The Loss of Szent Istvan


After receiving word of the Italian declaration of war on the evening of May 23, 1915, Admiral Haus sailed from Pola with the largest Austro-Hungarian naval force to put to sea during the war. His plan was to attack the Italian east coast, hoping to disrupt Italian troop movements to the front and to inflict an early blow against Italian morale. Haus’ bombardment force consisted of the 12 dreadnoughts and battleships, the armored cruiser Sankt Georg, the cruiser Novara, five destroyers, and 29 torpedo boats. Haus conducted a carefully planned attack on a number of targets in this opening engagement and dispatched several strike groups from the main bombardment fleet. Zrinyi and two torpedo boats bombarded the railway facilities at Senigallia, temporarily severing the coastal rail line; Radetzky and two torpedo boats attacked the railway near the mouth of the Potenza River; Sankt Georg and two torpedo boats bombarded Rimini; finally Novara, a destroyer, and four torpedo boats attacked the Porto Corsini naval base near Ravenna. The rest of the bombardment force, including Viribus Unitis, Tegetthoff, Prinz Eugen, Erzherzog Franz Ferdinand, Erzherzog Karl, Erzherzog Ferdinand Max, Erzherzog Friedrich, Habsburg, Arpad, Babenberg, four destroyers, and 20 torpedo boats, targeted the port and military facilities at Ancona. The bombardments went off without a hitch and all of Haus’ battleships were back in Pola before midday on May 24. Here Babenberg opens fire on the the Cantiere Liguro Anconitano shipyard in Ancona.

The last major operation involving Austro-Hungarian battleships in World War I has its roots in a naval mutiny that broke out aboard several of the larger ships stationed at Cattaro on February 1, 1918. On February 3 the three Erzherzog-class battleships sailed into the Bocche and demanded the surrender of the mutineers, who were also threatened with bombardment from the coastal batteries and other ships in the port that had remained loyal. The mutiny ended with over 800 sailors dismissed from the service. Some of the blame for the poor morale throughout the fleet due to months of inaction fell upon Flottenkommandant Admiral Maximilian Njegovan, who was relieved of duty after the mutiny. Linienschiffskapitän Miklos Horthy de Nagybanya was selected personally by Kaiser Karl I to replace Njegovan, primarily because of his proven aggressive spirit. Horthy, commander of the cruiser Novara, had led a successful cruiser raid against the Otranto Barrage in May 1917. If anyone could instill an aggressive and driving spirit into the fleet, Kaiser Karl believed that Horthy was the man for the job.

Horthy had an arduous task before him. Not only did he have to address the poor morale through the navy but he also had a smaller battle fleet to command than had his predecessors. Budapest was in shipyard hands, having a Skoda 380mm L/17 howitzer mounted in place of her forward main turret. Monarch and all of the Habsburg-class battleships had been decommissioned, freeing their crews for use in the growing U-boat and naval aviation arms. The ships of the Erzherzog Karl class had been assigned to Cattaro as guard ships to take the armored cruisers that were decommissioned in the wake of the mutiny. This left the ships of the Radetzky and Tegetthoff classes as the core of the battle fleet stationed at Pola. It took Horthy some time to become acquainted with managing fleet operations so nothing large scale was immediately planned, but the new commander felt more action was critical to raise morale throughout the fleet. By late spring 1918 Horthy was ready to undertake an aggressive action with his capital ships, with the same élan with which he had led his cruisers in battle the previous year. This would be the first major operation for the fleet’s battleships since the bombardment of Ancona in 1915. On June 8, 1918 Horthy steamed out of Pola with Viribus Unitis and Prinz Eugen, followed a day later by Szent Istvan and Tegetthoff. After rendezvousing with the Erzherzog Karls out of Cattaro, Horthy planned to lay in ambush with his battleships north of the Otranto Barrage after several of his cruisers and destroyers made a hit-and-run raid against the line and enemy shipping. He hoped to welcome pursuing Allied cruisers into the waiting embrace of his battleships.

On the opposite side of the Adriatic in the early evening hours of the 9th, the Italian torpedo boats 15 OS and 18 OS left Ancona, each towing an MAS boat, MAS 15 and MAS 21. The MAS boats had orders to search throughout the night for targets off the Dalmatian coast along the main Austro-Hungarian supply route between Fiume and Cattaro. In command of the MAS boats was Lt. Luigi Rizzo, who was eager to see action. The evening patrol passed without incident. Shortly before 0300 on the 10th, Rizzo ordered his MAS boats to proceed to the rendezvous point with the torpedo boats. At 0315 Rizzo spotted a rising cloud of smoke astern and ordered his boats to reverse course to investigate. What he found greatly excited him. Rounding Sansego Island at a leisurely 14 knots were two Austro-Hungarian dreadnoughts and their escorts. Rizzo, aboard MAS 15, ordered full throttle and the boats headed for the dreadnoughts. At 0325 the MAS boats sped through the Austro- Hungarian escort screen and fired their torpedoes. Aboard Szent Istvan the sea seemed calm; visibility was good except to the west, where the view was hampered by a slight haze. At 0330 a muffled explosion was felt along the starboard amidships of the dreadnought, followed by a second only moments later. The lookouts quickly scanned the horizon for enemy vessels but nothing could be seen. They then saw torpedo boat TB 76 altering course and firing shots from its bow gun. Beyond the water spouts of TB 76’s shots they spotted two MAS boats speeding off in the distance. The Szent Istvan had been struck by two torpedoes from Rizzo’s MAS 15. Within minutes the MAS boats dropped depth charges to ward off TB 76 and soon accelerated out of range of the torpedo boat’s guns. Rizzo had just earned himself a second medaglia d’oro al valor militare.

Shortly after the torpedoes struck, Linienschiffskapitän Heinrich Seitz ordered the ship’s turbines stopped. The aft boiler room had flooded and water began to leak into the forward boiler room after the explosions had ruptured the main bulkhead between the two rooms. A list of 10º to starboard developed but was brought back to 7º through counter-flooding. Captain Seitz signaled the Tegetthoff to prepare to take the crippled Szent Istvan in tow, but Tegetthoff had broken away at full speed on a zigzag course. The torpedoes fired from MAS 21 missed the dreadnought, causing her captain to order evasive action. There were several false sightings of periscopes by the jittery lookouts, followed by shots fired into the empty sea. This frantic search for phantom submarines went on for over an hour. After counter-flooding, Captain Seitz ordered Szent Istvan’s turbines back on and, creeping along at 4.5 knots, set a course for Brgulje, on the coast. In the lower decks the damage control teams were having difficulties containing the flooding. Water began leaking into the forward boiler room and adjacent ammunition stores. Bulkheads were failing to hold the force of the water to the extent that rivets were beginning to shoot out of their holes. Attempts to shore up the leaks with collision mats and hammocks failed and eventually the forward boiler room flooded. Soon all of the boilers were out except for two on the port side and these did not generate enough power to keep the pumps working. Again the dreadnought came to a halt. As a result of ineffective underwater protection, poorly constructed bulkheads (most likely due to the Danubius yard’s inexperience in building large warships), and the loss of the pumps, water continued to spread to other compartments.

At 0520, when Tegetthoff had returned from its wild goose chase, Szent Istvan signaled its sister ship to arrange a tow as quickly as possible. Her list to starboard continued to increase and eventually the casemated secondary batteries slipped below the waterline. The crews worked furiously to prepare a tow but at 0538 Szent Istvan began to lurch to starboard and the tow line had to be cut. The order to abandon ship was given as Tegetthoff backed away. The crew lined up in an orderly fashion on the sloping deck, some jumping into the water. At 0605 Szent Istvan made its final death roll and capsized. Captain Seitz and the ship’s senior officers were thrown off the bridge and a number of sailors scurried on to the keel as the ship rolled over, many injuring themselves on the sharp barnacles on the hull. At 0612 the dreadnought slipped beneath the waves. Four officers and 85 sailors were killed by the explosions or went down with the ship and the rest of the ship’s crew were rescued by Tegetthoff and the escorts. When word of the attack on Szent Istvan reached Admiral Horthy, he decided to abandon the operation against the Otranto Barrage, the element of surprise having been lost. Not knowing that Rizzo had happened upon Szent Istvan by pure chance, Horthy was convinced at the time that the Italians knew of his movements and believed that they had dispatched submarines and MAS boats to attack his forces. By the morning of June 11, Horthy’s remaining dreadnoughts had safely returned to Pola. Thus ended the last major fleet action conducted by the k. u. k. Kriegsmarine.


Wallenstein’s Army

It was typical of Ferdinand II that while these ‘Bohemian martyrs’ were brought to the gallows, the Habsburg went on a pilgrimage to the great Marian shrine of Mariazell in his native Styria specifically to pray for their souls. In the years that followed, prayer and sword moved in perfect counterpoint for the Habsburg cause. If Ferdinand was the spearhead of spiritual revival, on the battlefield the corresponding military reawakening was to be organised by Wallenstein.

The Bohemian soldier of fortune Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein (1583-1634) was one of the major figures in the Thirty Years War. His administrative and financial talents made him one of the richest and most powerful men in Europe.

Wallenstein stood out from the newly minted nobility around Ferdinand because of his logistical skills, which he deployed with unrivalled expertise despite his physical disabilities. Plagued by gout which often forced him to be carried by litter, Wallenstein ceaselessly instructed his subordinates to organise his affairs to the last detail. Agriculture was virtually collectivised under his control to ensure that every crop and animal was nurtured efficiently to supply his armies. A fortunate second marriage to the daughter of Count Harrach, one of Ferdinand’s principal advisers, brought him yet more support at court. In April 1625, Ferdinand agreed to Wallenstein raising 6,000 horsemen and nearly 20,000 foot soldiers. Wallenstein’s force gave the Emperor freedom of manoeuvre. He now had formidable forces to counterbalance the armies of the Catholic League led by Tilly, who always showed signs of answering in the first instance to his Bavarian masters rather than to the Emperor Ferdinand.

Count Jean Tserclaes Tilly (1559–1632) was an outstanding product of Jesuit training. First seeing service in Spain, the Walloon learnt the art of war from the age of 15, serving under the Duke of Parma in his war against the Dutch. In 1610, he was appointed commander of the forces of the Catholic League, established in 1609 as a loose alliance of Catholic principalities and minor states. Like Wallenstein, Tilly brought in important reforms, especially from his experience of the formidable Spanish infantry. Nicknamed the ‘monk of war’, he soon proved to be a highly capable organiser of infantry tactics, which were quickly adopted by Ferdinand’s troops.

The infantry at this stage still consisted of pikemen and musketeers. The pikemen wore armour and carried a pike, which at that time was between 15 and 18 feet long, made of ash with a sharp metal point. Their officers carried shorter pikes with coloured ribbons. The musketeers were a kind of light infantry with a light metal helmet, later replaced by a felt hat. The heavy musket they carried needed to be rested on a wooden pole with an iron fork to be fired. The ‘ammunition’ was contained variously in a bandolier, a flask of gunpowder and a brass bottle of combustible material, the so-called Zundkraut as well as a leather bag containing small metal balls. A small bottle of oil was also carried to ensure that the ‘alchemy’ required to fire the weapon functioned smoothly. This was far from straightforward. A hint of the complexity of firing this primitive musket is given by the fact that ninety-nine separate commands were needed to fire and reload the weapon.

