Had the Turkish wars ended conveniently with the Habsburgs’ apogee at the Peace of Passarowitz in 1718, then the conventional assumptions about Ottoman decay and decline would have been triumphantly vindicated. But they did not end then. There were two more wars which destroyed the euphoric confidence generated by the victories won by the generation of heroes. The aggressive war fought against the Ottomans between 1737 and 1739, and the defensive war between 1788 and 1791, were probably the most pointless and inept campaigns in the annals of Habsburg warfare. In hindsight, both were ill considered, created solely to meet diplomatic expedients, by Habsburg officials with scant understanding of the military realities. Nevertheless, in 1737 the war began with huge optimism and a grand flourish.
On July 14 a great procession including representatives of the religious orders, judges, ministers, the court and the emperor himself wound its way from the Hofburg to St Stephen’s Cathedral to announce to the citizens of Vienna that war had broken out. Gathered before the great door of the church all heard the declaration of war and an edict proclaiming that the bells of the city churches would ring every morning at 7.00 and each individual was to fall to his knees wherever they were and whatever they were doing and pray for the blessing of the Almighty upon the army of the emperor.
This was the only part of the war that passed off according to plan.
All along the long frontier there were inadequate supplies, not enough troops, and, by late August 1737, no evidence of a plan of campaign. The Austrians were dilatory in attacking the Turkish fortress of Vidin, which would have fallen to a swift attack, while a thrust into Bosnia to take the town of Banjaluka ran into a large Ottoman force and had to retire rapidly on the far side of the River Sava, leaving 922 men and 66 officers dead on the battlefield. The final failure of the year was truly humiliating. The only real success of the campaign had been taking the strategic town of Nish, on the road south to Istanbul. The pasha there had surrendered as soon as the Austrian army had appeared. In Vienna the seizure of such a famous town as Nish had been taken as a great victory, and confirmation that the Ottomans had indeed lost their old fighting spirit.
But in October 1737 a mass of Turkish sipahis arrived before the city and sent a message to the commander that the Grand Vizier, Ahmed Köprülü, was on his way with his entire army. General Doxat calculated that supplies were low and he had no hope of relief: when Köprülü arrived, Doxat offered to surrender the city in exchange for a safe conduct to Austrian lines for his men and himself. This appeared to be precisely the kind of craven conduct that the Turks had shown when they had given up the city in July 1737. There was popular outrage in Vienna at this cowardice: after a swift court-martial, Doxat, who had designed and built the massive new fortifications protecting Belgrade, was beheaded.
Doxat was not the last officer to be punished. By the end of the war in 1738, every senior commander had been cashiered, suspended from duty or lampooned in the press. Public outrage in Vienna grew as rabble-rousers asked: `Where is the new Eugene?’ The old prince had died barely two years before. He had no obvious replacement. The field commander, Field Marshal Seckendorf, was recalled and placed under house arrest to await court martial. He was a Protestant, and Father Peikhart preached from the pulpit of St Stephen’s that `a heretical general at the head of a Catholic army could only insult the Almighty and turn his benediction away from the army of his Imperial and Catholic Majesty’. For reassurance that the dynasty’s Catholic credentials were still paramount, the Emperor appointed his son-in-law, Francis Stephen of Lorraine, to the titular command for the 1738 campaign season, and he left for the southern frontier. This failed `to win the people’ until it was reported that young Lorraine had `issued orders calmly under fire’: at this point the court hailed him both as a second Eugene (unlikely) and as a true grandson of Charles V, Duke of Lorraine, who had saved Vienna in 1683.
Soon Seckendorf ‘s replacement, Count Königsegg, also suffered a loss of nerve and ordered a strategic withdrawal away from contact with the Ottomans; his junior officers protested, demanding he should pursue the enemy as Prince Eugene would have done. The Emperor decided that his inexperienced son-in-law possessed better credentials to lead the army to victory and gave him full command. Francis Stephen wisely fell sick and returned to Vienna, so the duty devolved back on Königsegg, while Francis Stephen and his wife, Maria Theresa, were rusticated to their duchy of Tuscany, to their delight. Meanwhile, the Emperor was `in the middle of the general discontent . . . violently agitated and in the agony of his mind exclaimed “Is the fortune of my empire departed with Eugene?”‘ He continued to look for a commander with some spark of daring. Running out of plausible candidates, he eventually chose Field Marshal George Oliver Wallis, of an old Jacobite family with a long record of service to the Habsburgs. Wallis had fought under Eugene at Zenta in 1697, at Petrovaradin, in the capture of Timi, soara, and at the occupation of Belgrade in 1717-18. He had been passed over before because he was not an easy subordinate: difficult, overbearing and hot-headed. His first instinct was to attack, although he had learned a degree of prudence in his later career. If Charles VI wanted a new Eugene, then the elderly Wallis was probably his best option.
By mid-July 1739 he had joined his new command of thirty thousand men encamped at Belgrade, and scouts brought him news that the Grand Vizier’s army was marching towards him from the east: their advance party was at the small town of Grocka on the Danube, a few hours’ march away. The events that followed were graphically described by a Scots officer in the British army on secondment to the Austrian command. The young Scottish nobleman, John Lindsay, 20th Earl of Crawford, had fought as a volunteer with Prince Eugene on his last western campaign in 1735, and joined the eastern army for the war in 1737. He left a remarkable manuscript account of the savage fighting. As Crawford relates, part of Wallis’ army was still north of the Danube with General Neipperg, and the advice was that he should wait for the additional 15,000 men to reach him. Wallis sent a messenger to Neipperg to meet him on the road to Grocka and began to march his men overnight to seize the village from the few Turks that supposedly held it. Then he could await the Grand Vizier on ground he had chosen. It was a good road from Belgrade through low hills, and it began to rise towards a line of higher ground behind Grocka.
Just before the village, the track narrowed and entered a gully that then opened out on to the plain before reaching the riverside town. It then came out in a southerly direction, heading towards higher ground. Wallis knew that speed was essential so he pushed forward with the cavalry – mostly cuirassiers and dragoons, with some hussars – sending them through the gully to take possession of the land below, driving away any Turks occupying the ground. Led by Count Palffy’s cuirassiers, they burst out of the gully and began to trot down into the more open ground in front of Grocka. It was first light, and they dimly saw a large body of men below them and then there was a sudden cacophony of fire from the front and from each side of the road. They still had the advantage of the higher ground, but it was clear that this was not just an Ottoman advance party. In fact the entire Ottoman force had taken up position on the hills and in the valley below, with a complete command of the road in front of the Austrian horsemen. Many had been killed or wounded in the first salvo of Turkish fire, and the ground was littered with dead or dying men and horses.
One of the wounded was the Earl of Crawford. He survived the battle, but was seriously injured by a musket ball in the groin, a painful, suppurating wound that would kill him ten years later. In the interval he managed to write his vivid account of the battle and what followed.
From dawn to mid-morning they kept the janissaries at bay, by constant carbine fire and support from the troops behind. At midday the infantry arrived, and eighteen companies of grenadiers pushed through the gap and heavy fire to relieve them. Through the morning the Grand Vizier had ordered men to move forward up the slope to the crown of the hills on either side of the Austrian cavalry so that they could envelop them, unleashing musket fire from directly above their makeshift positions. On the other side of the gully, Field Marshal Hildburghausen, in command of the infantry, ordered his men to storm the heights and throw the Turks back. Field guns were pulled up the slope and began to duel with the Ottoman artillery on the hillside opposite. The battle lasted the whole day, with more and more of the Austrians pushing through the gully while the Ottomans kept up a murderous fire. As night fell, the Grand Vizier pulled his men back in good order and, apart from the cries of the wounded, a still ness fell over the battlefield. The carnage was horrifying: in a single day from dawn to dusk, 2222 Austrians were dead and 2492 wounded. This was more than 10 per cent of Wallis’ entire force. The Palffy cuirassiers had lost almost half their number, including the majority of their officers. Even a year later, it was still like a charnel house. A traveller described how `Today one cannot go ten steps without stepping on human corpses piled on top of another, all only half decomposed, many still in uniforms. Lying about are maimed bodies, hats, saddles, cartridge belts, boots, cleaning utensils, and other cavalry equipment. Everything is embedded in undergrowth. In the surrounding countryside, peasants use skulls as scarecrows: many wear hats, and one even wears a wig.’ Some of Wallis’ senior officers suggested a hot pursuit, but he rightly feared another ambush: he did not want to face the Ottomans, now in the hills, again from positions designed to entrap him, as they had done so successfully at Grocka.
So a third campaigning season degenerated into a fearful torpor, only to be crowned by the ultimate misfortune. Belgrade, taken in 1717, had been turned into a fine town, but only for German speakers; it had been brilliantly fortified by the luckless Doxat. In the chaos of the campaign, it was surrendered by mistake to the Turks. The Grand Vizier, negotiating in his camp with Neipperg, managed to persuade him that the Ottomans were bound to capture the city, and, to save lives, it should be surrendered to him immediately. Neipperg eventually agreed, extracting a single concession. The fortifications built since the Treaty of Passarowitz, paid for by the Pope and Catholics throughout Europe, would be demolished so they did not fall into infidel hands. The vizier readily agreed, provided his janissaries should first occupy the gates and walls of the citadel.
After this agreement, which Neipperg had plenipotentiary power to negotiate, the court in Vienna redoubled its quest for scapegoats. Both men were recalled and imprisoned, while a court of enquiry eventually drew up forty-nine charges against Wallis and thirty-one against Neipperg. The latter, by signing away Belgrade, had committed a crime with `no precedent in history’. Both men looked likely to suffer the same fate as Doxat, but they were saved by the unexpected death of Emperor Charles VI in October 1740. His twenty-three-year-old daughter, the Archduchess of Austria, Maria Theresa, wanted to bring an end to the whole catastrophe, so she closed down all the investigations and pardoned those who had been punished. She restored their ranks and privileges, and even made up their lost pay.
Empress Maria Theresa as Queen of Hungary, wearing the crown of St. Stephen, withsword in hand.
Empress Maria Theresa On Horseback Inspecting Austrian Troops.
Austrian Infantry : Grenadiers of 2 Austrian regiments and the Hungarian regiment of Ujvary: Battle of Mollwitz fought on 10th April 1745 in the First Silesian War: picture by David Morier
The death of Eugene: Austria’s military weakness
The period unfolding opens with Austria’s army weak and poorly led. The policies of Charles VI left his inheritance vulnerable to pillage and invasion. Yet by the time his daughter’s husband was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, Austria and her armies had proved more than capable of surviving a war waged by many enemies. That such progress was possible from such inauspicious beginnings was the result of one young woman’s tenacity and courage.
The death of Prince Eugene on 20 April 1736 at the age of 73 came mercifully before the debacle of Wallis on the approaches to Belgrade. The Generalissimus fortunately did not live to see the Treaty of Belgrade (1739) sign away nearly all he had won twenty years earlier at Passarowitz. As his faculties faded, Eugene was dimly aware that the formidable army he had done so much to create was now enfeebled and complacent; its weakness caused largely by a combination of Imperial over-expansion and somnolent leadership.
Every honour was paid on his death to the memory of Eugene. After his death, his heart was sent to Turin and at the interment in the cathedral of Vienna, Charles VI and the principal members of his court assisted incognito at the ceremony. The pall was borne by sixteen generals and full Imperial honours were given in the course of three days of solemnities.
The army the Generalissimus left behind him was now bitterly divided by rivalries, notably over the character of Eugene’s able protégé Friederich Heinrich Seckendorf (1673–1763) who as a Protestant aroused some hostility and intrigue. Seckendorf’s critical reports of conditions prevailing among the troops in the Balkans were treated with suspicion and resentment. Writing to Bartenstein, one of the most influential of the courtiers and a man who had risen high in court circles from relatively modest origins, he noted, ‘Some companies of my regiment in Belgrade are thrust into holes where a man would not put even his favourite hounds and I cannot see the situation of these miserable and half-starved wretches without tears,’ concluding: ‘these melancholy circumstances portend in case of war the loss of these fine kingdoms with rapidity’.
Nor were Seckendorf’s strictures limited to the condition of the ranks. With a boldness that could not endear him to the snake pit of Charles’s court he informed the Emperor, ‘some of your generals are so incapable of discharging the duties of their station that Your Imperial Majesty must countenance the loss of his crown and sceptre’. Charles half-heartedly supported these views and allowed Seckendorf to introduce some reforms, but these were watered down by the military council. Meanwhile huge amounts of effort and vast sums from his treasury were given over to securing diplomatic recognition of the Pragmatic Sanction. In contrast, the army atrophied under parsimony and inertia.
Two years later in 1740 with Charles’s death, the direct male line of the House of Austria became extinct. Charles’s eldest daughter Maria Theresa succeeded with her husband Francis Stephen of Lorraine, who had had to cede his patrimony of Lorraine to win the hand of the Habsburg heiress as her consort. As Bartenstein had warned Francis Stephen, ‘No surrender; no Archduchess.’
All Charles’s energies had been devoted to ensuring that his daughter would be recognised as Queen of the Habsburg crown lands and that her husband would as a Habsburg consort be elected ‘King of the Romans’, implying that he would eventually be crowned Holy Roman Emperor. The thought that only a credible army could offer such a guarantee was seemingly lost on Charles and his advisers. They realised that Austria with her far-flung territories and weak administration was unlikely to survive the shock of a major war but in their efforts to put their trust in the Sanction and hope for the best they gravely miscalculated.
Maria Theresa and the new Prussian king: a study in contrasts
In the crisis that unfolded, Maria Theresa was to develop into the most impressive monarch of the eighteenth century. An unashamed innovator and moderniser despite her personal conservatism, she left her mark on every area of her realms. There would be no later Austrian or indeed Central European economic, administrative, public health, legal, educational or military institution that did not in some way trace its roots to her energetic reforming zeal and retain the imprint of her measures even centuries later. She also bore her husband sixteen children, observing, ‘One cannot have enough of them. In this matter I am insatiable.’
This great tribal mother, the icon for so many Central European aristocratic families for centuries afterwards, also redefined the relationship between the Habsburg monarchy and her peoples. She injected a new style of sovereignty into the Imperial house, eliminating the ‘forbidden zone’ that had surrounded the person of earlier Habsburg rulers in Vienna. She became truly popular with her subjects. During her reign nearly all vestiges of the Spanish Habsburgs’ elaborate and formal mystique were dismantled.
All these achievements would have been remarkable at any time in the history of Europe, even during a phase of relative tranquillity, but it is all the more astounding that a 23-year-old monarch brought this to fruition after inheriting a throne which was virtually bankrupt (only 100,000 florins were in the treasury and these were mostly pledged to the dowager Empress); a court which was bereft of good advisers; and an army of barely 30,000 effectives which was desperately in need of reform precisely at a time when the majority of her neighbours had come to the conclusion that the Austrian Habsburg realms were ripe for violent dismemberment.
Despite the Pragmatic Sanction, Prussia, France and Spain harboured hostility towards the new Empress. In addition, her cousin and nearest neighbour, Charles Albert of Bavaria was about to challenge her family’s succession to the Imperial title. We have noted that this had been held almost without interruption by a Habsburg for more than three centuries, and was regarded as an almost mystical element of prestige in German-speaking lands. Barely had Charles VI been buried in 1740 when an envoy arrived from Munich to announce that Charles Albert ‘could not acknowledge the young queen as the inheritress and successor of her father because the House of Bavaria had legitimate claims to the hereditary provinces’.
