WWI Austro-Hungarian Small Arms Part I

Roth-Steyr Models 1907 and 1912

Austria-Hungary finally moved to replace its aging Rast-Gasser revolvers with the Roth-Steyr 8mm Pistol Model 1907 and the 9mm Steyr Pistol Model 1912. Österreichische Waffenfabrik Gesellschaft (Steyr) manufactured some 60,000 Model 1907s; Fegyvergyr of Budapest produced another 30,000. The Model 1907, or Repetier Pistole M. 07, served as Austria’s first semiautomatic pistol and, issued to the Kaiserliche und Königliche Armee (Ku. K), saw wide use during World War I. Its well-publicized use by aircrews during the war also earned it the title Flieger-Pistole (Flyer Pistol). Austrian pistols were stamped with the Austrian double-headed eagle and date, with Hungary marking its pistols with the country’s crest and date of issue. A brass disk fixed to the right grip panel denoted regimental issue. In addition to Austria-Hungary, the Model 1907 also saw service with the Australian Air Service.

The Model 1907 is a recoil-operated weapon and was designed by Georg Roth and Karel Krnka. Its 10-round internal magazine in the grip is loaded with chargers or stripper clips. The Model 1907 is also somewhat unusual in that although the action of the breech mechanism reloads the pistol it does not cock its striker. The striker was activated by an independent trigger mechanism that, as in a double-action, required a deliberate and heavy trigger pull to cock and fire the pistol. This feature was most probably intended as a safety measure, as the Model 1907 was initially destined for issue to cavalry units. It may have lessened the chances of accidental discharge while on horseback, but unfortunately for infantrymen and others it did make the Model 1907 difficult to aim accurately. The Roth-Steyr was a well-built weapon but was expensive and difficult to manufacture. It was also somewhat bulky, with a large knob on the rear of its bolt, giving it something of the appearance of a child’s ray gun.

The most widely issued semiautomatic pistol among Austrian forces during World War I was chambered for the 9mm Steyr cartridge and was known by a number of names. It was variously called the Model 1911 (or M11) in its civilian version, the Steyr Pistol Model 1912 (or M12) in its military form, and officially as the Selbstiade Pistol M12. It was also popularly known as the Steyr Hahn, (hahn meaning to “hand” or “hammer”), in contrast to earlier hammerless models. Some 250,000 Model 1912s were manufactured and issued before Steyr ended its production in 1919. The Model 1912 was also used by Chile and Romania, and during World War II a number were rebarreled to 9mm Parabellum and issued to Nazi troops. The slides of Nazi reissue Model 12s were stamped “08” to distinguish them from their original 9mm Steyr chamberings.

Unlike the Model 1907, the Model 1912 was more conventional in its outer appearance, superficially resembling the squared lines of the Colt-Brownings of its day. Still, the eight-round magazine, although located in the grip, was not removable and was charged by means of stripper clips guided by a slot machined into the top of the slide. It was also fitted with a hold-open device that keeps the slide open after firing the magazine’s last cartridge. This was a distinct advantage to combat troops in that it alerted them to an empty magazine in the heat of battle. The Model 1912 was equipped with a thumb safety on the left side of the frame near the hammer, and another safety prevents the pistol from discharging unless the slide was fully closed. Despite such measures, it was still possible for the Model 1912’s main safety to become partially disengaged, allowing it to accidentally fire.

The locking of the action was accomplished by means of corresponding slots and ribs in the barrel and inside of the slide. Upon ignition, the barrel and slide remain locked during the initial recoil, but as the bullet passed through the barrel the internal cams twisted the barrel to the left, freeing the slide and allowing it to continue in its rearward cycle. This movement opened the action to eject the casing, cocks the pistol’s exposed hammer, and strips a fresh cartridge from the magazine. The Model 1912 was a rugged pistol but, as were other Steyr designs, already outdated when it was introduced, owing to its lack of a detachable magazine.

Frommer Stop

While a member of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during World War I, Hungary insisted on arming its Honved (Army) officers with a domestic semiautomatic pistol-the Frommer Stop-rather than its allies’ Steyrs. The early designs of Rudolf Frommer (1868-1936) of the small arms firm Fegyver és Gépgyar Részvénytarsasag of Budapest reflected his close association with both Krnka and Roth. His pistols were thus beautifully engineered but typically overly difficult to manufacture and maintain for military use. Frommer patented the Frommer Stop pistol in 1912, and it became known in Hungary (for obscure reasons) as the 19 Minta Pisztoly, or Model 1919 Pistol. Possibly as many as 329,000 were manufactured before production ceased in the 1930s (Ezell 1981: 233).

The pistol operates on a turning bolt mechanism and is a long recoil-operated weapon-a needlessly complicated system for its relatively underpowered 7.65mm (caliber .32) Browning cartridge. The Frommer Stop also presents a somewhat unique appearance in the use of a tubular spring housing above the barrel. The housing contains both the recoil- and bolt-operating spring; a clever economical use of space, it presents a tricky arrangement for a soldier to disassemble in the field.

Unlike the Steyrs, the Frommer is fitted with a grip safety and a more modern detachable seven-round box magazine released by a catch at the base of the grip. External metal components are blued, and grips are of vertically grooved walnut and marked with the “FS” logo in an oval. The Frommer was generally unpopular among Hungarian troops, as it lacks stopping power and is more delicate when compared to other contemporary military pistols. Fegyvergyar manufactured a more powerful Frommer chambered for the 9mm Browning (caliber .380 ACP) cartridge at the end of World War I, but apparently few if any made their way to front-line troops.


A German designer who made a significant mark on rifle design, even though his weapons were never adopted in Germany, was Ferdinand von Mannlicher. He was born in 1848 in Bohemia and was educated in Vienna at the technical college. In 1876 he went to the World Exhibition in Philadelphia, where, instead of concentrating on the railway exhibits since he worked for Austrian railways, he became sidetracked by the Winchester and Hotchkiss weapons exhibits.

Mannlicher went into rifle design from that moment and received honors for his work, including a Gold Medal at the 1900 International Exposition in Paris. Although many of his designs were failures, his place in rifle history is assured because of his inventive genius. One significant design was a semiautomatic rifle patented in 1895, improved by 1900, which was operated by gas tapped from the barrel that forced a piston to actuate the mechanism. This principle is at the heart of most SLRs today. One area in which his weapons still survive is that of stalking, for Mannlicher sporting rifles made around 1900 can still be seen doing excellent work in the Scottish Highlands.


M1885 Rifle

Straight-pull bolt action. Clip-loaded magazine.

Cartridge: 11.15 x 58R Werndl.

Length: 52.3in (1328mm).

Weight: 10lb 8oz (4.8kg).

Barrel: 31.8in (808mm), 6 grooves, rh.

Magazine: 5-round box.

M/v: 1444 fps (440 m/s).

M1886 Rifle

As M1885, new sights.

Cartridge: 11.1 5 x 58R Werndl.

Length: 52.2in (1326mm).

Weight: 9lb 15oz (4.5kg).

Barrel: 31.7in (806mm), 6 grooves, rh.

Magazine: 5-round box.

M/v: 1444 fps (440 m/s).

1886/90 Rifle

M1886 rifles converted to fire 8 x 50R Mannlicher cartridge.

M/v: 2035 fps (620 m/s).

1888 Rifle

M1886 rebarreled.

Cartridge: 8 x 50R Austrian Mannlicher.

Length: 50.4in (1281mm).

Weight: 9lb 1oz (4.4 kg).

Barrel: 30.2in (765mm), 4 grooves, rh.

Magazine: 5-round box.

M/v: 1755 fps (535 m/s).

1888/90 Rifle

Model 1888 with new sights for M88/90 cartridge.

M/v: 2028 fps (618 m/s).

1890 Cavalry Carbine

Straight-pull bolt.

Cartridge: 8 x 50R Austrian Mannlicher.

Length: 39.6in (1005mm).

Weight: 7lb 5oz (3.3kg).

Barrel: 19.61 in (498mm), 4 grooves, rh.

Magazine: 5-round box.

M/v: 1886 fps (575 m/s).

1890 Gendarmerie Carbine

1892. As cavalry carbine.

Details: as M1890 Cavalry Carbine.

M1895 Rifle

Straight-pull bolt.

Cartridge: 8 x 50R Austrian Mannlicher.

Length: 50.4in (1280mm).

Weight: 8lb 5oz (3.78kg).

Barrel: 30.1 9in (765mm), 4 grooves, rh.

Magazine: 5-round box.

M/v: 2030 fps (620 m/s).

1895 Short Rifle

Straight-pull bolt.

Cartridge: 8 x 50R Austrian Mannlicher.

Length: 39.49in (1003mm).

Weight: 6lb 13oz (3.09kg).

Barrel: 19.68in (500mm), 4 grooves, rh.

Magazine: 5-round box.

M/v: 1902 fps (580 m/s).

1895 Cavalry Carbine

Similar to short rifle.

Details: the same

M1914 Rifle

As German Gew. 98 but with a different stock.

Cartridge: 8 x 50R Austrian Mannlicher.

Length: 50.19in (1275mm).

Weight: 8lb 13oz (4.0kg).

Barrel: 30.7in (780mm), 4 grooves, rh.

Magazine: 5-round integral box.

M/v: 2034 fps (620 m/s).

WWI Austro-Hungarian Small Arms Part II

Machine Guns

Maxim traveled Europe while demonstrating his weapon. He was accompanied by Albert Vickers, a steel producer from South Kensington who had become intensely interested in Maxim and his invention. In 1887, Maxim took one of his guns to Switzerland for a competition with the Gatling, the Gardner, and the Nordenfelt. It easily out-shot all competitors. The next trials were in Italy at Spezzia. There the Italian officer in charge of the competition requested Maxim to submerge his gun in the sea and allow it to be immersed for three days. At the end of that time, without cleaning, the gun performed as well as it had before being subjected to this officer’s unusual demand. The next trial was in Vienna, where an impressed Archduke William, the field marshal of the Austrian Army, observed that the Maxim gun was “the most dreadful instrument” that he had ever seen or imagined. History would prove the archduke’s observation to be only too true.

Many observers were first skeptical toward Maxim’s claim that his weapon could fire 10 shots per second and maintain that rate of fire for any extended length of time. At the Swiss, Italian, and Austrian trials and those that followed, Maxim made believers out of all who saw the weapon in action. One exception was the king of Denmark, who was dismayed at the expenditure of ammunition and decided that such a weapon was far too expensive to operate, saying that it would bankrupt his kingdom.

In 1888, Maxim formed a partnership with Vickers, an association that would last until Maxim’s seventy-first birthday. Having successfully demonstrated his weapon in Europe, Maxim and his new partner began producing the machine gun. The first production model was capable of firing 2,000 rounds in 3 minutes. It was very well built, easy to maintain, and virtually indestructible. By 1890, Maxim and Vickers were supplying machine guns to Britain, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and Russia.

In Austria in 1888, Archduke Karl Salvator and Colonel von Dormus patented a very simple gun using the blowback system. This gun was unique in that it did not have a breech lock. Because of that, it could use only relatively weak cartridges. Nevertheless, the design was sold to the Skoda company of Pilsen, where it was manufactured as the Skoda Mitrailleuse Model 1893 Machine Gun. Later modified as the Skoda Model 1909, this weapon remained in service in the Austro-Hungarian Army through World War I, during which it was primarily used for fortress defense. In 1893, another Austrian, Captain Baron Adolph von Odkolek, took his idea for a gas-operated machine gun to the Hotchkiss company in France.