A further forty-one commands existed for dealing with the musket at other times. As this suggests, the need to increase the rate of fire and simplify the munitions were priorities for all commanders throughout the Thirty Years War. These problems would only be solved with the advent of the Swedes, who entered the fray against the Habsburg in 1630. They had a modern solution to many of these problems: the introduction of small cartridges wrapped in paper.

The only tactical unit at this time was the company, which was deployed in a large square made up usually of between 15 and 20 companies. This formation was 50 men deep with its flanks protected by 10 rows of musketeers. Despite much practice at marching to form such elaborate formations as the so-called ‘Cross of Burgundy’ or ‘Eight-pointed Star’, it takes little imagination to realise that manoeuvring in such formations was virtually impossible. The idea of marching to a single beat of the drum had still to be widely introduced and cohesive movement was only possible by extended rank.

Where Tilly proved so successful in organising infantry tactics, Wallenstein proved no less formidable in handling cavalry. Cavalry like infantry were divided into heavy and light. The heavy cavalry were cuirassiers and lancers, both armoured down to their boots. In addition to their main weapon, lancers were also armed with a sword and two pistols, symbols of their privileged status as bodyguards to the commanders in the field. The cuirassiers carried the heavy straight sabre or ‘pallasch’, which was designed to cut as well as thrust.

The horsed ‘carabiniers’ were organised as light cavalry as their only armour was a metal helmet and a light breastplate. Equipped with a shorter musket and 18 cartridges, these horsemen also carried pistols and a short sword. The dragoons were also equipped with a short musket and were indeed originally horsed musketeers. As the barrels of their muskets were often decorated with a dragon, they became known as dragoons. Deployed as advance guard cavalry they carried an axe with which, in theory, they could batter down doors and gates.

To these conventional groupings Wallenstein added new elements. An important part of the horsed advance guard was the ‘ungrischen Hussaren’, or Hungarian hussars. Together with the Croats they formed the irregular elements of the army who could be deployed to plunder and terrorise their opponents as well as perform scouting and reconnaissance.

The origin of the term ‘hussar’ to this day is a source of debate. The word most likely stems from the Slavic Gursar or Gusar. Other theories link the word to the German Herumstreifender or Corsaren; this last with its imagery of piracy perhaps being nearer to the truth than many a Hungarian would care to admit. Famous for giving their enemies no quarter, they became the nucleus of what would become the finest light cavalry in the world.

As with the infantry, the cavalry were grouped into companies. Often these were called Cornetten and hence the title of the junior officer of each such company was ‘Cornet’. As these were formed into a square, the custom arose to call four of these companies a ‘squadron’ from the Italian quadra, meaning square. In theory every cavalry regiment consisted of ten companies each of a hundred riders but in reality no cavalry regiment had more than 500 men.

Drill of these formations was aimed at disordering infantry by charging the last 60 paces at the enemy’s pikemen or cavalry. There was to be no firing from the saddle until the cavalry could ‘see the white in the eye of the foe’ (‘Weiss im Aug des Feindt sehen thut’). Led by such Imperial officers as Gottfried Pappenheim, famous for his many wounds and refusal to be impressed by titles, or the redoubtable Johann Sporck, a giant of a man with hair like bronze, perhaps the most feared cavalry general of his time, the Imperial cavalry was trained in shock tactics relying on aggression and surprise to demoralise their opponents.

The artillery remained a strict caste apart. Each unit of artillery was in theory organised to have 24 guns of different calibre. Mortars and other guns were added to each unit. Every gun had as its team a lieutenant and eleven gunners. These were supported by the so-called Schanzbauern or Pioneers, who were organised into units as large as 300 under an officer of the rank of Captain. The unit had its own flag made of silk which displayed as its badge a shovel and its men were also skilled carpenters able to strengthen bridges, not just demolish them.


My Tin Soldier Collection – TYW Imperialists


The French invasion of Germany 1688

A rare contemporary depiction from the Nine Years War (1689-1697), this painting has been hailed as Jan Wyck’s masterpiece.

Siege of Philippsburg 1688

The ‘reunions’

As we have seen above, the Turks launched their assault on Vienna just as the Emperor was preoccupied with the situation in the west. After the peace of Nijmegen (1679), Louis XIV sought to construct a militarily rational and defensible frontier. This was to be brought about by legal claims backed by military force. Special courts of justice, so-called ‘chambers of reunion’, took up vague French claims to ‘reunite’ and occupy neighbouring territories, with strong fortresses being built there soon after the French seizure. This policy particularly concerned Alsace (whose situation between France and the Reich had remained unclear after the peace of Westphalia in 1648), but also, amongst others, Luxemburg (a province of the Spanish Netherlands), Montbéliard and parts of the Palatinate where, after the accession of the house of Pfalz-Neuburg in 1685, a line loyal to the Emperor ruled.

In late September 1681, French troops occupied the Imperial Free City of Strassburg and the opposite bridgehead of Kehl on the east bank of the Rhine – both of eminent strategic importance as they commanded the most favourable crossing of the Rhine. At the same time, in Italy Casale, having previously been bought from the Duke of Mantua, was seized. As for Luxemburg, Louis XIV continued his tactics of occupation, bombardment and retreat until Spain declared war in October 1683. In June 1684 the French managed to capture the city and fortress of Luxemburg. The truce of Regensburg (15 August 1684), concluded for 20 years between France, the Emperor and Spain permitted Louis to retain, for the time being, Strassburg, Kehl, Luxemburg and his other ‘reunions’. Primarily concerned with the unsuccessful siege of Buda, the Emperor needed to secure peace in the west.

More recent research has emphasized the defensive character of Louis XIV’s actions: the Sun King was primarily interested in stabilizing earlier gains. But his actions appeared aggressive to his neighbours, who were unwilling to search for deeper motives.

It was with a heavy heart that Leopold I had consented to the Regensburg compromise of 1684; yet, in the long term, Louis’ brutal policy presented the Emperor with a unique opportunity to increase his glory and reputation so that, after vanquishing the Turks, he could also pose as defender of the Reich against French aggression. July 1686 saw the formation of the League of Augsburg, a wide-ranging association consisting of the Emperor, Spain (as a member of the Burgundian Circle), Sweden, Bavaria, Saxony, the Palatinate as well as the Bavarian, Franconian and Upper Rhenish Circles, determined to curb French ambition, if need be by force.

The French invasion of Germany

Permanently anxious about its eastern frontier, where extensive fortification work was begun after 1684, France viewed with growing concern Christian victories over the Turks. This eventually provoked a limited preemptive strike against the Reich. The bishopric of Cologne played a key role since Louis XIV could not push through his candidate as new elector. Thus the strategically important electorate was in danger of slipping from French control. In September 1688 France demanded the permanent recognition of its ‘reunions’; this came shortly after the Turks had lost Belgrade freeing the Emperor to intervene militarily in German affairs. French forces now crossed the Rhine, occupying the Palatinate and important fortresses in the Rhineland. The capture of Philippsburg late in October 1688 was strategically crucial, closing as it did the French defence line and turning it into a veritable iron curtain. Most strongholds surrendered to the French without a fight. In late autumn 1688 French troops invaded Swabia and Franconia, and war was declared on the Dutch Republic.

Yet the reaction of the Emperor and the Imperial Estates proved much more resolute than expected. Saxony, Brandenburg, Hanover, the Emperor, Bavaria and the south German Circles were quick to stand up to the French invasion. Internationally, France’s situation was indeed far from rosy: old-style French diplomacy vis-à-vis the Reich was no longer practicable, and traditional allies, such as Bavaria, Brandenburg, Saxony, Sweden or Poland, had joined the Habsburg camp. Even more important, the Stadholder William of Orange invaded England and ousted the Francophile James II in 1688–89, taking over in London and thus uniting the British kingdoms and the Dutch Republic against France. It was this new international situation which, together with the strengthened position of the Austrian Habsburgs, was to end French dominance.

In order to make the enemy’s advance towards the Rhine and the French frontier more difficult, the French army resorted to a scorched-earth policy, which caused an outcry throughout Europe: in the first half of 1689, Mannheim, Heidelberg, Heilbronn, Oppenheim, Worms and Speyer were its initial victims. France’s ceinture de fer was now surrounded by a glacis of devastation where the approaching enemy would be unable to subsist. Against this background, renewed attempts to establish a French-dominated ‘third party’ in northern Germany proved futile.

From stalemate to peace

In May 1689, the Emperor and the Dutch Republic signed an alliance directed against France which England joined in September. This sensational ‘Grand Alliance’ between the Catholic House of Austria and two Protestant powers not only provided Vienna with the backing of a mighty-league against France; it also secured for Leopold specific guarantees from the Maritime Powers concerning the Spanish inheritance. In June 1690 Spain joined the Grand Alliance, followed by Victor Amadeus of Savoy in October of the same year, as well as Brandenburg, Bavaria and other German territories in 1691.

It was the summer of 1689 before the Reich troops rallied to launch their counter-offensive. Despite the ongoing Turkish war the Emperor planned to send up to 45,000 of his own troops to the Rhine. Reality was, as always, different: in May 1689 only a fraction stood by, while, just as in the Turkish war, German princes rivalled for the supreme command. Early in September 1689, the German main army under Charles of Lorraine recaptured Mainz and Bonn in early October. But the main theatre of war eventually shifted to the Spanish Netherlands, where the French gained the upper hand. Imperial troops were not involved there. On the Rhine, however, a stalemate seemed to obtain after 1690. After the untimely death of the Duke of Lorraine in April 1690, Max Emanuel took over supreme command. Eventually, the number of Imperial forces in south Germany had to be further reduced in favour of a new theatre of war: after joining the Grand Alliance, the Duke of Savoy desperately needed military assistance against the French who already controlled Savoy and, from their bases at Pinerolo and Casale, raided Piedmont. The imperial auxiliary corps was commanded by the duke’s cousin, Eugene of Savoy; yet even before its arrival Victor Amadeus risked battle, only to be defeated at Staffarda near Saluzzo (18 August 1690). Military help had hence to be stepped up: the number of Imperial forces alone was to be raised to 12,000 men in 1691, and also most of the Bavarian troops were transferred to the Italian theatre, in return for which Max Emanuel became commander-in-chief of the auxiliary corps before he was appointed Stadholder of the Spanish Netherlands in December 1691. The disastrous setbacks on the Turkish front necessitated further reductions in the Imperial military presence in south Germany. Thus the ‘Wacht am Rhein’ was put into other hands, as many easterners had already recommended at the start of the war on two fronts; in 1692, of a total of 36,000 men deployed on the Upper Rhine, only 9,000 were Imperial soldiers.

Most detrimental was no doubt the lack of an undisputed leader following Lorraine’s death. The appointment of Baden in 1693 remedied the matter somewhat but until the very end, given France’s strong defensive position, the south German theatre of war was characterized by defence and uneventfulness – a drôle de guerre marked only by occasional French forays (Heilbronn, 1692; Heidelberg and the western parts of Württemberg, 1693).

