘bleached grey’ for all regiments with the exception of the garrisons of Prague and Gross-Glogau. By the winter of 1708 most regiments had adhered to these regulations and the traditional picture of the Austrian soldier in white with facings of various shades of blue and red became more widespread.

Like Field Marshal Daun later, under Maria Theresa, Eugene believed the soldier would look after his uniform better if he considered it to be his own. But compared to the uniforms of England and France Austrian service dress was not only less ornate but generally of cheaper quality. This economy underlined the severe financial restraints that governed military outlay and in which the remarkable career of Samuel Oppenheimer alluded to earlier during the Siege of Vienna also played a role. On Oppenheimer’s death in 1703 the state finances with which he had shored up Eugene’s campaigns against the Turks went bust and drastic cuts had to be made to all areas of military expenditure.

The new Emperor Joseph I (crowned in 1705) strongly supported Eugene’s policies. Joseph was very different from his father even in appearance – he looks to have been one of the few pre-modern Habsburgs not to have had the typical Habsburg lip. Fair-haired and blue-eyed, he was strikingly handsome. An enthusiast for the arts, he was also fascinated by the science of war. He supported religious toleration and coming to an understanding with the Hungarians. But the Magyars could not trust a Habsburg and their predilection for violent rebellion cast a constant shadow over Joseph’s reign. It was manifested in the form of a peasant war in which a people’s army under the leadership of Ferenc Rákóczi brought death and destruction to parts of Silesia and Moravia. This rebel made it with his men virtually to the gates of Vienna until he was defeated by the shock of trained troops. The Hungarian revolt, though decisively put down by General Heuster, was followed – to the Hungarians’ great surprise, by a peace of dazzling magnanimity.

Joseph was advised by brilliant men who had detested the unwieldiness of his father’s administration, and his brief six-year reign, as well as being marked by clemency and tolerance, was characterised by reforming zeal and a proud indifference towards the Francophile Pope. When Clement XI threatened to excommunicate Prince Eugene who was about to encamp on papal territory, Joseph recalled that Comacchio on the Po delta had originally been an Imperial domain and promptly ordered Eugene to occupy it without delay.

Joseph’s efforts to develop his and Eugene’s ideas for the army came into constant conflict with financial realities. At one point in 1708 Eugene in exasperation wrote acidly to Count Zinzendorf, Joseph’s Foreign Minister: ‘the troops have not been paid in August a single kreutzer. I leave it to Your Excellency to imagine how the men can be saved from their inevitable collapse.’ These constraints especially affected the recently expanded cavalry regiments. Despite these problems, Eugene’s reforms were strongly supported by Joseph. As an archduke, he had fought in Eugene’s army with some distinction. Reform proceeded as fast as Imperial bureaucracy would permit. As well as recruitment, uniform and organisation, the President of the Imperial War Council also addressed the issue of tactics.

Although some historians have dwelt on the influence of the Turkish wars on the Austrian army’s campaigns in western Europe, Eugene appears always to have regarded the two spheres of war as separate. In fact he insisted on a firm separation between the tactics to be used against the Ottomans and those used against western European armies. For example he gave clear instructions that against the Turks his cavalry should always form three lines to protect against the shock surprise tactics of the Ottomans, whereas against western European cavalry his horsemen were to be drawn up in only two lines. A cavalry veteran himself, on becoming President of the Imperial War Council one of the first steps Eugene took was to increase the establishment of the Dragoon regiments from ten to twelve companies.

Noting the need in the western sphere for formal arrangement of his cavalry, Eugene also set the exact distances between his units. The two lines were to be no more than five paces apart and the horses similarly spaced in the line. The positioning of the kettledrums, trumpeters and ‘lifeguard’ or reserve squadron were all carefully considered.

In 1711, shortly before Joseph I died tragically young of smallpox, he and Eugene had further agreed to strengthen the cavalry by the incorporation of grenadier companies among the dragoons. These were, like the infantry grenadiers, not formed into separate units but were elite companies of existing regiments. At more or less the same time the Cuirassier regiments were to be reinforced by the addition of carbine-equipped companies who were given the short carbine with a socket bayonet.

Charles VI : The last embers of Spanish inheritance

The new Emperor was Joseph’s brother, Charles VI, on whose account the War of the Spanish Succession had been waged. The maritime powers, having fought to prevent the crowns of Spain and France uniting, had no wish for the crowns of Spain and Austria to be reunited by a single Habsburg, and thus the new Tory government in London broke off the alliance with Vienna.

By the terms of The ‘Great Betrayal’, as the series of treaties concluded in Utrecht in 1713 were called in Vienna, the Spanish crown was awarded to a Bourbon after all, on condition that no individual could be King both of France and Spain. France as a military power was humbled and Austria gained suzerainty over the Spanish Netherlands, Naples, Milan and Sardinia, this last soon to be swapped for Tuscany. At the Habsburg Kaiser’s request, the treaty confirmed a token of gratitude for Prussia’s support in the war. Henceforth the Prussian Elector would be allowed to style himself ‘King in Prussia’.

But, Spain or no Spain, Austria was great even though she did not have in her new Kaiser, Charles, a great Emperor. Charles VI, in appearance, resembled his father Leopold. In character, he was imbued with the stiffness of the seventeenth-century Spanish Habsburgs. In 1703, after he had been proclaimed King of Spain, he travelled as Charles III through Holland and landed at Portsmouth where Marlborough conveyed him to an audience with Queen Anne at Windsor. From this meeting we have the charming portrait of an eyewitness, Rapin:

The court was very splendid and much thronged; the queen’s behaviour towards him was very noble and obliging. The young king charmed all present; he had a gravity beyond his age, tempered with much modesty. His behaviour was in all points so exact that there was not a circumstance in his whole deportment that was liable to censure.

But Rapin’s account also noted the outlines of a certain Hispanic severity: ‘He paid an extraordinary respect to the queen and yet maintained a due greatness in it. He had the art of seeming well pleased with everything without so much as smiling once all the while he was at court, which was three days. He spoke but little and all he said was judicious and obliging.’

This demeanour though correct was not necessarily calculated to impress. He felt all the aspects of Habsburg Spain’s greatness very keenly. Moreover, he lacked his late brother’s open-minded tolerance of non-Catholics; hence his scrupulously correct but cool behaviour at the English court described above. So it was no surprise that the loss of Spain was traumatising for one who had seemed destined to rule as King. In Vienna during the long fogs of the winter months and their fierce biting winds, he thought of recreating the Spanish Escorial in the great monastery of Klosterneuburg on the banks of the Danube. To this day, Klosterneuburg’s domes show in the splendour of their decoration the power of Charles’s dreams. This Hispanic mentality meant that Charles rarely considered the army he had inherited. He placed more faith in diplomats than in soldiers. His indifference towards the army was born of bitter experience. After all, he had lost Spain even though Habsburg armies had fought with success.

Moreover, his experience in Spain, a great seafaring nation, stimulated Charles to seek compensation. Now north of the Alps and serving as monarch of largely landlocked territories, he favoured the advice of Spanish navigators and merchants rather than his Austrian generals. The great port of Trieste was encouraged to be the entrepôt of the Habsburg lands and the Imperial and Royal East India Company set about the foundation of a trading empire which, within a generation, showed all the signs of being able to rival that of the great maritime nations. At Britain’s request, for supporting the Pragmatic Sanction the company was later disbanded.

Charles VI remained defined by the sudden loss of Spain and his reign was overshadowed by the neurotic fear that his House would also lose the empire in the west unless he took concrete steps to ensure that his successor could inherit his realm without challenge. To this end he issued the Pragmatic Sanction in 1713, the year of the Utrecht treaty. This domestic edict was to ensure the succession for Charles’s children, as yet unborn, in preference to the daughters of Joseph I. It established the right of sole inheritance by the eldest son or, if no sons existed, by the eldest daughter. By its terms, the Austrian Habsburg line was finally freed from the possibility of a divided inheritance.