Behind Bavaria stood, of course, the old Erbfeind France, which had encouraged the Bavarians to pursue this spurious claim. The Electors of Cologne and the Palatinate gave additional support, the latter sending a letter through the public post addressed to the ‘Archduchess’ Maria Theresa, a calculated impertinence. The King of Spain, even more archly, gave her no other title than Grand Duchess of Tuscany. As it became increasingly obvious that Maria Theresa’s inheritance would be disputed by most of her neighbours, the young sovereign’s advisers gave further proof of their enfeeblement. In the words of an eyewitness, ‘The Turks seemed to them already in Hungary, the Hungarians already in arms, the Saxons in Bohemia and the Bavarians approaching the gates of Vienna.’4 Before these various challenges could be settled, another even more striking blow was about to be aimed from the direction of Prussia. Frederick II, the new King in Prussia,* was without doubt an unusual personality.
He had mounted his throne in the same year as the young Austrian archduchess. As a child he had been forced to witness the execution of his favourite friend and lover on the orders of his father and he had turned his precocity into a powerful weapon of resistance to his father’s conventional morality. Frederick played the flute, composed music, read and discoursed with such revolutionary writers as Voltaire and embraced the mid-eighteenth-century ‘Enlightenment’, or at least some of its philosophical points of view. Brought up constantly rebelling against the straitjacket of Prussian Nüchternheit (lit. sobriety), he was the epitome of selfish, histrionic and unbridled egotistical arrogance.
As we have seen, he had served with the Imperial troops and had learnt much from contact with the great Eugene. He had seen at first hand the quality of the Austrian army and with the exception of its light cavalry he had not been impressed. His father had left him a treasury with some eight million ‘dollars’† more than enough money to wage two campaigns. Frederick had also inherited an army of 80,000 whose infantry was certainly at that time already reckoned to be the most consistently drilled and courageous of any in the world. These were powerful supports for any young monarch but Frederick also had vaulting ambition. He openly admitted he ‘wanted to make an impact’. Austria, now placed in the hands of a young, inexperienced girl surrounded by incompetent advisers, defended by an army long past its best with officers of notable mediocrity, was a target too irresistible to miss. He certainly failed to grasp the measure of Maria Theresa; and of Francis Stephen, whom he described as like a man given over to the pleasure of the hunt, ‘content to leave his realms, like a Gasthaus, to his wife to run’.
Frederick coveted Silesia, one of Austria’s wealthiest provinces: with its rich mineral deposits, it was the treasury of Bohemia. Geographically it pointed like a salient into the marches of Brandenburg with which it shared a common frontier of some forty miles. Moreover, its population was partly Protestant and might even – so Frederick fantasised – welcome the Lutheran Prussians.
Without warning – at this stage the Prussian King was an enthusiastic correspondent and disciple of Voltaire – Frederick marched into Silesia. He proclaimed it his in a manifesto which, riddled with pretensions and half-truths, laid claim to various principalities dating back to 1507 and, later, the Thirty Years War. Frederick gambled. Strangely, given the adulation of later biographers, not least in England, this strategy was not only destructive, it was also utterly devoid of long-term rational analysis. Later Frederick would admit with all the arrogance of an Enlightenment intellectual that ‘Ambition, the opportunity for gain, the desire to establish my reputation – these were decisive, and thus war became certain.’6 As Macaulay later noted: ‘On the head of Frederick is all the blood which was shed in a war which raged in every quarter of the globe … In order that he might rob a neighbour whom he had promised to defend, black men fought each other on the coasts of Coromandel and red men scalped each other by the great lakes of North America.’
Unfortunately for Frederick, his opponent was not a frivolous, light-headed ‘Wienerin’ of just simple easy charm and temperament. In Maria Theresa Frederick encountered a woman of singular intelligence and fortitude. He was to discover that beneath the rococo grace, redolent of Schlagobers and Gemütlichkeit, there was steel, and something else: a concept utterly alien to Frederick – integrity. A brief anecdote, much quoted, perhaps gives us the measure of the woman. One morning studying state documents over breakfast, she spilt a drop of coffee on one of the pages after dipping her customary kipfel into the cup. The sovereign ringed the offending mark with ink and scrupulously wrote in her neat hand in the margin that the stain was hers, for which she offered apologies.8 Frederick possessed neither integrity nor humility. Indeed, the ‘greatness’ of Frederick’s character for all its histrionics and drama does not in many points maintain its superiority when placed in comparison with that of his most tenacious opponent.
Frederick calculated that his campaign would be swift and easy, with the ‘Rape of Silesia’ accomplished in weeks. In fact the swift little campaign he so gaily embarked upon was to condemn him to a lifetime of often desperate fighting at ruinous expense in blood and treasure. ‘Fighting Maria Theresa,’ he would later moan, ‘is like dying a thousand times a day.’
Before it was all over more than twenty-five years later Prussia, not Austria, was on the verge of total extinction, saved only by what must have seemed the miraculous death of his other determined foe Elizabeth of Russia. The Prussia that survived just held on to Silesia but she was bankrupt, a basket case: her economy ruined and her manpower decimated. Even as a military leader Maria Theresa could claim superiority. After all, she bequeathed an army immensely stronger than the one she had inherited, so unlike the ruined armies of Frederick. Prussia’s military power indeed was so drained that a generation later Napoleon could wipe it out in less than an afternoon on the plains of Jena and Auerstadt. Unlike Austria which would fight five coalition wars against Napoleon, Prussia’s weak efforts before 1813 showed that the shattered legacy Frederick left his country would take more than a generation to heal, and then only thanks to the presence of a unique combination of single-minded men.
Silesia seized: Mollwitz
The beginning for Frederick, as for many a later megalomaniac, was promising. He achieved total surprise; neither his ambassadors nor his relations were informed. Just before his troops entered Silesia in 1741, he sent an ambassador to the Austrian court with a draft convention offering support for Maria Theresa in the struggle to defend her other kingdoms if Prussia were ceded Silesia. This was merely a gesture and he did not expect it to be received in Vienna as anything more. But Maria Theresa’s refusal even to receive the Prussian envoy, Count Gotter, while Prussian troops menaced her possessions caused dismay in Berlin, where the hope of an eventual settlement after the initial incursion ran high.
The few Austrian troops – barely 3,000, the majority of whom were invalids or raw recruits under Maximilian von Browne in Silesia – were swiftly routed; a few fortresses, their defences decayed after years of neglect, held out but Frederick arrived at the head of 20 battalions and 36 squadrons on Christmas Eve, entering Breslau (today Wroclaw in Poland), the capital of Silesia on New Year’s Day. Though at first the Prussians were greeted by the Protestant majority, they swiftly seized the revenues of the province to pay for the equipment of the entire Prussian army. Maria Theresa noted acidly that its revenues hitherto had barely covered the expense of two of her Cuirassier regiments. Browne was driven back to Moravia. The so-called strongest fortification, Glogau, put up some resistance but it had a garrison of just 1,178 troops, of whom half were retired invalids, and just 17 guns.
Maria Theresa was let down not only by her advisers in this moment. Long-standing allies were equally fickle. Holland and England both counselled accommodation with Frederick. George II was especially afraid of a conflagration with France. He also feared that his native Hanover, or as he termed it his ‘country seat’, would be overrun by Prussia if he supported Austria. Russia and Poland, which had initially pledged troops, swiftly backtracked while acknowledging the integrity of the Austrian cause. Of the ‘Pragmatic Sanction’ there was no more talk. The young sovereign was learning an important lesson in European power politics: that weakness only brings out the worst in governments. It is said that when she finally received from her counsellors a correct appreciation of precisely how dire the financial and military straits in which she found herself were, she left the room and, alone, burst into tears.
It did not help that her two most experienced generals, Wallis and Neipperg were languishing in jail following the debacle in Turkey of the previous year, which had resulted in their being court-martialled. Maria Theresa moved swiftly to liberate them and Neipperg marched at the head of a sizeable force in March 1741 to eject the Prussians. The Prussian army by the first week in April, rejoined by Frederick, came face to face with the Austrians under Neipperg at Mollwitz. It was to be Frederick’s first taste of military action in all its raw brutality and it was a deeply unpleasant experience for the Prussian monarch.
The series of wars that had closed Charles VI’s reign had highlighted Austria’s military weakness. It is therefore surprising that, given the abuses and disorders rampant in the Habsburg forces, the Austrians gave as good an account of themselves at Mollwitz as they did. The battle was certainly far from a foregone conclusion. The superb drill of the Prussian army was viewed with a certain disdain by the Austrians. After all, had not their own army been trained on the battlefield rather than the drill square? The Austrian officer corps was less cohesive socially and ethnically. Also, in its love of frivolity, sardonic wit and Milde und Munifizenz (Mildness and munificence), it was far removed from the class of tough, small-time landowners bred on the barren windswept Lutheran estates of Prussia who officered Frederick’s army. Neipperg their commander exuded black humour and was much admired for his repartee. His luck on the field of battle that April day would require it.
The initial Austrian manoeuvre took the Prussians by surprise. But Neipperg, rather than precipitate an attack with troops wearied from their march, chose to take up a defensive position around Mollwitz. Neipperg was not expecting an attack when late on the morning of 10 April he was informed that the Prussian columns were ‘uncoiling’ over the snowy fields. General-Leutnant Roemer, one of Neipperg’s more resourceful commanders immediately perceived the need to screen the Austrian infantry as it came into position and swiftly brought six regiments of cuirassiers forward where they shielded the main part of Neipperg’s force. At this stage the Prussian artillery opened fire on the stationary cavalry who, after receiving casualties, were ordered by Roemer to charge the right wing of the Prussian cavalry that had just come into view. The Prussian horsemen proved no match for the Imperial cuirassiers. An Austrian officer later recalled:
The Prussians fought on their horses stationary and so they got the worst of every clash. The extraordinary size of their horses did them no good at all – our cavalry always directed their first sword cut at the head of the enemy horse; the horse fell, throwing its rider to the ground who would then be cut down from behind. The Prussian troopers have iron crosses set inside their hats. These were splintered by our swords which made the cuts deadlier still. I might add that we had been ordered to sharpen most of our swords before the action and now their edges looked like saws.
The exposed right wing of Frederick’s army began to crumble as Roemer’s men charged home. It was at this moment that Frederick, seized by panic as the Imperial cavalry penetrated his artillery park, decided to flee the conflict, leaving Schwerin to take charge. Schwerin acted swiftly to restore order on his right flank and hastily moved up three battalions, which in perfect drill formed a line and began to volley the disordered Austrian cavalry. Three times Roemer charged this Prussian line and each time his horsemen were repulsed, the last charge killing their commander. Unsupported by the Austrian infantry who were demoralised by the firepower of the Prussians, the Austrian cavalry fell back. Frederick’s infantry, though he was not there to see it, had not let their sovereign down. The Austrians, including Neipperg, had seen nothing like it. For every one volley the Austrian infantry loosed, the Prussians returned five. The effect was, after an hour, decisive.
‘Our infantry kept up a continuous fire,’ wrote an Austrian eyewitness, ‘but could not be made to advance a step. The battalions sank into disorder, and it was pathetic to see how the poor recruits tried to hide behind one another so that the battalions ended up thirty or forty men deep, and the intervals became so great that whole regiments of cavalry could have penetrated between, even though the whole of the second line had been brought forward into the first.’
Neipperg withdrew, his confidence in his troops almost as shattered as the morale of his men. The casualties for both sides together amounted to over 9,000, a figure regarded as considerable. Mollwitz had proved no simple victory for the Prussians and strategically it achieved little immediately. Frederick was unwilling to risk a second battle. Its effect on the Habsburg forces was nonetheless crushing.
Accounts of the weak showing of the Austrian infantry could not be entirely attributed to their being ‘made up of recruits, peasants and other poor material’. Maria Theresa would later write:
You would hardly believe it but not the slightest attempt had been made to establish uniformity among our troops. Each regiment went about marching and drilling in its own fashion. One unit would close formation by a rapid movement and the next by a slow one. The same words and orders were expressed by the regiments in quite different styles. Can you wonder that we were invariably beaten in the ten years before my accession? As for the condition in which I found the army, I cannot begin to describe it.
But though Mollwitz had hardly ‘cleared’ Silesia for the Prussians, news of the Prussian victory travelled across Europe, further encouraging various courts to deny the basis of the Pragmatic Sanction. In fact had Prussia lost Mollwitz the war and the bloodshed of the next two decades would have ended there and then; but fate decreed otherwise. While the Saxon army prepared to invade Bohemia, the French and the Bavarians advanced into Upper Austria. The dismemberment of the once ‘indivisible realms’ appeared inevitable.
Maria Theresa refuses to yield: the ‘King’ of Hungary
Calm resignation reigned at court. Somehow, under new rulers, the estates of the high aristocracy would survive. Life would go on and Maria Theresa would surely come to terms with just remaining an important Archduchess. Outside her domains no one preached appeasement more vigorously than England. A certain Mr Robinson was instructed by London to represent the dangers of failing to settle with Frederick. He was urged by the British government to ‘expiate on the dangerous designs of France … of the powerful combination against Austria’. But Mollwitz notwithstanding, Maria Theresa refused to yield. She listened patiently to Robinson but dismissed him with the words: ‘not only for political reasons but from conscience and honour I will not consent’.
It was only with the greatest of difficulty that Maria Theresa found advisers of backbone prepared to share her defiance. The news in June that Frederick had signed a treaty with France only made them rarer. Nevertheless, a handful stepped forward in the moment of crisis. Unsurprisingly we encounter yet again the name of Starhemberg but also Bartenstein and Khevenhueller, the grandson of Montecuccoli. In the moment of supreme trial the families that had had some connection with the Great Siege of Vienna in another moment of danger for the House of Austria two generations earlier once more stepped forward. But there were others, notably Count Emanuel Silva-Tarouca, a Portuguese aristocrat who never learnt German but became a kind of personal ‘coach’ to the Empress, advising her on every detail of her actions.
Another of these was an elderly shrewd Magyar by the name of Johann Pálffy, the Judex Curiae (Judge Royal) and the man whose moral authority in Hungary would prove Maria Theresa’s greatest support in this troubled year of 1741. Pálffy combined the qualities of statesmanship with the personal courage of a more martial calling. He too, like Starhemberg, had a name interwoven with battle honours, including the Great Siege of Vienna. He had taken part in most of the wars the Habsburgs had fought since then and had been wounded many times. He had also shown himself a keen diviner of the mysteries of the Hungarian temperament, negotiating the Peace of Szatmár with the insurgent Ráckóczi. At the same time, as a former Ban (viceroy) of Croatia, no one knew the mentality of that warlike people better than Pálffy.
Pálffy, like Khevenhueller was in the ‘sunset’ phase of his life in his late seventies – he would die in 1751. Nevertheless, he was deeply impressed by the young woman he served and saw that an approach to the Hungarian nobility was one of the keys to strengthening her position. It would also enable the Magyars to cement their own position advantageously vis-à-vis the Imperial house.
In accordance with Hungarian tradition, Maria Theresa would have to be crowned ‘King’ of Hungary (the Hungarian Constitution did not recognise a queen). The same tradition required then, as it would for nearly two more centuries, that the monarch mount a horse and ascend the ‘Royal Mount’ of Pressburg, some miles east of Vienna. Wearing the historic robes of St Stephen and the famous crown with its crooked cross, the sovereign was expected to take the slope at a brisk canter and, with the ancient drawn sabre of the Hungarian kings, point in turn to the four points of the compass, swearing to defend the Hungarian lands.
The story of the events of that 25 June in Pressburg and later in September have been much embroidered but we have, thanks to the hapless Mr Robinson – returned from his fruitless task to help Maria Theresa find a compromise with Frederick – a vivid eyewitness account of that day which gives us something of the flavour:
The coronation was magnificent. The Queen was all charm; she rode gallantly up the royal mount and defied the four corners of the world with the drawn sabre in a manner to show she had no occasion for that weapon to conquer all who saw her. The antiquated crown received new graces from her head and the old tattered robe of St Stephen became her as well as her own rich habit.