It was in Piedmont that the Imperial effort was greatest, though it remained far below what Vienna had promised. In 1692, the allied troops marched into France from Piedmont and devastated the Dauphiné; though superior in number, they could make no lasting conquests and were even defeated again at Marsaglia the following year (4 October 1693). As a result, the Duke of Savoy, by now war-weary, entered into peace talks with France, eventually leaving the war in 1696. Louis XIV handed back all French conquests in Savoy and Piedmont, notably the strategically important strongholds of Pinerolo and Casale. The allies had to accept the neutralization of northern Italy (October 1696).

After 1695 Imperial troops also went into action in Catalonia, where the French had launched an offensive the previous year. The Emperor sent two regiments, which were unable to prevent the French capture of Barcelona in August 1697.

From the early 1690s France had sought to divide the Grand Alliance by bilateral peace negotiations: secret discussions with Imperial representatives took place in 1692–93 and again in 1694. These talks were facilitated by the absence of a common goal among the members of the anti-French alliance. Spain and the Emperor wanted to see France’s borders reduced to those of 1648–59, as had been laid down at the outbreak of war. England, on the other hand, was prepared for immediate peace, if France would recognize the Revolution settlement and sufficient respect for its colonial and trade interests.

Early in May 1697 a peace congress opened in Rijswijk near The Hague. The more grandiose hopes of the Emperor soon gave way to the more limited objectives of England and the Dutch which were quickly joined by a war-weary Spain. The latter three signed the treaty on 20 September 1697 (with Spain regaining Luxemburg and Barcelona), followed by the Emperor and the Reich on 30 October. Breisach and Freiburg were returned to Austria, while after decades of French occupation the duchy of Lorraine (within the borders of 1670) was restored to its old dynasty. France kept Strassburg, but handed back other ‘reunions’ as well as the bridgeheads of Kehl, Philippsburg and the part of the fortress of Huningue situated on the right bank of the Rhine. Given their considerable strategic importance Kehl and Philippsburg were declared Imperial fortresses where, without prejudice to the possessory rights of the prince-bishop of Speyer for Philippsburg and the margrave of Baden for Kehl, the ius protectionis et praesidii was exercised by the Reich and safeguarded by Circle troops and small Austrian detachments until the second half of the eighteenth century. By and large, then, Rijswijk, which in no way reflected France’s superiority on the battlefields, marked a withdrawal of the French monarchy.

Austria Rebels Against Napoleon

Napoleon at Wagram, painted by Horace Vernet

Archduke Charles with his staff during the battle Aspern.

The Lightning Campaign of Five Days (APRIL 19-24, 1809)

Without a formal declaration of war, the Austrian army opened hostilities on April 8, 1808, by invading Bavaria.

Yet again, Napoleon had to leave his desk to take command of the army, once more leaving important matters in suspense. His strong sense of annoyance was reflected in his traditional proclamation to the troops, in which he clearly denounced the warmonger:

Soldiers: The territory of the Confederation has been violated. The Austrian general wants us to flee at the sight of his arms and to abandon our allies. I will be with you at the speed of light. Soldiers, you surrounded me when the Austrian sovereign came to my bivouac in Moravia. You heard him ask for my clemency and swear eternal friendship. Defeated in three wars, Austria owes everything to my generosity: three times it has perjured itself. Our past successes are a certain talisman of victory that awaits us. Let us march, and at sight of us the enemy will recognize their conquerors!

Commanded by Archduke Charles, the Austrian army was a family affair. Composed of 320,000 active soldiers and 200,000 Landwehr (the recently created territorial militia), this army was divided into three groups: (1) Opposite the Rhine, a striking force of 220,000 combatants under the direct orders of Archduke Charles. Archduke Ludwig commanded a corps; (2) In Italy, 60,000 soldiers commanded by Archduke Johann; (3) Opposite Poland, Archduke Ferdinand had 20,000 men. In the capital, Vienna, a garrison of 20,000 remained under the authority of Archduke Maximilian.

A European force of more than 270,000 men, Napoleon’s army was not composed of his best troops, who were engaged in Spain. The emergency mobilization of this army was barely completed in time. It was deployed in four theaters: in Germany, the Army of the Rhine, with 180,000 combatants under the direct control of the emperor; in Italy, 60,000 soldiers commanded by Prince Eugene; in Dalmatia, 15,000 men with Marmont at their head; and in Poland, a corps of 15,000 Poles commanded by Poniatowski.

Once again, Napoleon’s military genius achieved miracles. In only five days, and despite his great inferiority of numbers, he overthrew and routed the army of Archduke Charles, who barely escaped in Bohemia. Each of these days was marked by a stunning victory: the 19th at Tengen, the 20th at Abenberg, the 21st at Landshut, the 22nd at Eckmuhl, and the 23rd at Ratisbon. In his victory proclamation, Napoleon boasted of “50,000 prisoners, 100 cannon, 40 colors, 3,000 harnessed wagons, and all the regimental strongboxes.”

The cost to the enemy would have been much heavier if Napoleon had possessed sufficient cavalry, much of which had been left behind in Spain, for the pursuit. Vienna capitulated on May 13. In Italy, Archduke Johann retreated to Hungary, where he suffered defeat at Raab on June 14.

The conquest of Vienna did not end the war, however. The Austrian army had suffered very heavy losses but was not completely out of action. Its remnants regrouped and reorganized east of the capital, sheltered by the Danube. There would be no peace without a decisive victory on the far bank of that river.

The emperor would have to reengage the Austrians twice more: at Essling (also known as Aspern) on May 21-22 and at Wagram on July 5-6.

The Lost Victory of Aspern-Essling

In the aftermath of capturing Vienna, the emperor decided to pursue Archduke Charles. He crossed the Danube some ten kilometers south of Vienna, opposite the island of Lobau, using it as a platform from which to launch a bridgehead. For this purpose, he had a great bridge constructed across the wider arm of the river, on the friendly side, as well as a shorter bridge on the enemy side.

The French established a bridgehead on May 21, including the villages of Aspern and Essling. The bridgehead successfully withstood the Austrian counterattack and continued to expand. The next day, Napoleon personally commanded a general offensive. Beaten, the Austrians retreated in disorder. Lannes was on the verge of penetrating the Austrian line when the news arrived that the great bridge had been destroyed by fire rafts that the enemy had launched from upstream in the Danube. The flooded Danube made this particularly destructive. Davout’s corps, which was supposed to exploit the breach, was unable to reach the battlefield. The victory was lost!

The archduke immediately exploited this gift from heaven. With a numerical superiority of four to one, he counterattacked with all his forces, aiming to destroy the bridgehead that suddenly had been deprived of all hope of support.

A nameless butchery ensued, impossible to avoid for lack of any room to maneuver. Aspern and especially Essling were taken and retaken repeatedly. The slaughter was equal on both sides. Lannes, the “Roland” of the army, was mortally wounded. Gazing helplessly at this carnage, Napoleon barely escaped himself on several occasions.

The bridgehead resisted all day. Yet, its survival depended on withdrawing to the other bank of the river. During the night, Massena performed a masterwork in the delicate task of disengagement.

Because of this bridge, the emperor lost a decisive victory while mourning the cost of 18,000 killed and wounded, slightly less than the Austrian casualties. The decisive battle remained to be fought.

The Expensive Peace of Wagram

After the butchery of Aspern-Essling, the two belligerents had to lick their wounds and reorganize, which explains the forced 43-day truce that followed the battle.

Encouraged by his partial success at Essling, the Archduke decided to give battle on the Marschfeld between the Danube and Wagram. He had reorganized his forces, bringing them up to 180,000 men and more than 400 cannon.

Napoleon transformed the island of Lobau into a gigantic operational base crowded with a strike force of 150,000 men and 450 guns.

All Europe held its breath. On a field measuring 15 by 10 kilometers, more than 300,000 men confronted each other in a sort of judgment of God, to the deafening sound of 800 artillery pieces. No one had ever seen a battle of such scope.

Napoleon opened hostilities on July 4. While making a diversion toward Aspern, he launched a surprise crossing of the Danube during the night of the 4th to the 5th under cover of the sound of the river, and three kilometers away from the diversion. Without pausing, he attacked the Austrian positions all along the line.

The archduke expected an envelopment, especially on his left so as to cut the natural line of communication with Bohemia, from which must come any reinforcement from Archduke Johann. This was the type of maneuver that any good tactician might undertake and that the emperor had taught the Austrian army to expect during the past 13 years. Yet, Napoleon again deceived his adversary. His secret thrust was to strike where he was not expected, at the vulnerable point in the enemy’s dispositions. Reinforcing the wings of the Austrian line out of fear of an envelopment had of necessity weakened the center. It was there that Napoleon would apply his offensive effort. And at that point stood Wagram.

After several hours of relentless combat, Wagram was on the point of being taken and the Austrian line broken. At that moment, a foolish event occurred that put everything at risk. Reaching the Wagram plateau, two of Bernadotte’s Saxon battalions were attacked by Macdonald’s Italians, who mistook them for Austrians because of similarities of uniform. This produced a rout in Bernadotte’s corps, a rout that the Imperial Guard had enormous difficulty in containing. Oudinot’s neighboring corps was constrained to pull back to protect its flank, and the Austrians profited by sealing the breach in their lines.

An imminent victory dissipated in a few seconds. Night approached, forcing the opponents to recommence on the next day, July 6.

But this time it was the Archduke who took the initiative, undoubtedly emboldened by the French disappointment of the previous day. Beginning at 4:00 a.m., he launched a violent attack on the French right, held by Davout, as much to preempt any attempt at envelopment as to make a diversion. Soon thereafter he attacked Massena on the left wing, along the Danube, with the evident intention of cutting Napoleon’s communications with the island of Lobau and seizing its bridges. The archduke attempted to strike a blow similar to that of Napoleon at Friedland.

Napoleon was on the point of succeeding when Bernadotte’s Saxons again routed, dangerously exposing the right wing of Massena, who already had all he could handle. Under fire, the emperor moved quickly to Massena. With one accord, the two organized a defensive block to halt the Austrian envelopment.

Napoleon did not forget his own plan, which the archduke’s dangerous offensive had indirectly favored. Charles’ pronounced effort on his right had of necessity denuded his center, in the area of Aderklaa-Wagram. In that region, the emperor rapidly reassembled a striking force destined to slice open the Austrian line.

At 9:00 a.m., the emperor ordered a general counter-attack. All units advanced at the same time. In the center, on which everything depended, the artillery concentration would enter history under the name of the “Battery of Wagram.” Concentrated on a one-kilometer front before the assault troops, more than 100 cannon fired simultaneously, pulverizing everything with their shot and shell. Continuing to fire, they advanced in good order for two kilometers, always in the lead. After having thus opened the breach, the artillery gave way to Macdonald’s infantry as well as the cavalry and the Grenadier Guards.

At 2:00 p.m., Archduke Charles recognized his defeat and ordered a timely general withdrawal toward Bohemia, thereby permitting a large portion of his forces to escape Davout’s pincer movement. Disheartened, the Landwehr recruits threw down their arms and went home. The exhaustion of the French troops prevented an immediate pursuit.

Despite this delay, the Austrian rear guard was defeated at Znaim on July 11. Fearing total destruction, the archduke requested an armistice, which Napoleon authorized against the advice of his marshals. “Enough blood has been shed!” he told them in the episode already recounted.