By 1907, the Austro-Hungarian Army had become disenchanted with its Skoda machine gun and turned toward a new model invented by the German designer Andreas Wilhelm Schwarzlose. His design, first patented in 1900, employed a blowback system in which the gun was operated by the rearward movement of the breechblock. The Schwarzlose, first introduced in 1905 and manufactured by Steyr in Austria, was cheap, simple to understand and operate, and solid and robust. In fact it was so heavy that the parts never seemed to wear out, and many of the Austrian guns used in the coming war would be around for use in World War II. It was also sold to the Netherlands, Greece, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Sweden.       

Škoda M1909

Manufacturer(s) Škoda

Production began 1909

Production ended 1917

Technical specifications

Machine gun

Caliber 8x50mmR

Action Delayed blowback

Length 945mm

Barrel length 530mm

Weight 41.4kg

Feed system Belt

Cyclic rate 425rpm

Maximum effective range 1000m

Muzzle velocity 2030fps

The M1909 is a machine gun made by Škoda during the Austro-Hungarian era. The weapon was a belt fed derivative of the Salvator Dormus M1893. Although it was unable to compete with the more reliable Schwarzlose m/07, it was used in the same period, albeit mostly by reserve and home guard battalions within the Austro-Hungarian armed forces.

The M1909 is a 8x50mmR calibre, water cooled, delayed blowback operated machine gun. The operation is unusual, it uses a rolling block that operates as the bolt, which is delayed by the friction of a tilting block against the return spring when the round is fired. The cocking lever is on the right side and also has a folding stock.

Schwarzlose machine gun

Maschinengewehr (Schwarzlose) M. 7

Other name(s) M.7/12, 07/12

Manufacturer(s) ŒWG

Technical specifications

Weapon type Medium machine gun

Caliber 8×50mmR Mannlicher, 8×56mmR, 7.92x57mm Mauser, 6.5x53mmR, 6.5×55mm, 7.62×54mmR, .303 British

Action Toggle delayed blowback

Length 945 mm (37.2 inches)

Barrel length 530 mm (20.9 inches)

Weight 41.4 kg (91.8 pounds)

Cyclic rate 400-580 round/min (M.07/12), 600-880 round/m (MG-16A)

German arms designer Andreas Wilhelm Schwarzlose patented a basic design for a machine gun in 1902. He subsequently sold his patent rights to the Steyr arms factory in Austria, which produced the first guns of the Schwarzlose pattern in 1905. After two years of trials and development, the military forces of the Empire adopted the Schwarzlose machine gun in 1907; this gun was also later adopted in a range of calibers by the Netherlands and Sweden (who both manufactured Schwarzlose machine guns under licence until the 1930s), and by Greece, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey – all before the World War I. In 1912 it was modified with the introduction of stronger parts and slightly reshaped retarding levers (struts). The primary visible difference between original M1907 guns and modified M1907/12 guns is the lack of the gap between the hump on the receiver and the barrel jacket on the latter guns.

After the WWI and the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a great many Schwarzlose guns were adopted by smaller countries that emerged from the remains of the Empire, such as Czechoslovakia (which put the gun into production) and Hungary. Many Schwarzlose guns also went to Italy as war reparations, and subsequently saw some use during WW2, mostly in Africa in the original 8x50R caliber. Another user of Schwarzlose machine guns was Russia, which captured several thousands of Austrian machine guns during the early parts of World War One.

The Schwarzlose machine gun, although overshadowed by more famous weapons such as the Maxim or Browning, has its own merits. It is quite simple in construction, robust in service, and usually quite reliable. Its drawbacks come from its basic design, which centers on a retarded-blowback action. This action calls for a relatively short barrel so that the chamber pressure drops before the case begins to leave the chamber; otherwise it would rupture – although when the Czechoslovak army converted their old 8x50R Schwarzlose machine guns to the more powerful 7.92×57 Mauser ammunition, they had no problems associated with high pressure, even with new, significantly longer barrels. Nevertheless, most of the Schwarzlose guns retained short barrels throughout their service life. This obviously limited the muzzle velocity and thus the maximum range and possible bullet penetration at any given range, compared with contemporary guns with a locked breech. The short barrel also called for a dedicated flash hider, to suppress the significant muzzle flash which otherwise would blind the gunner at night. Finally, the lack of primary extraction required an integral oiler, which squirted a small amount of oil into the chamber just before chambering the next round. Nevertheless, the Schwarzlose was a good weapon and saw considerable use through both world wars, although during the Second World War it was mostly relegated to second-line troops, fortifications and other such uses.

The Schwarzlose machine gun is a retarded-blowback operated, water cooled, belt-fed weapon that fires from a closed bolt. The method of operation requires a heavy breechblock, connected to the receiver through a pair of knee-joint struts. When the bolt is in battery, the struts are folded forward, with their joint axis lying relatively low above the barrel axis. Upon firing, the pressure of the powder gases acts on the breechblock through the base of the cartridge case. The rearward movement of the breechblock unfolds the struts, but because of a carefully arranged redirection of forces through the struts and joints, most of the initial pressure is transferred to the receiver. Upon further recoil, joint axis rises above the barrel, and thus the recoil force is re-distributed with more and more of it being used for bolt acceleration. Upon recoil, the bolt compresses a massive and powerful return spring which forces it forward and into battery once the recoil stroke is completed. The charging handle is attached to the axis of the forward strut, and has to be rotated back to cycle the bolt.

Due to the lack of primary extraction, the Schwarzlose has to use oiled cartridges. To avoid the problems associated with factory-oiled or waxed ammunition (which tends to collect fine dust and then cause jams) the gun has an internal oiling system which squirts a small amount of oil into the chamber just before the chambering of each round. This system includes an oil reservoir, located in the receiver’s top cover, and a small oil pump, which is operated by the reciprocating bolt.

The belt feed system is very simple, and involves few parts. The major part is the star-wheel, located in the lower left corner of receiver. Upon bolt recoil, the star-wheel is rotated for one step by the interaction of the cam surfaces on the bolt and the wheel. Each cartridge has to make three steps in the feed before being presented to the bolt for chambering, therefore initial belt loading requires three deliberate pulls on the charging handle. The feed direction is from the right side only, ejection being to the left.

The trigger system also is of rather simply design. It involves a separate striker, a striker spring and a sear, mounted on the bolt. The sear is cocked by a lever attached to the rear bolt delaying strut, and this cocking movement adds to the retarding force applied to the bolt. After cocking the striker is held to the rear by the sear. The thumb trigger is located at the rear of the receiver, and once pushed by the operator, it holds the connection bar so it trips the sear when the bolt is in battery. A manual safety is located next to the trigger and blocks it unless pushed forward by the operator’s left thumb. Dual spade grips are located horizontally at either side of the receiver, and can be folded up for storage or transportation.

 The most common mounting was a tripod of solid construction, with tubular legs of adjustable height and traverse and elevation mechanisms. An optional armored shield was available for this gun, which was unusual in that it also provided frontal and lateral armored protection for the thin metal of the water jacket. Alternatively, a low-height, lightweight tripod was provided for the “light” role. This tripod had no traverse and elevation mechanisms.

Habsburgs: Losing Place and Forging a Past

The fourteenth century should have belonged to the Habsburgs. Across Central Europe, the lines of kings and princes faltered. In 1301, the Hungarian Árpád line came to an end; five years later, the Bohemian Přemyslids expired, to whose house Ottokar II had belonged. Then, in 1320, the last of the Ascanian margraves of Brandenburg died. But the Habsburgs did not benefit from the biological misfortune of others. Instead, over the fourteenth century they themselves were squeezed out of office and eminence in the Holy Roman Empire. For the time being at least, the future seemed to belong to the Wittelsbach rulers of Bavaria and the new Luxembourg kings of Bohemia.

On his death in 1291, Rudolf was buried in the crypt of Speyer Cathedral beside the tombs of previous emperors of the imperial Staufen dynasty. But the electors were determined that the Habsburgs should not take the Staufens’ place and treat the Holy Roman Empire as if it was a family possession. So they initially conspired to prevent Rudolf’s son and heir, Albert (1255–1308), from succeeding. Nonetheless, Albert skilfully ensured the election by a handful of princes of a puppet candidate, Conrad of Teck. Within forty-eight hours of his election, Conrad was dead, his skull cleft open by a nameless assassin. Conrad’s and Albert’s rival, Adolf of Nassau, now became king. The majority of electors backed Adolf precisely because he had no lands of his own and so was no threat, but once in office Adolf sought to grab what he could. The electors turned to Albert for help, who defeated and killed Adolf. In return, they elected Albert king in 1298.

King Albert I has been badly treated by historians, who have too readily embraced the propaganda of his enemies—that he was ‘a boorish man, with only one eye and a look that made you sick … a miser who kept his money to himself and gave nothing to the empire except for children, of which he had many.’ Certainly, Albert lacked an eye. In 1295, his physicians had mistaken an illness for poisoning and to expel the imagined fluid they had suspended him upside-down from the ceiling. The consequent compression to the skull had robbed him of an eyeball. Albert was a prolific father too, siring no less than twenty-one children, of whom eleven made it past childhood. Their consequent marriages into the royal and princely houses of France, Aragon, Hungary, Poland, Bohemia, Savoy, and Lorraine indicate the prestige that now attached to Albert and to the family of which he was head.

Like his father, Albert endeavoured to be crowned emperor in Rome. Pope Boniface VIII received Albert’s embassy haughtily, declaring the imperial title to be his to give or withhold. Seated on the throne of St Peter, his head weighed down by the massive papal tiara of St Sylvester, with its 220 precious jewels set in gold, Pope Boniface boasted, ‘I am the King of the Romans, I am Emperor.’ But it was not the pope but instead a family dispute that brought Albert down. King Rudolf had promised his younger son, Rudolf, an inheritance equal to Albert’s, but had not made good his vow. The younger Rudolf’s heir, John, smarted under the jibe of ‘Duke Lackland’ and pressed to be given a share of the Habsburg patrimony, but Albert preferred to bestow titles and wealth upon his own children. On May Day 1308, John, along with several knights, ambushed Albert and slew him. The murder was a pointless act that brought John lifelong incarceration in a monastery in Pisa and the label of ‘the Parricide.’

Upon Albert’s death, the electors chose Henry of Luxembourg for the same reason that they had a decade before elected Adolf of Nassau—to forestall a Habsburg succession by choosing a ruler who was insufficiently powerful to threaten their own interests. But like Adolf, Henry immediately set about constructing his own power base, in this case by taking the Bohemian crown. In 1312, Henry even travelled to Rome, to be crowned emperor there by the pope, which was the first time in almost a century that a king had done so. He died the next year from malaria contracted on the journey. By this time, German chroniclers were so used to having their rulers killed that they reported Henry to have been murdered at the pope’s instruction with poisoned communion wine.

Gathering at Frankfurt in 1314, the electors feared to appoint Henry’s son, the startlingly courageous John of Luxembourg. Instead, the electors split their vote between Albert’s son, Frederick the Fair of Habsburg (lived 1289–1330), and the Wittelsbach Duke Louis of Bavaria. For ten years the two men were at war, each claiming the royal title. Frederick the Fair’s fate was impoverishment, defeat, imprisonment, a disadvantageous settlement, and an early death in 1330 in the lonely fastness of Burg Gutenstein, west of Wiener Neustadt. Frederick’s two brothers hurried to make peace with Louis, acknowledging him as the lawful king. By this time, the decline of the Habsburgs was palpable. Whereas a generation before, they had married into the royal houses of Europe, they were now reduced to seeking spouses from a humbler stock of obscure Polish dukes and minor French nobles.