Once his eldest child, Maria Theresa, was born in 1717, Charles began seeking the recognition of the European powers for the Sanction but this process was not only unhappy in its constant genuflection to the wishes of other nations but it involved Vienna in many harmful concessions.

Eugene’s final triumph: boldly by battery besieges Belgrade

The birth of Maria Theresa coincided with Eugene’s arguably most spectacular feat of arms. In the same year, Eugene crowned his military career and retook Belgrade. In 1715, the Turks had broken the Treaty of Karlowitz and declared war against the Venetians and besieged Corfu. When the Venetians appealed to the Emperor, as a guarantor of the Karlowitz treaty, for help, Charles brushed aside appeals from the Porte and dispatched Eugene to Hungary at the head of a small army including many veterans of his campaigns against the French. In addition, thanks to the settlement of Szatmár with the Hungarians, many Hussar regiments were suddenly available, an indispensable light cavalry arm which Eugene respected and admired. Well screened from an Ottoman army of more than twice his size he camped at Peterwardein, whose fortifications erected by him in an earlier campaign the Turks had not destroyed. Without delaying, the following morning he deployed his cavalry to attack. Eugene’s horsemen surrounded the wings of his enemy and after some stubborn resistance initially by Janissaries began to encircle the Ottoman army while Eugene personally led his infantry into the Turkish centre.

At the same time six gunboats on the Danube, deployed by Eugene, opened fire and the Peterwardein garrison made up largely of Serbs poured out to take part in the slaughter. The Grand Vizier who commanded the Ottomans was killed and Eugene captured more than 250 artillery pieces, 50 standards and immense treasures. By three o’clock, more than 30,000 Turks lay dead on the field near Karlowitz where the treaty had been signed seventeen years earlier.

Eugene now proceeded to invest and capture Temesvár (Timişoara), the key to the Banat and the last of the ancient dependencies of Hungary retained by the Turks, before moving on to besiege Belgrade. Belgrade was a formidable obstacle: the Belgrade garrison was 30,000 strong, it had supplies for at least two months and its strategic importance meant that it would receive assistance from other parts of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, after two months of fruitless investment, Eugene’s forces found themselves pinned by a relief force into the marshy ground between the Danube and the Save where, exposed daily to enemy fire and fever, their morale began to decline rapidly. The Turkish relief force kept up the pressure and was soon threatening Eugene’s main line of communication over the Save. At the same time their lines pressed closer and closer. Eugene was in danger of becoming trapped in the feverish delta of the confluence of the two great rivers below the Belgrade fortress of Kalemegdan.

Calling a council of war Eugene urged a general attack under cover of darkness as the only means of retrieving the situation. His commanders supported him and the following night he personally inspected every outpost of his forces to give refreshment and support to his weary men ahead of the attack. His forces numbered 60,000 men but of these a third was on the other side of the Save so that he had barely 40,000 men with whom to attack a force reckoned at more than 200,000, the largest army the Sultan had sent west since the Siege of Vienna. The attack was scheduled for the following midnight and was to be preceded by a mortar bombardment.

The explosions caused chaos and many casualties but thick fog disorientated the attackers and although they achieved a degree of surprise, their opponents rallied, with the result that Eugene’s forces were in danger of being thrown back in total confusion. A couple of hours later the sun rose, dispelling the fog. Instantly Eugene saw the crisis as his right wing was in danger of being outflanked by the Ottomans. Placing himself in front of his second line of infantry, sword in hand, he summoned his cavalry and charged the enemy and, though wounded, his example rallied his troops, who pressed forward and drove the Ottomans back with wild cries of ‘We will conquer or die!’ This infantry attack proved successful and Eugene’s men, seizing the enemy cannon, turned and fired them into the disordered Ottomans. Once again imminent defeat had been turned into victory and so precipitate was the Turkish retreat that many were crushed to death in the stampede.

Belgrade thus once more fell to the Austrians and by the Treaty of Passarowitz, the following year in 1718, a truce of twenty-five years was signed and the Austrians secured much Balkan territory, including the Banat, which comprised parts of Serbia, Bosnia and Romania.

But though the Treaty of Passarowitz cemented the reputation of Austrian arms at its zenith, subsequent military commitments proceeded less gloriously. Many of these were undertaken as a result of the demands of the other powers in return for supporting the Pragmatic Sanction. The campaigning to the west and the east proved less successful than a generation earlier and it left the reputation of the Imperial forces much diminished.

First Saxony demanded participation in the ill-fated War of Polish Succession. Then Russia demanded renewed hostilities against the Turks. England needed no help in wars but simply insisted on the Ostend trading company and the Imperial and Royal East India Company being disbanded. All of these events had unhappy consequences for the Habsburg domains.

The Threat to Vienna 1683 I

In February 1683 Quartermaster-General Haslingen drew up a complete list of Leopold’s troops and of the areas in which they were stationed. He counted seventy companies in Bohemia, forty-five in Moravia, and forty-eight in Silesia—with a complement, in theory, of 7,600 foot and 10,000 cuirassiers and dragoons. There were seventy-five companies in western Hungary and thirty-eight in Upper Hungary, although a comparison with another of his memoranda seems to show that he was here counting some regiments and companies twice over; nor could he, or anyone else, rely on the estimates of men serving in the various types of Hungarian militia. In the Inner Austrian lands (Styria, Carinthia and Carniola) Haslingen enumerated forty-three companies—5,600 foot and 1,200 horse; in Upper and Lower Austria forty companies—4,000 foot and 1,600 horse; and in the empire eighty companies of foot and one of horse—16,400 men. His figures for the number of companies were correct (except, no doubt, for Hungary); but on the premise that the full complement in foot and mounted companies was 200 and 80 men respectively, the grand totals of 44,800 infantry and 17,600 cavalry were no more than the roughest of guides to the size of the whole Habsburg force. They much exceeded the actual number of effective soldiers. However, the quartermaster could soon hope to add to it the bands of irregulars to be raised by Magyar magnates, three mounted regiments which Prince Lubomirski was commissioned to bring from Poland, and also the new regiments of the patentees nominated by Leopold during the winter.

The immediate problem, for the War Council, was to decide how many men could be safely moved east from the empire, in spite of Louis XIV’s aggressive policy, in order to reinforce the contingents sent south from the Bohemian lands, building up by this concentration the strongest possible force in Hungary to oppose the Turks. The decision involved some of the best regiments at Leopold’s disposal; it had also to take into account the treaty recently agreed with Max Emmanuel of Bavaria, which obliged the Emperor to leave 15,000 men always available for the defence of the Empire. In fact, about 7,500 infantry from the old regiments were finally ordered to march from the western front to a rendezvous at Kittsee, near Pressburg, to join there the great majority of the regiments recently quartered in Bohemia and the various Austrian duchies. In due course, 5,000 men from the new regiments were also available for the campaign in Hungary.

It was soon realised that one miscalculation had already been made. The troops, especially those in the Empire, took much longer than expected to make the long journey to the eastern front, and the date for the rendezvous at Kittsee had to be altered from 21 April to 6 May. Sixteen days were thus lost, and the chance of taking the initiative before the Turks could arrive dwindled fast.

Another difficult point was the appointment of a commander in the field. Leopold, unlike his father, unlike such militant contemporary rulers as Max Emmanuel and William of Orange or John Sobieski, never imagined himself a victorious commanding general. He had always to choose a deputy, after taking into account the ticklish animosities of the military and political grandees of his court. In the last war against France, Montecuccoli, by combining the presidency of the War Council with the supreme command in the field, had caused them the greatest offence. Enemies and critics of Baden, the new President, were determined to deny him the same monopoly of power and they relied on the pledge, previously given by Leopold, to appoint Charles of Lorraine commander-in-chief if war broke out again. This could not bind the Emperor. Circumstances alter cases, Charles had often been ill in recent years, while Herman of Baden certainly disliked and perhaps under-estimated him. In 1683, in spite of counter-intrigues, Lorraine’s party at the court persevered and finally triumphed, so that he was instructed to be in Vienna by 10 April in order to discuss the strategy of the coming campaign.