At Wagram, the Austrians lost 44,000 killed, wounded, and captured, as well as 20 cannon and ten regimental colors. The French suffered 30,000 killed and wounded. Among the dead was the legendary light cavalryman General Charles Lasalle. The 1809 campaign in Germany was finished, giving way to peace negotiations.

Speculating on the results of the British landing in the Netherlands, the Machiavellian Klemens von Metternich, who had replaced Stadion as Austria’s foreign minister, temporized for three months. The disastrous outcome of the British expedition at Walcheren on September 30 convinced him to sign the Treaty of Vienna on October 4, 1809.

Napoleon permitted Francis to retain his crown, but severely punished his perjury by reducing the Habsburg possessions. Bavaria, an active and courageous ally of France, received the Austrian region of the Inn. Russia, surprisingly, gained a portion of Galicia (Ternopol). This gift to a fainthearted ally illustrated Napoleon’s obsession with peace in the east. He would be poorly repaid for it! The Grand Duchy of Warsaw received the other part of Galicia (Cracow). The remaining Austrian possessions on the Adriatic, including Trieste, Fiume, some remnants of Carnolia, and Croatia, were transferred to France for their strategic importance and as a portal to the east. They became the Illyrian provinces. In addition to these lost territories, Austria was to pay an indemnity of 85 million francs.

To demonstrate yet again that he cherished no territorial ambitions in Germany, Napoleon immediately abandoned his military positions, with the exception of Westphalia and the Prussian fortresses, which were indispensable pledges for the security of France.

But, like its predecessors, the Treaty of Vienna was considered by France’s enemies to be nothing but a new and temporary ceasefire. Two-and-a-half years later, it would again be Russia’s turn in the tag team of war.

The Battle of Wagram

The Battle of Aspern-Essling


Austro-Hungarian battleships 1 Division K.u.K. Tegetthoff Class. Pola 1917.

In 1906 there was a new club in town. One that only the richest and most powerful of nations could really afford to join. Its chief asset was bigger, faster, shapelier and more powerful than all that had gone before. Membership of this ‘exclusive’ club sent the message “don’t mess with us”. As with all new ‘must-have’s’ those who couldn’t afford to join, ‘wanted-in’ all the more, so they too would be seen as a ‘Great Power’. In 1906 the must have item was the dreadnought, and the Hadsbur’s wanted in.

The Tegetthoff Dreadnought class (often referred incorrectly to as the Viribus Unitis class) was destined to be the only class of dreadnought ever to be built and completed for the Austrian-Hungarian Imperial Navy. The class would after much scheming and politicking, be comprised of four ships, the Viribus Unitis (pronounced: “var-e-buss Unit-is”), Tegetthoff(“tea-gee-toff”) , Prinz Eugen, (“Prinz U-jen”)and the Szent István (“Scent ist-van”). Three of the four ship’s were to be built in, what was until 1918, the fourth largest city in the empire, Trieste. The fourth vessel, the Szent István, was constructed in the Empire’s Croatian port of Fiume. The allocation of the two construction sites was in an effort to ensure that both parts of the Dual Monarchy, or Empire, benefited from and agreed the funds for these four ‘status’ symbols.


In September 1904, the Austrian Naval League was founded and in October of the same year Vice-Admiral Rudolf Montecuccoli was appointed to the posts of Commander-in-Chief of the Navy and Chief of the Naval Section of the War Ministry. These two events help set the stage for what was to be an expansion of the Austro-Hungarian Navy, in to one that was deemed worthy of a ‘great power’. Montecuccoli commenced his tenure from day one, by championing his predecessor, Admiral Hermann von Spaun’s ideas, and pushed for both an enlarged and a modernized Imperial navy.

There were a number of other factors that was to help lay the foundation for the proposed naval expansion. Between 1906 and 1908 railways had been constructed that finally cut through the Austrian alps, linking both Trieste and the Dalmatian coastline with the rest of the Habsburg Empire. In addition lower tariffs on the port of Trieste led to the expansion of the city and a growth in the Austria-Hungarian merchant navy. These changes brought the ‘need’ for new battleships that were more than just the existing coastal defence ships. Before 1900 the empire had not seen the need for sea power in support to the Austrian-Hungarian foreign policy, plus the public had little interest in a navy. But in September 1902 the situation undertook a change when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and pro-naval expansionist, was appointed to the position of Admiral at the close of that years naval manoeuvre’s . This increased the importance of the navy in the eyes of both the general public and the two Austrian and Hungarian Parliaments. Franz Ferdinand’s interest in naval affairs had come from his belief, that a strong navy would be needed if the Empire was to successfully compete with its Italian neighbour. Ferdinand viewed Italy (an ally) as Austria-Hungary’s greatest threat within the region.

In 1882 Italy had joined the Triple Alliance with Austro-Hungary and Germany, all agreeing to fighting together against any possible mutual enemies (ie Great Britain, France or Russia). But despite the treaty Austria and Italy had a mutual rivalry they could never shed, something that had strengthened since the war in 1866, when an Austrian army defeated an Italian army several times and the Austrian fleet defeated the Italian fleet in the battle of Vis (Lissa) on July 20th 1866. Despite being ‘allies’ Italy’s navy, (the Regia Marina) remained the main regional opponent with which Austria-Hungary, often negatively, measured itself against. The gap between the Austro-Hungarian and Italian navies had existed for decades, and in the late 1880s Italy had claimed the third-largest fleet in the world, behind the French and Royal Navy. But by 1894 the Imperial German and Russian navy’s had overtaken the Italians in the world rankings. By that stage the Italians claimed 18 battleships in commission or under construction in comparison to just 6 Austro-Hungarian battleships.

With the completion of the final pair of Regina Elena class battleships, in 1903, the Italian Navy decided to construct a series of large cruisers rather than additional battleships. In addition a scandal erupted involving the Terni steel works’ armour contracts, which was to lead to a government enquiry and that in turn led to the postponement of a number of naval construction programs over the next three years. These factors meant that the Italian Navy was unable to commence any construction on another battleship until 1909, and this ‘unplanned holiday’ provided the Austro-Hungarian Navy with an opportunity to close the gap between their two fleets.

But even by 1903 the Italian lead in the naval arms appeared to be insurmountable for the Empire. Then the rules of the game changed in 1906, with the launch of HMS Dreadnought and the increased tempo of the Anglo-German naval arms race it brought. The value of the worlds existing battleships (or what history has relabeled as the pre-dreadnought) vanished all but overnight and the fleets of pre-dreadnoughts within the worlds navies were rendered obsolete. This presented the Austria-Hungarian Admiralty with an opportunity to make up for their past neglect in naval matters.

In the Spring of 1905, soon after his assumption as Chief of the Navy, Montecuccoli laid out his first proposal for a modern Austrian fleet. He envisaged a fleet comprising of 12 battleships, 4 armored cruisers, 8 scout cruisers, 18 destroyers, 36 high seas torpedo craft, and 6 submarines. The plans were ambitious, but they still lacked any ships of the size of the dreadnought type. The Slovenian politician and prominent lawyer Ivan Šusteršič presented a plan to the Reichsrat in 1905, seeking the (ambitious and unrealistic) construction of nine dreadnoughts. The Austrian Naval League also presented its own proposals for the construction of a number of the new dreadnought type. The league petitioned the Naval Section of the War Ministry in March 1909 to construct three dreadnoughts of 19,000 tonnes (18,700 long tons). They argued that the Empire needed a strong navy, in order to protect Austria-Hungary’s growing merchant navy, and in addition that Italian naval spending was twice that of the Empire.

With the completion of the final pre-dreadnought from the Radetzky class, Montecuccoli drafted his first proposal for Austrian-Hungarian’s entry into the ‘Dreadnought Club’. Making use of the newly established political support for naval expansion that he had raised in both Austria and Hungary, plus Austrian concerns of a war with Italy over the Bosnian Crisis during the previous year, Montecuccoli drafted a new plan to Emperor Franz Joseph I in January 1909. In it he called for an enlarged Austro-Hungarian Navy, now comprising of 16 (+4) battleships, 12 (0) cruisers, 24 (+6)destroyers, 72 (+36) seagoing torpedo boats, and 12 (+6) submarines. With what was fundamentally a modified version of his 1905 plan. The major new inclusion was the four additional dreadnought battleships with a displacement of 20,000 tonnes (19,684 long tons) at load. These ships would become in time, the Tegetthoff class.

The Naval Section of the War Ministry submitted its concept for the new dreadnoughts to the shipyard Stabilimento Tecnico Triestino (STT) in Trieste, during October 1908, who then hired the former “Engineering-Admiral” and now the shipyards naval architect, Siegfried Popper, to produce a design. Two months later in December 1908, the Naval Section of the War Ministry launched a competition for the design of the ships, open to all Austro-Hungarian naval architects, with the goal of securing designs in addition to those from the STT shipyard. The contest was to run for one year and the maximum displacement was to be off 20,000 tonnes.

The Italian entry to seek membership of the ‘Dreadnought Club’ with the Dante Alighieri (“Dant-ee Al-e-gare-ee” ) which had been designed by Rear Admiral Engineer Edoardo Masdea, Chief Constructor of the Regia Marina, and was based on the “All-Big-Gun” ship ideas of General Vittorio Cuniberti.

The General had proposed a battleship with all the main guns of a single calibre and positioned for broadside fire. Cuniberti has become best known to history, as the author of an article he wrote for Jane’s Fighting Ships in 1903, calling for a concept known as the “all-big-gun” fighting ship. Until that time the navies of the world-built ships which combined a mixture of large and medium calibre guns. There was constant experimentation to refine each nations new vessels calibers and layout.

The ship Cuniberti had envisaged would be a “colossus” of the seas. His main idea was that this ship would carry only one calibre of gun, the biggest available, at the time, 12 inch. This heavily armoured “Colossus” would have sufficient armour to make it impervious to all but the 12-inch (305 mm) guns of the enemy. Cuniberti’s article foresaw twelve large calibre guns, which would have an overwhelming advantage over the more usual four of the enemy ship. In addition his ship would be so fast, that she could choose her point of attack.

Cuniberti saw this ship discharging a sufficient enough broadside, all of that one large calibre, that she would overwhelm first one enemy ship, before moving on to the next, and destroying an entire enemy fleet. He proposed that the effect of a squadron of six “Colossi” would give a fleet such overwhelming power as to deter all possible opponents, (unless the other side had similar ships!). There was a cost for such a ship and Cuniberti’s contention was that this “Colossus” was available only to a “navy at the same time most potent and very rich”.

Cuniberti proposed a design based on his ideas to the Italian government, but the government declined for budgetary reasons, giving Cuniberti permission to write the article for Jane’s Fighting Ships. The article was published before the Battle of Tsushima, which only served to vindicated his ideas. There, the real damage was inflicted by the large calibre guns of the Japanese fleet.

The design work on the Italian dreadnought Dante Alighieri, (Motto “with the soul that wins every battle”(it was never to fight a battle!)), had put the Austro-Hungarian Navy in a bad position. The Italian ship was mainly a result of the leaking of Montecuccoli’s Spring 1905 memorandum, while his plans for the construction of the four new dreadnoughts still remained in their planning stages. Making the matter more complex was the collapse of Sándor Wekerle’s government in Budapest, which left the Hungarian Diet, for nearly a year, without a Prime Minister. With no government in Budapest to pass a budget, efforts to secure funding and begin the construction came to a halt.