It was a good beginning to the eternally delicate Habsburg–Magyar relationship. Later that day as she sat down to dine in public without the crown, her looks, invested as they were with what one writer called ‘an air of delicacy occasioned by her recent confinement’, became ‘most attractive, the fatigue of the ceremony diffused an animated glow over her countenance while her beautiful hair flowed in ringlets over her shoulders’.
A little later on 11 September, having summoned the states of the Magyar diet to a formal assembly and once again wearing the crown, she appealed in Latin, the language of aristocratic Hungary at that time, to her audience, proclaiming in the language of the Roman Emperors, her speech:
The disastrous situation of our affairs has moved us to lay before our most dear and faithful states of Hungary the recent violation of Austria. I lay before you the mortal danger now impending over this kingdom and I beg to propose to you the consideration of a remedy. The very existence of the Kingdom of Hungary, of our own person, of our children and our crown are now at stake! We have been forsaken by all! We therefore place our sole resource in the fidelity, the arms and the long tried immemorial valour of the Hungarians.
The original of this speech exists and it is without doubt one of the most fascinating documents in eighteenth-century Central European history. It shows everywhere the young Queen’s hand over-working (in Latin!) the text of the original much less emotional speech prepared by her advisers. The word ‘poor’ for example is scratched out and replaced with the word ‘disastrous’. In almost every paragraph this girl, barely out of her teens, crosses out some anodyne formulation, replacing it with a more stirring phrase or word. Like a composer carefully judging structure and climax she transformed by a series of amendments a good speech into a brilliant one. As was to be so often the case, her instincts did not let her down.
What happened next is immortalised in countless paintings. Moved by the pleas of this young, helpless woman, the Hungarian nobles drew their sabres and pointing them into the sky cried: ‘Vitam nostrum et sanguinem pro Rege nostro consecramus’ (‘Our Life and Blood we dedicate to our King!’).
The drawing of swords was part of the ceremonial though clearly on this occasion injected with great passion. Who could resist the call of chivalry when articulated with such grace, and with feminine distress? Within a month Hungary had declared the ‘comprehensive insurrection’, pledging to take up arms to enter the war.
Even today we can sense the pulling of male emotional heart strings at which Maria Theresa so excelled in a letter to Khevenhueller penned around this time and sent with an accompanying portrait of herself and her son: ‘Here you have before your eyes a Queen and her son deserted by the whole world. What do you think will become of this child?’ In the first spontaneous response to this passionate outpouring of emotion on the part of the Magyars, it was estimated that perhaps as many as 100,000 men would flock to the cause. In the event it was to be a much more modest contribution, but significant nonetheless. Three new regiments of Hussars were raised, the first clad in exquisite chalk blue and gold, in the name and ownership of Prince Paul Eszterhazy.
Banalist and Pandour from the Corps of Colonel Trenck: Battle of Soor 30th September 1745 in the Second Silesian War: Picture by David Morier
Habsburg irregulars: the Pandours
In addition, six regiments of infantry were raised. As well as the Hungarians there came another group of volunteers: the Pandours. These brigands, often the natives of the ‘wrong side’ of the Military Frontier, followed their leader, the gifted Baron Trenck. This Trenck is not to be confused with his kinsman who was initially in the Prussian service and whose memoirs were widely read in the eighteenth century. The Austrian Trenck pledged a unit of irregulars, a Freikorps (Free Corps) numbering about 1,000 to Maria Theresa’s aid.
These irregulars were welcomed into the Imperial service even though they possessed no conventional officer corps but a system whereby each unit of fifty men obeyed a ‘Harumbascha’. All the Pandours, Harumbaschas included, were paid 6 kreutzer a day out of Trenck’s own estates, a pitiful sum. This was certainly not enough for any semblance of a uniform and their appearance was highly exotic. When they appeared in Vienna at the end of May 1741, the ‘Wienerische Diarium’ could write:
Two Battalions of regular infantry lined up to parade as the Pandours entered the city. The Irregulars greeted the regulars with long drum rolls on long Turkish drums. They bore no colours but were attired in picturesque oriental garments from which protruded pistols, knives and other weapons. The Empress ordered twelve of the tallest to be invited with their officer to her Ante-Room where they were paraded in front of the dowager Empress Christina.
Neipperg found the Pandours rather raw meat. He was unused to the ways of the Military Frontier. On several occasions while campaigning he had to remind them that they were ‘here to kill the enemy not to plunder the civilian population’. The Pandour excesses soon provoked Neipperg into attempting to replace Trenck. The man chosen for this daunting task was a Major Mentzel who had seen service in Russia and was therefore deemed to be familiar with the ‘barbaric’ ways of the Pandours. Unfortunately, some Pandours fell upon Mentzel as soon as news of his appointment was announced and the hapless Major only escaped with his life after the intervention of several senior Harumbaschas and Austrian officers.
Mentzel, notwithstanding this indignity, was formally proclaimed commander of the Pandours, whereupon a mutiny took place which only Khevenhueller, a man of the Austrian south and therefore familiar with Slavic methods, could stem by reinstating Trenck under his personal command. At both Steyr and Linz, the Pandours in their colourful dress decorated with heart-shaped badges and Turkic headdresses would distinguish themselves against the Bavarians. Indeed, by the middle of 1742 the mention of their name alone was enough to clear the terrain of faint-hearted opponents. Within five years they would be incorporated into the regular army though with an order of precedence on Maria Theresa’s specific instruction ‘naturally after that of my Regular infantry regiments’. At Budweis (Budejovice) they captured ten Prussian standards and four guns.
The crisis was far from over. While Khevenhueller prepared a force to defend Vienna, the Bavarians gave the Austrian capital some respite by turning north from Upper Austria and invading Bohemia. By November, joined by French and Saxon troops, this force surprised the Prague garrison of some 3,000 men under General Ogilvy and stormed into the city largely unopposed on the night of 25 November. To deal with these new threats, Maria Theresa using Neipperg as her plenipotentiary had signed an armistice with Frederick at Klein Schnellendorf. She realised that her armies were in no condition to fight Bavarians, Saxons, French and Prussians simultaneously.
Maria Theresa received the news of Prague’s surrender with redoubled determination. In a letter to Kinsky, her Bohemian Chancellor she insisted: ‘I must have Grund and Boden and to this end I shall have all my armies, all my Hungarians killed off before I cede so much as an inch of ground.’
Charles Albert the Elector of Bavaria rubbed salt into the wounds by crowning himself King of Bohemia and thus eligible to be elected Holy Roman Emperor. The dismemberment of the Habsburg Empire was entering a new and deadly phase. Maria Theresa was now only Archduchess of Austria and ‘King’ of Hungary.
The election of a non-Habsburg ‘Emperor’ immediately provided a practical challenge for the Habsburg forces on the battlefield. Their opponents were swift to put the famous twin-headed eagle of the Holy Roman Empire on their standards. To avoid confusion Maria Theresa ordered its ‘temporary’ removal from her own army’s standards. The Imperial eagle with its two heads vanished from the standards of Maria Theresa’s infantry to be replaced on both sides of the flag with a bold image of the Madonna, an inspired choice, uniting as it did the Mother of Austria with the Mother of Christ and so investing the ‘Mater Castrorum’ with all the divine prestige and purity of motive of the Virgin Mary.
Another development followed: because Maria Theresa’s forces could no longer be designated ‘Imperial’ there emerged the concept of a royal Bohemian and Hungarian army which became increasingly referred to for simplicity’s sake as ‘Austrian’. The name would stick. When less than five years later Maria Theresa’s husband was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, Europe had become accustomed to referring to the Habsburg armies as the Austrians.
A glimmer of hope appeared as Khevenhueller cleared Upper Austria of the Bavarians and French. He blockaded Linz, which was held by 10,000 French troops under Ségur. And by seizing Scharding on the Inn he deprived the unfortunate French garrison of all chance of relief from Bavaria. The Tyroleans showed their skill at mountain warfare and ambushed one Bavarian force after another, inflicting fearful casualties. On the day that Charles Albert of Bavaria was elected Holy Roman Emperor, Khevenhueller sent the Bavarian upstart an unequivocal message: he occupied his home city of Munich and torched his palace.
Charles of Lorraine assumes command
Prince Charles of Lorraine, Francis Stephen’s brother and the descendant of the Charles of Lorraine who had played such an important part in raising the great Siege of Vienna, took command of the main Austrian force, hitherto under Neipperg. It was his first independent command and the fun-loving Prince, if contemporary accounts are to be believed, was uncouth, loud and a poor judge of character. It was quickly revealed that he was far from competent as a military commander. To Lorraine’s surprise and in breach of the treaty he had just signed at Klein Schellendorf, Frederick moved into Moravia, launching a full invasion of that picturesque province in February and linking arms with the French and Saxons in southern Bohemia. By the 19th he was at Znaim (Znojmo) barely a day and half’s march from Vienna.
Several thousand light cavalry were sent towards Vienna to scout and pillage. The panic in the Austrian capital was immense. Once again several prominent families contemplated flight but wiser counsels prevailed. Austria’s enemies could not agree on their shares of the spoils and Frederick, aware that he was overstretched, withdrew to a strong position in northern Bohemia. Here, eventually, Lorraine, after much prodding from Vienna, attacked at a village called Chotusitz. Once again the Austrian cavalry fought magnificently, overwhelming the opposing horse and driving it from the field. As the Austrian cavalry plundered the Prussian camp all was set for significant victory if the Austrian infantry could behave with cool discipline and attack. Unfortunately a certain over-zealous Colonel Livingstein had the idea of setting fire to Chotusitz, oblivious to the fact that the flames and smoke would effectively bring any attack to a halt and give the Prussian defence time to reform and hold their ground.
After four hours of heavy fighting Charles ordered his troops to withdraw. This they did in good order, having captured fourteen standards. The Prussians remained masters of the battlefield but their casualties were, at 7,000, no fewer than the Austrians’. The Prussian cavalry had been so severely handled that it was no longer an effective fighting force. This was not the crushing victory Frederick, who had finally distinguished himself during the battle by his courage and quick reactions, had wanted to support his demands for northern Bohemia.
The Prussians had been saved by the inability of their opponents to take advantage of at least three opportunities to crush them. Once again the Austrians for all the indifference of their leadership and discipline had proved themselves to be no easy enemy. Moreover the severity of the Prussian losses highlighted the asymmetry in manpower upon which both armies relied. The Austrians could draw on far greater numbers for recruitment and Chotusitz illustrated vividly Frederick’s dilemma were he to continue hostilities. As Count Podewils, Frederick’s courtier elegantly noted with regard to Austria, only ‘some lovely feathers had been torn from its wings’. The bird was ‘still capable of flying quite high’.
The situation in Bohemia was moving rapidly in Austria’s favour. The moment for rapprochement had arrived. Podewils signed the preliminaries at Breslau and Prussia gained Upper and Lower Silesia together with Glatz. The later Treaty of Berlin confirmed that only a sliver of Silesia around Troppau and Jaegersdorf was kept by Austria but Bohemia was secured and the Habsburg armies could now turn their full weight against their other enemies, notably the French.
These under Broglio had already retreated from Frauenberg, their baggage falling into the hands of Lobkowitz’s light cavalry. Seeking shelter in Písek, a French corps was compelled to surrender when a detachment of Nadasti’s Hussars, mostly Croats, swam across the river with sabres in their mouths and climbing on each other’s shoulders scaled the walls and first surprised and then began massacring the garrison.
Broglio sought to bring his harassed forces to Prague but here the condition of the French garrison was pitiable. Meanwhile, the coalition against Maria Theresa was breaking up. The Saxons no longer wished to be involved and the French and Bavarians had been outmanoeuvred on the Danube by Khevenhueller. Opinion in London and other parts of Europe was belatedly but finally rallying to Austria. The success of her armies and the character of her defiance added to the diplomatic awareness that only the House of Austria could check the ambitions of the House of Bourbon. With the removal of Walpole, the Austrian party once again was in the ascendant in London and large supplies of men and money were voted in parliament to support Maria Theresa. In Russia a new government watched how Prussia was developing with increasing scepticism.
At the same time in Italy, where both French and Spanish forces threatened Maria Theresa’s inheritance, a significant Austrian army assisted by the Royal Navy and the fine troops of the King of Sardinia drove their opponents out of Savoy, Parma and Modena. The Austrians here were commanded by Count Abensburg-Traun, governor of Lombardy and one of the more elderly of Maria Theresa’s generals. But though not in his prime, Traun was an able tactician and even Frederick admitted that the ‘only reason Traun has not defeated me is because he has not faced me on the battlefield’.
Traun had served as adjutant to Guido Starhemberg and as Khevenhueller noted:
From this experience he learnt how to conduct marches and plant camps with foresight and acquired the art of holding the defensive with inferior forces. Defensive operations were in fact his forte and he had few rivals in this respect. … The soldiers were very fond of him because he cared for their welfare and they invariably called him their ‘Father’. So generous was he towards his officers and the men that in later years he had almost nothing to live on and was virtually compelled to contract his second marriage so as to obtain a housekeeper and nurse.
All these successes offered the chance to conclude peace but Maria Theresa rejected all the overtures of the French. In front of the entire court she answered the French proposals with fighting words:
I will grant no capitulation to the French Army; I will receive no proposition or project. Let them address my allies!
When one of her courtiers had the temerity to refer to the conciliatory tone of the French General Belle-Isle, she exclaimed:
I am astonished that he should make any advances; he who by money and promises excited almost all the princes of Germany to crush me. … I can prove by documents in my possession that the French endeavoured to excite sedition even in the heart of my dominions; that they attempted to overturn the fundamental laws of the empire and to set fire to the four corners of Germany; and I will transmit these proofs to posterity as a warning to the empire.
The Siege of Prague continued and the French troops bottled up in the city became more and more desperate. Broglio escaped in disguise and Belle-Isle was left to effect the retreat. This he accomplished largely because of the incompetence of Prince Lobkowitz who, taking up a position with his army beyond the Moldau river, left only a small detachment of hussars to observe the French. Belle-Isle took full advantage of Lobkowitz’s complacency and stole away leaving only the sick and wounded. Eleven thousand infantry and 3,000 cavalry were thus extricated and passed some thirty miles through open country without receiving the slightest check.
In Prague even the wounded, amounting to some 6,000, rejected Lobkowitz’s furious demand for unconditional surrender. Their enterprising leader Chevert warned he would set fire to the city if he was not granted the full honours of war and Lobkowitz to his credit yielded, encouraged perhaps by the fact that his own magnificent palace with its priceless treasures would be the first to go up in flames.
But Belle-Isle had entered Germany at the head of 40,000 men and he returned to France with only 8,000, humiliated and a fugitive, a sorry outcome when an easy conquest had been anticipated.
Johann Peter Krafft (1780-1856)-‘victory declaration after the battle of Leipzig, 1813’-oil on canvas-1813 Berlin-Deutsches Historiches Museum. The Battle of Leipzig, also known as the Battle of the Nations, was fought between Napoleon and the three Allied armies that had been approaching the city for several days: the Army of Bohemia (Feldmarschall Karl Philipp Fürst zu Schwarzenberg), the Army of Silesia (General Gebhard Lebrecht von Blücher), and the Army of the North (former French marshal Jean-Baptiste-Jules Bernadotte, now Crown Prince of Sweden). Napoleon suffered a major defeat, which decided the campaign in Germany. He then fell back from Saxony to France.
Battle of Leipzig, October 16 actions.
Battle of Leipzig, 18 October actions.