Emblematic too of the Habsburgs’ declining fortunes was their defeat by the Swiss. The Swiss forest cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden had united in 1291 to form a defensive alliance, but it had rapidly become an offensive one, aimed against the Habsburgs. This was mostly due to Habsburg expansion into the Alpine valleys, where the family had taken over territories, toll stations, and rights of lordship following their acquisition of the Kiburg lands. As part of his struggle with Frederick the Fair, King Louis brought the cantons onto his side. At the end of 1315, when Frederick’s brother Leopold marched into the valleys to assert his rights, he was ambushed and defeated by the men of Uri and Schwyz. The battle of Morgarten was the first major engagement in which the Swiss deployed the lethal pole-and-axe halberd against cavalrymen, using its hooked blade to drag the enemy’s knights from their mounts and its spiked tip to skewer them. The halberd remains the ceremonial weapon of choice for today’s Pontifical Swiss Guard in the Vatican.

The final blow to Habsburg prestige came in 1356. In that year King Louis’s successor, Charles IV of Luxembourg, who had just been crowned emperor in Rome, published his so-called Golden Bull (named on account of its hanging gold seal or bulla). The Golden Bull contained a new scheme for the election of the ruler, which fastened down the identity of the seven electors—the three archbishops of the Rhineland and four secular lords, who held the office henceforth by right of inheritance. Even though they had participated on several occasions in electing kings, the Habsburgs were omitted from the new college of electors, thus writing them out of the most important constitutional document in the history of the Holy Roman Empire. In the seating plan that he separately drew up for future meetings of the diet, Charles made clear their diminished status, placing the Habsburgs in the second row, behind the electors, senior clergy, and high dignitaries of the empire. The Habsburg response was ideologically devastating and would change forever the way they thought about themselves and their historical role. To counter Charles IV’s insult, they jettisoned their Swabian past and became instead Austrians and Romans.

For the first fifty years of their rule as dukes of Austria, the Habsburgs had regarded the duchy as secondary in importance to their traditional heartland in Swabia. They had milked Austria to fund the defence of their other territories, and they had used it as a starting place for campaigns into Bohemia, which they regarded as the greater prize. It was only after 1330, when Frederick the Fair’s brother, the arthritic Albert the Lame (lived 1298–1358), assumed headship of the family, that the Habsburgs showed any sustained interest in Austria. Since the Swiss continued to press against the Habsburg lands and strongholds in the Aargau, Albert moved his court to Vienna’s Old Fort, in the heart of what has become the Hofburg Palace. Albert also began the construction of a family mausoleum at Gaming in Lower Austria, and he repossessed Carinthia and Carniola, which his grandfather had pawned. Albert’s prolonged stays in Austria earned the Habsburgs the description from one chronicler of ‘the Austrians’, the first time the term was used in this way. Whereas in the past, the Habsburgs had administered Austria through regents, it was now their Swabian possessions that had governors appointed to them.

The Habsburgs may not at first have known what to do with Austria, but Austria knew what to do with the Habsburgs. Originally a borderland called the ‘eastern realm’ (Ostarrîchi—the name first appears in 996), its earliest rulers belonged to the Babenberg family. The Babenbergs aspired to greatness, marrying into the lines of both Holy Roman and Byzantine emperors, on which account they thought of themselves as trustees of the inheritance of Rome. Their conspicuous dedication to the faith was marked by the founding of a dense network of monasteries, in return for which generations of monks wrote their praises. The reputation of the Babenbergs is shown in the soubriquets by which they were recalled—the Illustrious, the Devout, the Glorious, the Strong, and the Holy. Only the last of the Babenberg line, Frederick II (died 1246), had the unhappier nickname of ‘the Quarrelsome.’

Genealogies of the Babenbergs sometimes included quaint descriptions of the countryside and its cities. Little by little, however, a belief in the exceptionalism of the ruling family fused with the conviction that the land and its people were special. A literary tradition arose, which saw the Austrians as descendants of the Goths of classical antiquity, or which proposed an even more illustrious descent from Greek and Roman heroes. The old Roman name for Austria, Noricum, invited the possibility that Austria was founded by Norix, the son of Hercules, who, coming from the lands about Armenia, had invested his heirs with Austria and Bavaria respectively. The Babenberg lands were also home to the Nibelunglied epic, which in its early versions coupled stories taken from Germanic mythology with episodes in the ruling dynasty’s history.

The Habsburgs consumed all of this, adding to the Babenbergs’ religious foundations at Heiligenkreuz and Tulln and enlisting chroniclers and poets to proclaim their own piety. Gradually, the history of the Babenbergs and Habsburgs merged into one, so that the Babenbergs became ancestors to the Habsburgs, in token of which the Habsburgs frequently adopted the Babenberg baptismal name of Leopold. This was important since it harked back to the Babenberg Leopold III, who although not yet a saint had posthumously performed enough miracles to qualify as one. At a time when saintliness added lustre to a family, the Habsburgs were otherwise short of suitable forebears.

The Habsburgs were also swift to discover Roman credentials of their own, promoting their supposed descent from the allegedly senatorial family of Colonna. Chroniclers added to the story, describing how two brothers exiled from ancient Rome had gone north of the Alps, one of whom went on to found Castle Habsburg. Even more imaginatively, the author of the Königsfelden Chronicle interwove his account of the Habsburgs with a Roman inheritance, saintliness, and prophecy. Having enumerated the line of Roman emperors from Augustus to Frederick II, he went on to tell the life of King Rudolf of Habsburg. He then related the biography of Rudolf’s granddaughter Agnes, who after a short time as queen of Hungary had forsaken the world to live next to Königsfelden Abbey, near Brugg. First of all, however, the chronicler rehearsed an old tale of the discovery in Spain of a huge book concealed in a stone, with pages of wood on which was written in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew the entire history of the world, including the time to come and the Last Judgement. The implication was clear—made holy by the devotions of Agnes, the Habsburgs were both destined and foretold to rule as Roman emperors.

The first half-frontal portrait of the Occident. It had been on display above Rudolf’s grave in the Stephansdom of Vienna for several decades after his death, but can now be seen in the Museum of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna. Apart from the (invented) archducal crown, the foreshortening of which the artist did not completely master, the portrait is completely realistic. Even the duke’s incipient facial palsy is shown.

Exceptionalism was in the 1350s transformed into a political programme. Offended and diminished by Charles IV’s Golden Bull, Rudolf of Habsburg (lived 1339–1365) was intent upon both restoring his family’s prestige and welding together a territorial state which outstripped its rivals. He did so with an energy, pace, and imagination that belied his youth and confounded his rivals. Within a few months of the death of his father, Albert the Lame, in 1358, the young Rudolf instructed his scribes to confect five fraudulent charters. Their purpose was to establish the Habsburgs as leading princes in the Holy Roman Empire by melding the Habsburg inheritance with Austria and Rome. Rudolf’s was the most ambitious work of forgery in medieval Europe since the eighth-century Donation of Constantine, which had appointed the pope as the ultimate ruler of Christendom. It was also rather better done.

Of the five charters, three were confirmations of the others, thus textually interlocking the whole deception. The substance of the forgery lay with the first two charters, which are known as the ‘Pseudo-Henry’ and the ‘Greater Privilege.’ The author of the Pseudo-Henry, who was probably Rudolf’s chancellor, pretended that it was a charter issued by Emperor Henry IV in 1054, drawn up to record the contents of two letters in the keeping of Duke Ernest of Babenberg. The first letter was supposedly addressed by Julius Caesar to the people of the ‘eastern land’, by which was plainly meant Austria. Julius Caesar ordered the easterners or Austrians to accept his uncle as their ruler, who was given an absolute power over them as their ‘feudal lord.’ The fake letter also admitted Julius Caesar’s uncle to the innermost counsels of the Roman Empire, ‘so that henceforth no weighty matter or suit be resolved without his knowledge.’ In the other letter contained in the Pseudo-Henry, the emperor Nero similarly addressed the people of the east. Nero declared that because they outstripped in splendour all other peoples of the Roman Empire, he had upon the advice of the senate released them from paying all imperial taxes and awarded them freedom for ever more.

In contrast to the Pseudo-Henry, the Greater Privilege was at least partly authentic, being based upon the text of the charter given by Frederick I Barbarossa in 1156, which had elevated Austria to a duchy. Much, however, was added to the original text. Austria was now acknowledged as the ‘shield and heart’ of the Holy Roman Empire, by virtue of which its duke had full rights within the duchy. The duke was given the title of ‘palatine archduke’, which brought with it a special crown and sceptre and the right to sit at the emperor’s right hand, equal in precedence to the imperial electors. To strengthen the duke’s dominion, he was permitted to pass on the duchy intact to his eldest son and, in the absence of sons, to a daughter. The concocted version was known to posterity as the ‘Greater Privilege’ to distinguish it from the genuine privilege of 1156, which was subsequently called the ‘Lesser Privilege.’

The other three charters which confirmed the Pseudo-Henry and the Greater Privilege added some more points. In formal processions, the archduke, as he had become, and his retinue were always to have first place, and it was permitted that the archducal crown include the fillet or headband of majesty, normally worn by kings beneath their crown. The archbishop of Salzburg and the bishop of Passau, both of whom had jurisdiction over Austria in church matters, were made subject to the archduke. Like the charters that they confirmed, these secondary instruments indicate that Rudolf was not, as is often alleged, moved only by resentment of Charles IV’s Golden Bull of 1356 and so primarily bent on scoring points. With its stress on the archduke’s complete power in Austria, the subordination of the church to him, and the complete inheritability of his office, the forgeries were as much intended to advance the power of the archduke in his own lands as to influence etiquette in the imperial court and the archduke’s own headwear.

The Pseudo-Henry with its letters of Julius Caesar and Nero was almost immediately denounced. The Italian scholar Petrarch wrote to Emperor Charles IV in 1361, highlighting anachronisms in the text and dismissing it as ‘vacuous, bombastic, devoid of truth, conceived by someone unknown but beyond doubt not a man of letters … not only risible but stomach-churning.’ The Greater Privilege, however, fared rather better. Invoked to justify the succession of Maria Theresa to Austria on the death of her father Charles VI in 1740, it was proved to be a forgery only in the mid-nineteenth century. The Donation of Constantine, by contrast, was exposed as fraudulent in the fifteenth century.

In 1360, Rudolf presented the five false charters to Emperor Charles IV for confirmation, interspersing them with seven genuine documents. Charles quibbled over some details, but grudgingly confirmed the whole package, ‘insofar as its provisions be lawful.’ He did not, however, alter the composition of the college of electors or seating arrangements at the diet to accommodate Rudolf’s pretensions. Nevertheless, Rudolf now used the title of archduke and sported the archducal crown he had devised. After some hesitation, both the crown and, more slowly, the title became the style of his successors and, by no later than the mid-fifteenth century, of all senior members of the Habsburg family.

The duchy of Austria, along with the neighbouring duchies of Styria, Carinthia, and Carniola, constituted not so much a defined territory as a bundle of rights. Some properties belonged to the archduke, but others were held independently of him as lands bestowed separately by the monarch. The Greater Privilege had proclaimed the archduke’s absolute authority within Austria, and Rudolf now sought to make good his claims. All lands held of the monarch were transformed into lands that belonged to him, which he alone had the right to distribute. One of the largest holders of imperial lands in Carinthia was the patriarch of Aquileia, whose grand title was a relic of the sixth century, hardly matching the patriarchate’s now puny power. When the patriarch proved obdurate, Rudolf invaded his lands and forced his submission. Even though Alsace had nothing to do with the Greater Privilege, Rudolf extended the same principle there, declaring that his rank meant that he was not the subject but rather ‘the master of all rights and freedoms.’