In January 1908 the German navy magazine ‘Marine Rundschau’, carried the news that the keel of the first Italian dreadnought was about to be laid, and the news brought an Austrian-Hungarian reaction. Montecuccoli duly announced on the 20th February, during the meeting of parliament, the building of dreadnoughts of between 18,000 and 19,000 tonnes. In March, Germany was to launch her first dreadnought, the Nassau, and as a result Italy postponed the laying of the keel for her dreadnought, because Cuniberti and his chief naval engineer Edoardo Masdeo wanted to now rethink their own design. On November 5, 1908, the Navy asked the Stabilimento Tecnico Triestino and Danubius shipyards to participate in the application. The main criteria of the battleships to be built were August 1909: four triple firearms, 280 mm armor and a maximum displacement of 21 000 tonnes

The design competition that had been organised by the Austrian Naval Section was to be overshadowed by events during the next six months. In January 1909 Emperor Franz Joseph had approved Montecuccoli’s plans, who then circulated it amongst the governments in Vienna and Budapest. In March 1909 Popper presented his five designs for the ‘Tegetthoff’ class. These first drafts were merely enlarged versions of the Radetzky class and had yet to include the triple turrets which would become the hallmark later of the Tegetthoff’s. In April Popper was issued with a further set of proposals, named “Variant VIII” which included the triple turrets. At the same time the Austrians asked their German ally for information on the design of their newest class. The Kaiser’s permission was received in April and the Austro-Hungarian Captain Alfred von Koudelka was dispatched to Berlin to research the technical details of the German dreadnought projects. He was personally received by Admiral von Tirpitz and allowed by the Germans to examine their latest projects, which featured both excellent armour and underwater protection. Tirpitz made an effort to explain to Koudelka the importance of torpedo protection throughout the entire design process . He explained that there needed to be at least two meters distance between the hulls outer and inner walls, as well as between the inner wall and the torpedo defence wall. Tirpitz’s knowledge was based on a series of 1: 1 scale section experiments. In addition to help reduce the impact, coal must be stored between the inner and the torpedo wall. Tirpitz stressed that the hull should be sub-divided into watertight compartments with bulkheads of strong construction. He advised that the watertight bulkheads should not be weakened with the inclusion of doors, because of the chance of them accidentally being left open, and in addition that the bulkheads should be solid with no door, pipe or wires passing through them.

Koudelka had brought with him the plans made by STT and showed them to Tirpitz, seeking his opinion. Tirpitz replied that the armament (10×305 mm guns in twin turrets) was too much for the planned 20,000-ton displacement. He proposed leaving one of the turrets off and reducing the armor thickness, and a thickening of the armoured belt. In addition, he considered the planned torpedo protection of the ships to be defective, the importance of which he specifically called to Koudelka’s attention.

On his return to Austria, Koudelka recounted Tirpitz’s input to Siegfried Popper, who simply ignored the information. In spite of the warnings, Popper insisted on his own ideas, and threatened his resignation, which unfortunately was not accepted and the Navy did not challenge his insistence, so the German experience was ignored.

The distance between the outer hull and the torpedo wall was finally only 1.7 to 2.5 meters in line with Popper’s plans. The Germans also advised the Austrian to strengthen their underwater protection, to install no watertight doors below the waterline, increase the displacement of the ships to 21,000 tons, and reduce the number of main guns from 12 to 10. All points, the Austrians were to ignore, since the basic Tegetthoff design had already been passed on 27 April 1909. In the same month Montecuccoli’s memorandum found its way into the Italian newspapers, causing hysteria among the Italian population and their politicians. The Italian Government made use of the leaked report for initiating their own dreadnought program, and allocation for the navy of the funds it would require.

Finally on the 6th June the Italian Dreadnought ‘A’ (the future Dante Alighieri) was laid down at the naval shipyard in Castellammare di Stabia, and as a result the Austrian C-in-C saw no difficulty in obtaining the required funds in the 1910 budget (due to be discussed in November 1909). Two of the Radetzky class pre-dreadnoughts had been launched by this stage, and STT needed additional contracts to retain their force of skilled workers. In August 1909 Montecuccoli suggested that maybe, while the government resolved the budgetary issues, STT and Škoda might like to start construction at their own expense (and risk). When for political reasons the dreadnought funds were refused, Montecuccoli embarked on an elaborate campaign of deception to disguise the fact that the ships were to be built without any parliamentary approval. He claimed, erroneously, that the ship building industry was financing the construction on pure speculation, and the shipyards were very uneasy with the situation. It wasn’t until Montecuccoli took a 12 million crown (£12,559,526 at 1914 or £1,377,228,920.96 at 2017 prices) crowns credit on his own responsibility that the keels of dreadnoughts ‘IV’ and ‘V’ were laid down on 24th July, (Viribus Unitis) and 24th September 1910, (Tegetthoff). In the meantime, on the 20th August 1910, Italy had launched the Dante Alighieri and had already started construction of her second dreadnought, the Giulio Cesare on the 24th June. In addition France on the 1st September 1910, laid the keel of her first dreadnought, (the Courbet) to match the Central Powers’ growing dreadnought superiority in the Mediterranean.

The finalized contracts held penalty causes and in the Szent István these included: “For each whole tenth node to which the test drive speed should be lower than 19.75 knots, a reduction of the delivery price of 20,000 crowns court will enter … also excess weight is for each ton over the präliminierte Total weight of the machine complex of 1,056 t, a discount of 800 Kr. access … the warranty period is one year… The occurrence of warlike events: Should warlike events threaten or actually occur during the construction period, the contractor undertakes to strictly obey all instructions given to accelerate the construction of the ship and the machines from the kuk Kriegsmarine. A separate agreement will be reached on the rights and obligations that ensue, but any late drafting thereof may not affect the implementation of the acceleration referred to therein. Completion date is July 30, 1914.”.

Now that the construction of the first two dreadnoughts had been committed to, Austria-Hungary had to spend around 120 million Krone (very approximately 1 kr=£1), without the approval of either the Austrian Reichsrat or the Diet of Hungary, on a deal that was to be kept secret. Montecuccoli drafted several excuses to justify the dreadnoughts construction and the need to keep their existence a secret. These included the navy’s urgent need to counter Italy’s naval build up and desire to negotiate a lower price with their builders.

In April 1910 the agreement was finally leaked to the public by the newspaper of Austria’s Social Democratic Party, the ‘Arbeiter-Zeitung’, but the plans had already been completed and construction on the first two battleships, Viribus Unitis and Tegetthoff, was about to begin.

The two Austrian dreadnoughts were already into the early stages of construction when the joint parliamentary bodies met in March 1911 to discuss the 1911 budget. In his memoirs, former Austrian Field Marshal and Chief of the General Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, (the man who, three years later, would push the Emperor to permit Serbia no leeway and push him to declare war), wrote that due to his belief in a future war with Italy, construction on the dreadnoughts should begin as soon as possible. He also worked at a plan to sell the dreadnoughts to, in his words, a “reliable ally” (which could only be Germany), should the budget crisis fail to be resolved in short order. But ultimately in 1911 the Austro-Hungarian parliament agreed to Montecuccoli’s action and even added two more ships to the plan, the future Prinz Eugen, and Szent István.

Habsburg Eastern Strategies

Prince Eugene of Savoy by Jacob van Schuppen

A meeting of the Privy Conference in 1711 concluded that “if the tsar is victorious he could throw himself into Turkish territory as far as the Danube and possibly force his way to Constantinople, an outcome much more menacing in its long-term consequences for Austria than even the most far-reaching Turkish victory.” From the early eighteenth century onward, the Habsburgs would debate three broad options for how to deal with this problem: unilateral extension of Habsburg power; cooperation with Russia to eject and supplant the Turks, and comanage the remnants of their rule; and support for the status quo and resistance to Russian encroachments. Over the century that followed, all three alternatives would be attempted in different forms and combinations. The viability of each option at given moments in time would be a function of Austria’s power position relative to that of its two eastern neighbors, and how they judged developments on this frontier to rank alongside priorities on the monarchy’s frontiers in the west and north.

The Era of Mobile Field Armies: 1690s–1730s

In the opening decades of the eighteenth century, local conditions favored the first option: seeking to militarily shape the southeastern security environment to Austria’s advantage. At this early stage, Ottoman weakness, as demonstrated by the scale of Habsburg territorial gains in the previous war and recent Turkish defeats at the hands of the Russians, presented an opportunity to consolidate the monarchy’s enlarged position in the southeast. The prospects of gain seemed to outweigh the risks, either from the Ottoman military itself or Russian interference, which was foreseen but still on the horizon, and mainly restricted to the Sea of Azov and Dniester.

The strategy that evolved in response to this environment was shaped primarily by the desire to exploit areas of military advantage that Austria possessed as a result of the previous Turkish war along with its recent contests with Spain and France. Experiences in combat had revealed a considerable Habsburg tactical-technological edge over Turkish forces, rooted in the development of modern Austrian armies using Western equipment and fighting methods. As recently as 1697, Prince Eugene had demonstrated the decisive results that such forces could have against traditionally deployed Ottoman armies by inflicting a crushing defeat on the Turks at the Battle of Zenta that resulted in more than thirty thousand Ottoman casualties.

The early decades of the eighteenth century offered opportunities to repeat this victory. Ottoman forces of this period were equipped in similar fashion to their European rivals; indeed, Ottoman muskets and artillery were in some cases qualitatively superior to those found on the Habsburg side. The Habsburg edge lay in the quantity of such weapons and how they were employed tactically. The first was a by-product of advantages in the Austrian system for procuring military technology. Traditionally, the Ottoman Empire had financed its wars through plunder—a system that required continual conquest to support the growth of the military establishment. While possessing the core of a standing army, the system supporting it was unstable and contingent on victory. The development of munitions in the Ottoman Empire was tightly controlled by government, and depended on a combination of arsenals and networks of skilled artisans, the latter of which were organized by guild and dominated by the Janissary corps, an elite but conservative military body that frequently opposed innovation.

In Austria, by contrast, procurement was tied more heavily to military contractors, who had at their disposal a larger reservoir of artisanal talent, and access to the techniques and resources not only of the Erblände but also neighboring Bohemia and Italy. To this must be added the advantage of greater resources for war in Habsburg lands, which while deficient alongside many western rivals, compared favorably with the Turks. Efforts at bureaucratic centralization, and from 1714 onward, by the monarchy’s acquisition of the Italian and Dutch lands, enabled a larger tax base and more powerful standing army. By the early 1700s, Habsburg revenue was already at least double that of the Ottoman Empire, where an astonishing 80 percent of revenues collected failed to ever reach the Treasury as a result of corruption and rent seeking. Of those Ottoman funds raised for defense, a large portion went to the navy, while in Austria virtually all could be concentrated on the upgrading and upkeep of the army.