He duly arrived from Innsbruck and a council of war was held on 21 April. It took a great many decisions in detail, but the guiding proposal was to place the field army in the centre of the frontier through Hungary, around Komárom. The council wanted to leave General Schultz with a strong independent force farther north, on the River Váh; and to ensure that the lower part of the Mur valley far to the south (which guards the approaches to Graz) was firmly held by troops from Styria and Croatia. The gaps between were assigned mainly to the Magyars, under Esterházy along the lower Váh, and under Batthyány along the line of the Rába. Lorraine’s command of the field-army was publicly announced on 21 April.

By the beginning of May troops were arriving at the rendezvous, a flat plain round the village of Kittsee, near the southern shore of the Danube where the last spurs of the Leitha hills die away opposite Pressburg. While Lorraine himself rode east to inspect the position at Györ, his officers remained behind to supervise the assembling of regiments which were coming in from the north and west. It was rainy, windy weather which damaged a pontoon-bridge leading across to the town. The officers felt perturbed by the shortness of forage, they grumbled hard at the lateness of the spring, but enjoyed plenty of leisure to discuss uncertain news filtering through about the entry of the Ottoman army into Hungary, or alleged difficulties in the Habsburg negotiation with Poland. In Vienna the Emperor prepared to come to Pressburg. So did courtiers, foreign ambassadors, fine ladies and sightseers. Splendid ceremonial tents were made ready for the review. Then Lorraine returned from his tour of inspection, apparently satisfied by what he saw at Györ and elsewhere along the border. The Magyars appeared, led by the Palatine Paul Esterházy. They were only 500 or 600 at first, not the 6,000 promised, but a few days later their number increased to 2,000. About 32,000 men—21,000 foot and 10,800 horse and dragoons—were finally and elaborately assembled for a grand parade on 6 May when the Emperor crossed over from Pressburg to spend nine slow and crowded hours on the triple ceremony of a solemn Mass, an inspection of the troops, and a state banquet.

It was a brave show that day; but the summer campaign of the Habsburg army proved a dismal failure, due largely to the paralysis of the command. Lorraine, as the general in the field, was required to consult with his council of officers, and the Emperor in Vienna, and the War Council which was dominated by Herman of Baden. The personal rivalry of Baden and Lorraine remained intense, and they differed over the whole strategy to be followed in the period (of uncertain duration) before the Turkish army reached the Austrian frontier. Exasperated by the general unwillingness of many high-ranking officers to accept his proposals with any cordiality, Lorraine fell ill with worry and exhaustion. The theatre of war was a complete novelty to him—apart from one campaign in Hungary twenty years earlier—and his touch was very uncertain, as if he did not realise the distances involved or even the ordinary difficulties of transport in this waterlogged area. His main idea was clear-cut: an aggressive march eastwards, followed by the capture of an important point held by the Turks, stood a chance of compelling the Turkish grand army to spend the rest of the summer and autumn in trying to recover what they had just lost. A powerful attack of this kind, at an early date, appeared to him the one possible method of defending the Austrian lands; there is no hint that he ever gave the defence of Hungary a thought, except as an aid to the protection of more westerly areas. The target which he suggested, at the conference held in Kittsee on 7 May—with Baden and nine senior officers present—was Esztergom on the south bank of the Danube, or alternatively Neuhäusel which lies well to the north of the river. Both were important Ottoman citadels. The argument in favour of an aggressive start was duly marshalled. It would raise the Emperor’s reputation if a force were put into the field before the Turks were ready, and thereby strengthen his bargaining power in the Empire and in Poland; it would increase Turkish dissatisfaction with the Grand Vezir; and ‘fix’ the enemy, compelling him to concentrate on the recapture of a lost position in the coming campaign. Baden apparently demurred. Most of the officers agreed to the course proposed by Lorraine, although they preferred the idea of an attack on Neuhäusel—which was separated from the approaching Ottoman army by the Danube—to an attack on Esztergom. It was finally decided to move the troops eastwards to Györ and to Komárom, the outermost Habsburg fortress, and then to reconnoitre in the direction of Esztergom, subject always to the Emperor’s approval.

During the next fortnight the army, split into sections in order to ease a shortage of forage everywhere, marched and rode slowly across the enormous plain. By 19 May the infantry reached the outskirts of Györ, and on the next day continued on the route to Komárom. Camps were set along the right bank of the river. Lorraine himself reconnoitred Esztergom while waiting for munitions and artillery. He held firmly to his project of an attack, even though he felt disconcerted by his officers’ grumbling, by the indecisive instructions received from Vienna, and contradictory reports about the speed and direction of the Turkish advance. In spite of the council of officers, who met on 26 May and loudly opposed the move on Esztergom, Lorraine held firm and shortly afterwards ordered the troops to march. They had already left the camp on 31 May when Lorraine returned from a further reconnaissance and countermanded the order. His reason for this was apparently a disturbing message from Styria, that the Grand Vezir had already crossed the bridge at Osijek, so that a further advance by the Habsburg forces looked exposed to an early attack in open country against overwhelming odds. Lorraine was in despair when he got back to his base. Then, temporarily, the position seemed to alter. Less alarming intelligence reached him about the pace of the Turkish advance, and he received a letter from Leopold encouraging him to persevere with an attack on some Turkish stronghold before the main body of the enemy arrived on the scene. But Lorraine dithered, and his faithful secretary Le Bègue began to think that a return to the duchy of Lorraine on terms imposed by Louis XIV would be a better fate than the infuriating perplexities of supreme command in Hungary. On 2 (or possibly 3) June the general proposed, for the last time, an assault on Esztergom. The officers protested and he began to reconsider the alternative of an assault on Neuhäusel; this the officers, somewhat grudgingly, approved.

Throughout the last three weeks, at almost every camp, Lorraine had received reports from Vienna which emphasised his isolation in the distant world of court politics. He attempted to brief his supporters in the capital by letter, but far too many interests there were eager for his discredit by his failure as a general. Lorraine took it as an intolerable insult that Herman of Baden, returning from a tour of inspection to Györ in the middle of May, had not even stopped to confer with him. He resented and probably exaggerated the hostility of some of Leopold’s advisers, like the Bishop of Vienna and Zinzendorf. In any case their criticism had its justification. Laymen might be pardoned for thinking that the organisation of a defensive position along the Rivers Váh and Rába was the paramount concern. Certain of the professional soldiers, Baden or Rimpler, supported them. As things turned out, these experts completely underestimated the mass and weight of the Turkish attack but Lorraine made the greater mistake of wasting time and resources for six precious weeks. He had accomplished nothing at Esztergom; then he made the troublesome crossing of the Danube at Komárom and advanced towards Neuhäusel. All went well at first, although it was realised that more heavy artillery would be needed here. The outworks were quickly taken, and troops lodged in the island immediately opposite the inner defences of the Turks; and yet once again, by 8 June Lorraine was in despair. He was embarrassed by a letter from the Emperor which advised him to remain on the defensive, without positively forbidding an assault on a Turkish strongpoint like Neuhäusel. This he countered by a reply which asked for more explicit instructions. Then, during the night of the 7th, everything went wrong. The guns which the troops had with them were not sited in accordance with Lorraine’s orders, and he inclined to think that the error was a piece of deliberate obstruction by the officers concerned. Other, heavier weapons, on their way up from Komárom got stuck in the mud, and it soon became clear that they could not be brought into action against the enemy for several days. Finally, reports suggested that Tartars and some Turkish forces were assembling in great numbers near Buda to advance towards Neuhäusel. Confused and angry discussions went on all the next day at headquarters. In the morning Lorraine was still determined to go on with the attack. General Leslie arrived and joined the council of war. He supported the other officers, until Lorraine gave way and decided to return to Komárom without waiting for further orders from Leopold. His second attempt to take the initiative, before the grand army of the enemy arrived near the scene of action, had failed utterly.