The archbishop of Salzburg and the bishop of Passau proved harder nuts to crack, for neither was ready to shrink his diocese by giving way to Rudolf’s plan for an Austrian bishopric based in Vienna. Rudolf proceeded, nonetheless, to rebuild St Stephen’s in Vienna as if it were a cathedral rather than just a parish church, replacing the Romanesque nave with a massive Gothic one and planning the construction of two towers (only one was ever built). He gave the church its own chapter of canons, to which it was not entitled since it had no bishop, and he decked the canons out as cardinals, giving them scarlet birettas and gold pectoral crosses. The refashioned church was also intended to celebrate the Habsburg family, so Rudolf placed statues of himself and his forebears around the nave and made the crypt into a mausoleum for his descendants. Beside the church, Rudolf set up a university, which was intended to rival Charles IV’s foundation in Prague. By virtue of his rebuilding of St Stephen’s, Rudolf is known to posterity as ‘the Founder.’ He chose the soubriquet himself and had it carved in magic runes upon his sarcophagus in the north choir of the church.

In the art of deception, Rudolf found an equal. The county of the Tyrol was wealthy from its gold and silver mines and from the tolls of the roads that linked Italy to the German cities on the other side of the Brenner Pass. The Tyrol was held in the early 1360s by the widow Margaret, whose nickname of Maultasch (‘Big Mouth’) is the kindest in a long list of epithets. Previously married to a Luxembourg and then to a Wittelsbach prince, she lost her only surviving son at the beginning of 1363. Tyrol was there for the taking, and there was no lack of contenders. But Margaret was not easy prey. She had physically kicked out her first husband, not bothered with a divorce before marrying her second, put up with excommunication, and tyrannized both her new spouse and her recently deceased son.

Margaret did a deal with Rudolf. In return for allowing her to keep the county during her lifetime, she promised to assign the Tyrol to him in advance. But her ministers, who were also the county’s principal landowners, forced her in January 1363 to agree that all treaties with foreign princes required their consent. Margaret attempted to win them round with gifts of land and other inducements, but without success. Even Rudolf’s personal appearance in the Tyrolean capital of Innsbruck made no difference. To convince the ministers, Margaret and Rudolf concocted together a fake charter. The forgery showed that four years previously Margaret had promised to assign the Tyrol to Rudolf in a solemn deed that could not be retracted. Even though the forged charter used the wrong seal, it was believed. With the January agreement ostensibly voided, Margaret’s ministers gave way, recording their consent in a letter to which they appended their own fourteen seals. By the end of the year, Rudolf had convinced Margaret to abdicate, offering her a wealthy retirement in Vienna. The Tyrol was now his. On the back of the Tyrol later came the county of Gorizia (Görz-Gradisca) on the Adriatic, which belonged to a distant line of Margaret’s family that eventually expired in 1500.

Rudolf died in 1368, at the age of just twenty-five. Since it was high summer and his corpse was decomposing fast, it was boiled to remove the flesh. But his bones were put in the crypt of St Stephen’s and not, as he had planned, in the sarcophagus in the choir. The empty tomb with its runes and life-size effigy of Rudolf wearing the archducal crown stands in some ways as a metaphor for his reign—bombastic and self-promoting, but also hollow. In his lifetime, Rudolf failed to obtain the reputation for himself and the eminence for Austria that he worked and forged for. He won neither the bishopric he wanted nor recognition as the equivalent to an elector. His university, still today named in his honour, comprised just several rooms in a school. It would be his brother who recruited the professors and gave the university proper accommodation. Obtained through subterfuge, the Tyrol was his principal acquisition.

Rudolf’s achievement was, however, a more subtle one. By giving the Habsburgs a historical consciousness and set of beliefs about themselves, Rudolf made them more than just a group of blood relatives. The imagined Roman and Austrian past, with the invented archducal crown and title, inspired a sense of solidarity and purpose among his successors that became more embedded with the passage of each generation. Others might hold the rank of elector by virtue of a modern emperor’s gift, but the Habsburgs owed their eminence to Julius Caesar and to privileges confirmed by successive emperors over the centuries. Even in death, the family was united in the new mausoleum built in St Stephen’s crypt. In the making of the Habsburgs as a dynasty, Rudolf was indeed, as the cryptic message on his empty tomb proclaimed, ‘the founder.’

JOSEPH I (HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE) (1678–1711; ruled 1705–1711)


Habsburg emperor.

Joseph I’s reign was dominated by the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), which pitted Bourbon France and Spain against the ‘‘Grand Alliance’’ led by Austria and the Maritime Powers. Born to Emperor Leopold I and Eleonore of the Palatinate-Neuburg, Joseph’s upbringing was notable for the absence of Jesuit influence and the resurgence of German patriotism during lengthy struggles against France and the Ottoman Empire. In 1699 he married Wilhemine Amalie of Brunswick-Lüneburg, who his parents hoped would tame his youthful excesses, which included wild parties and a string of indiscriminate sexual escapades. He was soon admitted to the privy council, where he became the center of a ‘‘young court’’ of reform minded ministers eager to resolve the daunting financial and military crises that confronted the monarchy during the opening years of the war, which Leopold had entered to secure the far-flung Spanish inheritance for his second son, Archduke Charles (the future Holy Roman emperor Charles VI). Their first victory came in 1703, with the appointments of Prince Eugene of Savoy and Gundaker Starhemberg to head the war council (Hofkriegsrat) and treasury (Hofkammer). Shortly afterward, John Churchill, the duke of Marlborough, was induced to march a British army into southern Germany, where it combined with imperial troops in destroying a Franco-Bavarian force at Blenheim (August 1704).

Although the great victory saved the monarchy from imminent defeat, Joseph had to overcome a succession of new challenges after succeeding his father (5 May 1705), which included the need to wage war on multiple fronts in Germany, the Spanish Netherlands, Italy, the Low Countries, and Spain, while simultaneously suppressing a massive rebellion in Hungary led by Prince Ferenc II Rákóczi. Joseph’s strong German identity informed vigorous initiatives within the empire, including reform of the Imperial Aulic Council (Reichshofrat) and the banning of several renegade German and Italian princes who had sided with the Bourbons. Yet he gave little assistance to the imperial army fighting along the Rhine frontier or to the Maritime Powers campaigning in the Low Countries. Instead, he focused his resources (together with considerable Anglo-Dutch loans) on Italy, which Prince Eugene delivered in a single stroke at the battle of Turin (1706), after which the French evacuated northern Italy, much as they had abandoned Germany after Blenheim. A small force expelled Spanish forces from Naples the following spring. Joseph’s other principal concern was Hungary, where Rákóczi had aroused widespread support against Leopold’s regime of heavy taxation and religious persecution. Although Joseph dissociated himself from his father’s policies and promised to respect Hungary’s liberties, he refused Rákóczi’s demand that he cede Transylvania as a guarantee against future Habsburg tyranny. As a result, the war dragged on for eight years, as Joseph committed roughly half of all Austrian forces to the difficult process of reconquering the country. Once victory was assured, relatively generous terms were granted the rebels at the peace of Szatmár (April 1711), signed just ten days after Joseph’s death.

With Italy secured and the Hungarian rebellion under control, Joseph shifted his attention to the last and least pressing of his war aims—his brother’s acquisition of the rest of Spain’s European and American empire. Prince Eugene and a small force were sent to join Marlborough’s Anglo-Dutch army in the Spanish Netherlands, most of which fell after their victory at Oudenarde (1708). Joseph also instigated a short war with Pope Clement XI at the end of 1709, forcing him to recognize Charles as king of Spain. By 1710, the first Austrian troops were fighting alongside their British, Dutch, and Portuguese allies in Spain itself. Nonetheless, a combination of logistical difficulties, timely French reinforcements, and the Spanish people’s dogged support for the Bourbon claimant, Philip V, doomed the allied effort. Unsuccessful peace negotiations at The Hague (1709) and Gertruydenberg (1710) failed to deliver what the allies could not win for themselves. Finally, a new British cabinet initiated secret peace talks with Louis XIV at the beginning of 1711, foreshadowing the Peace of Utrecht two years later.

Despite his untimely death from smallpox (17 April 1711), Joseph attained his two main objectives: securing an Italian glacis to the southwest and reconciling Hungary to Austrian domination, albeit with constitutional safeguards. Indeed, both achievements endured until 1866. Much of his success rested with a talent for choosing and managing able ministers to whom he could delegate much of the responsibility for realizing policy objectives. At the same time, Joseph jeopardized these gains through extramarital liaisons, which prevented his wife from bearing children after he gave her a venereal infection in 1704. Although he was survived by two daughters, the absence of a male heir foreshadowed the dynasty’s extinction in 1740.

Rudolf of Habsburg and Ottokar II

Rudolf I, Holy Roman Emperor

In the Great Interregnum that lasted from 1250 to 1273, all semblance of government evaporated. Since there was no agreement on who should succeed Frederick II, unlikely outsiders forced an entry. For reasons that even his latest biographer cannot fully explain, the Spanish Alfonso X of Castile put himself forward as ruler, but he never bothered to visit the empire. The rival Richard of Cornwall, younger son of England’s King John, had the broad support of the three archbishops and of the dozen or so lay lords that chose him as their king in 1257. But his interest was to outmanoeuvre the last of the Staufens to make good the fantastical English claim to Sicily. Richard was effective on those four occasions on which he visited the empire, but he stayed too briefly to leave any lasting mark.

The death of Frederick II in 1250 was followed by the wholesale destruction of the Staufen lands, offices, and revenues in Swabia. The Staufen possessions were invaded, and even the imperial lands that the Staufen rulers had held as emperors and not as family estates were seized. What was not taken was often given away by Frederick II’s hard-pressed heirs. Plundering soon gave way to feuding as quarrels arose over the spoils. In the general free-for-all, properties that had never been part of the Staufen patrimony were grabbed, illegal tolls collected, and many minor landowners dispossessed. ‘The days of evil approach, and the evil is growing,’ wrote one chronicler about 1270. Across the pillaged countryside, processions of penitents moved, whipping themselves to appease God’s wrath and rehearsing older heresies.

Foremost among the beneficiaries of the collapse of the Staufens was Count Rudolf of Habsburg (lived 1218–1291). The grandson of Rudolf the Old, Count Rudolf inherited the main body of the Habsburg lands upon the death of his father, Albert the Wise, in 1239. Much he obtained with the semblance of legality, convincing Frederick II’s heirs to assign him lands, revenues, and rights. Even so, he took advantage of the breakdown in authority to rob the widow of the last of the Kiburgs of her dowry. His greed earned him enemies, on which account Rudolf fought no fewer than eight feuds with his rivals. Although feuds were supposed to be conducted according to an etiquette, with days off and due concern shown for the vulnerable, Rudolf was, by his own admission, an insatiable warrior. The contemporary Annals of Basle give us a glimpse of him: in 1269, he slew some knights in Strasbourg; in 1270, he besieged Basle for three days; in 1271, he levied unprecedented taxes, burnt down a monastery, and seized villages; in 1272, he destroyed Tiefenstein Castle and marched on Freiburg, killing and burning the crops on the way; in 1273, he razed the village of Klingen, and so on.

The death of Richard of Cornwall in 1272 gave the electors an opportunity to reconvene and begin at least to consider the restoration of order. Notwithstanding the crowded circumstances of Richard’s election in 1257, it was generally held that there should be seven electors, but quite who they were was uncertain. Under intense pressure from Pope Gregory X, the leading lords of the empire agreed in advance that the vote should be unanimous, for a split threatened to throw the country into civil war. The problem was that there was no obvious candidate for the throne.