One result of these financial disparities was that while the quality of Turkish weapons may have been comparable or occasionally superior, Habsburg forces tended to go to war with both more numerous and higher-quality weapons. By the time of the Turkish wars of the early eighteenth century, Habsburg units had transitioned to the flintlock musket (Flinte), which fired faster and more reliably than previous matchlock and wheel lock pieces. The newer muskets also allowed for the widespread use of bayonets, which would not be widely used in Turkish armies for many decades. By contrast, Ottoman armies were equipped with a mixture of European and traditional weapons. The total proportion of their armies equipped with modern firearms—the Janissaries, sipahis cavalry regiments, and artillery corps—typically made up only a third of the forces available for a campaign. The bulk of the army would consist of private troops raised by the local governor and volunteer forces—both of which bore arms of varied make and quality. Although reforms in the late eighteenth century would raise these proportions and standardize weaponry, for most of this period Habsburg forces were proportionally stronger in regular troops, with Janissaries still making up less than a third of the Ottoman Army at Peterwardein in 1716. Those Turkish units that did carry muskets were equipped with an array of different types. “Their weapons,” an Austrian military memo noted, “lack a uniform caliber, causing balls to often get stuck in the breach; as a result, their supply is slow and their fire never lively.”

Another Austrian advantage was tactical, in how their weapons were used on the battlefield. Individually, Ottoman troops tended to be formidable fighters. As Archduke Charles wrote, “The Turk has a strongly constituted body: he is courageous and bold, and possesses a particular ability in the handling of his own arms. The horses of the Turkish cavalry are good; they possess a particular agility and rapidity.” Numerically, they tended to field larger armies than the Habsburgs, composed of different troop types from across the Ottoman Empire, and including everything from stock Anatolians to Persians, Egyptians, and Tatars. Their favored method of war was offensive, forming dense masses that charged headlong with Islamic banners waving and screaming, as Eugene put it, “their cursed yells of Allah! Allah! Allah!” Austrian eyewitnesses frequently commented on the unnerving effects that such chants, coming from tens of thousands of advancing Ottoman soldiers, could have on their opponents.

Despite such ferocity, Turkish armies suffered from a lack of discipline, which in turn undermined tactical handling and fire control. Ottoman attacks, though large, tended to be pell-mell and poorly coordinated. As Eugene said of the chaos in Turkish formations, “The second line [is] in the intervals of the first, and others in the third line [are] in the intervals of the second, and then, also, reserves [are thrown in] and their saphis on the wings.” A later Austrian source characterized these assaults as proceeding “without rule or order” (ohne Regel, ohne Ordnung), comparing them to the “pigs-head” (Schweinskopf) formations described in antiquity, in which the bravest fighters inevitably push to the forefront while the mass lingered behind them. In a similar vein, Archduke Charles wrote that the Turks “attack in mixed groups of all types of troops, and each isolated man abandons himself to the sentiment of his force.”

By contrast, by the early eighteenth century, Habsburg armies were drilled to fight based on the western European model, in synchronized fashion by unit. From long experience on European battlefields, the infantry was trained to deliver controlled volleys on command. The resulting discipline translated into a tactical advantage that allowed Austrian armies, if well handled, to sustain rates of fire capable of repelling or even massacring massed charges of the kind favored by the Turks. “As the effort of several Turks acts neither to the same end, nor in the same manner,” Charles noted, “they always fall against an enemy who opposes against them a unified mass acting cohesively. They rout with the same disorder and the same rapidity as they came up.”

The question of how to maximize these advantages against the Turks was intensely studied by Habsburg military men. In Sulle Battaglie, Montecuccoli advised Austrian commanders to abandon the defensive methods used on western battlefields and adopt an aggressive, tactically offensive mind-set. “If one had to do battle with the Turk,” he wrote,

  1. Pike battalions have to be extended frontally, more than has ever been the case before, so that the enemy cannot easily enclose them with his half-moon order.
  2. Cavalry is intermingled with the infantry behind and opposite the intervals so that the foe … would be exposed on both sides to the salvoes of the musketry.
  3. One should advance directly against the Turk with one’s line of battle, and one should not expect him to attack because, not being well-furnished with short-rage, defensive weapons, he does not readily involve himself in a melee or willingly collide with his adversary…. Using the wings of his half-moon formation, it is also easy for him to approach and retire laterally….
  4. Squadrons are constituted more massively than is ordinarily the case.
  5. One stations a certain number of battalions and squadrons along the flanks of the battle line in order to guarantee security.

Prince Eugene would adopt and expand on this template in later years, systematizing fire control, introducing uniform regimental drill, placing greater emphasis on the speed of deployment for plains warfare, and adopting defensive formations to allow small units greater flexibility in movement across broken terrain.

The overarching goal of Austrian tactics in the south was to bring their greater firepower to bear while making provisions for the safety of flanks, which Turkish cavalry were expert at attacking. To account for Ottoman speed, Austrian commanders were to form their units in square formations not unlike those later used by colonial European forces against indigenous armies in Africa. As Charles observed,

The suppleness and rapidity of their horses permit their cavalry to profit from all openings in front or in flank and penetrate there. To give them no chance of doing it, one should thus form the infantry in square … and not to put into lines anything save the cavalry which is equally rapid as their cavalry…. [Commanders should] form several squares, each one of two or three battalions strength at most. These squares constitute lines of battle as much in march as in position. One forms in the end some of these squares in checkerboard fashion, and from it one derives the great benefit of being able to mutually defend and support each other.

So great was the risk of Turkish cavalry penetrating the flanks of these squares that Austrian units were to “camp and march always in squares,” and when possible, protect these formations with chevaux-de-frises or so-called Spanish Riders—lances several yards long fitted with boar spears—to provide a thick hedge and keep irregular cavalry at bay while reloading. As a further precaution, Austrian forces in the south were typically given a higher complement of cavalry (at times approaching 50 percent of field armies).


It was with these techniques that Habsburg forces took the field against the Turks in 1716. Leading them was the fifty-two-year-old Prince Eugene of Savoy. Raised among the French nobility and court of Louis XIV, Eugene had been rejected from the French Army and forced to leave Paris after a romantic controversy involving his mother and the king. Small in stature, he was a tenacious, creative, and offensive-minded general whose motto in war was “seize who can.” A veteran of the Turkish wars, Eugene’s first combat experience had been as a twenty-year-old volunteer pursuing the Turks alongside the Polish hussars at the siege of Vienna in 1683, for which Leopold I had awarded him a regiment of dragoons. By the time of the 1716 war, Eugene was a seasoned senior field commander who had successfully led the armies of Austria and the Holy Roman Empire in three wars and more than a dozen major battles.

The immediate cause of the war was a conflict between the Ottoman Empire and Venice, the latter of which was bound by defensive alliance to Austria. Strategically, however, the incident offered a rare opportunity to strengthen Habsburg security in the southeast at a moment when Austria’s armies were not tied up in fighting in western theaters. Eugene’s war aims, as outlined by the Privy Conference, were twofold. First, he was to secure Habsburg control of the Danube down to Vidin, thus closing the Banat salient and restricting the Turks to a second line of fortresses at Giugiu-Babadag-Ismail, and by doing so, impose a diplomatic settlement making Wallachia and Moldavia de facto buffer states. As the emperor communicated to him, it was critical to establish these provinces as client states (unser tributär erhalten).

While tactically offensive, Eugene’s overarching strategic objective was defensive: to round off and buy breathing room for the territories acquired in the previous war. This was particularly important with regard to the final, as-yet-unconquered part of Hungary, the Banat, without which strategic communications between Habsburg possessions in Croatia and Transylvania were severed. In the ensuing campaign, Eugene inflicted crushing defeats on the Turks. Going into the war less than two years after the conclusion of the Spanish succession struggle, he was able to draw on a large reservoir of seasoned veterans from campaigns in Italy and Germany. Using the Danube as a supply artery, he bypassed Belgrade, a major Ottoman fortress holding the key to southeastern lines of communication, and instead chose to seek out and destroy the main Ottoman army. This he intercepted in late summer at Peterwardein under the personal command of the grand vizier, and despite possessing numerically inferior forces, inflicted a decisive defeat from which barely a third of the Turkish Army escaped. In the months that followed, he consolidated this victory by taking Ottoman fortresses at Timisoara, in the Banat, and most notably, in Belgrade.

Eugene’s military victories would not have been possible without prior Habs burg diplomacy. The key to his victories was the ability to concentrate Austria’s limited military forces, which had only occurred because Austria did not have to worry about maintaining large troop concentrations on other frontiers while fighting in the south. This was made possible by preparatory diplomacy, which had begun years before the war, when Habsburg diplomats worked to ensure that a war in this theater would not occur until the timing was militarily favorable to the monarchy.

The foundation to this diplomacy had been efforts to prevent the breakout of conflict too early—most notably, at the high point of the Spanish succession war, when Charles XII invaded Saxony with forty thousand troops, raising the threat of intervention to support Silesian Protestants or even alongside Protestant Hungarian rebels against Vienna. With the Erblände naked to attack from this quarter, Joseph I used what amounted to preemptive appeasement at Altranstädt to buy peace with Charles by recognizing Sweden’s candidate to the Polish throne, ceding German land and even making concessions to the Protestants in Silesia in exchange for avoiding Austrian entanglement in the Great Northern War. The following year a similar problem loomed in the south, when tensions with the Porte threatened to open a new front in the war after several Ottoman merchants were killed in a border incident at Kecskemet. Faced with the prospect of a Turkish declaration of war at a moment when Habsburg forces were pinned down on the Po and Rhine, Joseph I used a combination of bribery at the sultan’s court and compensation for Turkish damages to buy peace. Again in 1709, the passage of Sweden’s Charles XII into Ottoman protection following his defeat by the Russians threatened to bring the Turks into the war. This time Austria responded by rallying its western allies against the Swedes, issuing a war threat to Turkey and creating a new northern corps under Eugene to deter attack. In both instances, the Habsburgs were able to avoid war with the Ottomans at an inconvenient moment for their broader strategic interests.

A similar mixture of accommodation and force had been used to ensure that Eugene would not have to worry during his campaigns about problems from the Hungarians. From 1703 to 1711, Magyar kuruc raiders under the rebel prince Rákóczi had waged a relentless irregular war against Austrian positions in Hungary, momentarily even threatening the Habsburg capital.39 In order to concentrate force in the western theater, Austrian diplomats in 1706 brokered a temporary armistice that allowed Eugene to focus attention on his operations in Italy, without granting the scale of constitutional concessions sought by the rebels. After achieving victory in the west, the Habsburgs were able to use a “surge” of cavalry into Hungary to defeat the rebels and force a favorable peace. The resulting Treaty of Szatmar (1711) was a showpiece of Habsburg diplomacy, mixing threats (as Joseph I said when threatened by a resumption of kuruc raids, “tell them bluntly that we ‘could do even worse’ ”) and magnanimity with pardons for rebel leaders and a guarantee of Hungary’s historic liberties. This peace proved durable. As a result, by the time Eugene began preparing for military operations four years later, he was not troubled by the prospect of Hungarian uprisings along his lines of communication and was even able to employ former kuruc rebels in his army.