On the next day the retreat began. A camp was set on the left bank of the Neutra opposite Komárom, from which it was easy enough to raid into country beyond the frontier for essential supplies. For ten days the army rested, motionless in this central position, while Lorraine expected Kara Mustafa to show his hand by committing himself to a definite line of advance. News from stray deserters and other miscellaneous arrivals at the camp disclosed that the odds were in favour of a Turkish move towards Györ, with a slight chance that very large Turkish forces might still be sent to fight north of the Danube. On 18 May he received in audience envoys from Thököly, who were travelling towards Vienna to give Leopold formal notice that their master was ending the truce between them. Their word was not of the slightest value, but when they announced that Györ was the first Turkish objective Lorraine at last felt disposed to agree. Certainly, on the following day there are real signs that he was preparing to break camp and move his troops. On the 19th some detachments crossed the Neutra. On the 21st he sent the dragoon regiments of Castell and d’Herbeville to reinforce Schultz up in the north, and the Dieppenthal dragoons to Gúta (another small fortified post which he himself inspected). Starhemberg and Leslie set out on their way to Györ. Turkish raiders had already appeared near the now deserted camp across the Neutra, and the guns of Komárom fired warningly over the water at them.

During the next few hours a strong gale blew up suddenly and broke the pontoon bridge over the Danube. Fortunately a quick repair was possible and soon the troops of the field-army (preceded by Lorraine himself) got back to Györ.

It had become urgently necessary to settle on a plan for the proper defence of this neighbourhood. Once again, Lorraine and his friends championed a forward position. A letter written some days earlier by Le Bègue, while he was still in the Schütt, shows that they wished to place their army in the angle between the right bank of the Rába and the Danube, in front of the fortifications of Györ. They held that the defences of the town were far too weak to hold out against heavy Turkish artillery. They believed that the alternative, sponsored by both Herman of Baden and by Leslie, of keeping a great majority of the forces in a sheltered position in the Schütt, would expose Györ to the risk of immediate capture. It would dangerously uncover the left bank of the Rába and possibly Austria itself. Once on the spot Lorraine personally surveyed the ground. He did his best to hasten the palisading of the counterscarp in front of the town, still far from complete, and soon 7,000 men were at work on it. He also started to fortify the heights at some distance from the town, across the Rába, in order to prevent the enemy from beginning their siege operations uncomfortably close to the main defences, which would have shortened the time needed by the Turks to prepare a final assault. The Lorrainers lamented that so little had been done at an earlier stage; but the engineer Rimpler disagreed and felt more confident, perhaps partly because he himself was responsible for much of the spadework carried out in and around Györ since 1681; and indeed, the Turks never took the place in 1683. Moreover Rimpler and other officers could not approve the plan to place the field-army in front of the works, and after detailed discussion the command decided on a new scheme of defence. It visualised a slight enlargement of the garrison in Györ and its outposts, while the greater part of the army was stationed along the left bank of the Rába. This decision was carried out amid scenes of hectic activity between 25 and 29 June. A redoubt and other works were built, to guard the fords immediately in front of the troops. Some cavalry and dragoons moved southwards, and others northwards over the Danube (into the Schütt), to ward off any movement by skirmishers in either direction. All the time different messengers were bringing in news of the Turks’ approach, while on the 28th Lorraine himself led a cavalry raid into the countryside in front of them, in order to strip it of any supplies which the enemy could use. Soon, smoke rising over the horizon revealed the first incursions of the enemy. On the 30th, pickets of guards protecting labourers in the outworks had their first brush with advance bodies of Turks; and on the next day, 1 July, with perhaps 12,500 foot and 9,500 horse prepared for action behind the Rába, Lorraine and his officers watched vast numbers approaching them from the east.

The Italian Marsigli, who earlier drew attention to the importance of the defences above Györ, had been sent on a special mission to this area. His letters made gloomy reading ten days before the Turks appeared. The Magyars, he wrote, were utterly scornful of the Habsburg army which behaved so feebly at Esztergom and Neuhäusel. On 21 June some Tartars, already reported to be in the neighbourhood, caused panic at one small bridgehead where the Magyars on the spot refused to destroy the bridge. Marsigli himself and his troop of 200 dragoons did succeed in breaking down two other bridges over the Rába, but he warned Lorraine that there were ‘three fords’ to be watched between the marshes—his own sector—and Györ. Unfortunately, while the Magyar leaders assembled their men on the ‘island’ and Lorraine prepared to fight in and around the citadel, neither party attended to these easy crossings of the river. The discord between Batthyány and Draskovich on one side, and the Habsburg authorities (who had never examined this stretch of the frontier with thoroughness) on the other, produced a fatal fracture in the whole system of the defence; and as Marsigli was later to insist, in the great book which he wrote on Ottoman military institutions, the Tartars were absolute masters of the art of fording rivers with their horses, baggage and even with prisoners.

That night of 1 July, the Turkish camps were set on the right bank of the Rába and in front of the town, over a large area of ground which extended several miles upstream. Many other forces took up a position along the Danube and on the higher ground a little farther off. At two o’clock on the next morning Lorraine was woken, and tried to take stock of the position. As it grew light he could see the dense, irregular formation of the Turkish encampments, with large hosts of fighting men apparently getting ready for action. He roused up his own troops and put them in order of battle close to the river; batteries opened fire, attempting to drive the foremost Turks back from the edge of the water. Christian observers were guessing confusedly at the numbers of Moslems and Christian auxiliaries opposed to them: there were 80,000 there were 100,000 there were 150,000! At all events here was the enemy, looking as formidable as the most pessimistic reports had ever anticipated, with individual troops or groups testing the fordability of the Rába and riding upstream out of sight, well beyond the right wing of the Habsburg army. This crowded and confused spectacle slowly began to disclose a more regular pattern. Many Turkish or Tartar tents were struck and more men moved away to the south. The area round Györ itself was strangely still. During the afternoon these Turkish and Tartar horsemen got safely across the river, some making use of the fords, others swimming. The thin screen of Austrians from Styrum’s regiment and the Magyar or Croat forces guarding this section of the front were completely outnumbered, and the accusation of treachery levelled against Batthyány the Hungarian commander makes little sense. Neither he nor Styrum could have stopped the foe. His own men quickly preferred to surrender while Styrum’s fell back in disorder. And not much later smoke was visible a long way to the west.

Strangely enough Lorraine gave ground at once. He never seems to have considered that, for the time being at least, he could disregard a host of irregulars riding rapidly west to fire the countryside provided that the great mass of the opposing army was still in front of Györ. Indeed, he also broke up his own force into smaller pieces. Another thirteen companies were sent to stiffen the garrison, accompanied by a few aristocratic volunteers, Leslie led the main body of infantry over the Danube into the Schütt, and Lorraine himself prepared to withdraw the cavalry. Baggage and artillery moved over the Rabnitz westwards almost immediately, and the cavalry followed as evening fell. The retreat continued overnight and during the next day. There were Tartars ahead of the Habsburg regiments, and Tartars at their heels. At one moment the rearguard was mauled, so that Lorraine himself had to turn back and go to the rescue. The enemy moved quickly, with small groups of horsemen dotted over a wide area. The Habsburg troops were divided into a van, a main body, and a rear, riding west in a tighter, more compact formation. Both protagonists were taking the same route, up the Danube as far as Ungarisch-Altenburg (although the Tartars obviously circled round the town itself), where Lorraine spent the night of the 2nd. Both then ascended the winding course of the Leitha. While the Tartars or Turks roamed over the whole stretch of country between the right bank of the river and the Neusiedler See, the Habsburg commanders kept between the Leitha and Danube, and headed for Kittsee and Pressburg again. They camped for two more nights in the plain at Deutsch-Jahrndorf, waiting and hoping for the situation to clear. At first the reports from Györ suggested that Kara Mustafa was settling down to besiege the place, while Lorraine hoped to recover the district round the Neusiedler See by sending off 800 horse under Colonel Heisler in that direction. Unfortunately, news then came through that large numbers of Turkish infantry were crossing the Rába, and at the same time Lorraine heard from Leslie, who announced that he intended to withdraw westwards with all the infantry under his command unless he was given distinct orders to the contrary by 4 July. Such a step appeared to mean leaving Györ to its fate, and the message was only received at headquarters on 4 July. Too late, Lorraine replied that Leslie must stay on the Schütt. Happily Leslie took no notice and began to retreat.