Holy Roman Empire was the king of Bohemia, Ottokar II

The most powerful prince in the Holy Roman Empire was the king of Bohemia, Ottokar II. He sought to become ruler of the Holy Roman Empire and considered that, since Bohemia was a part of the empire, he should have a vote for the next king of the Romans. But Ottokar was widely distrusted, and his Slavonic ancestry was invoked as a disqualification, on which account the duke of Bavaria took his place as an elector. Among the other great lords, there was not much interest in the office. For more than two centuries, the office of sovereign had been caught up with the politics of Swabia and the neighbouring duchy of Franconia, to such an extent that these two duchies were now considered synonymous with imperial affairs. Brandenburg and the Saxon duchies were remote from this heartland, and their rulers preoccupied with their own affairs and with expansion eastwards. The Wittelsbach dukes of Bavaria and the Palatinate were brothers, who were sufficiently at odds to sabotage each other’s interests.

There was no-one, therefore, among the electors with either the interest or support to muster a unanimous vote. Rudolf of Habsburg seized the opportunity. His interest was precisely the one that dissuaded others: the connection between the imperial office and the south-western part of the Holy Roman Empire, into which the Habsburgs were already expanding. But there was more to his ambition than just territorial politics. As the godson of Emperor Frederick II, Rudolf considered himself next in line to the throne, now that all of Frederick’s natural heirs had died. He was, moreover, the greatest lord in Swabia, which was the home of the Staufen rulers, and thus uniquely qualified to pursue the succession. In this respect, he stood not as an outsider but as the ‘continuity candidate.’

As far as the electors were concerned, Rudolf was a good choice. He was already fifty-five years old and so an improbable threat in the long term. Having pilfered from the Staufen lands, Rudolf was unlikely to demand that the lands that the other great lords had seized be returned. Cynical considerations aside, Rudolf looked the part. He was tall—one account gives his height at seven feet, at a time when the German Fuss was slightly longer than today’s British foot (30.48 cm)—and his appearance was distinctive. As one jibe put it, his nose was long enough to obstruct the traffic. Moreover, at a time when most princes only talked about going on crusade, Rudolf had actually taken the cross, fighting during the 1250s in the fastnesses along the Baltic shore against the pagan Prussians (albeit as penance for having burnt down a nunnery). Rudolf was elected in Aachen on 29 September 1273 and crowned the next month with the royal diadem.

Contemporaries recorded several scores of anecdotes about Rudolf, pointing to his wit, courage, piety, and wisdom. Doubtless, many of these emanated from Rudolf’s propaganda, but they hint at a man of exuberant character, who was the very reverse of how his tame clerks chose to depict him—‘as moderate in his eating and drinking and in all things.’ The most important lesson he had learned from a lifetime of soldiering and rapine, however, was patience and strategy, in which respect it may be no accident that he also played chess. The speech he gave immediately after his coronation in Aachen was a masterpiece of contrived modesty: ‘Today, I forgive all those wrongs that have been done to me, release the prisoners suffering in my gaols, and I promise from now on to be a defender of peace in the land, just as I was before a rapacious man of war.’

Rudolf was so far only a king. To become emperor, he needed to be crowned by the pope in Rome. Even so, Rudolf spoke in elevated terms of ‘We and the Empire’, and he added to his title the phrase that would remain a part of the ruler’s style until the nineteenth century—‘forever an enlarger of the Empire.’ Rudolf also stuck pretty much true to his coronation address. He settled his feuds, albeit on terms advantageous to himself, and joined with the cities of the Rhineland to eliminate the brigands’ nests in the Rhine valley. The ruins of Sooneck Castle, near Rüdesheim, although partly rebuilt in the neo-Gothic style of the nineteenth century, still bear witness to the order he brought; likewise the legend of how Rudolf hanged the robber knights of nearby Reichenstein, with the wood from their gallows being recycled to build a chapel, where masses were said for their souls.

No less significant was Rudolf’s reorganization of the administration in the service of order. Many rulers had previously proclaimed a ‘peace of the land’, prohibiting all violence, and had ordained harsh penalties for any violation. Few, however, had established adequate mechanisms to police it, with the result that feuding and the ‘law of the fist’ had soon returned. Rudolf, however, linked the peace of the land to the appointment of ‘protectors of the land’ or Landvogts, who were charged with maintaining order by military means. In order to provide the cash for them, Rudolf ordered in 1274 a general tax on all the cities of the empire, which he repeated eight years later. The division of the empire into regions, each of which was responsible for maintaining a local peace, prefigured what became after 1500 the system of ‘imperial circles’ and of an institution of law enforcement that would last until the nineteenth century.

The Landvogts were not only charged with the maintenance of order but with the recovery of all imperial lands that had been given away after 1245. The policy, backed up by force, was implemented with moderate success in Swabia and neighbouring Franconia. The properties so recovered went straight to Rudolf, since he, as king, was considered their rightful owner. Rudolf, however, neither relinquished the imperial lands that he had merged into his own private domain nor surrendered the other territories that he had seized illegally. Nor did he think it worthwhile to inflame relations with the Wittelsbach dukes of Bavaria and the Palatinate by obliging them to disgorge the properties that they had seized.

The programme of recovering the lost imperial lands extended to legal rights and entitlements. None had infringed upon these more than King Ottokar of Bohemia (lived circa 1232–1278). While still heir apparent to the Bohemian throne, Ottokar had occupied the duchy of Austria, which had fallen vacant upon the death in 1246 of the last of the Babenberg line, Duke Frederick II. Ottokar had rested his claim upon the invitation of the Austrian nobility, and it does seem that he had a good measure of support in the duchy. To cement his rule, Ottokar married Duke Frederick’s sister, Margaret. Margaret had form. She had previously been married to the son of Emperor Frederick II, the leper Henry, and upon widowhood had become a nun, but she had relinquished the cloister to argue her own claim to the dukedom of Austria. Nearly fifty, she was almost thirty years older than Ottokar. Besides the obvious problem that no heir could come of their union, Ottokar had a further difficulty. As an imperial fief, Austria should have reverted to the crown upon the expiry of the Babenberg line and been apportioned to whomever the ruler chose. Notwithstanding the decision of the Austrian nobles and his own marriage, the duchy did not belong to Ottokar.

In the decades that followed, Ottokar extended his rule to Styria, which had previously been occupied by the Hungarian king, and to the neighbouring duchies of Carinthia and Carniola, both of which he claimed by a dubious right of inheritance. He also became king of Bohemia in 1253 upon the death of his father. The issue of the Babenberg inheritance remained, however, unresolved. Richard of Cornwall had in 1262 recognized Ottokar as the rightful heir, but Richard’s rule was contested, and what little influence remained to him vanished after his final departure for England in 1269. Moreover, Ottokar had after a few years of marriage repudiated Margaret and taken instead as his wife a sixteen-year-old Hungarian princess. The toothsome Kunigunda gave Ottokar the heir he wanted but was of no value in prosecuting Ottokar’s rights to Austria.

Ottokar was not only a usurper but also dangerous. In terms of territory, he was foremost in the empire, ruling a bloc of lands that reached across its eastern flank. His wealth was prodigious, being mostly derived from his Bohemian mines and from the lucrative mints he owned. His treasure lay, according to a contemporary account, piled up in four strong castles, and amounted to no less than two hundred thousand silver marks and eight hundred golden marks, held in coin, plate, and jewel-encrusted goblets. Ottokar’s annual income from Bohemia is further estimated at around a hundred thousand silver marks, to which may be added an equivalent sum from his Austrian possessions. To put these figures in context, the entire income of the archbishop of Cologne amounted at this time to fifty thousand silver marks and of the duke of Bavaria to twenty thousand of the same. The imperial revenues consisted then of just seven thousand silver marks. Rudolf’s celebrated remark that he had no need to employ an imperial treasurer because all he had was five shillings in bad coin was not entirely fanciful, nor the contemporary description of Ottokar as ‘the Golden King.’

Like Rudolf, Ottokar had also taken the cross—not once but twice—and the crusading Teutonic Knights of the north had named in his honour the city he helped found on the Baltic shore, Königsberg (literally ‘King’s Mountain’, now Kaliningrad in Russia). For Ottokar, Rudolf was a nobody who was unworthy of the royal title—and Ottokar did not hesitate to tell the pope so. Ottokar had opposed Rudolf’s election and continued to claim that it was illegal, since he had been denied a vote. Publicly, Ottokar flaunted his ambition, imitating in the style of his correspondence the forms of imperial charters and using the imperial eagle as one of his own devices. Although Bohemia was, like Austria, a fief of the empire, Ottokar ignored this, proclaiming that he held power not of the ruler but ‘by the grace of God, by whom kings reign and princes rule.’

Rudolf outmanoeuvred Ottokar. He reconciled himself with his enemies, binding them to him by marriages to his daughters, of whom he had no fewer than six to spare. He also presented Ottokar’s actions as a slight not against him but against the dignity of the Holy Roman Empire. Shortly after his election as king, Rudolf persuaded a court diet to condemn Ottokar’s retention of land that belonged by right to the empire. When Ottokar refused to submit to the diet’s decision, he was put under a ban of outlawry, which in the contemporary description reduced him to the status of a wild bird (Vogelfrei)—to be cared for by nobody, forced to dwell in the woods, and even killed at will. To press home the point, the archbishop of Mainz excommunicated Ottokar, absolved his subjects of their oaths of allegiance to him, and forbade the celebration of the sacraments in Bohemia. Throughout Ottokar’s kingdom, religious life came to a halt.

Rudolf bided his time, enlarging the number of his allies and fomenting rumours—that the pope had also excommunicated the Golden King; that Ottokar had banished his ten-year-old daughter to a nunnery to prevent her marrying one of Rudolf’s sons; that a hermit had dreamt of a sphinx, which had prophesied Ottokar’s imminent defeat, and so on. Finally, in the late summer of 1276, Rudolf struck, attacking down the Danube and not into Bohemia, as Ottokar had expected. Faced with rebellions at home and with his enemies already in Vienna, Ottokar capitulated. A contemporary chronicle describes how Ottokar, resplendent in his finery, submitted to Rudolf. Rudolf received the Golden King dressed only in the cheapest clothing, saying, ‘Often has he mocked my grey mantle, let him mock it now!’ Ottokar prostrated himself before Rudolf, who sat on a stool, and received back from him the Bohemian kingdom as a fief, but he did not recover his Austrian lands, which Rudolf instead conferred on himself.

The image of the overmighty and overjewelled king humbling himself before his meanly dressed adversary is a medieval trope intended to show Rudolf’s humility. Plainly, though, Ottokar had no intention of keeping faith with Rudolf. Once returned to Bohemia, he used his wealth to suborn Rudolf’s former allies and to foment discontent with Habsburg rule in Austria. Warfare recommenced in the summer of 1278, with Rudolf relying extensively on troops obtained from Hungary. The two armies met at Dürnkrut, forty kilometres (twenty-five miles) north-east of Vienna. With about ten thousand troops Rudolf’s army was numerically the larger, but most of his forces were light cavalry and infantry. So Rudolf resorted to subterfuge. Breaking the conventions of chivalry, which saw ruses on the battlefield as shameful, Rudolf hid his reserve of several hundred armoured knights. At a critical moment, they flung themselves on the enemy’s flank, routing Ottokar’s army and slaying the Bohemian king. Rudolf’s troops violated the dead king’s body, hacking at it as they stripped off the costly armour.