These earlier preparations helped make possible a sharp, successful war. Charles VI had explicitly requested that the campaign be short, instructing Eugene to achieve a “quick and glorious peace”—partly to avoid creating an opening for crises (groβe Unruhen) on other frontiers, and partly to ensure that any lands won could be secured rapidly and without foreign interference (ohne Mediation). The need for a speedy outcome was heightened by growing signs of conflict in Italy, where Spain’s Philip V sought to take advantage of Austria’s distraction in the Balkans to launch an attack on Sicily. As the Turkish war drew to a close, the Spanish challenge was forcing Eugene to siphon off regiments from the Balkans, leading him to lament that “two wars cannot be waged with one army.” While Eugene used the opening of negotiations with the Turks at Passarowitz to consolidate Austria’s new gains in the southeast and free up military resources for the west, Charles struck an agreement with Britain and France renouncing his claims to the Spanish throne in exchange for military cooperation against Philip. These measures helped to avoid a protracted two-front emergency. As negotiations wrapped up with the Ottomans, Charles rejoiced to Eugene that “our hands are now free to deal with those who want to chew on us [elsewhere].”

The physical scale of Eugene’s victory over the Turks was immense. In the concluding Peace of Passarowitz, Austria absorbed, uti possidetis, all the ground that its armies held at the time that hostilities ceased, or a total of some thirty thousand square miles of new territory. The addition of these large spaces bolstered Habsburg security in the southeast. Per Eugene’s advice to “expand following the lay of the land,” Austria absorbed the Banat, closing the gap between its defenses in Croatia-Slavonia and Transylvania. The war also enhanced the size and status of the monarchy’s regional buffers, placing northern Serbia and Little Wallachia under Habsburg rule, while designating Wallachia, Moldavia, and Poland under Article I as intermediary bodies: “Distinguished and separated as anciently by the Mountains, in such manner that the Limits of the ancient Confines may be unchangeably observed on all sides.”

Passarowitz was a high-water mark for Habsburg power in the Balkans. But it would not last. In the years that followed, Austria’s ability to shape the southern frontier through unilateral military action evaporated as a result of two changes—one military in nature, the other geopolitical.

First, Eugene died. The extent to which Austria’s spectacular battlefield victories had been the result of the prince’s talents became dramatically apparent when the next Austro-Turkish war broke out in 1737–39. The parallels with the 1716–18 war are striking. As before, Habsburg officials favored the timing for military action because of the recent end of a conflict in the west (the Polish succession war) and thus recent relative quiescence on other fronts.

As their predecessors had done prior to 1716, Habsburg diplomats successfully labored to create the conditions for an exclusive focus on the Balkan frontier before going to war. Also like the previous war, Habsburg forces set out to win a short war using mobile field armies. Echoing its earlier instructions to Eugene, the Privy Conference insisted that “the war last but one campaigning season.” And as before, the strategic goal was largely defensive: to consolidate and round off Austria’s holdings along the central Danube axis while expanding Austrian influence in the buffer territories of Wallachia and Moldavia.

Battle of Belgrade

Without Eugene at the helm, though, Austria quickly found that it was no longer able to rely on rapid strikes to secure its security objectives in the southeast. Poorly led and suffering from the years of neglected military spending that Eugene had so often predicted would lead to catastrophe, Habsburg forces suffered defeats at Banja Luka and Belgrade. In the ensuing Treaty of Belgrade (1739), Austria was forced to disgorge most of its gains from Passarowitz. While using many of the same tactics as in the previous war, Habsburg generalship was weaker, the army had lost its fighting edge, and the Ottomans themselves had incorporated lessons from past wars, adopting improved technology in both small arms and artillery with the help of foreign military advisers.

The second, far-larger change to conditions in the southeast, however, came as a result of geopolitical developments elsewhere. In the year after the war ended, Austria was invaded from the north by the armies of Frederick II of Prussia, setting off what would become an almost forty-year life-or-death struggle for the Habsburg Monarchy.

Ulm 1805

The Capitulation of Ulm by Charles Thévenin.


The Emperor has discovered a new way of waging war; he makes use of our legs instead of our bayonets.…

Anonymous French soldier, 1805

Having dispatched his troops, Napoleon set out for Malmaison on 2 September 1805. In Paris there were some distractingly aggravating domestic problems to be dealt with; a disappointing harvest had made bread prices soar and finances were in a mess. The budget showed an immense deficit, and, as it was against all Napoleon’s principles either to borrow or to print paper money, a heavy increase in taxation was his only recourse. Rumours that he was reaching down into the bottom of the national coffers in order to pay for the new war were spreading financial panic. This, plus a call-up of 80,000 to provide him with a contingency reserve, did not enhance his popularity in the capital. On 23 September when he explained to the Senate the causes of the new war, laying the blame squarely on the Allies, the Senators evinced little more than token enthusiasm. During his return to the Tuileries, he was vexed by the unwonted lack of warmth shown by the populace. Disagreeably aware that civilian morale was not of the same high order as that of the Grande Armée, Napoleon left Paris for Strasbourg knowing how imperative it was for him to win a swift and decisive victory, if for no other reason than that the country might otherwise face bankruptcy.

At Strasbourg, the gloom was intensified by Talleyrand, the venal ex-Bishop of Autun turned Minister of Foreign Affairs, who for both national and personal reasons disapproved of the new war. With his club-foot and love of comfort, he dreaded the pain that resulted from the long marches trailing behind his master. The rest of his entourage was also suffering from presentiments that, like Turenne or Charles XII, the irreplaceable leader might possibly be struck down by a stray ball. The Empress herself, so Thiers alleged with just a touch of cynicism, ‘was the more strongly attached to him the more fear she felt about the duration of her union with him’. Having got over his latest transient infatuation with twenty-year-old, musical Madame Duchatel that spring, Napoleon displayed a renewal of his passion for Josephine and there was an emotional (and public) farewell scene. Napoleon wept and vomited, and according to Talleyrand suffered something like a convulsion – news which was warmly received in London as signifying that the arch-enemy had been laid low with an epileptic fit. ‘It really is painful to leave two people one most loves,’ grieved the Emperor, embracing them both and then setting forth, on 1 October, on one of his rare campaigns without a woman.

Once on the other side of the Rhine, things immediately looked brighter. Only a short time behind the schedule laid down by Napoleon, on 26 August the Grande Armée was concentrated perfectly in conformity with his plans and was marching superbly. It was probably one of the first times in warfare that roads were to be used so extensively for transportation of an army on a large scale. The infantry strode forth in two parallel files at the side of the dusty roads, leaving the centre free for the cavalry and heavy wagons, each division spread out over three miles in precise march discipline. With straws between their teeth so as to keep their mouths closed, the troops would begin their march at between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. and bivouac before midday. Every hour there was a five-minute halt when the music – clarinets, flute and horn – played, and when the men showed signs of sleepiness on the march the drums began to beat. Anything to keep them on the move.

Among the Guard, even though they carried heavier packs than the Line, discipline was of course superb; at Ettlingen they rendered honours in immaculate full dress when the Emperor was received by the Grand Duke of Baden. Desertions were minimal; out of Marmont’s 20,000-strong II Corps, only nine men were missing when it reached Würzburg. ‘The Emperor has discovered a new way of waging war,’ grumbled the infantry, ‘he makes use of our legs instead of our bayonets.…’ As previously noted, the speed of Napoleon’s forces on the march was legendary. Advancing into the German states, the Grande Armée, travelling light, was preceded by the quartermasters, who arranged billeting and requisitioning. Fortunately, at any rate in the early stages, food was readily available in rich Württemberg and Bavaria. ‘It was the height of the potato season,’ Corporal Jean-Pierre Blaise wrote to his parents from Germany. ‘How many times did we blight the hopes of a villager! We plundered him of the fruits of a whole year’s work. However we were, as you might say, forced to do so.…’ The unhappy German peasants tried to bury their food supplies, but the French foragers soon ferreted them out.

Then bad weather struck and in the sodden bivouacs morale slumped. François-Joseph Joskin wrote, ‘Oh mother, what a great misfortune has befallen me to become a conscript! What an unhappy life it is to be a soldier!’ Food supplies were uncertain, boots were holed and the horses were beginning to break down. Davout was asking permission to shoot hungry marauders. Something of that Boulogne euphoria began to dissolve under the icy rain. But Napoleon was in no way dejected; to Josephine he wrote exuberantly on 2 October, ‘Our grand manoeuvres are in full swing. The armies of Württemberg and Baden are joining mine. I am in good health, and I love you.…’ By 7 October, Murat’s cavalry had crossed the Danube downstream from Ulm. The Grande Armée’s front concentrated from 125 down to 50 miles.

In contrast to his own performance, Napoleon noted (on 2 October) how ‘the enemy is marching and counter-marching and appears to be embarrassed’. Though nominally under Archduke Ferdinand, the Austrian expeditionary force on the Danube was in effect commanded by his quartermaster-general, General Karl Mack. Aged forty-three at this time, Mack had been born in Bavaria of a lower-middle-class Protestant family and had worked his way up through the ranks. In 1799 he had been defeated by Napoleon in Italy and captured, escaping the following year. He had not handled that campaign with particular distinction, and Nelson – with whom he had collaborated in Naples – went so far as to declare him ‘a rascal, a scoundrel and a coward!’ This was unduly harsh, and Mack seems to have been a courageous soldier at least as competent as most of the leaders thrown up either previously or subsequently by a nation whose greatest talent never lay in the art of warfare. As Generalquartiermeister, Mack had done his best to modernize the Austrian Army, but his efforts had been resisted as too ‘revolutionary’ by Vienna’s hidebound military establishment.

Basically, the Austrian Army of 1805 remained that of Maria Theresa and Joseph II. Its bible was still the Generals-Reglement of 1769, which stressed drill and rigidly linear tactics and a cautious strategy based on secure communications, coupled with a traditional Austrian proclivity for fortified bases. The Commissariat was regarded as too socially inferior to be administered by officers-and-gentlemen; hence it was rotten with corruption, and barely functioned. Between 1801 and 1804 the national military budget had been cut by more than half. Most of the Austrian infantry still carried the 1754 musket, and had very little practice with it. Artillery was sprinkled about in penny-packets among the infantry, much as the French were to use their tanks in 1940. Baggage trains were huge, partly due to the requirements of officers’ personal kit.

Greatly impressed by the mobility of Napoleon’s army, Mack had undertaken a series of reforms in the spring of 1805; but it had been too late, and Mack himself seems to have been somewhat carried away by optimism at what he had already achieved. More realistically, the best Austrian commander, Archduke Charles, had unsuccessfully resisted involvement in a new war on the ground that the army was simply not ready for it. He was overruled by the ‘hawks’; thus, when war came, the Austrian Army was caught in the middle of change and reform, its organization still antiquated and its movements ponderous. The High Command was in the hands of the slow-witted and argumentative Aulic Council. Its deliberations with the Russian leaders were sadly shown up by Napoleon’s axiom that, ‘nothing is so important in war as an undivided command. For this reason, when war is carried on against a single power, there should be only one army, acting upon one base, and conducted by one chief.’ Moreover, within the Ulm camp, there was already a fundamental clash of personalities between the aristocratic, overbearing Catholic Archduke Ferdinand (given titular command not least to keep it out of the hands of the mistrusted Russian ally) and the despised Lutheran ex-ranker, Mack, who was to bear the shame and responsibility of the coming disaster.