Lorraine rode ahead to Kittsee for a conference with the vice-president of the War Council, Caplirs, and on the 6th most of the cavalry camped round Berg. Here the plain ends, the ground rises abruptly some thousand feet. Pressburg and the Danube lie a little way off on one side, and on the other the Leitha winds out of the Leitha hills into the plain. Lorraine was back in the landscape made familiar to many of his soldiers and officers by the rendezvous five weeks earlier; with this difference, remarked by everyone, that dust and smoke now thickened the air over the plain, dust kicked up by the moving horsemen, smoke from the fired barns and houses. Between the Leitha hills and the sharp outcrop at Berg smoother country continues in the direction of Vienna. It was a relatively narrow passage through which any sizeable invading force would have to pass, and Lorraine hoped to control it.

At the same time there was talk of building new bridges just below Pressburg. When it became clear that Leslie had definitely begun to draw back across the Schütt, the command planned to bring his infantry over these bridges across the Danube again, in this way re-assembling the entire field-army for the defence of the area between the Leitha and Danube. It seemed possible, and it was certainly essential, to hold up the advanced units of the enemy at Berg. If his main armament moved forward, it too would have to be resisted at this point but Lorraine hoped that Kara Mustafa himself—engaged on the siege of Györ—would not push beyond the Leitha: at Ungarisch-Altenburg Habsburg detachments still guarded the bridge and the fords across it, together with large magazines of food and munitions. Much farther off, Györ was momentarily isolated. Across the Leitha and towards the Neusiedler See, an area of lesser strategic importance, the situation meanwhile looked completely out of control. Neither Leopold’s government nor his armies had any power to check the frightful course of devastation there, in the countryside once quietly ruled over by Esterházy and his peers.

The Threat to Vienna 1683 II

Kara Mustafa Pasha -Grand Vizier and Commander of Ottoman Empire

At nine o’clock, on the morning of 7 July the whole position changed with appalling suddenness. Lorraine was riding a mile or two from his headquarters when he heard that the Turks had entered Ungarisch-Altenburg in great force. The surprise was so complete that the defenders were unable to destroy the bridge and it looked as if the Grand Vezir had thrown into the campaign another 25,000 or 30,000 disciplined men, of whom the van was coming up fast, in order to attack the much smaller Habsburg concentration of cavalry and dragoons round Berg. These would be overwhelmed, allowing the enemy to strike deeply into Austria in the direction of Vienna itself. But while Lorraine and his staff discussed the new crisis, they saw large clouds of dust rising behind them far off to the west from farther up the Leitha, which suggested ominously that other Turks had already got upstream, having by-passed Leopold’s troops. It was a double disaster; and Count Auersperg set out at once to inform the court that all hopes of pinning down the main mass of the Turks in the neighbourhood of either Györ or Berg had abruptly and finally disappeared on that morning of 7 July.

The Habsburg cause fared even worse in the afternoon. Fischamend, a crossing over the small Danube tributary of the Fischa, and half-way between Berg and Vienna, was the point to which Lorraine next directed his forces; they were divided into the regiments under his own command, a rearguard under Rabatta and Taafe, and a van led by Mercy and Gondola. Ahead of the van went escorts with carts and carriages of equipment, while still farther in front were other transports containing the baggage of certain senior officers who apparently preferred to run the risk of sending their own goods forward, unprotected, as quickly as possible. Unfortunately for them, the Tartars suddenly fell on this part of the long and straggling train. Mercy and Gondola at once hurried up, drove them off and went on to Fischamend, fearing that other enemy bands would reach the fords there first. Lorraine, several miles behind and by now on relatively high ground farther east, was scanning the view and debating how to recover control of the country between his own troops and his van, when he learnt that another Turkish force (from the direction of Ungarisch-Altenburg) was assailing his rearguard. He turned back with all the men and horses he could muster, realising that he had not a minute to spare.

It is impossible to say exactly where the encounter took place, sometimes known as ‘the affair of Petronell’. It was probably close to the famous Roman site of Carnuntum in the estate of Count Traun, on undulating and thickly wooded ground not far from the Danube. The Habsburg cavalry of the rearguard, particularly Montecuccoli’s regiment and Savoy’s dragoons, was thrown into complete disarray. Lorraine, bringing up more squadrons of horse, at first utterly failed to rekindle the urge to stop and fight back. His pleas and his gestures—he even went for the men by thumping them with the butt of his pistol—effected nothing. ‘What, gentlemen,’ he is said to have exclaimed, ‘you betray the honour of the imperial arms, you’re afraid?’ The left wing resisted the enemy onrush more steadily, at last a strong counter-attack was mounted and the Turks disappeared again. They were far fewer than their opponents realised, in this sudden and confused melee of horse and rider. Perhaps thirty-five lay dead on the field and the total loss of the Habsburg troops was 100 men; but before the engagement had ended one or more officers had left for Vienna, convinced that a very large enemy force was moving irresistibly forward.

The rest of the day passed off quietly and Lorraine spent the night at Schwechat, six miles from Vienna. At least Leopold’s cavalry, if not his infantry, had been brought back safely for the defence of the capital city of the whole dominion. But a major attack was now inevitable, and cavalry could not man a fortress.

On the next day Lorraine heard that the Turks had left not more than 12,000 troops at their camp in front of Györ. The rest were marching forward. He learnt that nearly all the Magyars in western Hungary had recognised Thököly’s sovereignty. Thököly himself was at Trnava with his followers, which implied a distinct threat to Pressburg and to Vienna from the area north of the Danube. Fortunately Leslie and his infantry were already well on their way back through the Schütt to Pressburg, and Schultz had independently decided to withdraw his men westwards as quickly as possible even before he received orders to do so. In spite of these two items of good news, for Lorraine it had been twenty-four hours of repeated crises, and he was still unaware of their impact in Vienna itself.

One feature of this confusing week was the nervous response of the military command to the appearance of small hostile bands of horsemen, and to the fire and smoke perplexing its view of events in that wide plain. The civilian population reacted more sluggishly. True, many peasants were by now on the move, carrying their goods towards the walled towns or into the shelter of any buildings surrounded by walls, like the manor-houses of lords and monasteries, while the harvest stood ready in the fields but they were afraid to go out and reap it. Yet contrary rumours, that all was well, often stopped bolder folk from fearing the worst and they carried on with business as usual. We know something of wavering public opinion in the area from a journal kept by the choirmaster of Heiligenkreuz, the great and ancient Cistercian house in the Wiener Wald. On 3 July a priest came into the monastery from the monks’ parish of Podersdorf, by the shore of the Neusiedler See. He reported that the enemy was at hand, and was laughed at for his pains. His listeners believed that the Turks were in fact at Neuhäusel, a long way over on the other side of the Danube, and that the thick clouds of smoke on the eastern horizon resulted from the ordinary indiscipline of Leopold’s own troops in Hungary. The opinion of these scoffers was partly based on the confident messages of a bailiff in charge of the monastic lands (particularly the quarries) near Bruck-on-the-Leitha; but a little later the Turks captured this man, they surrounded Bruck, and the stone-cutters with their families fled to Vienna. Meanwhile tension mounted in Heiligenkreuz. On 4, 5 and 6 July more and more refugees, with their belongings, crowded into the three great courtyards of the abbey. Onlookers were amazed by the mountain of chests, which held silverware and other valuables, in the inner court. Prosperous burghers hastened up the narrow valley from Baden and Mödling. On 7 July a soothing, ill-informed message reached the chapter from the Spanish embassy in Vienna. Then on the 8th the blow fell, with authentic news of what had happened near Petronell and of panic in Vienna. The choirmaster hurriedly prepared to take his young choristers over the hills westwards.