The prospect of the coming campaign in Russia had ‘cast a gloom over society in general’, wrote Laure Junot, the frivolous Duchess of Abrantès, in her Mémoires.
It was in vain that the emperor ordered balls, fêtes and quadrilles. Marie Louise was surrounded by young and beautiful women who were commanded by Napoleon to exert every nerve to render her gay; but these ladies had brothers, fathers, husbands and lovers, so that the joys of the court were forced pleasures, and not joys springing from the heart.…
As the campaign got under way, Paris had:
presented a curious but melancholy spectacle. Husbands, sons, brothers and lovers were departing to join the army; while wives, mothers, sisters and mistresses, either remained at home to weep, or sought amusement in Italy, Switzerland or the various watering-places of France.
Laure herself had taken off to Aix-en-Savoie, with her four-year-old son (christened Napoleon), to be diverted by boating with Talma on Lac Bourget, by listening to the great actor recite from The Tempest in the midst of a storm, drenched with water, then by embarking on an affair with the Marquis de Balincourt as her husband struggled with the Russians and increasing madness. On 20 December 1812, she recalled, ‘the cannon of the Invalides announced to the city of Paris that the Emperor had returned’. Three days later, lovesick and now abandoned by Balincourt, she tried to take an overdose of laudanum. In January, Junot returned; instead of the dashing, handsome young Governor of Paris who had left her a few months previously, ‘there appeared a coarsened, aged man, walking with difficulty, bent and supported by a stick, dressed carelessly in a shabby greatcoat’. He was ‘in a strange state,’ Laure found; ‘often in a condition of somnolence during the day, the night brought him no sleep. He so strong, so much master of himself, wept like a child.’
During the brief time he spent in Paris that grim winter, one colonel found his family and friends:
in general terror-stricken. The famous 29th Bulletin had informed France abruptly that the Grande Armée had been destroyed. The Emperor was invincible no longer. The campaign of 1813 was about to open.… people were shocked to see the Emperor entertaining at the Tuileries. It was an insult to public grief and revealed a cruel sensitivity to the victims. I shall always remember one of those dismal balls, at which I felt as if I were dancing on graves.
It spoke volumes for the mood in Paris, in the army and in France as a whole as the full horror of the Russian débâcle was brought home by survivors like Junot. One is reminded, in a different context, of the mood of Berlin as the Soviet colossus began to close in on the city in 1944. In the words of Mademoiselle Avrillon, who was in charge of the Empress’s jewellery, ‘we were all the more terrified … because for 20 years so many uninterrupted successes made us think reverses impossible’. The consternation produced by Napoleon’s Bulletin reporting the destruction of the Grande Armée in Russia was ‘impossible to describe’.3 Constant recorded that it was:
The first time that Paris saw him come back from a campaign without bringing with him a fresh peace which the glory of his arms had won. On this occasion, all those persons who looked upon Josephine as the Emperor’s talisman and the guardian of his fortunes, did not fail to note that the Russian campaign was the first which had been undertaken by the Emperor since his marriage with Marie Louise.
There was a strong, unvoiced sense that Moscow heralded, as Talleyrand expressed it, ‘the beginning of the end, and … the end itself could not be far distant’. As soon as Napoleon showed himself in Paris, however, in the words of Duff Cooper, ‘Once more and for the last time treason hung its head, criticism sank to a whisper, and conspiracy crept underground.’ In despair, Napoleon called on Talleyrand yet again. Coldly, he was rejected with the words, ‘I am not acquainted with your affairs.’ Enraged, Napoleon threatened to have him shot, or hanged. Talleyrand riposted in his usual restrained, whimsical manner, ‘The Emperor is charming this morning.’ Then he despatched a secret letter to Louis XVIII, who was waiting patiently in the wings in England for the summons that seemed bound to come, now sooner rather than later.
Napoleon deliberately took to appearing more and more frequently in public, taking part in shoots even more often than before. To Duroc he remarked,
It behoves me to bestir myself and show myself everywhere. So that the papers may mention this, since those stupid English newspapers say every day that I am ill and can’t move.… Wait a bit! I will soon show them that I am as sound in body as I am in mind.
Despite his grave occupations, he never lost sight of his dream to make Paris the handsomest city in the world. Now he talked about building an embassy for the Italian Minister and a palace for the infant King of Rome on the Heights of Chaillot. In one of his few political successes, he began 1813 by attempting to make peace with the Pope with a new Concordat.
The balance sheet that confronted the Emperor as 1813 began could hardly have been more discouraging. He had inflicted an estimated 250,000 casualties on the Russians; but, out of the more than 600,000 troops that had crossed the Niemen in June 1812, only a broken 93,000 straggled home; out of 1,300 cannon, only 250 had returned. Even more serious, and irreplaceable in the long run, was his loss of some 180,000 horses. They provided the eyes and ears of his intelligence, the superb cutting edge of his heavy cavalry – as well as the prime movers of his artillery and supplies. In this one disastrous campaign, seven years of efforts since the joint triumphs of Austerlitz and Jena had been thrown away. The limits of the French Empire returned to what they had been before Tilsit. And now the Russian success was emboldening vanquished nations like Austria and Prussia (nominal, but unwilling, allies of Napoleon during the Russian Campaign) to raise their heads above the parapet once again. Already, under leaders like Yorck, Blücher, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, Prussia had undergone a miraculous, and historic, transformation, of its army and of its whole society, which in the ensuing century the world at large would come to rue. Other more or less unwilling allies like Bavaria and Saxony, and neutrals like Sweden, were just waiting for the right moment to align themselves against France.
Many historians have analysed the causes of Napoleon’s decisive defeat in Russia: he should never have left the war in Spain unsettled at his rear (as Hitler, in 1941, had turned his back on an undefeated Britain); he had not prepared for a winter campaign (but it was the summer heat as much as the winter cold that had defeated him); and of course he should never have gone to Moscow. As Hitler in his turn found out, the unending spaces of Russia were just too great for one man to exercise control over the massive armies involved – even with the vastly more sophisticated communications of the mid-twentieth century. Finally, Napoleon’s conduct of the campaign, the indecisions and procrastinations, the retreat from reality, suggested that he was no longer the man of Austerlitz and Jena, or even of Wagram. Almost certainly he had been saved by the ineptitude and the lethargy of the Russian commanders.
By early spring of 1813, the Russian juggernaut in the east had moved steadily westwards until it was approaching Prussian territory and menacing the German provinces allied to France. The Duchy of Warsaw, the tragic dream of a free Poland for which Marie Walewska and so many heroic Polish soldiers had given themselves since 1806, disappeared once again into the Tsarist maw – not to reappear for more than a century. Marie herself once again took the road to Paris. During the Russian Campaign, Prussia’s Frederick William III had been bullied into supplying a corps of 20,000 men to join the Grande Armée; barely two-thirds of them survived. In the last days of 1812 General Yorck had signed a secret treaty with Russia, the famous (or infamous, from Napoleon’s point of view) Convention of Tauroggen, whereby the Prussian forces moved from a state of nominal alliance with France to one of hostile neutrality – which would soon enough lead to war. The weak Prussian King, whom Napoleon had so humiliated at Tilsit in 1807, hesitated before plunging his country into another contest with Napoleon. But he was carried away by the groundswell of nationalism among young Germans, who, fired by secret societies like the Tugendbund (literally the ‘League of Virtue’), were sick of being overrun by the French, as the German states had been since the wars of Louis XIV. Frederick William was further galvanized by his hawkish Queen, and by Generals Yorck, Bülow and Blücher (now recovered from the mental breakdown that had afflicted him six years previously). On the edge of revolt, in late February of 1813 Prussia in secrecy signed the Convention of Kalitsch with Russia, promising to enter the war, and being promised in return the restoration of her 1806 frontiers. For the forthcoming campaign, the Russians guaranteed to deploy a force 150,000 strong. Although, after Jena, Prussia had agreed to limit her forces to only 42,000 men, the work of secret rearmament in fact enabled her eventually to send 80,000 to join the Allies in 1813.
Tauroggen was to herald the German War of Liberation, otherwise known as the Battle of the Nations, which by the end of 1813 would inflict decisive defeat on Napoleon, as well as letting out of the bottle the genie of German nationalism. (Yet, without those liberated Prussians at Waterloo, Wellington would never have won.)
As the New Year dawned, about all that stood in the way of the resurgent Allied forces were a few scattered French-held fortresses like Danzig, Stettin and Glogau-on-the-Oder and a miscellany of fewer than 50,000 troops under Eugène de Beauharnais, the admirable son of Josephine, and Napoleon’s stepson, who had taken over command from his rather less admirable brother-in-law, Murat. (Murat had hastened back to the pleasanter climate of his Neapolitan kingdom as soon as he decently could after the retreat from Moscow.) Nevertheless, reworking the miracle which only he could achieve, Napoleon somehow managed to create a brilliant new army out of the wreckage of 1812, and a new strategy. In fact, three more times, in each successive year and after each major defeat, Napoleon would repeat that miracle. Only he, backed by the residual fervour of France’s revolutionary mystique, could have done it. Setting himself a staggering target of 656,000 men, he mustered 120,000 half-trained conscripts, drew 80,000 from the National Guard and called up 100,000 more who had escaped service between 1809 and 1812. Troops were pulled out of Spain (although the ‘Spanish Ulcer’ still continued to eat up over 175,000 of his most seasoned troops in a losing struggle). ‘France is one vast workship,’ recorded Caulaincourt.
The entire French nation overlooked his reverses and vied with one another in displaying zeal and devotion … It was a personal triumph for the Emperor, who with amazing energy directed all the resources of which his genius was capable into organizing the great national endeavour. Things seemed to come into existence as if by magic.…
What a man!
Where his enemies (Britain in particular) erred in their failure to standardize, Napoleon’s achievement in the earlier years of settling on standard calibres of field gun had greatly aided him. By mid-August, he would be able to count on the support of no fewer than 1,300 cannon, replenishing the losses of the Russian Campaign. Yet it could never be the same Grande Armée. It was gravely deficient in trained officers; even more seriously, the cavalry would never recover from its shortage of horses.
The allied plan for 1813 was to advance on a broad front, with widely separated columns, clearing Prussia of the French and striking for Dresden, the capital of Napoleon’s principal remaining German ally, Saxony. In the north, an embittered Bernadotte – never forgetting his public humiliation by Napoleon at Wagram – had thrown in his lot with the Allies, and was building up a force in Swedish Pomerania, preparing (cautiously, as always) to move southwards. Meanwhile false threats of a British landing lured the French into abandoning the useful port of Hamburg. With his forces concentrating in the Magdeburg area, Napoleon’s plan – grandiose and highly ambitious – was to push the Allies back over the Elbe and strike for Berlin, then to relieve his beleaguered fortresses still holding out east of the Oder and on the Vistula. In his aim of seizing an enemy capital and dividing the Allied armies before they could concentrate, there were echoes of Austerlitz. Once again, Napoleon showed himself capable of moving with astonishing speed; once again, he was aided by procrastinatory squabbles among the Allies. (Old Kutuzov, too, demoted from supreme command but still at the head of the main Russian army directed on Dresden, was a dying man.) He was in any case sorely limited by his lack of effectives. By April they were still far below the figure of 300,000, the minimum he reckoned essential to carrying out his objectives. In cavalry, he could muster only 8,000 against the Allies’ 24,000. He was also to prove over-optimistic in his reliance on his Saxon and Bavarian allies.
Characteristically, however, he decided to press an attack in mid-April before the Allies could concentrate on the Elbe. At 4 a.m. on 15 April 1813, he left St Cloud; the next day, at midnight, he was at Mainz on the other side of the Rhine. Disagreements over command in the Allied camp after the death of Kutuzov (he had died three weeks before) were offset by the handicap inflicted on Napoleon by virtue of the tactical intelligence denied him by his acute shortage of light cavalry. Nevertheless, at Lützen near Leipzig, west of the Elbe, he won a costly minor victory on 2 May – a Wagram rather than an Austerlitz. To his deep sorrow, there he lost Marshal Bessières, the son of a surgeon, who had been with him ever since Rivoli in 1796, the genius of the Guard who had led the famous charge at Austerlitz, and who had proved both one of his most dependable supporters and one of his few genuine friends. ‘Bessières lived like Bayard; he died like Turenne,’ pronounced Napoleon. According to Marmont, ‘This was probably the day, of his whole career, on which Napoleon incurred the greatest personal danger on the field of battle.… He exposed himself constantly, leading the defeated men of [Ney’s] III Corps back to the charge.’ Both sides lost about 20,000 men; on the Allied side, Blücher’s Chief-of-Staff, Scharnhorst – the reformer of the Prussian Army, and often regarded as the epitome of German nationalism – was mortally wounded; Blücher himself was wounded, and the less tenacious Yorck took over the Prussian forces. The ferocity of the fighting at Lützen caused Napoleon to remark gloomily, ‘These animals have learnt something.’ The most valuable thing they had learnt was not to be taken by surprise by Napoleonic tactics.
Given Napoleon’s crippling shortage of cavalry, there could be no serious pursuit of the defeated enemy. This was unfortunate for Napoleon; the squabbling Allies were in far worse disarray than he could see, the Prussians wanting to withdraw northwards, to cover Berlin, the Russians eastwards towards Breslau and Warsaw. Tsar Alexander had nominated Wittgenstein to succeed Kutuzov as supreme commander. Aged forty-four, he was the youngest of the Allied commanders – and not 100 per cent Russian. Blücher, the Prussian, had agreed to his appointment, but the Russian, Miloradevich, the veteran of Austerlitz and the 1812 campaign, objected. As a result Alexander himself assumed nominal command, with disastrous results.
Napoleon advanced across the Elbe, on 21 May winning at Bautzen, east of Dresden, another battle of furious intensity. By this time he had managed to concentrate 115,000 men to Wittgenstein’s 96,000. Soult was charged with attempting a repeat of his historic success at Austerlitz’s Pratzen Heights, breaking through the enemy centre while Ney enveloped them from the left. Ney, however, partly as a result of confusing orders from Napoleon, made a dismal mess of things, robbing the French of what might otherwise have been a copybook Napoleonic victory. Again, each side lost approximately 20,000 men, Napoleon’s only trophies a few wrecked cannon and wounded prisoners. As well as the shortage of cavalry (Ney’s excuse for failing to pursue), defeat at Bautzen reflected sorely the absence of his better commanders – especially Lannes, killed at Aspern–Essling in 1809; Davout, who had been sent off on a worthless diversion towards Hamburg; and Masséna, battling Wellington in Spain.
Napoleon had suffered another particularly grievous personal loss. Duroc – who had recently predicted his own end – died in agony in his Emperor’s arms, after being disembowelled by a cannon-ball. Napoleon had rushed to his bedside, afterwards sitting for an hour with his head bowed in misery. ‘Poor fellow!’ an old Guardsman was heard to remark; ‘he’s lost one of his children.’ For a while, demoralizing rumours were rife that it was the Emperor, not Duroc, transported in the coffin.
What might have resulted in a decisive victory, which would deter Austria from entering the war, ended yet again in only a modest one, bringing the spring campaign to a close with both sides in a state of exhaustion. With 90,000 of his men – in addition to battle casualties – listed sick, time was now emphatically not on Napoleon’s side. He had outrun his supply system, and his lines of communication were constantly menaced by Cossacks and German partisans. On 2 June, he was forced to agree to an armistice – explaining it in terms of ‘my shortage of cavalry, which prevents me from striking great blows, and the hostile attitude of Austria’. On 15 June, the British paymaster gave Russia and Prussia £2 million to carry on the war, and Austria £500,000 to join it. Six days later came news of Wellington’s victory at Vitoria in Spain. It brought to an end brother Joseph’s kingship and took the British uncomfortably close to France’s own back-door at Bayonne – less than a hundred miles’ distant. On 7 July, Bernadotte finally came off his fence and began moving with 100,000 men towards Berlin. Playing for time in a cunning game of diplomacy, and exploiting France’s growing urge for peace, the wily Metternich offered Napoleon peace terms that he would be quite unable to accept. According to Metternich, this provoked ‘a series of professions of friendship alternating with the most violent of outbursts’. A furious Napoleon declared, ‘You want nothing else but the dismemberment of the French Empire,’ refusing – as Hitler was to do once forced on to the defensive – to cede ‘an inch of land’.