Under the impulse of Ferdinand and the Aulic Council, Mack had committed the fatal error of crossing the River Inn into Bavaria on 8 September, without waiting for the Russians, who were still east of Vienna. This was exactly what Napoleon had foreseen (aided no doubt by the presence at Mack’s headquarters of the double-agent Schulmeister). Equally Mack and Ferdinand had perfectly swallowed Napoleon’s deception plan, expecting the main French offensive to be delivered in northern Italy, as in 1796 and again in 1800; they were also distracted by such carefully planted rumours as that the British had landed in Boulogne and that a coup had been launched in France against Napoleon. Refusing to believe that he would risk breaching Prussian neutrality by marching through Ansbach, they had their eyes riveted to their west, on the Black Forest where Murat’s cavalry had been ostentatiously swarming about. A series of contradictory intelligence reports were reaching Mack. As a result he continued to sit paralysed at Ulm, ordering up reinforcements from the Tyrol – only to increase Napoleon’s eventual bag of prisoners. When Marshal Soult’s corps crossed the Danube at Donauwörth on 8 October, the officers of a reconnaissance force despatched by Mack were taken by surprise in the middle of their dinner. The surprise was universal. As Thiers remarks:

Never was astonishment equal to that which filled all Europe on the unexpected arrival of this army. It was supposed to be on the shores of the ocean, and, in twenty days, that is to say the time required for the report of its march to begin to spread, it appeared on the Rhine, and inundated South Germany.

Although, with the arrival of the Grande Armée on the Danube, the curtain was now rent asunder, Mack could still not be sure of precisely what Napoleon was planning to do. He seems to have nursed a wishful belief that, since Napoleon had crossed the Danube and then swung westward again, he might be heading back to Paris to cope with the domestic crises that Mack too had heard about. Consequently he went on wavering, adopting scheme after scheme and then abandoning them. In turn his irresolution made it the more difficult for Napoleon to form an appreciation of how his enemy would react once the jaws of the trap closed behind Ulm. There were basically three options open to Mack. He could stay in Ulm and sit it out until the Russians arrived, a contingency for which he had neither the strength nor the provisions. He could try to break out of the trap and retreat on Vienna along the north bank of the Danube; but this route lay across the main line of march of Napoleon’s forces and he would be sacrificing his own communications with the Tyrol. Or he could withdraw southwards up the River Iller, to withdraw on Vienna through the Tyrol, linking up on the way with Archdukes John and Charles.

This last seemed to Napoleon the most logical contingency, and upon this judgement he went on to commit his first major error of the campaign, which, had the Austrians been less ineffectual, might easily have led to catastrophe. To prevent Mack breaking out southwards, he despatched the main weight of his army – Lannes, Soult, Davout, Marmont and the Guard – across the Danube, concentrating on Augsburg. Bernadotte was sent eastwards, as a covering force against the Russians, leaving only Murat, with Ney under his command, to control the Danube River itself on both sides.

With their vaunting pride, rivalry and ambition, one of the chief faults of Napoleon’s marshals was that they seldom took well to being subordinated to one another. Murat, the thirty-eight-year-old innkeeper’s son, who became commander-in-chief of the newly formed Guard in 1799 and Napoleon’s brother-in-law the following year, was the most over-weaningly ambitious of them all. Tall, vain, handsome and a brilliant horseman with a passion for fine horses and extravagant uniforms, Murat was renowned in the army for his rash courage (even though he was bullied by his wife Caroline). General Savary remarked acidly that ‘it would be better if he was endowed with rather less courage and rather more common sense’, and his mixture of impetuousness and self-interest was to lead Napoleon to the brink of disaster on more than one occasion during the Austerlitz campaign. He was the most resented of Napoleon’s marshals, and Ney, the thirty-six-year-old cooper’s son, immediately chafed at being placed under his command. Red-headed Ney was also courageous to a fault; of only moderate intelligence he could show initiative, but often at the wrong time, and his front-line style of leadership tended to lead him to ignore units not immediately within his sight.

Relations between the two marshals were thus immediately strained. On 11 October, when (in interpretation of Napoleon’s instructions) Murat ordered Ney to move his whole corps across to the south bank of the Danube, there was a violent row in front of many witnesses which nearly ended in a duel between the two commanders. Finally only General Dupont’s division of 6,000 men was left on the north bank of the Danube, muddled by conflicting orders that resulted from the marshals’ altercation. Murat – and certainly Napoleon – was unaware of just how weak the French forces now were that side of the river.

Meanwhile, Mack had captured orders revealing Ney’s dispositions and realized that an escape route north was open. Suddenly the unfortunate General Dupont found himself confronted by 60,000 Austrians ‘in an imposing attitude’, some twenty miles north-east of Ulm. Typically of the spirit of the Grande Armée, however, Dupont hurled forward two regiments in a savage bayonet attack. The Austrian front line recoiled, leaving behind 1,500 prisoners. For the next five hours there was violent fighting in and around the village of Haslach, between Dupont and 25,000 Austrians. Dupont’s division was cut to pieces, and possibly only saved from being overrun by the fact that Mack himself had been wounded in the battle. But Dupont held; if he had not, the Austrians – says Thiers – ‘would have fled into Bohemia, and one of Napoleon’s most splendid combinations would have been completely frustrated…’. Certainly there would have been no Austerlitz.

Opinions differ over who was to blame for this near-disaster; Thiers says it was Murat, Ségur blames Napoleon. Wherever the fault lay, Napoleon on hearing of Dupont’s plight immediately took over the reins himself, ordering Ney to push vigorously across the Danube upstream from Dupont. On 14 October, Ney, enraged by this decimation of one of his divisions and Murat’s overbearing manner, seized Murat’s arm and shook him violently in front of the Emperor, exclaiming angrily, ‘Come, prince, come along with me and make your plans in face of the enemy.’ He then galloped off, in full uniform and decorations, to supervise the relief operation ‘amid a shower of balls and grape, having the water up to his horse’s belly.’

Dupont’s valour, however, had provoked fatal dissension in the Austrian camp. On 12 October, Archduke Ferdinand wrote bitterly to his kinsman, the Emperor, ‘General Mack has already projected and put into execution today three absolutely different plans.’ Although the French error had opened an escape route out of the Ulm trap, Ferdinand had thrown it away by pressing the attack on Dupont so half-heartedly; yet he now urged Mack to agree to his escaping from Ulm in that same direction with at least a part of the army. Mack protested that, left with only 30,000 men until the Russians should arrive, this would abandon him completely to the mercy of Bonaparte, while Ferdinand’s force would just be chopped up piecemeal by the French cavalry. But, with true Habsburg arrogance, the Archduke challenged him: ‘Confine me in the fortress if you wish to prevent me. Does your power extend to that!’

Ulm, and the Austrian army there, was doomed. On 12 October Napoleon wrote triumphantly to Josephine, ‘The enemy are beaten and don’t know what they are about. It all looks like the most successful, the shortest and the most brilliant campaign ever fought.…’ The following day he issued a proclamation to the army, declaring, ‘Soldiers! It is only one month since we were encamped on the Ocean, facing England.… Soldiers! Tomorrow will be a hundred times more famous than the day of Marengo; I have placed the enemy in the same position.’

By the night of 15 October, Ney had retrieved the situation on the left bank of the Danube by winning a brilliant victory at Elchingen (which was later to earn him the title of Duke of Elchingen), and had established himself on the Michaelsberg heights overlooking the city from the north-west. That day the Emperor, while gazing down on Ulm, came under heavy fire himself when a concealed Austrian battery poured grape-shot into the Imperial group, and Lannes had to seize the reins of his horse to lead him hastily out of danger. (At another time, on the River Lech, the Emperor had also narrowly escaped death or serious injury when his horse, stumbling, had fallen on top of him. The episode had been kept a strict secret from the rest of the army.)

The citadel of Ulm was now held in a vice on three sides, with Soult moving up on the fourth from the south-west. Napoleon called on Mack to surrender; Mack refused. He was like ‘a tethered goat in an Indian village awaiting the visit of a tiger’. On 16 October, Napoleon ordered Ulm to be bombarded with a few warning shells. Conditions in the city, largely as a result of the Austrians’ chaotic Commissariat, were already appalling: ‘Many thousands of men made their quarters on the open streets, where they cooked and slept.… The whole city was a latrine, permeated with a pestilential stench.…’ Meanwhile, as threatened, Ferdinand had pulled out with 20,000 men, abandoning Mack altogether. Equally, just as Mack had predicted, the Horse Guards pursued them, putting the unhappy fugitives to the sword at every turn; the Bavarian peasants plundered them as well, cutting the traces of the artillery to steal the horses. Finally, only 2,000 men struggled into Prague.

Blindfolded, Napoleon’s aide, the Comte de Ségur, was led into Mack’s citadel to renew cease-fire negotiations. Until that moment the unfortunate Mack had still no idea that he was encircled by 100,000 enemy troops, plus another 60,000 between him and the Russians. With his own army now divided in half, his position was clearly hopeless but still he refused to surrender. Finally, on 19 October he gave in and on the following day Napoleon, mounted on a white horse, watched as the army that was to have taken Strasbourg and Paris passed into captivity. The incessant rain of the previous weeks had suddenly turned to glorious sunshine. A conversation took place between Mack and Napoleon, whom a captured Austrian officer described in his moment of glory as dressed ‘in the uniform of a common soldier, with a grey coat singed* on the elbows and tails, a slouch hat without any badge of distinction on his head, his arms crossed behind his back, and warming himself at a camp-fire’. To Mack, a ‘powdered old man in a splendid uniform of blue and white’, Napoleon remarked, ‘I don’t know why we are fighting each other.… I did not wish it; I did not intend to fight any but the English, when your master came along and provoked me,’ adding (prophetically, as far as his own was concerned), ‘All empires come to an end.’

Napoleon was never to win an easier success. Mack disappeared into ignominy. While Archduke Ferdinand was to become the darling of Vienna for his flight from Ulm, the plebeian Mack was made scapegoat for the defeat; he was court-martialled, broken from service, and thrown into a dungeon for several years.

On 21 October, Napoleon issued his victorious proclamation:

Soldiers of the Grande Armée:

In a fortnight we have made a campaign; we have accomplished what we intended. We have driven the troops of the house of Austria out of Bavaria.… The Army, which, with equal ostentation and imprudence, came and placed itself on our frontiers, is annihilated.…

Of the hundred thousand men who composed that army, sixty thousand are prisoners; they shall go and replace our conscripts in the labours of our fields.… Soldiers, this success is owing to your unbounded confidence in your Emperor, to your patience in enduring fatigues and privations of every kind.… But we shall not stop there; you are impatient to commence a second campaign. That Russian army, which the gold of England has brought from the extremities of the earth, shall share the same fate.…

It was a classic victory, and was won with an extraordinary economy in casualties on the French side; however, Austrian losses (including those inflicted in the ensuing sweeping-up operations) are reckoned to have totalled almost 60,000 men. Including those lamed by the long march, Napoleon lost no more than 2,000 men hors de combat, most of them from the single, battered division of General Dupont.

News of Ulm, when it reached England, was greeted with a mixture of shock and outrage. Lord Auckland declared that a captain of the London Volunteers would have done better than Mack. Lady Bessborough wrote, ‘I am so terrified, so shocked with the news I scarcely know what to wish. This man moves like a torrent…’, while Lord Grenville was incredulous: ‘An army of 100,000 men, reckoned the best troops in Europe, totally destroyed in three weeks.… Yet even this, I am afraid, is only the beginning of our misfortunes.