As June had worn on, bringing no message of a Habsburg triumph against Esztergom or Neuhäusel, and gloomy reports of the Turkish advance through Hungary, popular fears increased in Vienna itself. An unceasing round of public religious ceremonies intensified them. By decree, the members of every trade and profession were required to attend for one hour a week at the service in St Stephen’s: the Emperor himself took his turn at nine o’clock on Sundays, the Danube fishermen on Thursdays at eight, and the violin-makers on Saturdays at three. By decree also, the old usage was revived of the ‘Türkenglocken’. Bells started to ring every morning through the city and the whole land of Austria, summoning all to kneel and pray for deliverance from the invader. Some of the popular preachers thundered that God chose the Moslem terror to punish, when punishment was needed; but Abraham a Sancta Clara himself preferred the great refrain which was the title of his booklet just then going through the press: ‘Up! Up! You Christians!’ calling simply for courage and action against a brutal but cowardly enemy. The entire week from 27 June to 3 July was organised by the ecclesiastical authorities as one immense petition for divine intervention. Yet if most men were devout, a few abused the clerical interest. If there were politicians who disliked the Pope, the nuncio and their allies for insisting on the Turkish peril and consequently on the need to give ground in western Europe, there were citizens who blamed the crisis on the church for persecuting uselessly in Hungary. One night they smashed the windows of the Bishop of Vienna’s palace in the Rotenturmstrasse; though, ironically, the bishop was no friend of the nuncio.

Throughout 5 and 6 July officials at court worked long and hard. The conference of ministers, War Council, Treasury, and Government of Lower Austria, were all in session. First Philip Thurn was sent post-haste to Warsaw to ask for Sobieski’s full support, now that the Turks appeared to be threatening Austria directly. Next, they tried to control the growing movement of refugees from the countryside into the city. They had strong guards set at the gates, to bar the entry of rabble elements which conceivably included traitors; the presence of Thököly’s agents in disguise was suspected, and also Frenchmen. Supplies were discussed, and the official responsible for the purchase of corn happily stated that stocks were high. At a meeting in the Bishop’s palace the clergy offered a loan to the government, but the tightness of funds still bedevilled administration as much as ever. The War Council and Treasury blandly decided to reduce their earlier estimate of military expenditure for the coming year from three million to two and a half million florins, a sleight of hand which could hardly have helped them to find the money they needed at once.

Stratmann, the new chancellor—Hocher had just died—went off to report to the Emperor on all these pressing items of business.

One point which worried the Habsburg advisers was the security of the Crown of St Stephen of Hungary. This highly important symbol of the royal authority in that country was always in safe-keeping in the castle of Pressburg; two of the most senior office-holders in Hungary were ‘Guardians of the Crown’. The political consequences, if Thököly laid hands on it, would be serious indeed. At length Leopold decided to remove the insignia of Hungarian royalty from Pressburg to Vienna. A strong escort of cavalry rode off and brought the crown to the Hofburg on 5 July. On the same day Leopold also determined to authorise preparations for the departure of his children and their staff from Vienna, while by the 7th the valuables of his Treasury—jewels, crowns (including the Crown of Hungary), sceptres, crosses and the like—were packed away on transports, ready to leave the city. There was no specific decision about the Emperor’s own departure. On the other hand, while refugees were pouring in from the east, many of the burghers and officials with their families had already left the city.

On 6 July Leopold went hunting near Mödling. He gave no sign that he contemplated flight to the safer and more distant part of his dominion, and one argument which kept the court in Vienna was certainly the Empress’s advanced pregnancy. Physicians did not consider it wise for her to travel. But women of her household had letters from their husbands, officers serving under Lorraine on his retreat from Györ, who begged them to flee as quickly as possible. Buonvisi’s account of a conversation with the Empress suggests that she herself was eager to go. The Emperor still demurred. He can hardly have failed to realise the consequences of the court’s departure on the morale of his subjects.

From two o’clock onwards in the afternoon of 7 July, one messenger after another reached the Hofburg and transformed the situation. The first, Auersperg, reported the attack on Ungarisch-Altenburg, which was enough to make most courtiers press the Emperor to leave at once. In Leopold’s antechamber Auersperg and the counsellors were soon joined by General Caprara and Colonel Montecuccoli, telling of the Turks’ sudden appearance in great strength much closer to the city, probably because they themselves had left the scene of the fighting between Petronell and Fischamend before Lorraine restored order, and anticipated his total defeat. Then Caprara’s servant, in charge of his baggage, arrived to give an account of that sudden assault on the baggage-train, at a point even closer to Vienna. The counsellors conferred and their long debate went on, while at the city-gates townsmen and incoming strangers—some of them wounded—repeated rumours based on such things as smoke seen, or shots heard, on that day and on the day before. All these persons, Auersperg, Montecuccoli, Caprara, Caprara’s servant, and the men who simply talked to other men, helped to spread the panic which seized the Emperor, his ministers, his courtiers, everyone in the palace, everyone in the Burgplatz outside and in the now crowded streets which led from here to the rest of the city. ‘The Turk is at the gates!’ was the cry; and though we know that each report of the day’s fighting had been inaccurate, the worst fears of most people then were confirmed by the cumulative effect of so many messages and rumours. All who could prepared to quit the city immediately. The Emperor, his nerves overbearing his sense of dignity, listening to the pleas of his ministers and family, decided to sanction his own retreat from what looked like the point of maximum danger, Vienna itself.

He held a final conference at six o’clock in his private apartment. The decision to go at once was formally announced and it remained to choose the route to follow. The direct road to Linz over the Wiener Wald was proposed and rejected; the Turks would threaten it too quickly. Flight northwards to Prague, or south-west into the hilly country by Heiligenkreuz and so round to Linz, was considered. The counsellors at length advised the Emperor to cross the Danube, and then to move upstream along the farther bank towards Upper Austria.

The bustle and confusion in the Burg and the Burgplatz were by this time tremendous. The doors of the palace were left wide open, and every kind of wagon and cart or coach was being crammed with every kind of necessity and valuable which could be moved. The less fortunate, who owned or who could find no horses, made ready to walk. In the town the government tried to get each householder to send a man to work on the fortifications. It tried to requisition all the boats on the river, with their boatmen, and to send them down the Danube in order to meet the infantry regiments marching westwards from the Schutt. The conscripted labourers who had been working in Vienna downed their tools, and fled. Coming the other way population from the outskirts packed into the city as never before, if only to pass the night in the security of the streets. Then, at about eight o’clock in the evening the Emperor left the Hofburg. A not very orderly procession made its way out of the Burg-gate, round the city wall to the Canal, through Leopoldstadt, and over the Danube. Later still the dowager Empress Eleanor, whose staff had hardly recovered from the toil and annoyance of bringing her possessions into the city from the ‘Favorita’, her palace in Leopoldstadt, set out with a great transport to the west by way of Klosterneuburg on the south side of the river.

Sleep and Vienna were strangers that night. Men and women sorted out their goods, put one part in cellars (the cellars of the city figure conspicuously in the legends of the siege) and one part in packages for their flight to the west. They hammered and corded. Yet several hours after Leopold’s departure, a despatch arrived from Lorraine which gave a more consoling picture of the whole position: the Habsburg cavalry was now in good order again, approaching Vienna fast, with the main Turkish force at least some days’ march behind it. (This news caught up with Leopold in the course of the night.) Encouraged, at three o’clock in the morning Herman of Baden called a meeting to announce the Emperor’s instruction for the government of Vienna in the immediate future. Present were the burgomaster Liebenberg, the syndic, and other municipal councillors; also Daun the acting military commander, and Colonel Serenyi, an old and very senior officer who was in the city more by chance than because of any proper posting. Baden gave notice that Starhemberg had been given the supreme command. Administration was placed in the hands of a Collegium—a select committee of two soldiers (Caplirs, the experienced vice-president of the Habsburg War Council, and Starhemberg) and three civilians (the Marshal of the Estates of Lower Austria, an official of the Government of Lower Austria, and Belchamps of the Treasury). Caplirs was to preside over it. Baden also declared that a section of the War Council would be left behind in the city to handle ordinary military business; and Caplirs would direct it. The municipality was to cooperate with Starhemberg, the Collegium and War Council in all matters. Supplies were sufficient to stand a siege. In response, the burgomaster solemnly promised to do his best. But neither Starhemberg nor Caplirs had as yet reached Vienna, and in these dark minutes of the early morning no one could visualise clearly how these arrangements would work in practice.