Meanwhile, lapsing into his final bout of madness, Junot died, clamouring for peace. His death seemed somehow symbolic of how time was running out. Now, during the seven weeks’ armistice, Austria was assembling an army, the Army of Bohemia, under Prince Schwarzenberg, some 200,000 strong, marching northwards from Prague to join the Allies. In vain, and mistakenly, had Napoleon hoped that his dynastic marriage to the Austrian Marie Louise might have neutralized his new father-in-law. On 12 August a self-righteous Austria declared war. By mid-August a terrifying, and unprecedented grand total of 800,000 Allied troops faced Napoleon far from his base, on the upper reaches of the Elbe. By scraping every depot for reserves, the French Emperor was able astonishingly to confront this massive force with 700,000 of his own, though many were conscripts of poor quality.
Now, for the first time, Napoleon had to fight simultaneously the armies of Russia, Austria and Prussia – and the Swedish forces of the renegade Bernadotte, with Wellington closing in on the Pyrenees. Still unable to agree on any joint strategy, the Allies – respectful of Napoleon’s menace in a pitched battle – fell back on the next best thing: the ‘Trachtenberg Plan’, whereby any army attacked by Napoleon would retire, refusing battle, while the others closed in on his flank and communications, like a pack of hounds bringing down a powerful stag. This was designed to prevent any army being destroyed in detail. As always, however, Napoleon moved his formations so fast as to threaten to negate the Trachtenberg compact; yet it was a form of attrition which, at last, was to prove successful.
Trying to retrieve his original blueprint of April, Napoleon’s plan was to strike for Berlin, capture the Prussian capital and head off Bernadotte’s approaching army before it could link up with the Allies in the south. But logistics and the political considerations of keeping in the fight his chief surviving German ally, war-ravaged Saxony, forced him into an essentially defensive battle, with his main force fortifying an armed camp around the old and beautiful Saxon capital of Dresden. His marshals were increasingly restive about his scheme to advance on Berlin. At about this time, he suffered yet another personal blow in the defection of the brilliant Swiss strategist and (later) military historian, Baron Jomini – the éminence grise of Ney, who was often rash when left on his own. Reputedly the last officer to leave Russian soil, for his heroic conduct during the retreat from Moscow the previous year Ney had received from Napoleon the sobriquet ‘the bravest of the brave’ and had been proclaimed Prince of Moscow. But the strains of the Russian campaign, and wounds both there and at Lützen – followed by the defection of Jomini – progressively told on him. His battle conduct would henceforth suffer greatly (notably at Waterloo), and within a matter of days he would blunder clumsily, and foolishly, into a trap laid for him by his former colleague, Bernadotte.
At Dresden, on 26 and 27 August, though prey to an unusual degree of vacillation, Napoleon won yet another victory – this time at the expense of Schwarzenberg. He was aided by a fortuitous cannon-ball, which narrowly missed the Tsar but mortally wounded another renegade French General, Jean-Victor Moreau, standing at his side. The French camp took heart from this, as a sign of divine retribution; the Allies were discouraged in proportion. During the battle, the valet, Constant, found Napoleon ‘in a most deplorable state. He had been in the saddle since 6 that morning. It had rained incessantly and he was drenched through. Even his top boots were full of water, which must have dripped off his great coat.…’ But, once again, in the thick of the battle he seemed to be untouchable. Murat, back from Naples, struck a brilliant cavalry blow at the Austrians, but was not strong enough to pursue and trap them in retreat. In fact, by overreaching themselves the French suffered an unprecedented disaster. On 30 August, Vandamme, a bold commander keen to win his marshal’s baton, allowed himself to be cut off unexpectedly at Kulm, twenty-five miles south of Dresden, by the Prussian Kleist, who suddenly appeared out of the hills behind him. After a fierce fight, Vandamme, outnumbered in a proportion of 3:5, was forced to surrender together with 13,000 men. In the north, Macdonald of Wagram fame, through mishandling of his corps, had been badly mauled by Blücher.
With only 120,000 French facing 170,000 of the enemy, Napoleon had triumphed at Dresden with losses (apart from Vandamme) of barely 10,000 to the Allies’ 38,000. His handling of the battle showed him at the top of his old form, but he was, disquietingly, let down badly by the failure of his subordinates (such as Vandamme) elsewhere. Here the Trachtenberg compact had borne fruit. Thus Dresden, observes David Chandler, ‘joined Lützen and Bautzen on the growing list of practically valueless French victories’.9 Now the big test, the Allies’ great opportunity, was about to come.
Dresden had gone some way to re-establishing the myth of Napoleonic invincibility, but the surrender of Vandamme gave the Allies a much needed emotional uplift. Shortage of supplies was rapidly reducing the French forces to starvation level, with the basic bread ration cut from twenty-eight ounces to eight, as the ravages of war in Saxony (once the richest of the German states) rendered foraging unprofitable, if not impossible. By the beginning of September, Napoleon could count on no more than 260,000 tired and hungry men, and about half the number of cannon he had at the beginning of the campaign in the spring. His plan to drive on Berlin was once more aborted, this time by the hole in his ranks caused by Vandamme’s and Macdonald’s débâcles and by the general reluctance of his commanders. Instead, in breach of his fundamental principle of concentration, he despatched Ney towards Berlin with an under-strength detachment of 60,000 men, while keeping his main force at Dresden. On 6 September, Ney suffering from the loss of his genius, Jomini, and from the shortage of cavalry intelligence that now increasingly beset the whole Grande Armée, blundered foolishly into a trap laid for him by Bernadotte, at Dennewitz, less than fifty miles south-west of Berlin. He suffered 10,000 casualties, to 7,000 of the former fellow general whom he had never held in high esteem.
Meanwhile, at Dresden Napoleon was in a serious dilemma. To stay there, with the Allied armies converging, would place him in great jeopardy, but to quit the city would almost certainly mean the defection of his last remaining German ally, the King of Saxony. Weighing up the military against the political, he dithered disastrously for several days. With Blücher continuing to evade all attempts to bring him to battle, on 7 October Napoleon set off north-westwards for what he considered to be the safer stronghold of Leipzig, leaving behind in Dresden two of his best corps, under St Cyr and Lobau. It was a decision that has been rated ‘probably the most fateful one of the entire campaign’. His attempts to threaten the enemy capital, Berlin, and to manoeuvre against his rear, had both failed. On 13 October, Blücher, the stubborn old Prussian who detested retreat, Napoleon and Bernadotte in about equal measure, wrote to the Tsar that the three armies were now so close together ‘that a simultaneous attack, against the point where the enemy has concentrated its forces, might be undertaken’.
Three days later, in the greatest concentration of force ever seen in the Napoleonic Wars, the Allies – moving in from every direction, the Russians from the south-east, Schwarzenberg’s Austrians from the south-west and Blücher’s Prussians (plus, more slowly, Bernadotte’s Swedes) from the north – finally cornered Napoleon outside the city of Leipzig. It was barely a day’s march from the battlefield of Jena, where the French Emperor had scored his crushing victory over the Prussians just seven years previously to the day. Later, with hindsight, Marmont described the French position as being ‘at the bottom of a funnel’. In what justly came to be called the Battle of the Nations, 200,000 hungry and battle-weary French with 900 cannon faced well over 300,000 Allied troops and 1,500 guns. Such numbers had never been seen before on a European battlefield. There ensued two days of a grim slogging battle, of an unprecedented intensity. At one point on the first day Murat’s heavy cavalry broke through, all but reaching the Tsar’s command post – which could have won the day for Napoleon. But, without the reserves to follow up, the exhausted cuirassiers were driven off by the Tsar’s ‘heavies’.
The battle ended roughly in a draw, with Napoleon having sustained some 25,000 casualties to approximately 30,000 of the Allies. But, as more and more Allied reinforcements approached, the odds became heavily loaded against the French. Instead of beating an orderly retreat from Leipzig on 17 October, whereby he could have saved at least part of his army, Napoleon, hoping for some heaven-sent miracle such as had bailed him out so often in the past, made the fatal mistake of delaying to the 18th. On the 17th, the allies moved in in what the American historians Esposito and Elting have described as ‘a heads-down, go-and-get-killed, concentric attack’. By nightfall, total, irretrievable defeat faced Napoleon. The only thing which was to save him from annihilation was the leisurely performance of Bernadotte, anxious to spare his own raw Swedes and behaving much as he had when fighting for Napoleon.
At this last, and finally decisive, battle of the brutal 1813 campaign, the French artillery fired off some 200,000 rounds; the Allies lost probably as many as 54,000 killed and wounded, while French battle casualties approached 40,000, with a further 30,000 captured during the retreat on the 19th. Many were drowned when panicky engineers prematurely blew a bridge, crowded with troops, over the River Elster. Among those tragically lost was the brave Prince Poniatowski. He and his fellow Poles had fought magnificently during the battle, and he had just been made a marshal, the first of his countrymen to receive his baton. He tried to swim the river on his horse, but, exhausted from four wounds, he failed to make it.
The death of the much loved Poniatowski marked the end of Poland’s brave hopes in Napoleon. Leipzig equally marked the end of Napoleon’s empire east of the Rhine. The Bavarians had already changed sides, and were supplying the victorious Allies with a force under General Wrede (who had fought alongside Napoleon at Wagram). Now the Saxons, deserted by Napoleon, their country ravaged by war, left his camp; not much more than half-a-century later, in a war of revenge for all the humiliations inflicted by the French, they would be invading France hand in hand with the Prussians, whose triumph at Leipzig would herald their emergence as the leading power in Germany.
In this second bitter winter of defeat, the French retreat across Germany was hardly less grim than that of 1812. ‘The numbers of corpses and dead horses increased every day,’ recorded an Allied observer:
Thousands of soldiers, sinking from hunger and fatigue, remained behind, unable to reach a hospital. The woods for several miles round were full of stragglers and worn-out and sick soldiers. Guns, wagons were found everywhere.…
It could have been an account of the German retreat from the Falaise Gap in August 1944. Almost 400,000 of Napoleon’s troops had been lost, or cut off in isolated garrisons from Danzig to Dresden; only about 80,000 effectives, plus some 40,000 stragglers, limped back across the Rhine. That Napoleon escaped at all was probably thanks to Bernadotte’s dismal failure to reach Leipzig in time, and to the Allies’ own exhaustion. By November, Schwarzenberg’s command was reduced to only 150,000 men – ‘ragged, worn out, wracked by typhus and dysentery’ – their lines of communication impossibly extended. Only their enfeeblement staved off an immediate invasion of France.
Less than three weeks after the catastrophe at Leipzig, Napoleon was back at St Cloud, once again leaving his defeated troops behind, to ask for fresh armies. He had been absent from Paris 209 days, compared with 224 in 1812, and only 124 for the Ulm–Austerlitz Campaign of 1905. If it had not been plain after Moscow, the writing on the wall should have been crystal clear after Leipzig. From the capture of Allied correspondence just before the battle was engaged, Napoleon had learnt enough about enemy intentions to realize that only a decisive military victory could save him. Yet France, after twenty-five years of almost constant war, was physically, financially and emotionally drained. Back in Paris, hatred for Napoleon was spreading, as many subversive groups – Royalists, Jacobins and ‘liberals’ – conspired with increasing impunity. The 1813 campaign had revealed that many of the leading marshals (not unlike Hermann Goering after 1940) had grown soft after being showered with titles and riches; Clarke, the Minister of War, had made such a muddle as to suggest something worse than mere incompetence; Berthier, the once indispensable ‘Emperor’s wife’, was very sick; in a grave waste of talent, Davout had been left behind, out of the Battle of the Nations, and stuck in Hamburg. Repeated failures in 1813 proved that the cavalry, the key to so many past battles and campaigns, had still not recovered from its losses in Russia – indeed, it would barely do so by Waterloo. Though only the inefficiency of the Allies had saved Napoleon in 1813, and would come close to doing so in 1814, he failed to understand that the driving impulse of nationalism was now no longer an exclusively French asset. In the words of General J. F. C. Fuller, for Napoleon the battle of Leipzig had been ‘a second Trafalgar, this time on land; his initiative had gone’.
Field Marshal Heinrich von Bellegarde and his staff at the battle of the Mincio River, by Albrecht Adam.
The Battle of the Mincio River (or Roverbella, a village some miles north of Mantua) was fought between the Armée d’Italie under Eugene de Beauharnais, Viceroy of the Kingdom of Italy, and an Austrian army under Feldmarschall Heinrich Graf Bellegarde. Though tactically a draw (neither party claimed victory in official reports), it was a French victory at the strategic level, as the Austrians failed to force the line of the Mincio.
The 1813-1814 Italian campaigns had begun in September 1813 with the Armée d’Italie defending the Illyrian Provinces (parts of present-day Slovenia and Croatia) and the Drava Valley in Styria (now southern Austria and northern Slovenia). A slow and relatively uncontested re- treat followed in the autumn, with bad weather and the lethargic Austrians allowing Eugene to successfully defend the line behind the river Adige for three months. On 4 February 1814, being aware that the King of Naples, Joachim Murat, had recently passed over to the Allied coalition and that his Austro-Neapolitan army threatened the French line of communication on the southern bank of the Po, Eugene ordered a retreat behind the Mincio. The new defensive line, supported on both flanks by the fortresses of Peschiera (to the north) and Mantua (to the south), al- lowed the Armée d’Italie to shorten its front considerably and maintain a central position between Bellegarde and Murat. Eugene’s plan was to move quickly most of his army south of the Po and fall on the Neapolitans. To achieve this goal, he had first to paralyze Bellegarde’s army, positioned at Villafranca, by delivering an unexpected blow across the Mincio on 8 February. For his part, Bellegarde erroneously believed that Eugene was fleeing to Cremona and decided to set off in pursuit. The Austrian army was to cross the Mincio at Valeggio early in the morning of the same day.
Bellegarde had under his command 35,000 generally well-seasoned troops, with 130 guns. Eugene’s was essentially a conscript army of 30,000 men, excluding the troops left in garrison at Mantua and Peschiera, with 90 guns. With morning mist preventing the opposing commanders from detecting each other’s positions, the battle developed symmetrically over two distinct areas 5-6 miles apart and separated by the Mincio. While most of Eugene’s army (19,000 men) pushed northeast from Goito toward Villafranca, clashing with Bellagarde’s reserve, the bulk of the Austrian army crossed to the right bank and ran into a single French division positioned on the hills of Monzambano.
By midmorning, an amazed Eugene realized Austrian intentions and reacted to the unusual situation facing him. Hoping to catch the Austrians off balance and fall on their left flank, he redirected at about 10:00 A. M. three French infantry divisions, with one light cavalry brigade and the cavalry of the Italian Royal Guard, toward Valeggio. His advance, however, was checked by Generalmajor Joseph Freiherr von Stutterheim’s grenadier brigade (with two dragoon regiments), which stubbornly resisted against greater odds until late afternoon on the heights of the village of Pozzolo, midway between Goito and Valeggio.