To ensure that no pretenders emerged claiming to be Ottokar, Rudolf had the Bohemian king’s remains eviscerated to delay putrefaction and put them on public display in Vienna for more than six months. The next year, in 1279, the corpse was carried to Bohemia, eventually to be interred in Prague’s St Vitus’s Cathedral, where it remains to this day. It is housed beneath a fourteenth-century effigy of the king that has been described in the secret language of German art historians as dumpf-erregt, which might just about be translated as ‘lumpishly animated.’ Rudolf, however, did not take possession of the Bohemian kingdom, reckoning it a hopeless entanglement, but instead married his last unwed daughter to Ottokar’s son and heir, the habitually dissolute Wenceslas II.

The remainder of Rudolf’s reign up until his death in 1291 was marked by failure. He did not manage to have himself crowned emperor by the pope but had to make do with the title of king. Like all his predecessors, he also failed to establish a hereditary monarchy in the Holy Roman Empire. Instead, he had to make do with packing the number of electors with princes whose loyalty he thought he had secured by marriage into his own family. Rudolf’s attempt to reestablish the duchy of Swabia for his heirs likewise came unstuck, not least because all but one of his four sons predeceased him.

In Dante’s Purgatory, written in the early fourteenth century, Rudolf and Ottokar are spotted together in ‘the valley of negligent princes’, which is reserved for monarchs who in return for worldly glory have disregarded their souls. Ottokar comforts Rudolf there. The epic clash between Rudolf and the Golden King determined more, however, than just their individual fates. The capture of the Austrian lands made Rudolf master of a large chunk of Central Europe and transformed the fortunes of the Habsburgs. With a solid body of territory in the east to add to the family’s Swabian lands, the Habsburgs looked ready to refashion the Holy Roman Empire, converting their private resources into public power and giving government. But it was a false dawn, both for the Holy Roman Empire and for the Habsburgs.

Austerlitz Campaign I

Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz, by François Gérard

The French concentrated around the Rhine from early to mid-September. 210,000 troops of the Grande Armée prepared to cross into Germany and encircle the Austrians.

The small Bavarian town of Wertingen had rarely figured very prominently in German history. A sleepy place south of the Danube about twenty-five miles north-west of Augsburg, it had for most of its life remained a quiet backwater. In the War of the Spanish Succession two mighty armies had clashed with one another a few miles away on the other side of the Danube at Blenheim, but few ripples of that conflict had reached the local peasants and townsfolk. Equally, in August 1796 French troops from Moreau’s Army of the Rhine and Moselle had passed through the town en route for Augsburg, but there had been no fighting, and the town had also escaped seeing any action in the campaign of 1800. On 8 October 1805, however, Wertingen was suddenly pitchforked into the very heart of Europe’s affairs. Late the previous night it had without warning been occupied by about 5,000 men of the Austrian Army of the Danube under Baron Franz Auffenberg. Sent to the area to investigate rumours that enemy troops had crossed the Danube east of the Austrian base of Ulm, the troops were cooking their midday meal when suddenly news arrived that a large French force was approaching from the north-west. A pot-pourri of units that was a perfect representative of the polyglot Austrian army – Germans from the infantry regiments of Chasteler, Spork, and Kaunitz rubbed shoulders with Czechs from those of Stuart and Württemberg, Poles from that of Reuss-Greitz and Hungarians from that of Jellacic – the white-coated Habsburg troops rushed to form up, but it was too late. With over 8,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry, led by Marshals Murat and Lannes, the French fell upon the unfortunate Auffenberg without more ado. Fighting bravely, his men put up a fierce stand around Wertingen itself, but it was to no avail: by the end of the afternoon over 3,000 men had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner for the loss of perhaps 200 Frenchmen.

Unimportant though it was, this brief action set the scene for the next two years. In a series of outstanding campaigns, Napoleon was to overrun central Europe at the head of his grande armée, and inflict defeat after defeat on armies of the ancien régime that seemingly had no answer to his men, his methods and his genius. But the triumphs which for the rest of the Napoleonic age were to adorn the standards of so many French regiments were not just the result of superior tactics, organization or generalship. The French war-machine was anything but perfect in 1805, while Napoleon was quite capable of making serious errors. At the moment when Lannes and Murat collided with Auffenberg at Wertingen, for example, the emperor thought that the army of General Mack lay ahead of the grande armée to the south-east, rather than far to its right at Ulm. Equally, in 1805 much of the French cavalry was poorly mounted and cut a poor figure in the face of that of the Austrians and Russians. It is therefore important to remember that many other factors were crucial in the dramatic events of 1805-7. Thanks to Napoleon, the French state was far better able to sustain an offensive war than had ever been the case in the 1790s. But also important was the diplomatic context to Napoleon’s wars. From the very beginning the Third Coalition was a mismanaged and ill-coordinated venture, while resistance to the emperor was constantly undermined by the continuing belief of many European statesmen that the ‘great game’ of conventional eighteenth-century power politics was still in operation. As they were about to learn, nothing could be further from the truth.

A number of British statesmen had been unenthusiastic about seeking continental allies for fear that to do so would simply be to hand Napoleon fresh victories. Although a coalition was in the end vital to Great Britain, in the short term they were proven entirely right. For Napoleon, the end of the impasse on the Channel coast in all probability came as a great relief. Until the very last minute invasion appears to have been his intention: not only did he fly into a violent rage when news arrived that Villeneuve had made for Cádiz rather than the Channel (see below), but the troops were plucked from the midst of incessant amphibious exercises. ‘Twenty times’, wrote an artillery officer, Baron Hulot, ‘in the fifteen days that followed [the emperor’s] return [to Boulogne on 3 August 1805] I went down to . . . Calais or Dunkirk to . . . supervise the embarkation of the artillery.’ Yet there remained enormous obstacles that Napoleon cannot have been blind to even if he would not admit to them in public. Despite prodigious expenditure, the ports around which the grande armée was encamped were still insufficient to get all the troops to sea in a single tide, while the disaster of 20 July 1804 was anything but reassuring. In short, the French were simply not ready to make the attempt even if they could obtain the necessary naval superiority. And Napoleon knew it: as he observed to one of his aides-de-camp on 4 August, ‘This invasion is by no means a certainty.’ Yet nor could the ‘camp of Boulogne’ be maintained for very much longer. As the months dragged on, so the problem of boredom became ever more acute. As Raymond de Fezensac, a young ci-devant who had enlisted in the 59me Régiment d’Infanterie de Ligne as a gentleman volunteer in 1804 and went on to become an aide-de-camp to Marshal Ney, remembered of the soldiers, ‘Sleeping . . . singing songs, telling stories, getting into arguments over nothing, reading the few bad books that they managed to procure; this was their life.’ Nor, meanwhile, did the waiting suit Napoleon himself. Organizing the invasion was a project that had taken years and, dreams of winning control of the Channel notwithstanding, could well take many years more. How much longer could a fresh injection of martial glory be delayed?

The emergence of the Third Coalition came as manna from heaven, particularly as France was in the grip of a serious financial crisis brought on by heavy government borrowing and the slow manner in which the regime had been paying the numerous contractors engaged in the construction of the invasion flotillas. And, if any further pretext was required, on 23 August news arrived at Boulogne that there would be a further lengthy delay before the invasion flotilla could sail. Its only hope of success had been that the French and Spanish squadrons scattered around the coast of Europe from Toulon to Brest might somehow slip through the British blockade and either unite in the West Indies, thereby forcing the Royal Navy to leave the Channel unguarded, or else join together for a desperate struggle off the British coast itself. By 1805 it was the former plan that was in the ascendant and at the end of March the Toulon squadron had succeeded in dodging the British blockade, escaping through the Straits of Gibraltar and reaching the island of Martinique. No other ships succeeded in joining them there, however, and, with Nelson bearing down upon him, the French commander, Admiral Villeneuve, eventually decided to sail back to Europe in the hope of uniting with France’s other main battle squadrons, which were trapped in Brest and Rochefort. Encountering a British squadron off Finisterre, he was driven into port at El Ferrol. Here he might yet have accomplished much – there was a substantial Spanish squadron at Ferrol while the French ships at Rochefort had managed to get out of port in the confusion – but a mixture of disillusionment, misapprehension and muddle caused Villeneuve to flee for the safety of Cádiz, whither he was followed by the largest force the British could muster. Even more ominously, command of this force was given to the hero of Aboukir and Copenhagen, Horatio Nelson, a leader who radiated aggression and self-confidence, inspired absolute devotion amongst his subordinates, and united tactical genius with a savage hatred of the enemy.

All this left Napoleon both furious and disgusted. As Ségur recounts, even the relatively innocuous news that Villeneuve had taken shelter at El Ferrol provoked an explosion:

It was about four o’clock in the morning of August 13th that the news was brought to the emperor . . . Daru was summoned and on entering he gazed on his chief in utter astonishment. He told me afterwards that he looked perfectly wild, that his hat was thrust down to his eyes, and that his whole aspect was terrible. As soon as he saw Daru he rushed up and thus apostrophized him; ‘Do you know where that fool of a Villeneuve is now? He is at Ferrol. Do you know what that means? At Ferrol? You do not know? He has been beaten; he has gone to hide himself . . . That is the end of it: he will be blocked up there. What a navy! What an admiral! What useless sacrifices!’ And, becoming more and more excited, he walked up and down the room for about an hour giving vent to his justifiable anger in a torrent of bitter reproaches and sorrowful reflections.

That Napoleon was aggrieved that two years had been lost there was no doubt. But he was soon happily making the best of a bad job: ‘Well,’ he said, ‘if we must give that up, we will at any rate hear the Midnight Mass at Vienna.’ No sooner had he spent his rage at Villeneuve’s retreat to Ferrol, indeed, than he is supposed to have sat Daru down and dictated the plan of campaign that, exactly as he had predicted, saw him reach Vienna by Christmas. Before telling that story, we must first wrap up matters naval, however.

With the invasion attempt definitively abandoned, Napoleon might have done best to leave Villeneuve’s fleet in port. However, perturbed by Sir James Craig’s expedition to the Mediterranean, the emperor ordered him to make for Naples so as to put ashore the 4,000 troops who had been attached to his squadron and assist St Cyr in the task of overawing Ferdinand IV. Despite the fact that neither his own ships nor the Spanish squadron stationed in Cádiz were remotely fit for battle, the French admiral realized that compliance was the only hope of saving his career – Napoleon had in fact dispatched Admiral Rosily to replace him – and on 20 October he put to sea. Alongside him sailed fifteen Spanish men-of-war, commanded by Admiral Federico Gravina. The presence of these forces provides a useful opportunity to discuss the relationship that had developed between France and Spain since the latter’s forced re-entry into the conflict in November 1804. In brief, Franco-Spanish relations were extremely poor. Initially, the royal favourite and dominant figure in the regime, Manuel de Godoy, had affected enthusiasm for the war. In this, he may even have been genuine: once hostilities had become inevitable there was, after all, no barrier to dreams of retaking Gibraltar or seizing a slice of Portugal. But the fact is that Spain had little choice: Britain was clearly bent on making war on her, while Napoleon made it quite clear to the Spanish ambassador to Paris – none other than the same Admiral Gravina – that any other response than military action would incur great displeasure on his part.