In fact, confirmed and elaborated by a message from Leopold some days later, they effectively met the emergency of the next three months. They gave the military the necessary powers, but permitted some civilians to share in the discussion of urgent problems. Even so the municipality of Vienna was not directly represented in the two highest committees responsible for the public safety. Caplirs had to harmonise the different and sometimes conflicting interests civil and military. On the one hand he directed the personnel of the War Council and collaborated with Starhemberg. On the other, he dealt with the burghers, who inevitably tended to find themselves overwhelmed by the emergency, and their rights disregarded. The whole administrative structure, apparently, depended on the coordinating ability of Caplirs in spite of his age and inveterate pessimism. Partly owing to the shortage of good evidence, historians have differed over his merits during the crisis. He certainly returned to Vienna very unwillingly on 10 July, no doubt sighing for his new palace and picture gallery hundreds of miles away in the peaceful woods of northern Bohemia, the most recent rewards of a long and successful career. But he soon set to work; if Starhemberg was much the more militant and forceful character, he grumblingly did his best to help him.

Later in the morning of 8 July the burgomaster held a council of his own. The city fathers had a desperately heavy day in front of them, trying to organise the burghers, many of whom were making every effort to lock up and get out. They wanted to bring into the city a large amount of timber still stacked outside the New-gate; to redistribute the reserves of grain into stores of more equal size; and to arrange for guards at various points. But above all, for the most obvious reasons, an immediate increase in the numbers of men at work on the fortifications was required. While the burgher companies of militia were ordered to assemble at one o’clock outside the town hall, a summons went out to the rest of the male population to attend in the square ‘Am Hof’ at three o’clock, outside the civic armoury. Here Nicholas Hocke, the syndic, mounted the steps of the building. In a powerful speech he tried to stir up enthusiasm for the good cause, pointing out that ordinary employment would necessarily be interrupted or suspended during the coming crisis. He offered decent wages to all who went to work on the fortifications of the city. Not far off, in the Bishop’s palace the Vicar-General was telling the clergy that they also must take their turn at the works. Soon afterwards the sound of drum and trumpet was heard; and Lorraine’s cavalry appeared, riding past the city-walls, and over the Canal through Leopoldstadt, to an encampment on the Danube islands. In the evening, both Lorraine and Starhemberg entered Vienna, and almost their first recorded action tightened the pressure on the townsfolk. They threatened the use of force unless sufficient numbers were ready and present for duty, on the defence-works, at four o’clock the next morning.

At dawn the burgomaster himself was there, shouldering a spade. Hocke enrolled the workers. Starhemberg demanded another 500 within twenty-four hours; and more workers were brought in during the day. For almost a week the burghers, the casual labourers, the substitutes paid by burghers who preferred to avoid this strenuous drudgery, the soldiers detailed for the same duty by Starhemberg as they reached the city, and members of the City Guard all made great efforts. In spite of gloomy comments from some experienced observers, they managed to get the bastions, the moat and counterscarp into reasonable condition. At this stage, what was essential were improved earthworks and adequate timbering. By digging hard under competent direction it proved possible to buttress weak patches in the stone revetments of the curtain-wall and the bastions, and to deepen the moat. New palisades now shored up the counterscarp, and a fairly usable ‘covered way’ along it protected the outermost position which the garrison would have to try and hold. In the moat—separating the counterscarp from the walls and bastions—excavation was still needed. Additional barricades were set up in various parts of it, while at other points new wooden bridges were built to link bastions to ravelins, and ravelins to the counterscarp.

Important conferences were held on 9 and 10 July; Starhemberg and Lorraine elaborated their plans. It was then for Starhemberg to settle details with Breuner of the commissariat and Belchamps of the Treasury. He told the first that soon they could count on a garrison of 10,000 troops, together with the City Guard and the civilian companies; and that they must be ready to face a siege lasting four months. Happily, food was not a difficult problem. The officials of the commissariat confirmed that there were stores of grain in the city large enough to feed a force of this size until November.

On the next day, the 10th, finance was discussed, a much more difficult matter. Starhemberg insisted that the punctual payment of the soldiers throughout the period of siege, and generous treatment of labour squads in the works, were absolutely essential if the Turks were to be resisted with any chance of success; but he was told that only 30,000 florins remained in the military treasury, none of which could be spared for pay. It was calculated that the wages of the troops alone would amount to 40,000 florins a month. But Belchamps had been looking into the question, and was earlier in touch with the Hungarian Bishop of Kalocza, George Széchényi, who had lent a large sum to the government in 1682. In 1683 he brought his funds to Vienna for safe-keeping, and then sought refuge farther west when the Turks advanced, but before leaving the city he agreed to place 61,000 florins at Belchamps’s disposal. On 9 July Prince Ferdinand Schwarzenberg, having reached Vienna after Leopold’s departure, offered a loan of 50,000 florins and 1,000 measures of wine, which he had in his vaults. He then left the city. His negotiation was not with Belchamps in the first instance, but with his friend Kollonics, the Bishop of Wiener-Neustadt, who was determined to remain behind and fight for Church and Emperor.

A Knight of St John who did not forget the bravery of his youth when he served in Crete, Kollonics felt little sympathy for anyone hesitating to make sacrifices at this critical hour. So, a few days later, he turned his attention to the property of the Primate of Hungary; for the Archbishop of Esztergom, George Szelepcsényi, had brought to his Vienna residence, No. 14 in the Himmelpfortgasse, between 70,000 and 80,000 florins in money, together with ecclesiastical plate, crosses and similar precious objects which were later valued at over 400,000 florins. The Archbishop himself took refuge in Moravia. On 19 and 20 July, after the siege began, the administration impounded his assets. By melting down a part of the treasure, the mint in Vienna solved the purely financial problem for the duration of the siege. It seems probable, although there is no direct evidence to prove the point, that Belchamps knew well enough that a few outstandingly wealthy individuals had deposited money and plate in the city for safekeeping earlier in the year. For various reasons, lack of transport or lack of instructions, these could not be removed fast enough, when it abruptly and unexpectedly became clear that Vienna was not (as it had been, up to date) the surest refuge within hundreds of miles. But the size of these sums belonging to a nobleman like Schwarzenberg, or to clerics like the Hungarian episcopate, when compared with the poverty of the government, is very remarkable.

Money without manpower was useless. Lorraine and Starhemberg had immediately agreed that the infantry regiments marching up the Danube from Pressburg should move at once into Vienna. On 10 July, troops of the vanguard first appeared. More arrived on the following day, and on the 13th the mass of Leslie’s command completed their long journey from Györ; the great majority of his infantry regiments were sent over the river with the utmost despatch. Early that day, therefore, Starhemberg commanded 5,000 men. By evening he had some 11,000. The prospects were at least less dismal than the week before, when the Turks were expected to invest or storm a city held by no more than the ghost of a garrison.

Yet the foremost Ottoman raiders now appeared, and in the distance the smoke of burning villages in the neighbourhood rose skywards. Starhemberg did not dare delay in performing one of his most disagreeable duties: the speedy and forcible clearing of the glacis. Since earlier demolition orders had not been obeyed, he began—on 13 July—to burn down everything in the area outside the counterscarp which would obviously hamper the garrison. Most of all he wanted to clear the ground west of the city, where suburbs came closest to the moat. More smoke rose skywards. The sparks flew. They flew over the walls as far as the roof of the Schotten monastery by the Schottengate, where a fire broke out in the afternoon of Wednesday, the 14th; and it almost altered the course of history. The wind blew sparks against the neighbouring buildings, an inn, and from the inn to a wall of the Arsenal, where supplies of every kind were stored, including 1,800 barrels of powder. Nearby, other powder magazines adjoined the New-gate. If the defence-works here were seriously damaged by explosion, or the stores lost, resistance to the Turks was hardly thinkable. The flames moved along a wooden gallery into the Arsenal. Townsmen and soldiers gathered, there was a muddle about keys which could not be found, but soldiers broke through a door and cleared the points of greatest danger. A hysterical mob, looking on, smelt treason at once and lynched two suspects, a poor lunatic and a boy wearing woman’s clothes. It also destroyed the baggage which an inoffensive mining official from Hungary, then in Vienna, was trying to get out of a second inn near the Arsenal; and it panicked at the sight of a flag flying unaccountably from a roof close to the fire, fearing some kind of a signal to the enemy. More effectively, the wind then veered. Flames swept towards and into aristocratic properties on the other side, away from the Arsenal, and proceeded to burn out the Auersperg palace where the ruins went on smouldering for days. The crisis had passed before the arrival of the Turks; but the danger of yet more fires, set off by Turkish bombs or by traitors and spies inside the walls, was to be a constant nightmare in Vienna later on.