On the far bank, General Philibert Fressinet’s small French division (5,000) was deployed on higher ground along the Olfino stream and successfully repulsed every enemy effort. Fearing for his rear, Bellagarde eventually ordered a general retreat eastward across the Mincio. Eugene’s army encamped for the night somewhere between Pozzolo and Roverbella, and on the following morning withdrew to its original position behind the river. During the battle, two small Italian divisions launched minor and indecisive sorties from Peschiera and Mantua. The Austrians had some 4,000 men killed and wounded, and 2,500 taken prisoner. French losses lay somewhere between the Austrian claim of 6,000 and Eugene’s figure of 2,500.
References and further reading Nafziger, George F., and Marco Gioannini. 2002. The Defense of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Northern Italy, 1813-1814. Westport, CT: Praeger. Schneid, Frederick C. 2002. Napoleon’s Italian Campaigns, 1805-1815. Westport, CT: Greenwood. Weil, Maurice. 1902. Le prince Eugene et Murat, 1813-1814: Opérations militaires, négociations diplomatiques. Paris: Fontemoing.
On March 15, 1758, the king marched from his winter quarters in Breslau. He started on the third campaign of this conflict, waiting until the frosts were gone and the cold winter winds had subsided. The headquarters was moved to Kloster-Grüssau and the army was encamped between there and Landshut. Frederick’s job was to keep the whitecoats quiet in Bohemia while his army descended on Schweidnitz to reclaim that fortress from its enemy garrison. This he meant to accomplish before the time of normal campaigning, and before the cautious Daun could interfere with his maneuver.
This was a bold plan, and very risky as the king’s plan placed great reliance on Daun being slow and methodical. The Prussian magazines at Jauernick and Sabischdorf were prepped to supply the needs of the forces preparing to besiege Schweidnitz. The bluecoats had been loosely investing the fortress during the winter layover. The storming of Schweidnitz was an essential preliminary to another invasion of the Austrian Empire. The king had already decided to carry the fight into the very heart of his greatest enemy for the second time in as many campaigns.
In any case, the elimination of the last major body of Austrian troops in central Silesia would give Frederick’s largely new troops the confidence they needed to face the enemy massing to their front. During the winter, Maria Theresa had been engaged in strengthening both the number and preparedness of the Austrian army. In addition to the effort to refine the command structure of the army, the numbers of men needed replenishment.
The garrison of Schweidnitz had utilized the time given to build up the fortifications there to make any Prussian attempt to retake it into a major task. Yet, the men could not help but be affected by their isolation from the main Austrian lines. Of the original 8,000 men, only 5,500, some of those of questionable quality, remained available, and even most of these men were somewhat demoralized from the degree of the Prussian successes, most notably Leuthen, the previous year. These latter were under Lt.-Gen. Franz Ludwig Thürheim and Major-General von Gröttendorf.
In the final days of March, Frederick reached the vicinity of Schweidnitz and began deploying his army for the siege. The fall of the place seemed imminent. Rossbach had shaken the French, so much so the king felt he may not have to deal with them until perhaps mid-summer. The Austrians, still smarting and shaky from Leuthen—in spite of Maria Theresa’s best efforts—would not be able to launch any offensive operations on a major scale for most of the year. As for the Imperialists, they were still hungover from Rossbach. Neither the Swedes nor the Russians were as yet ready for marching. It was, in many ways, now or never for this second invasion of Austria. As per the old axiom, “First things first.” General Tresckow was given charge of the siege forces around Schweidnitz. He had nearly 10,000 men, 4,600 of whom were cavalry. This was by no means an overwhelming force.
Nonetheless, the Prussians made steady progress towards the siege. The siege guns were brought up, and, in the first two days of April under a soaking front of rain, the first parallel of the siege lines were completed. The whitecoats, under the miserable conditions, did not discover the Prussian effort until it was a done deal. The bluecoats made sure of having sufficient artillery in place to do the job. Forty-eight pieces of ordnance were employed by the Prussians altogether, including eight 24-pounders.
The weather was not very cooperative. Since the Austrians failed to detect the line until it was completed, by then nothing could be done about it. April 8, with Marshal Daun still deep in Bohemia, the first shots of the siege batteries opened on the fortifications. Galgen, as the main fortress, was heavily cannonaded day after day, and gradual progress was made, despite miserable weather conditions. The whole structure was intrinsically affected by its location. Schweidnitz was designed by “placing the main weight of the defence on a girdle of detached forts and lunettes.” This could only increase the suffering of the besiegers and the besieged alike. All of these factors made Frederick, who never favored siege operations under any conditions, want to wrap things up even more quickly.
In the meantime, operations elsewhere had begun. On the eve of the march towards Schweidnitz, the king detached two strong columns from the main army: (1) One, under Ziethen, was to take up post near Troppau; and, (2) The second, Fouquet to Glatz. Both of these detachments had the duty of sweeping away the remnants of the Austrian forces in southern Silesia and, more importantly, keep it clear. There had been no word of any activity from the vicinity of Marshal Daun and his still reforming army.
The irascible Laudon spent much time urging on the reluctant Daun to relieve Schweidnitz (a viewpoint which he shared with Chancellor Kaunitz), and he was kept busy with his light troopers engaged in isolated actions with detached bodies of bluecoats. Laudon here can certainly be commended for seeking bold action, but Marshal Daun was fully aware that his army was not ready to take on the very confident Frederick just yet. Especially after such a crushing defeat as had been inflicted on them at Leuthen.
Nevertheless, Daun left his winter quarters on March 13. He promptly moved on to Königgrätz. The marshal and his army were posted there even now, digging in with his vaunted defensive skills, as well as training troops and having even more equipment brought forward for the army. The agitated marshal still had the advantage, if nothing else, of superior numbers: 100,000 Austrians against the maximum of 70,000 Prussians he faced. If it had been his desire, Daun could certainly have proven to be a problem for Frederick’s plans. But the latter suspected his adversary’s slow, calculating character, and took a reasonable risk that nearly paid off. In the campaigns to come, Frederick would take many more risks with Daun as his chief enemy.
The Austrian commander had guessed (correctly) that the king meant an invasion of the Austrian Empire again this year. Daun was mistaken, though, in the route that invasion would take. The Austrians had spent the winter preparing the passageways into Bohemia for the Prussian intruders. Impressive defensive posts had been prepared—posts that would not be needed. This was especially ironic since the Austrians did a much better job of preparing for a possible Prussian invasion of Bohemia in 1758, when it did not occur, than they had done in 1757, when it did.
The Austrian army itself had been steadily reinforced during the winter layover by new blood, and at his impressive camp at Skalitz (occupied on April 19), Daun had carried forward heavy training exercises until the men were becoming proficient in their trade. Unfortunately for them, the Prussian king had decided to bypass Bohemia this time around, where Prague alone was still the lone Austrian vital point, and instead proceed directly into Moravia. Daun cooperated by not taking his army past Königgrätz and interfering with the Prussian siege of Schweidnitz. Rising star Laudon did his best, to no avail, to persuade the marshal to move to try to thwart the Prussian effort to retake Schweidnitz which would enable them to drive away the last Austrian toehold in Silesia.
The king considered it too risky to make further moves while Schweidnitz remained in Austrian hands. The fact Daun refused to help the garrison presaged what was to come. But there was some basis for this attitude. There were still many in the army who could not look past 1757. While Daun waited at Königgrätz, the impressive fortifications of Schweidnitz fell. After a week of steady progress, Tresckow and Colonel Johann Friedrich von Balbi, the chief engineer, both suggested that the place was ripe for the storming. Balbi saw to it that the besieging troops, which were hardly more numerous than the defenders, were kept supplied with meat and beer. As for the cost, he begged the king “not to look at the expense.” There was also some urgency to wrap the business up. With this thought in mind and purpose, the king summoned Marshal Keith to take over the direction of the besiegers. Accordingly, evening of April 15, the bluecoats made ready and, that night, assailed the Austrian lines.
Meanwhile, though, Thürheim’s batteries had been positioned in order to enfilade the enemy’s siege lines, beyond the town walls. On April 13–14, the Austrian ordnance was pulled back to the town walls, under the increasing Prussian pressure mounting against the works. About 0200 hours on April 16, bluecoat grenadiers, of Grenadier Battalion 21/27 (Colonel Bernhard Alexander von Diringshofen), Kreytzen’s 28/32 Grenadiers, and 41/44 (Beneckendorf), stormed forward. Galgen was taken, and so swiftly that the assaulting column lost 85 men. This was the crisis of the siege. With his best post gone, the Austrian commander, General Thürheim, surrendered before dawn (April 16), forestalling a general assault. The loss to the Austrians was again great: 51 brand-new guns, considerable monies and the garrison. The loss of the latter was approximately 4,841. The Prussians lost 102 men killed, and 261 wounded. Fortfeiting so many veterans in the garrison was a serious blow for Austrian fortunes, especially when we realize the hemorrhaging among both the rank-and-file and the officers going on just then.
This enterprise now out of the way, Frederick proceeded at once with the planned invasion of the enemy’s territory. For this new incursion, the army was to be divided into two columns: one, under Prince Henry, who was given charge in Saxony. Henry’s task was to move in the manner of a support rôle. The rest of the army, that section remaining with the king, was to perform the actual invasion. Henry was to threaten the left of Daun’s army in northern Bohemia while Frederick’s men were to march southeast across the front of the enemy force to Neisse and Jägerndorf. They were probing for Moravia, and the real destination, the city of Olmütz. The latter lay about 100 miles from the nearest Prussian frontier. Austrian Croats, Tolpatches, and Pandours were thick in the intervening country.
Daun had a large body of men put into position at Trautenau, under General Buccow, while Arenberg hitched into Nachod. The irregulars of Laudon (some 5,000 strong) stayed in close touch at Lewin, but there was certainly nothing special about the Austrian dispositions. Daun was clearly interested in covering the Austrian realm against Prussian invasion. Incidently, by the beginning of the new campaign, General Lacy was no longer in the field. He was back in Vienna, busy organizing and refining the very first office of an Austrian Chief of Staff. Lacy displayed an immediate bent towards meticulous planning, and careful consideration, although we should be careful not to use the term “bean counter,” which Lacy indubitably was not. Lacy’s contemporary on the staff, General Johann Anton Baron Tillier, helped in this build-up. The contributions of a well-run general staff would reap rich benefits for the whitecoats for the rest of the war and beyond. It is worth mentioning that Lacy was also personally involved in parts of the campaign in the field.
Meanwhile, Frederick’s intentions were plain; to his generals. He planned, once Olmütz was in Prussian hands, to press southward upon Vienna. Once there, he could threaten the very heart of the Austrian Empire. An outright occupation or siege of the Austrian capital might serve to induce one or more of the allies to seek peace. All being prepared, Frederick moved out on April 19. His march was confused deliberately, for the benefit of Daun, and the Prussians proceeded on Neisse and Jägerndorf. A six-day march (April 19–25) brought them to the frontier of Moravia. To make his intentions less clear, Frederick marched his army in two distinct columns.
In this way, the Prussians were able to slip past the formidable Austrian lines at Königgrätz with relative ease. At Troppau, the bluecoats turned southward, causing Daun to suspect Frederick might be heading into Bohemia from the east. The marshal kept his men idle until April 27, while Frederick took his men on their journey. The Prussians paused at Märisch Neustadt. General DeVille had thrown roving patrols out in the area. When the Prussians put in their sudden appearance, DeVille pulled up stakes and withdrew with some haste to Prossnitz. Without further ado, the king moved towards Prossnitz in a manner which threatened to bring DeVille to battle. Simultaneously, he detached Commander Werner—with two full regiments of hussars—to go occupy an enemy magazine at Olschan. The king’s move towards DeVille was interpreted by the latter (with some exaggeration) as a serious threat. The Austrian commander decided once again that discretion was the better part of valor, and promptly fell back upon Prödlitz. He withdrew, leaving behind 300 hussars at Olschan. The Prussians nabbed 40 as prisoners (May 5), and pressed on to Tafelberg, where the Austrians had a small garrison.
With Prossnitz vacated, Prince Eugene of Württemberg took a large command (about 8,000 men), and took up quarters there. With the arrival of General Fouquet at Krenau (May 16), Frederick rose from Littau and marched with some 10,000 men to link up with Eugene thereabouts. The latter had gradually moved from Prossnitz towards his new post, under close observation of Austrian reconnaissance patrols. At Prossnitz, the bluecoats encamped, with their headquarters at Schmirsitz. Fouquet held command of the Prussian center in this new post. The Prussian guns were placed on some of the local high ground; just in case the Austrians tried something daring. Such was not the case, and the foe did not bother the Prussian camp.
With nothing stirring on Daun’s side of things, Frederick decided to step into the rôle of aggressor again. He took a force of cavalry and rode through Prossnitz headed for another confrontation with DeVille, then ensconced at Prödlitz. DeVille one more time had no intention of staying put. He fled to Wischau. A Prussian effort at pursuit was effectively thwarted by Count St. Ignon. The latter repelled the pursuers at Driffitz, rather decisively. Locals rapidly carried the word to Vienna that DeVille’s men had scattered and that the enemy were now astride the road to the capital. This intelligence was incorrect. Still, it must have been patently obvious Frederick’s intentions were not directed at all towards Bohemia this time around.27 With all doubt thus removed, the king went to work out in the open. The various detachments of Prussians were immediately set in motion, with a siege of Olmütz as a short-term goal. The main force straddled the rises between Prossnitz and the Morave. General Fouquet threw a force into Glatz to stiffen the troops already there.
As for the second formation, Keith followed at a day’s distance behind. This separation was necessary because of the lousy road conditions as well as the quartering of the troops, which otherwise could have been a serious problem. Across the Morawa and Oder rivers and the little passes through the mountains, the invaders moved. Ziethen, with some 8,000 men, had been sent ahead, and detailed to keep the marching men screened from the enemy’s swarms of irregulars. Fouquet, who had charge of the provision trains and another 8,000-man force, staggered his convoys, under heavy escort, through the passes. The main army moved via Littau, Aschermitz, to Prossnitz—within 15 miles of Olmütz.
The Prussians were in Prossnitz by May 2–3. The news from other war fronts was encouraging and gave the king confidence that he would have the time he needed for his new mission. Ferdinand was preparing to carry the fight across the Rhine into France itself. There was no need to look for interference from that side this year at all for Frederick’s designs. General Dubislav Friedrich von Platen with a detachment was busy watching Fermor. January 16, the latter’s Russians had crossed the border into East Prussia, then, sweeping aside the feeble Prussian resistance, occupied Königsberg, forcing the inhabitants to swear a loyalty oath to Empress Elizabeth. However, there was little fear of a Russian movement against Prussia’s vitals until summer at least, given the state of their army’s supply problems and other difficulties.
As for Henry, his army of 32,000 men was even then in southern Saxony watching the Imperialists.30 Until he received word that Olmütz was in Frederick’s hands his primary purpose would be the defense of Saxony. Prince Henry was engaged in sending raiding parties deep into Bohemia and trying to keep Daun’s attention diverted to that province, and thus away from Moravia.
From the Northern Front, the news for the Prussians was still good. Although they remained some 15,000 strong, the Swedes had been held back from advancing by the muddy roads of Pomerania and the capable defense of Dohna. The latter held the shoreline against them, except at Stralsund. Now the spring thaw had come, but there was no effort to advance by the Swedish army. The latter’s chronic problems included the aged commander, Field Marshal Gustav Friedrich Graf von Rosen.