On 9 January 1805, then, a convention had been signed whereby the Spaniards promised to arm naval squadrons at El Ferrol, Cádiz and Cartagena by the end of March. At first all went well enough: by a variety of means Napoleon encouraged Godoy to believe that Spain would indeed be permitted to move against Portugal and in response the favourite threw himself into the task of readying the Spanish navy for war. Much was achieved: six ships-of-the-line were able to join Villeneuve from Cádiz when he sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Atlantic in April after escaping from Toulon, while strenuous efforts, not least on the financial front, had by the same date got another twelve ready in the other two naval bases mentioned in the convention. Naturally enough, these efforts, which had been made in the face of considerable opposition in the ministry and the naval establishment, persuaded Godoy that he was entitled to some reward and, in particular, to make use of Spain’s forces to pursue military objectives of interest to Madrid. One obvious possibility was an attack on Gibraltar and another a descent on one or other of Britain’s possessions in the Caribbean. To Napoleon, however, such designs were of no account, and the unfortunate Godoy found that he was expected to commit all Spain’s forces to the invasion of Britain. Still worse, it appeared that what Spain had achieved thus far was not enough: Napoleon not only wanted more ships mobilized than the Spaniards had promised, but was in effect demanding the transfer of a number of additional vessels to the French navy.

In the event this particular spectre did not become a reality, but neither did Godoy’s dreams of territorial acquisitions. On the contrary, these were pointedly ignored: no fewer than three attempts to interest Napoleon in a march on Lisbon received no response whatsoever. Only when it became clear that the Portuguese, for all their neutrality, remained loyal to their traditional friendship with Britain did Napoleon take an interest in the subject and even then Godoy’s hopes were soon dashed. Given the emergence of the Third Coalition, Napoleon no longer had any troops to spare for Portugal and began to speak in terms of the Spaniards sending troops to Italy or even Germany. An angry Godoy therefore began to drag his feet in Madrid. He was deeply conscious of the faulty state of many of the ships, the tactical superiority of the British and Spain’s chronic shortage of trained manpower. In recent years this had been exacerbated by successive epidemics of yellow fever that had killed many thousands of people in the coastal communities of Andalucía – in Málaga alone, there were 6,343 deaths between 22 August and 1 October 1804. Told that new orders had arrived, laying down that the combined squadron should sail for Naples and add the many soldiers embarked on Villeneuve’s ships to St Cyr’s army, in Cádiz Gravina and his officers fiercely opposed leaving port. Only through accusations of cowardice coupled with news that Nelson had detached a part of his squadron to replenish its supplies were they got to sea at all, and when they did so the results were much as both they (and, in fairness, Villeneuve) feared. Though somewhat outnumbered by his opponents, Nelson closed in immediately and attacked the French and Spaniards off Cape Trafalgar. Sailing in two parallel lines, the British fleet cut the straggling Franco-Spanish array into several different fragments, and then battered it to pieces. Nelson, of course, was killed, but the combined fleet was broken beyond repair – of its thirty-three men-of-war, eighteen were lost and most of the rest crippled.

Trafalgar’s significance is a matter of some dispute. In the short term it mattered little: Britain had already escaped the threat of invasion, and it did nothing to affect events in central Europe. Nor did it permanently establish the fact of British naval predominance, for the French shipyards were over the years able to make up Villeneuve’s losses and force the British to continue to commit immense resources to the naval struggle. All that can be said for certain is that, despite much bluster, Napoleon never again attempted to launch a frontal assault against Britain: henceforth victory would have to be attained by some form of economic warfare. In that sense, then, Trafalgar may be said to have changed the whole course of the war, for Napoleon was now set to embark on a course of action that carried with it at the very least the risk of pitching France against the whole of the rest of the Continent. And, for those with eyes to see, Trafalgar showed very clearly that there could be no partnership with Napoleon. Having been forced to enter the war against their will, the Spaniards found their strategic interests and their resources ruthlessly commandeered to serve France’s interests. A substantial portion of their remaining naval strength – the central pillar of their colonial empire – had in effect been thrown away on a futile plan to send a few thousand extra soldiers to overawe a state that was not just friendly to Spain but situated in a secondary theatre of operations. Already under great pressure, Godoy’s credit on the home front was squandered and with it a financial effort that had quite literally emptied Spain’s coffers: among other measures, a loan of million florins had had to be taken out in Holland to finance the fleet’s mobilization.

Austerlitz Campaign II

The Capitulation of Ulm by Charles Thévenin,
where General Mack and 23,000 Austrian troops surrendered to Napoleon

The strategic situation from 11 to 14 October. The French hurl themselves westwards to capture the Austrian army.

To talk of Trafalgar in this fashion is possibly to speak with the benefit of hindsight. But for Napoleon, the news was still irritating enough: hearing of the battle he supposedly ‘started up full of rage, exclaiming, “I cannot be everywhere!” ’. This is understandable enough, for Trafalgar constituted a considerable blow to his prestige. Yet marching through southern Germany, he was infinitely better off than he might have been. Let us here quote Pasquier:

What would have become of [Napoleon] if, having disembarked on the English coast with the élite of his forces, he had only kept control of the sea for a short time. What would have become of France had the great Austrian army commanded by the Archduke Charles marched across Bavaria and appeared on the banks of the Rhine? Given that there would not have been sufficient forces to put up an effective resistance, they would probably have got across and France would then have been invaded . . . In the face of that situation, the only answer would have been the one that he himself made to several people who dared to raise the possibility with him. ‘If the invasion had succeeded, such would have been the enthusiasm in France that the women and children of Strasbourg could have thrown back the Austrians by themselves.’ Is that answer not rather more clever than it is to the point?

As it was, the French experienced not tragedy but triumph. The allied plans had initially seemed threatening indeed. In the first place, the array of enemies facing France had grown yet again. The Franco-Neapolitan treaty of alliance, or strictly speaking, of neutrality, had originated in strategic considerations relating to the military situation in Italy: Masséna was badly outnumbered in the north, whilst St Cyr’s troops were scattered across the centre and south of the Italian peninsula in a number of small detachments and, in consequence, wide open to attack. Pulling them out in order to reinforce the French forces in Lombardy therefore made a great deal of sense, the only means of keeping Naples in line therefore being an agreement of some sort. No sooner had the resultant treaty of 9 October been signed than St Cyr got his men on the road. On this occasion, however, French policy failed. Freed from the threat of reprisals, the Neapolitans denounced their agreement with Paris, appealed for Anglo-Russian protection and mobilized their army. In the wake of this development a veritable war of encirclement threatened France. Linked by 53,000 troops in the Tyrol, 90,000 Austrians would invade northern Italy and 140,000 Bavaria, while 100,000 Russians marched to their aid. Joined by an Anglo-Russian army of 40,000 men which was being concentrated in the Mediterranean, the Neapolitans would threaten France’s southern flank, whilst 50,000 seaborne British, Russians and Swedes liberated Hanover and went on to assault Holland. Last but not least, 50,000 further Russians were to be dispatched to galvanize the Prussians into action and join with them in a victorious march across Germany. In short, over 500,000 men would join together in a concentric advance against a French force that, even counting the forces of Napoleon’s satellites, seemed unlikely to amount to much more than 350,000. Nor were operations neglected in the wider world, the end of August seeing a small British expedition taking ship to evict the Dutch from their strategically placed colony at the Cape of Good Hope.

Imposing as this array seemed, matters were by no means as one-sided as at first appeared. Sometimes described as the most proficient army the world has ever seen, the grande armée was not without its problems. For one thing, it was so short of horses that some of its cavalry had actually to fight as infantrymen. For another, it is certainly possible to question the received wisdom that its men had spent all their time at the ‘camp of Boulogne’ being drilled and trained without let-up. Some accounts do speak as if this was the case: ‘The troops assembled there’, wrote Emile de Saint-Hilaire, ‘were occupied and disciplined in the style of the Romans; every hour had its own job and the soldiers were forever swapping their muskets for their pickaxes.’ Much the same sort of thing, meanwhile, is recorded by Hulot: ‘Everywhere one saw nothing but parades, simulations of attack and defence, forced marches and changes of bivouac. This spectacle filled us all with the same impression: woe be to the foreigner who is set about by such an army!’ But other memories were less sanguine. To quote Fezensac, for example, ‘The regiment was rarely assembled to manoeuvre in line. There were one or two excursions – simple route marches that approximated to the sort of distance one might cover in the course of an easy day in the field – a few rounds of target practice conducted without any method, and that was about it: no training for our skirmishers, no bayonet practice . . . no attempt to construct the simplest work of fortification.’ Whether the army was ever quite the disciplined machine that it has been made out to be is therefore a moot point. Nor were its logistical capacities up to the task of supplying the troops, who not only suffered all the rigours of campaigning, but all too often went hungry. To quote Fezensac’s memories of the march into Germany:

This short campaign was a summary of all that was to follow. The excessive fatigue, the want of supplies, the rigours of the season, the disorders committed by marauders, nothing was wanting . . . The brigades and even the regiments were often dispersed and orders to get them to a certain place often arrived late as they had to pass through many different hands. The result was that my regiment often had to march day and night, and for the first time I saw men sleeping as they marched, which is something that I would never have believed possible. In this fashion, we would arrive at the position we were supposed to occupy but without having had anything to eat or drink. Marshal Berthier, the chief of staff, had written that in the war of invasion planned by the emperor, there would be no magazines with the result that generals would have to provide for their men from the countries through which they passed. However, the generals had neither the time nor the means . . . to feed so numerous an army. As the countryside found out in the most cruel fashion, what this amounted to was to authorize pillage, and yet for the whole length of that campaign we did not suffer any the less from hunger . . . The bad weather made our sufferings even worse. A cold rain fell, and sometimes wet snow in which we waded up to our knees, while such was the wind that we could never light a fire. The sixteenth of October in particular – the day when M. Phillippe de Ségur waited upon Mack with the first demand that he surrender – the weather was so awful that nobody stayed at their post. There were neither pickets nor sentries . . . [and] everyone sought such shelter as he could. At no other moment, except in the campaign in Russia, did I suffer so much or see the army in such disarray.

For all their problems, the French did possess many advantages. From Napoleon downwards, the men at the head of the army represented the very cream of revolutionary generalship. Officers and men alike were on the whole veterans of some years’ service; the army’s tactical system was more adaptable than that of its continental opponents; and Napoleon had greatly improved upon the organizational model that he had inherited from the Republic through the establishment of army corps and the concentration of part of the artillery and cavalry into special reserves of great fighting power. Able as a result to move very fast, operate on a broad front that facilitated attempts at envelopment, display an extraordinary level of flexibility and hit very hard on the actual battlefield, the army also enjoyed high morale. Spirits were lifted by the simple fact that the men were on the move at last: Hulot described feeling ‘sincere joy’; newly commissioned as an officer, Fezensac remembered, ‘I was delighted to make war’; while Jean-Baptiste Barrès wrote, ‘We left Paris quite content to go campaigning . . . War was the one thing I wanted.’

This spirit of confidence and enthusiasm was the fruit of much cos-setting. Ever since 1799 Napoleon had done all that he could to cultivate the army. Parades and reviews were a constant feature of public life; the new flags now carried by each regiment were inscribed with gold letters spelling out the personal relationship between the emperor and his soldiers; the extensive employment of generals as ambassadors was a clear statement of the intimate connection between Napoleon, French foreign policy and the military; and the vast majority of recipients of the Legion of Honour – the new decoration instituted by Napoleon for services to the state – proved to be members of the armed forces. Nor was the Legion of Honour the only reward open to the emperor’s followers. Few soldiers could aspire to rise so far – only twenty-six men ever received the title – but the glittering figures of Masséna, Murat, Ney, Lannes, Augereau and the other marshals of the empire served as living object lessons in what could be achieved by courage and devotion. Showered with estates, they became fabulously wealthy. As yet the greatest glory still lay in the future. But even so the result was a mood of real excitement. To quote Elzéar Blaze:

None but a soldier of that period can conceive what spell there was in the uniform. What lofty expectations inflamed all the young heads on which a plume of feathers waved for the first time! Every French soldier carries in his cartouche-box his truncheon of marshal of France; the only question is how to get it out.