Starhemberg very properly ordered the municipality to requisition cellars for the storage of powder. It took over a number of crypts or cellars under churches and convents for this purpose.

On the same day, the 14th, Lorraine began pulling his cavalry out of Leopoldstadt and the islands. Breaking down the bridges as they went, they crossed right over the Danube and took up a new position on the north bank. Only the final bridge was left intact, guarded by a small force. Leslie’s infantry continued to move into the city. Stores, coming downstream by boat and raft, were still being unloaded by townsmen and units of the garrison.


The outcome of the 90-minute battle was hardly in doubt.

Date: 5 November 1757.

Location: One mile north-west of Weissenfels (Route No, 71) to the west of the road to Halle.

War and campaign: The Seven Years’ War; German Campaign of 1757.

Object of the action: Frederick interposed his army between the French army and its objectives in Saxony.

Opposing sides: (a) Frederick the Great commanding the Prussian army, {b) Prince Saschen-Hildburghausen and Prince de Soubise leading a Franco-Imperial army.

Forces engaged: (a) Prussians: 27 battalions; 45 squadrons. Total: 20,000-22,000. (b) Allies: 62 battalions; 82 squadrons; approx. 80 guns. Total: 41,000.

Casualties: (a) 548 Prussians killed and wounded, (b) approx. 10,000 allies including many prisoners.

Result: The rout of the Franco-Imperialist army cleared Frederick’s western front at a critical period.

The Battle of Rossbach is perhaps Frederick the Great’s most famous action, and certainly one of the most complete victories that military history has to show. Years of aggression and faithlessness had brought their reward, and by the autumn of 1757, one year after the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War, King Frederick II of Prussia found himself surrounded by a ring of enemies. Austrians, French, Russians and Swedes were all closing in on Brandenburg, the heartland of the Prussian monarchy, and Frederick was compelled to adopt the desperate strategy of racing against each enemy in turn with a small mobile army. By this means he hoped to defeat his adversaries piecemeal, or at least prevent them from combining against him.

For long Frederick was denied the kind of action he desired. The most suitable target seemed to be the large but disorganised army of Frenchmen and south and west Germans which the Prince of Sachsen-Hildburghausen and the Prince de Soubise had led into Saxony against his western flank, but at the first Prussian lunge the allies recoiled out of reach, and Frederick had to march away at the news that an Austrian raiding corps was threatening Berlin. Although Frederick was too late to prevent the Austrians from exacting a fine from his capital, he heard that the allies had plucked up courage to resume the offensive, and were advancing once more towards Saxony, Frederick accordingly hurried back to meet them, and by 4 November the rival armies were facing each other near Rossbach.

In their usual muddled way, the allied commanders determined on a flanking movement around the southern end of the Prussian position-Soubise, in the hope of manoeuvring the enemy into a retreat, but Hildburghausen with the intention of crushing Frederick in a decisive battle. After hours of delay and confusion, the allied army set out at 11.30 on the morning of 5 November. The broad columns marched from the camp of Miicheln due south to Zeuchfeld, where they changed direction and struck east along a spur that stretched through Pettstadt towards Reichardtswerben. Down to the left they could see the southern edge of the Prussian camp at Rossbach, and behind the village the low hummocks of the Janus and Polzen Hills extending eastwards parallel to their own line of march. At about 2.30 in the afternoon the Prussians suddenly struck their tents, and marched out of sight behind the Janus Hill as if in retreat, an impression which was strengthened by the reports brought to the allied generals by the light cavalry scouts. At this Soubise was converted to Hildburghausen’s aggressive views, and the allies rushed recklessly on in an attempt to overtake and crush the enemy. There was no further attempt at reconnaissance: no arrangements for a proper deployment.

At first Frederick had paid no heed to the reports of the allied movements and, still quite unperturbed, he had sat down to lunch with his generals in his headquarters at Rossbach. One of the company, however, was the independently minded cavalry general Seydlitz, who quietly sent a warning to the army. It was entirely owing to the initiative of this subordinate that the horse and artillery were ready to move off as soon as Frederick realised his mistake. The King delivered the entire cavalry into the hand of Seydlitz, despite his lack of seniority, and gave him orders to march to the left and head off the enemy thrust to the rear. Seydlitz directed the march of his horse eastwards behind the screen of the heights, all the time gauging the progress of the opposing armies, then arranged his command in two lines behind the Polzen Hill. Although a powerful Prussian battery had already opened fire from the Janus Hill, Seydlitz kept his excited squadrons under perfect control, and waited until the foremost enemy troops had reached the stretch of land to the north of Reichardtswerben before he led the cavalry over the swell of land into the charge.

The cavalry corps at the head of the allied columns was taken unawares, and only 2 Austrian cuirassier regiments were able to deploy in any sort of order to meet the shock of the first Prussian line. The resistance of the Austrians gave time for a powerful reserve of French cavalry to lend a hand in the fight, but an inner core of ill-trained German regiments was already giving way when the Austrians and French were thrown back under the impact of Seydlitz’s second line. Seydlitz was cool-headed enough to be satisfied with his success, and reassembled his troopers in the hollows near Tagewerben to await a further opportunity. The rest of the Prussian army came into sight of the enemy over the top of the ridge, the left wing under Prince Henry hastening its march and wheeling around until the troops faced west. Some French regiments leading the allied infantry quickly recovered from their shock, and made a resolute advance against the Prussians with the bayonet. Just before the encounter the French discipline collapsed: firing broke out without order, and the troops turned in flight. Seydlitz launched a second charge from Tagewerben, which completed the allied rout, and all was over before Prince Henry’s infantry had time to deliver more than a few volleys.

The behaviour of a few units, notably the Swiss regiments of Diesbach and Planta, saved the honour of the allied army, but the rest of the troops broke up into disorganised mobs or gangs of marauders. Frederick could now spend his time more profitably elsewhere, and marched off to Silesia, where in the next month he would defeat the Austrians in a hardly less renowned victory at Leuthen. Nevertheless Rossbach stands alone as an example of the superiority of good leadership and high morale over mere weight of numbers, and is noteworthy as being the first occasion on which a Continental army was inspired to victory by a feeling that can be compared with nationalism in the modern sense.

Rossbach and German history

This ten-to-one ratio of lossesis extremely rare in 18th-century battles, magnifying the scale of the Prussian triumph. Frederick’s military reputation was restored after defeats earlier that year, and he went on to win another striking victory over the Austrians at Leuthen in Silesia that December. The two successes convinced Britain to continue its backing for Prussia, greatly contributing to Frederick’s survival during the subsequent five years of war. Austria abandoned its plans to recover Silesia and made peace on the basis of the pre-war status quo in February 1763.

The immediate military consequences were far less dramatic. Hildburghausen resigned, but the imperial army reassembled and fought on with some success until the end of 1762. Later writers largely ignored the divisive impact of the Seven Years War on German politics, using Rossbach as a symbol of Prussia’s allegedly superior political and military organization. In fact, over-confidence and inept leadership turned simple defeat into disaster. While Rossbach is celebrated for the Prussians’ disciplined movement, cavalry shock attacks and infantry firepower, it was the French who pointed to the future with their mixture of linear and column formations. All these elements were to be refined by Napoleon and contribute to Prussia’s own disaster at Jena in 1806