Back at the Southern Front, Daun had felled almost a whole forest to fortify and strengthen his post at Königgrätz, his defenses being so elaborate that it is no exaggeration to say Frederick might have found his task of invading Bohemia that year was impossible, had that been his design. Daun, nothing daunted, “refused to play the rôle assigned to him in Frederick’s plans.” When word arrived of the king’s advance into Moravia, the Austrians rose and sped out of Königgrätz eastwards to blunt his advance and save an important magazine—at Leutomischl—from the enemy’s clutches. Daun wasted no time, performing a direct march, as the Prussians had finally made their intentions clear. Frederick had a distance of some 150 miles, Daun only a little more than half that far. But the Austrians would not reach Leutomischl until May 5. Once there, Daun intended to take post, shielded by ever present thick bodies of Croats and Pandours.
Laudon, on May 2, 1758 rose from his post and hustled forward upon Reichenau. Behind him, Daun prepped the main army for a similar move. The marshal’s men marched to Wodierold, on May 3. With that still unsatisfactory, Daun bolted through Choitzen (May 4), and, next day, finally reached his magazine. The post there was much more suitable to keeping the enemy observed. Laudon, still following his rôle as vanguard, made Landscron his post. Laudon was a very opinionated man, and he found himself frequently at loggerheads with Marshal Daun over the best choices to make for military operations. Had he served with Frederick, he might not have been so eager to talk, for the Prussian king was not fond of obstinate subordinates. In short, the Prussian military was far more regimented and orderly compared to its Austrian counterpart at this stage. The major decisions all rested solely with the person of the king. Especially those calls involving basic military planning.
Frederick, meanwhile, was preparing to put Olmütz under blockade. One problem was the relative remoteness of Olmütz from nearby Prussian magazines. A week was devoted to preliminary reconnaissance and study of the approaches to the city as well as its defenses. Frederick had 48 battalions and 103 squadrons spread out with his command, including 26 battalions and 33 squadrons in the main force. It was not until May 12, that the Prussians were set for the serious work ahead.39 Next day, the Prussian king rode out to look at Olmütz with his own eyes. He had visited Olmütz before, but the state of defensive posts now were much stronger than on his previous visit.
The monarch was really like a fish out of water. Frederick was an excellent planner on campaigns and battles, but insofar as the cumbersome mechanics of his time necessary for a siege, he was out of his element. Nevertheless, within a few weeks the king expected Olmütz to fall, which could then allow him to start on the final leg of the plan: the march on Vienna. If he ever seriously believed that, he was doomed to disappointment.
Meanwhile, with Hadik pulling back, Laudon felt compelled to move into the vacuum left at Höhenstadt (May 6). Here Laudon was so close to the wily Prussians he pushed out light detachments to Müglitz and Ausse to observe them. Our old friend General Jahnus kept in close contact with Laudon, and pressed patrols through Schönberg and Gronberg to keep the bluecoats under close scrutiny. General DeVille had fallen back on Olmütz; he sent his infantry to join the garrison directly, but kept his cavalry near, but outside, the city. The various Austrian efforts were much more vigorous against the Prussian invaders of Moravia than they ever were during the invasion of Bohemia in 1757. This activity even briefly threatened Frederick’s designs upon Olmütz. The king was relieved to see the pressure ease off.
Frederick would have liked nothing better than an all-out battle with Daun, but the marshal, with the Austrian army still doing its best to recover from the Leuthen Campaign, did not feel so inclined. However, as soon as the rumor of the approach of Laudon proved accurate, the Prussian leader made immediate efforts to oppose his advance. Meanwhile, Frederick busied himself in his spare moments with writing verse and recounting the exploits of Charles XII of Sweden at Narva to his reader, Henri de Catt (who had recently been very ill). At Aschmeritz, the bluecoats congregated a large force—23 battalions and 13 squadrons—fronting Littau. They were ensconced about Sternberg, while Lacy crept up to Prossnitz to check their designs. Frederick intended to stay at Littau for a while, which he converted into a supply and ammunition depot.
The king was certain the key to defeating the Austrians lay not so much in mauling the various detachments that were about, but in knocking off Daun’s main force. Even so, Laudon made an especial nuisance out of himself. So, just before midnight on May 21–22, Frederick set off with a detail to throw some consternation into Laudon. The Prussian force, ten battalions of infantry and 17 squadrons of horse, was divided into three columns, and tried to approach stealthily. The men struck near dawn Laudon’s scattered line hard about Namiest—about 22 miles west of Olmütz. That attack was really a rather heavy artillery bombardment with many rounds being fired in the process. But Laudon was tipped off by friendly peasants, and the artillery exchange was carried on until about 1800 hours. The indomitable Austrian commander then preempted the Prussian ground attack with one of his own first. The Prussian front was driven in, and there were a number of casualties. This enabled Laudon to pull back his scattered forces on to Konitz. The king pursued only up to the place. He said of Laudon’s losses “we captured 3 officers and 43 men.” This did demonstrate, in no uncertain terms, that the Austrians would fight if left no choice.
Indeed Olmütz proved to be a far tougher nut to crack than Frederick had first calculated. She was protected by a garrison of 8,500 men under our old friend, General Marschall, backed up with 324 guns. This total included 110 12-pounder (or heavier) guns, and 91 mortars. As for the general, he was a valiant, skilled man whose rough appearance belied the capable leader that inspired confidence in his men by steady direction. Before the siege, Marschall had ordered all unnecessary individuals out of the city. Convalescent soldiers sheltering there were evacuated to points further in the interior, while the city suburbs of Novė Sady, Selena Ulice, Powel, and Stredni Ulice were torn down to keep the enemy from sheltering in them. It was a rough, but probably a necessary precaution. A garrison was put at Kloster Hradisch, as well as Rebscheine, Pablowitz, and other outlying villages, which Marschall considered essential to the safety of Olmütz. Daun (who lay idle at Leutomischl until May 23) did nothing to interfere with the Prussians as they closed up on the fortifications. He finally marched through Zwittau and, reaching the road to Olmütz, took encampment at Gewitsch—31 miles north-northwest of Olmütz. This in spite of the efforts of Vienna to get him moving.
Daun’s right wing took in the ground from Gewitsch fronting Kornitz, while the horsemen, of the left, were deployed close to the grenadier battalions. The latter took cover on a rise between Jauermeritz and Biskupitz. Daun was doing all he could to take advantage of the natural features of the ground. While he was so occupied, General Harsch moved on Mährisch-Tribau, beyond this point the irregulars of Laudon & Co. were busy harassing the bluecoats as much as possible. The Prussian supply trains had to come from Troppau (which was distant about 40 miles), but for the most part little happened. Good thing; it was said the Prussians needed 400 wagons a day during the siege just to maintain themselves. May 28, one of the roving Austrian bands lit up the country at Heidenpiltsch. The bluecoat force did its best, but some 300 wagons and a number of horses were taken. Another Prussian post, at Laskau under Major-General Christian von Möhring, became the victim of Laudon’s energetic adventures. Möhring was caught nearly by surprise, and, after a short fight, was driven from the field (night of June 7–8).
Nor were these the only operations undertaken by the two sides. The Prussian light force of Major-General Puttkammer, leading a force of 800 men, was suddenly jumped and routed by the Austrian Lt.-Col. Carl Graf Lanjus von Wellenburg (night of May 16–17) while on escort duty near Moravsky Beroun. The Prussians lost about 150 killed or wounded. The escort force lost half its number captive, while the train was dispersed, Franz von LeNoble received a wound and Puttkammer got away with less than 200 of his men.
And, during the night of June 4–5, the garrison launched its first major sortie. Under Major-General Simbschen, this force was about 550 men strong; the action inflicted some heavy damage on one section of the besieging lines, inflicting a loss of about 150 men, 50 of whom were captured. Further, on the night of June 13–14, an Austrian force of some 700 men under General Draskovitch, divided into four smaller formations, struck at the Prussian left side batteries, while an additional 300 men under Captain Rierra attacked the right wing batteries. Although this attack was finally and savagely repulsed, Frederick reported heavy damage, including seven guns spiked.
Meanwhile, Marshal Daun was preparing to march. June 15, some cavalry under General St. Ignon rode towards Prerau, which was an intention to screen the intermediate country there from the irruptions of Prussian raiders, as a prelude to the next move of the main Austrian army. The army rose from Gewitsch, and, under terrible sheets of rain, advanced on Prodivanow (June 16). Daun was determined to stay close enough to Olmütz that he could reinforce the fortress. On June 17, under better conditions, the march was resumed to a new site mapped out between Prödlitz and Evanowitz. Henry Lloyd makes out all of this was done without the Prussians even becoming suspicious. Keith was said to have a force (approximately 6,141 infantry) before Olmütz about then, along with seven squadrons of horse.
With Daun having reached a post from where he could better react, his cohorts used the time wisely. General St. Ignon (June 18), with his best effort, erupted against a Prussian force ensconced at Hollitz. The enemy, five squadrons of the Bayreuth and Puttkammer Dragoons, were abruptly forced to beat a retreat. The allied left, under Count Stainville, had things all its own way. Prussian losses of 200 killed and 150 taken prisoners were reported by General Lloyd, and Stainville also sacked the village of Wisternitz. The Prussian force thereabouts, seven squadrons of cavalry, along with a full battalion of infantry and “two pieces of cannon” were under General Mayr. This bold stroke appeared to take the bluecoats by surprise.
The bluecoat force, which boasted a band of infantry and two cannon at its back, was decimated in a short fight. Minus some 800 killed/wounded, they had to beat a retreat. Mayr himself was badly wounded and taken from the field. This represented a serious demonstration of the enemy’s prowess, and the king was obliged to pull back his outer posts. The Prussian army was reordered near Prossnitz and Czetcowitz.
That accomplished, Frederick earmarked June 20 for a powerful reconnaissance in force. He took some 12,000 men and moved on Prödlitz, scouts being sent to check out Daun’s preparations. This was the extent of Frederick’s reconnaissance, and the Prussians returned to Prossnitz. Next day, Daun detached new General Baron Bülow with 12,000 men; the latter was to make for Prerau and a reinforcement of the force in Olmütz.
Meanwhile, the news that the Prussians were sweeping virtually unchecked through her dominions proved to be most disturbing to Maria Theresa. There were actually preparations made to depart should the Prussian king take the notion of marching suddenly on the capital. This intelligence was not encouraging for the Austrians. There was an additional snag to offering an effective defense to the invaders: were all the available troops shifted to Moravia to defend Olmütz and block the road to Vienna from that side, what was to keep Prince Henry from moving against Prague in Bohemia? This was a legitimate concern of the Imperialists as well. If the Austrians vacated Bohemia, that would open the states of the Reich to the vengeful Prussians, and the only available defense then would be the largely ineffective Imperialist Army. This force had yet to recover from the hammering of Rossbach.
The siege of Olmütz had in the interim finally opened. Four days after Daun marched to Gewitsch, the Prussian engineers, led by Colonel Giuseppe Federico Balbi, completed the first parallel. A miscalculation caused the line to be dug about 800 yards short of where it should have been. So the bombardment that was opened immediately afterwards could do little because the range was too great. A second parallel had to be completed (June 2), wasting precious time. The garrison commenced to sortie against the Prussian lines. The effort on the night of June 4–5 was so successful, the next night another effort was made. This one was squashed, most effectively. The early shelling wasted, in addition, some 1,220 rounds of shot for negligible results on the first day. This second line was largely on the west side of the Morawa, as the opposite side was swampy and under water at many points.
June 9, the king took an inspection tour of Balbi’s works—most especially the main entrenchments (which had been erected on top of the Täperberg). The monarch enquired when these works were expected to be put to full use. Balbi’s brazen reply when the enemy had been beaten down could not have pleased the impatient Frederick. At the western side of the river stood Keith, commanding a detachment of 8,000 men with 71 guns. He was making a great effort of his own, but so were the defenders, whose artillery was capably directed by Lt.-Col. Adolph Nicolaus von Alfson. The latter maintained a superiority in artillery performance throughout the siege and gave the bluecoats much distress with their enterprise.
The latter lay in four distinct camps during the course of the siege. The first was at Littau, a post which extended over the Morawa and covered the road from Olmütz on that side. A second was at Neustadt, on the far side of the Morawa. The third was at Prossnitz, where the king had his headquarters; it kept the Austrians penned in from relief to the south. The fourth camp, that of Keith, encamped round Olmütz itself. From Olmütz, Littau was a good 15 miles to the northwest, Prossnitz to the south, Neustadt about 20 miles to the north from the fortress. About 20 miles west of Littau Daun was encamped, with Laudon making efforts against the scattered Prussian detachments. There is reason to believe the Austrian commander thought Frederick’s true intentions were still towards Bohemia, which meant the maneuver against Olmütz was a mere ruse.
Prince Henry, meanwhile, had been occupied with the Imperialists. He planned for Mayr to be set against them, preceding a major move. The latter had spent the winter trying to rebuild their army. Hildburghausen having resigned, the command of the still shaky force, after some haggling, was entrusted to Field Marshal Prince Friedrich Michael von Pfalz-Zweibrücken. The latter arrived at Nurnburg on March 31, and immediately set about rectifying some of his army’s most pressing concerns. The cautious Imperialist circles immediately went into council of war meetings. A reluctant decision was made at council to move from lower Saxony into a position closer to Bohemia. About the same time as the Imperialist change of order, Serbelloni resumed his career as a soldier by taking command of the Austrian forces in western Bohemia on April 16. Brabant puts the effective Imperialist strength by the end of April at “26,264 men and 3275 horses.” The allies, especially the Austrians, had been wrestling with the idea of whether or not the motley Reich forces would be any better than in 1757. Serbelloni’s presence was to provide a prop to the Imperialist effort, such as it was.
This concentration of the Imperialist Army in the defense of Saxony and Bohemia was of scant comfort to the Saxon minister Brühl, who hinted he feared the Reich army “almost as much as the enemy.” The condemnation may seem justified in view of that force’s dismal performance at Rossbach and other military actions. Zweibrücken just now could dispose of about “35,000” men near Saatz, while Daun had been decent enough to earmark 15,000 Austrians to join this force. This made for a total, more or less, of 50,000 men; far superior in numbers to the force with Henry. Mayr had been engaged in burning the magazines and harassing the troops of Zweibrücken’s command. The latter lacked light troops, so there was little effective resistance. Prince Henry’s winter march, already alluded to, had opened the drama in Saxony.
General Hülsen was left at Freibergsdorf with about 11,000 troops. His task was to guard Saxony while Henry was absent. Now there was a new offensive. Henry moved succinctly upon Taltitz on May 23, ready to go. Lt.-Gen. Georg Wilhelm von Driesen was to be the vanguard of the force. Mayr fanned out ahead, reaching Hof on the same day. Simultaneously, the Imperialist leader at this site, Major-General Michael Gottfried von Rosenfeld, moved troops to Liechtenfels. Then he finally hitched towards Regnitz, there to take up a position hard by.
Driesen came sweeping down upon the circle, “advising” town leaders like those at Hollfeld, and Marienweiler—among others—that a series of Prussian requests needed prompt attention. Driesen forthwith occupied Bayreuth, and boldly announced to the residents that he needed their cooperation by not taking action against his Prussians. In exchange, Driesen would do his best to leave the local population alone as far as possible. Even Nurnburg was threatened with Prussian fury, but Driesen’s bark, like the proverbial canine, was worse than his bite. Mayr glided through Hollfeld, intending to put Bamberg to its mettle. May 31, Prussians suddenly appeared on the outskirts of Bamberg, and a few hussars even forced their way into the streets of the city.
In response, Rosenfeld rushed reinforcements towards the stricken post, which initially repulsed the enemy’s efforts, but, about 1400 hours, an impressive force of bluecoats appeared, complete with an artillery complement. Soon shelling reduced more than three dozen buildings to ruin and the city fathers had to sue for peace. Prussian losses had been 70, against Imperialist casualties of 23; Rosenfeld promptly withdrew on Bürgebrach. Bamberg itself was ravaged by the infuriated Prussians during the night, although dawn brought restored order. Contributions were levied, however. The city appeared on the point of giving in to what amounted to extortion when suddenly news arrived of Lt.-Gen. Karl Franz Dombâle’s approach with a relief force. Prussian demands were for some two million thalers (or talers). And even extended to demanding outright neutrality of the city for the rest of the war.