Nor was it just a case of promotion. In his field garb of plain grey overcoat and unadorned black tricorn, the emperor looked the very epitome of the common soldier of the Revolution – his nickname, after all, was ‘the little corporal’ – and he was always displaying the affability, simplicity and familiarity of manner that invoked such love amongst the troops. To cite just one of the stories told of him at this time, a private soldier suddenly stepped out in front of Napoleon’s horse to present him with a petition. Badly startled, the mount shied, and Napoleon flew into a rage, striking the man with his whip. Almost immediately, though, he collected himself and made the soldier a sergeant on the spot.

Thus far we see only a force of the sort that the American scholar John Lynn referred to as ‘an army of honour’ – an army whose members sought to advance their own interests and were concerned only with their own status and prestige. Yet despite the eclipse of overtly Republican generals such as Moreau and Pichegru – who were either dead or in exile – and the cult of imperial glory in which the army was the centrepiece, many of the soldiers continued to persuade themselves that they were fighting, if not for the Republic, then at least for its ideals. In this they were encouraged by Napoleon. The very first bulletin of the campaign calls the army ‘only the advance guard of the people’. Inspired by such language, many soldiers could believe, along with Charles Parquin, that the army’s goals remained ‘the great ideals of the French Revolution – the ideals of liberty, of unity and of the future – which, as everyone knows, the emperor Napoleon personified’. As proof of the depth of feeling that underlay such comments one has only to point to the particular hatred with which many soldiers regarded the Catholic Church. Wherever popular resistance was encountered – in other words in Spain, Portugal, the Tyrol and southern Italy – it was the Church that got the blame, and the Church that paid the price. ‘It was the monks who did most to make war against us,’ wrote one soldier of the war in Spain. ‘We cornered fifty of them in a church and massacred them all with the points of our bayonets.’ Underlying all this was a sense of cultural superiority that deepened with every mile that the army moved east and south. As one hussar officer in Spain put it: ‘With regard to the knowledge and the progress of social habits, Spain was at least a century behind the other nations of the continent.’

To return to Parquin, we see here not just the conviction that the army was fighting for the Revolution, but also faith in the person of Napoleon himself. Confidence in its leader was one of the French army’s most potent weapons, and one that was, of course, sedulously cultivated by the French ruler, not least by the constant pretence that he made of sharing its privations. But if this was indeed pretence, Napoleon at least made a genuine point of moving amongst his troops: the scene that took place on the eve of Austerlitz is particularly famous:

His army was but half as strong as that of the enemy. His soldiers had hitherto always been victorious, but, with so small a force . . . it was of the utmost importance to him to know whether the confidence of the troops in their own superiority would . . . be sufficient to make up for their inferiority in numbers. It therefore occurred to him to go on foot, accompanied by Marshal Berthier only, throughout the camp and listen unnoticed to the chat of the soldiers round their fires. By eleven o’clock he had already traversed a great distance when he was recognized. The soldiers, surprised at finding him in the midst of them, and afraid that he might lose his way going back to his headquarters . . . hastened to break up the shelters they had made of branches and straw to use them as torches to light their emperor home. One bivouac after another took up the task, and in less than a quarter of an hour, torches lit up the camp, whilst passionate cries of ‘Vive l’empereur!’ resounded on every side.

Mixed in with the aura of greatness were little touches of humanity. At Ulm it was observed that the French ruler’s famous greatcoat got singed when he sat too close to the fire. Nor had Napoleon lost his common touch. Writing of the same battle, one soldier remembered, ‘We were eating jam made from quinces . . . The emperor laughed. “Ah!”, said he. “I see you are eating preserves; don’t get up. You must put new flints in your guns: tomorrow morning you will need them. Be ready!”’ Not many soldiers actually received the favour of a personal word of enquiry or encouragement from their commander, of course, but that is not the point: the stories of such encounters doubtless grew in the telling, while the troops believed that they were cared about. As one François Avril wrote, ‘We have observed with the greatest interest the tender care taken by His Majesty to improve the lot of [the] . . . warriors charged with the task of defending the integrity of French territory.’ Close proximity to the emperor, meanwhile, brought a genuine sense of well-being. Reviewed by Napoleon in the midst of some particularly inclement weather, a common soldier named André Dupont-Ferrier wrote, ‘I don’t think I have ever been as cold as I was that day, and I don’t know how the emperor could bear it . . . but it seemed that his very presence warmed us, and repeated shouts of “Vive l’empereur!” must have convinced him how much he is cherished.’ Just as important was the sense that Napoleon was looking to each and every soldier for his survival. ‘We saw the Emperor Napoleon pass . . . He was on horseback; the simplicity of his green uniform distinguished him amidst the richly clothed generals who surrounded him; he waved his hands to every individual officer as he passed, seeming to say, “I rely on you.” ’ The consequences were enormous. ‘The presence of the emperor,’ wrote one veteran of the Austerlitz campaign, ‘produced a powerful effect on the army. Everyone had the most implicit confidence in him; everyone knew, from experience, that his plans led to victory, and therefore . . . our moral force was redoubled.’ Well might Wellington remark, ‘His presence on the field made a difference of 40,000 men.’

Prince Liechtenstein and the modernisation of the Austrian artillery


Joseph Wenzel von Liechtenstein.




On 8 February 1748, a distinguished group of senior officers met in Vienna to coordinate military reform. Under the presidency of Lorraine, the detailed work was to be carried out by Liechtenstein and Harrach with the support of Wenzel Wallis with two gifted officers, Daun and Schulenburg. Of these, Liechtenstein and Daun were perhaps the most enterprising. The former was an Alpine prince whose rank, wealth and status were, as it is for his descendants to this day, on a different level to that of the high Austrian aristocracy. (The fabulous wealth of the Liechtenstein family was founded, according to legend, on the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone.) With their uniquely corrupt vowels inflecting their speech, their enormous height and practical materialist outlook at once both realist and solemn, the Liechtensteins consequently were always far removed from the atmosphere and frivolity of the Austrian court. Field Marshal Joseph Wenzel Liechtenstein was no exception and it was no coincidence that the arm requiring the highest quotient of intelligence, the artillery, fell to his responsibility. Wounded at the head of his Dragoon regiment at the Battle of Chotusitz, Liechtenstein had been very impressed by the 82 well-served Prussian guns, which had compared so well with the antiquated Austrian cannon. With his active military career cut short by his wounds he was determined to devote the rest of his life to giving the Habsburgs the best artillery in Europe.

Assisted by his immense private wealth – not a ducat needed to come from the Austrian treasury to finance his experiments – he invited at his own expense the foremost artillerists of Europe to advise him: Alvson from Denmark, the brothers Feuerstein from Kolín, Schröeder from Prussia, ‘Fire Devil’ Rouvroy from Saxony and even the formidable Gribeauval from France. By the time Liechtenstein had finished his reorganisation a few years later Austrian artillery would be established as among the finest in Europe, a reputation that would more or less endure until 1918. All these later successes were built on the foundation stone of Liechtenstein’s reforms in the 1750s.

These reforms had a geographical and ethnic dimension to them for Liechtenstein soon realised that artillery could not be left to ordinary soldiers of no education. In a move which was to prove far-seeing and have significant consequences for the development of the Central European arms industry later in the twentieth century, the Prince established the home of the Habsburg artillery arm unequivocally once and for all in Bohemia. He knew that the Bohemians of mixed German and Czech race were not only the quickest wits in the Empire but that they combined resilience with toughness, humour with imagination, practicality with energy and above all a sense of theatre with coolness under fire. How did he know this? He knew this because vast tracts of Bohemia and Moravia belonged to his family, who administered them with tremendous care and intelligence. Truly can it be said that Bohemia elevated the House of Liechtenstein to something beyond mere Alpine aristocracy. Placing the artillery headquarters in Budweis, he also ensured that his artillerists were paid a third more than the rank and file infantry.

When Wenzel Liechtenstein began his work, there were only 800 trained artillerists in the Habsburg army. By 1755 there were three artillery brigades made up of some 33 companies. In addition Artillery Fusilier regiments were created to assist the gunners in moving and defending the guns. As well as these a munitions corps and mining company were established. The artillery ‘park’ was also increased, with 768 3-pounder guns and several batteries of 6-pounder cannon. At Ebergassing near Vienna the cannon foundry was ‘modernised’ with a new range of horizontal drilling machines invented by a Swiss mechanical but illiterate genius called Jacquet. By the end of Maria Theresa’s reign there were more than 600 heavy 6- and 12-pounder pieces and the artillery arm numbered nearly 15,000 men. Standardisation of wheels and other parts of the guns was an important feature of the new weapons.

Drill and exercise were the natural concomitants of this huge increase in firepower and Liechtenstein insisted on full-scale training at least twice a week. By 1772, also by Imperial decree, a brown uniform with red facings was established to distinguish the corps from the white-coated rank and file infantry. Maria Theresa noted – she always took a keen and practical interest in these details – ‘it is important for the uniform to be conspicuous but not more expensive’. More than a century later at the 1900 Paris Exhibition a modern version of this brown and red uniform would win the first prize for combining elegance and practicality.

Not only were the uniforms distinctive, the levels of rank were also unique, with archaic titles such as Buchsenmeister (gunner) or Alt-Feuerwerker (second lieutenant) or Stuckhauptmann (captain) or Stuckjuncker (first lieutenant). The artillery was in its atmosphere more a medieval guild of kindred spirits with its own rituals and language than a conventional regiment of the army. Promotion to officer rank was strictly meritocratic and almost always proceeded from within the corps. Candidates were first trained in the Budweis artillery depot where they were schooled in geometry, ballistics, hydraulics and the science of fortification.

In 1757 the artillery Reglement (Regulations) noted: ‘We must seek in the artillery to encourage the men in their duties more through a love of honour and good treatment than through brutality, untimely blows and beatings.’

In addition to these reforms, the Empress, on Liechtenstein’s advice, established institutes (Witwen und Waisen Confraternität) to look after the families of artillerists, especially widows and orphans in Prague, Kolín and Landshut. At the same time Liechtenstein introduced a radical overhaul of ordnance. Anton Feuerstein as head of the Feld Artillerie Corps sought to pare weight down to a minimum by shortening and lightening barrels. Gun carriages also benefited from this practical approach. He established a common axle and just two types of wheel for all artillery pieces. This uniformity meant that spares could be made available in the event of breakdown.

Moreover, each gun was given a number which in turn was painted on every item of equipment down to the mop-cum-rammer to help every soldier identify with his artillery piece, for ‘both officers and men feel their honour is engaged when taking a close interest in the upkeep of their equipment and ammunition. Thus the entire ordnance is most carefully engaged.’

Above all, to ensure an instantly recognisable and practical appearance the gun carriages and wheels were to be painted in the Imperial colours, schwarzgelb (black and gold, or rather yellow), with the result that this application of oil paint offered ‘much better protection than before against damp and other climatic conditions. In this way ‘the greater durability of the wood repays the cost many times over’. Not even Austrian gunpowder was immune from Liechtenstein’s zealous reforms. Renowned for its combustibility and strength, it was made even more effective when packaged in linen cartridges which were bound together with a sabot.

The linen surface of the cartridge was then painted with a covered paste and finally coated with white oil paint. Thus the powder was compressed tightly together for maximum effect.