Dombâle, with about 10,000 men—over 3,000 of whom were new recruits—reached Möerfeldon on May 31, deviating through Donauworth and Walldürn, rather straggling along. He finally reached Würzberg with his main body to join Rosenfeld on June 9.60 Dombâle’s chief concern for the moment, though, was not how to relieve Bamberg from its troubles, but how to keep Würzberg. That being acknowledged, Dombâle seriously questioned the capability of the town’s walls to withstand a serious enemy effort.
Fortunately, that would not be a problem. By then, Driesen was preparing for nothing more than a managed, orderly withdrawal from his exposed forward position. During the night of June 9–10, Driesen abandoned his comfortable quarters at Bamberg and retired on Bayreuth, pausing first at Hollfeld. Prince Henry moved forward on Hof, so as to screen Driesen from any follow-up pursuit by the enemy. Driesen reached Hof on June 14, thereby reuniting with Henry’s main body. On June 5, the Prussian irregulars at Sebastienberg were turned out of their posts by Major-General Ujházy. This move caused reinforcements, from both sides, to gravitate towards that place. Prince Henry had Generals Wunsch and Ziethen before Sebastienberg, but hoped this did not presage a major enemy effort. Henry was not too disappointed; he had wrestled the forward posts from Croats only a few hours earlier.
Of greater import, General Hülsen moved on Zschopau. Henry slowly and deliberately moved to join him, in the process leaving General Itzenplitz with eight battalions and seven squadrons, including two squadrons of the Szekely Hussars, at Zwickau. Itzenplitz was to play the spoiler to any effort in Henry’s direction that Dombâle might try. Henry’s command itself was 14 battalions and 20 squadrons, although this did not include Knobloch’s command. The latter had three full battalions; he set up shop at Freibergsdorf. Itzenplitz’ post was shadowed by Luzinsky, while Dombâle himself moved discreetly on Bamberg (June 20 1758). The latter was marching to join forces with Esterhazy. Dombâle’s forward elements did not even begin to reach Hof until July 1.
Daun’s task was not easy. Originally, it had been felt wise to give the marshal some leeway about how to relieve Olmütz. However, so soon as Vienna discerned Daun was merely marking time, with scarcely any action planned, orders were sent to him to relieve the garrison in Olmütz. So, while Henry was preparing something in Bohemia, in Moravia, the main Austrian army made ready to move. In mid–June, Daun rose from Gewitsch, detaching 1,100 men, from the command of Bülow, to cross the Morawa to bolster the garrison in the fortifications and make some feints. The detachment brushed Neustadt, and Frederick sent Ziethen to deal with the new intruders. Ziethen failed to intercept it, and the newcomers were able to slip into Olmütz while Daun, begging off, withdrew again into his old lines. The Austrian detachments, under Laudon, had been busy all this while. They regularly struck at the Prussian outposts under cover of night and frequently threw a scare or two into the escorts for the supply trains. Prussian provisions were running low, and in a remarkable twist of events, Prussian deserters began appearing regularly at the gates of Olmütz wanting to get into the city. These raids, however, did little to alleviate the suffering of the defenders of Olmütz, and such half-hearted attempts to draw the attention of the bluecoats elsewhere could not by themselves hope to drive Frederick’s men from the walls of the place.
The siege was making progress all this time. Inside Olmütz, supplies of food and powder were running low, but the Prussians suffered even more from the shortage of ammunition and powder. One final large convoy was to be made up and brought in with all the supplies that Frederick believed his men would need to bring the siege to a successful conclusion. He detailed Lt.-Col. Konrad Wilhelm von der Mosel with a 7,000-man force to escort this final convoy in. To provide additional security against Laudon, who was sure to make an effort to cut off this all-important supply train, the king saw good to detach Ziethen’s men to help shield Mosel’s force.
Mosel was to leave Troppau with the van of the wagons on June 26, according to plan. Ziethen sent Colonel Werner (with 200 dragoons, 300 hussars, and a full battalion of grenadiers) to meet Mosel. Werner moved out from near Olmütz on June 28 to greet the incoming train. Frederick could no more than hope for the best. With this last reinforcement, Balbi promised he could wrestle Olmütz from the enemy in a fortnight. Time was becoming critical now for the bluecoats, with enemies beginning to close in from all sides.
The march of the train started on schedule, but the movement of the double-teamed wagons over the windy narrow roads was slow and cumbersome. A group of 3,000 wagons altogether, with two civilian drivers (although military personnel would have made more sense under the circumstances, had that been the usual procedure) per wagon. As there had been no letup in wagons coming and going across the same routes, the pathways were worn. Heavy rains added further difficulties, and the wily enemy knew about the move almost from the beginning.
The trek was through some 90 miles of twisting, rolling countryside, in territory largely controlled by the enemy. The movement of such a large convoy was a haphazard affair at best, but the efforts required to attack it en route were also not without risk. The whole length of the train varied considerably, at some points being spread out to 30 miles or more from beginning to end, and at other places condensed into less than half that. The forces under the direct command of Mosel were divided into three separate groups: the van; the main body; the rearguard. What was worse, even in a situation where the wagons were close together, there were not sufficient men for a continuous front to provide support between these three bodies of moving men and equipment. The condition of the roads and rain degraded the further they went. On June 27, after just one day on the move, Mosel found it necessary to stop the front wagons of the convoy to give the rearward elements time to close up.
Surprisingly, however, the progress of the trek proceeded much better than could have been expected. The convoy’s escorts hoped the train might be brought through before the Austrians had word of its advent. A forlorn hope! And, for a change, Daun had decided to do something about it. Heretofore, he had not simply ignored the pleas and requests he had received to break up the siege, but cautious Daun was just not willing to risk a major battle over this fortress. He had done precious little in the way of stopping the supply trains without which no siege, no matter how lengthy, could hope to be successful. Any firefighter knows the quickest way to put out a flame is at the source. In a way this analogy was fitting because these supply trains were the source of the Prussian effort before Olmütz; extinguish the source and Frederick’s designs would be ruined.
It was now two choices for Daun: (1) Give battle to relieve the pressure on Olmütz; (2) Stop that last convoy. Not wishing to force a fight with the eager king (at least on the latter’s terms), the cautious marshal chose the second alternative. His plan as formulated was quite simple. From the west end of the Morawa River, Laudon, with his various detachments, was to do all he could to intercept the convoy, while General Siskovics66 was to operate in the Littau-Müglitz country—east of the river—against the Prussians from that end.
Immediately upon giving Laudon and Siskovics their marching orders, Daun marched the main army from Gewitsch near Konitz southward. This latter maneuver caused Frederick to think his foe was at last coming out for a finish fight over Olmütz. The Prussians were encouraged to see Daun’s massed army on the rises across from Prossnitz (June 22) and the king ordered his men to realign their outer lines in preparation for battle. Did the Austrian commander intend to fight? He did not and Daun’s only aim was to send the reinforcements into Olmütz, as well as to divert Frederick’s attention while his subordinates went to smash the convoy.
Ironically, on that same day, the siege took a turn for the better in favor of the bluecoats. Balbi had made an indentation in the defender’s lines (incessant Prussian howitzer fire had opened a widening gap in the earthen fortifications), and was inexorably squeezing the enemy’s presence at the walls into a tightening vise. Daun, who had retired to the south again, crossed the Morawa to steer north to support the impending effort on the Prussian train. Siskovics had reached his appointed posts, and Laudon, moving by Müglitz and Hofberg, made a roundabout path on the western end of the Prussians. From there he moved towards Bautsch (specifically, Güntersdorf) where Laudon intended to perform an unexpected attack upon the supply train from the pass there. As a precaution, Laudon left a force of some 600 men at Domstadl itself, under Major von Goese, to hold a position through which the convoy would come.
Mosel made good progress the first day, but the following day, the halt we have looked at, while probably a normal procedure, gave Laudon the time he required to move into attack position. Otherwise, the Austrians might not have reached Güntersdorf in time. As it was, Laudon arrived there on June 27, and undertook the necessary preparations to ambush the foe in the defile beyond. The following morning, Mosel got on the road leading to Güntersdorf from Bautsch, where he had spent the previous evening.
On approaching the place, Mosel found the enemy drawn out ahead (on the wooded hills above and in the pass in front) intending to dispute his passage. The Prussian commander ordered the train to halt, and, taking his troopers, led a charge that quickly cleared the defile of its occupants. Laudon’s men lost many prisoners69 out of a total of about 500 altogether. The 1st Battalion of Young Kreutz led the initial stroke, pushing through the defile into the enemy’s fire. Once there, the men took up an exposed position hard by. Behind this body, the grenadiers of Billerbeck and Captain Pirch led a part of Prince Ferdinand’s men and the rest of Young Kreutz. Laudon’s most effective measure was to plant a battery confronting the Prussian left. It just so happened that Old Billerbeck was positioned directly opposite the offending big guns. The grenadiers wasted no time trying to silence the Austrian ordnance. The men pressed forward into the woods, overcoming in the process the light irregulars who were supposed to be “protecting” the approaches to the battery. The crew of the guns, and the regulars who were with them, were not so readily inclined to go. Billerbeck promptly put in a determined charge at the point of the bayonet, which drove off the enemy, took one gun from its desperate crew, and captured some 200 men.
With the offending Austrian battery silenced at last, the Kreutz and the Prince Ferdinand regiments took their turn. A most determined effort now ensued, in which the latter two Prussian units sought to match the achievement of Old Billerbeck. Laudon did all he could to shore up his lines, calling upon his men for a supreme effort. But, after losing another of his guns to the advancing bluecoats, Laudon saw the contest was lost. Reluctantly, he ordered his tattered men to fall back on Bährn. The Austrian commander’s behavior had been almost impeccable, but there was no denying his force had suffered a serious drubbing. Losses were nearly 500 men. Fifty-two men were dead, approximately 340 were prisoners, the rest wounded.
Mosel was in no condition to follow up his advantage, as he most correctly did not lose sight of his more important mission of the safe conduct of the convoy. There had been some ill-effects from the action. The sounds and smells of the spectacle of artillery fire had unnerved many of the civilian crews. Some of their number took to horse or feet and started back on Troppau, leaving some of the wagons without crews, while the Prussians were taking care of Laudon. This vacuum left the irregulars, those who had not been chased away, the opportunity to break into the train. The bluecoats who had just chased off Laudon’s men at the defile then had to return to chase away the irregulars from the convoy’s vicinity.
It occurred to Mosel the king needed to be informed about the progress of the supply train. He disptached a trusted aid, named Beville, to go to Prussian headquarters. Meanwhile, after the convoy had been righted again as much as was possible, Mosel pressed on for Neudörfel. When Ziethen momentarily joined up with the train, he discovered that much more needed to be done with the wagons. As it worked out, “every single wagon had been turned around to go back the way they had come.” This would simply never do. Calling off of the march for a day was a necessity. In the present state, the train would never have reached its destination even without further enemy interference.
Laudon would still have made his main attack there had he not known of a more appropriate defile not far from Güntersdorf. A short distance from the little village, there arose a short knoll to the right of the roadway. This gave way to a pair of hills protruding not far from the Domstadtl River; rises which were separated by a large wooded hollow which the pass went through.
This defile, known to history fittingly as the Pass of Domstadtl, was the place that Laudon now selected for the main effort against the convoy. Ziethen had recovered his detachment under Werner, which had only reached Gibau anyway, accompanied by the grenadiers of Manteuffel and General Kaspar Rudolph von Unruh. Ziethen, as soon as he reached Gibau, was rewarded with the bad news that Mosel’s forward progress had come to a virtual halt. The horizon showed smoke and there were sounds of a struggle of some sort in Mosel’s direction. Not more than half the wagons had caught up with Mosel, which had caused the day of rest. The horses were exhausted and many of their guides were either missing or else wished they were.
At dawn, June 30, the convoy moved out again. Ziethen and Mosel had decided to take precautions as they approached the Pass at Domstadtl, where they rightly assumed the foe would make another attempt to ambush them. Ziethen’s cavalry was on the right side of the convoy, this being the direction from which the enemy might reasonably be expected. The foot soldiers were on the left, and the escort forces were fanned out enough to maximize their efforts.
As quickly as the advanced wagons of the convoy drew within sight in the early afternoon of June 30, Laudon (who had been joined in the meanwhile by Siskovics and his men) opened on them with his small guns and massed musketry fire. The Austrian mounted men were ordered to block the pass itself. The Prussians approached with the infantry escort still strung out, and the train divided into separate groups. The advanced guard was under General Krockow. The latter promptly rushed forward, cleared the way of the enemy, and managed to push some 250 of the wagons through before Laudon and Siskovics could seal off the penetration. Then Krockow halted his wagons to await the outcome of the struggle.
The Austrian advanced batteries on the leftward rises promptly opened a heavy fire upon the desperate Prussian force below. The small arms fire concentrated on killing the horses, without which the convoy could not proceed. Ziethen’s men, led by the dogmatic Puttkammer, then charged the Austro-Saxon force. This fired up body crashed into Siskovics’s first line, which was sent reeling. Then an enemy force of dragoons burst forth, surrounding the Prussian force. In heavy fighting, the stunned grenadiers cut their way through the enemy and retreated to the “security” of the convoy. This was not a done deal. Laudon, with his force, suddenly emerged on the right. This latter body crashed into the convoy from a new angle. Laudon was particularly determined, and a most obstinate Prussian force was finally overcome by the combined efforts of both allied parties. Finally, the bluecoat force fragmented, allowing the enemy to break in upon the train.
Ziethen, meanwhile, charged again and again to puncture the enemy ring of defenses, with little success. He had the wagons formed into a square (a Wagenburg) to resist the allied strokes. Ziethen’s horsemen surged forward and swept back the foe from the hills, but lost his ground again to counterattacks. It was clear Prussian resistance was indeed stubborn, and the artillery that was at hand unleashed a heavy fire to try to force the allies from the ravine.
At length, Ziethen discovered he had Laudon on one side and Siskovics on the other, and the wagon train was hopelessly bogged down. The prospects for rescue were growing dim.75 In desperation, he abandoned the wagons and, cutting his way through the enemy’s lines, made for Troppau. The entire train was captured, save for that small group rescued by Krockow.
The latter determined to press on, so as to fulfill the mission to the extent now possible. As Ziethen was retreating in the other direction with most of the escort force, it was not long at all before the rather energetic enemy once again appeared, to complete the overthrow of the force trapped at the pass. Scouts reported that allied celebration of their success, which Krockow could do nothing about at the moment.
Any delay did nothing but risk another enemy effort to finish the job. So the greatly reduced supply train lunged forward. By evening, the convoy was near Bistrowan. At Heiligenberg, a new enemy effort indeed was made. This one was far less involved, but the attackers did snare one more wagon. The remainder reached the main Prussian lines.
Prussian losses for the escorting force were approximately 2,386 men; allied casualties were approximately 600.77 One of the most valiant tales associated with this action was the bravery of new recruits of the ranks of the Ferdinand Regiment. “Those inexperienced lads, varying from 17 to 20 years, defended themselves to the last.” Some 900 of these brave youths were at Domstadtl; only 67 passed into captivity. Except for a few wounded survivors, all of the rest perished that day at the pass, almost all of them fighting in a sustained action for the first time. Captain Pirch was among that number. The capping of the Prussian defeat in this melée was in the terrible execution of the Austrian guns, which speedily gained the upper hand.