Austria’s last Turkish War 1788–1790

Clash between Russo-Austrian and Turkish troops in the Battle of Rymnik

The Crimea was not the only trouble spot in the strained relations between St. Petersburg and Constantinople; and its annexation certainly did not quench Russia’s thirst for expansion. The Caucasian kingdom of Georgia, which had submitted to Russian suzerainty in 1783–84, was another problem area. A major offensive by Catherine and Joseph II against the moribund Ottoman Empire was widely expected. To many observers it seemed an ill omen that in spring 1787 the Emperor undertook a second journey to Russia to accompany the Czarina on her inspection tour through the Crimea which she had been able to annex not least thanks to Austrian backing. Vienna did its very best to restrain Russia: as long as Prussia had not been dealt with, the Austrians argued, the Turkish question could not be tackled without the risk of a wide-ranging war.

In the end, it was the Porte that in August 1787, after numerous Russian provocations, declared war on Catherine II. Despite all its sabre-rattling and partition plans, Russia was unprepared for the decisive confrontation, but at least the conflict could now be presented to the European public as a defensive war against an aggressor. Turkish aggression also made it much more difficult for France to continue its traditional role as the Sultan’s protector against Russian rapacity.

In view of the beginning of unrest in Belgium (p. 387), war could not have come at a more inopportune moment for the Emperor, who in accordance with the 1781 alliance was obliged to assist the Russians with his full might, and Vienna felt that it had to act promptly so as not to annoy the Czarina. What Joseph had to make sure this time was that Austria did not come away empty-handed again, as over the Crimea in 1783–84. In essence, Austria’s only vaguely defined war aims corresponded to Joseph’s counter-demands as presented in his response to Catherine’s ‘Greek Project’ back in 1782: the re-establishment of the borderline as defined by the peace of Passarowitz in 1718 (with Belgrade, northern Serbia and Little Walachia), the whole of Bosnia and the fortress of Khotin – not forgetting the Venetian possessions, especially Dalmatia. This would limit Russian gains in the region and secure maximum expansion at Turkish cost.

By September 1787 mobilization throughout the Habsburg Monarchy was in full swing but the relatively cautious strategy adopted for 1788 stood in stark contrast to the Emperor’s extremely ambitious war aims. According to a plan devised by the unpopular military reformer Lacy, Joseph’s éminence grise in all matters military, no fewer than six armies of varying strength were to cover the whole stretch of the Habsburg-Ottoman frontier, from the Adriatic to the Dniester: first, the main army under the personal command of Joseph II (assisted by Lacy) concentrating around Semlin opposite Belgrade; second, the Una army in Croatia; third, an army corps operating along the Sava in Slavonia; fourth, a corps to cover the Banat; fifth, another corps protecting Transylvania; sixth, an army under Friedrich Josias of Sachsen-Coburg deployed in Galicia and the Bukovina. All in all some 245,000 men with 898 field guns and 252 siege guns were mobilized along the Turkish front; later, the number was to rise further to 294,000 men but a sizeable proportion of the army had to stay behind in the north to guard the frontier with Prussia.

The main army was to capture Belgrade first, while by means of a pincer movement the Croatian and Slavonian corps were to invade Bosnia via the Una and Sava. Together with the corps in Transylvania, Sachsen-Coburg’s Bukovina army was to undertake diversions towards the Danube further east and capture Khotin on the Dniester. It was hoped rather naively that after the first campaign the left bank of the Danube would be under Austrian control as far as its confluence with the river Aluta; that done, the road to the Ottoman capital would be open. But soon the usual problems of coalition warfare surfaced once again. Cooperation was made difficult by differing strategic emphases and subsequent problems of coordination fuelled by mutual distrust; in the absence of any significant synergy the partnership’s respective operations each appeared mere diversions. While Joseph II placed the main strategic emphasis on the Danube between Belgrade, Orşova and Vidin, the Russians – once Oczakov, the first goal of the campaign, had been captured – would concentrate on the lower reaches and the estuaries of the rivers Dniester, Pruth and Danube.

Accordingly, the Russians assembled two operating armies: the main force under Prince Potemkin was to advance towards Oczakov in the Dnieper estuary, while a second corps was to cover the main army’s flank in the Ukraine and, joining the extreme Austrian left wing in Galicia and the Bukovina, could invade Moldavia. Although goaded on by Vienna, Russia was very slow to mobilize fully. It was not until summer 1788 that Potemkin really began the siege of Oczakov – time enough for the Turks to concentrate on repelling the Austrian attack on Belgrade. Fearing as much, the Emperor had tried to put off his formal declaration of war until his army would be ready to strike. In December 1787 and again in January 1788 the Austrians even tried to capture the fortress of Belgrade by a treacherous coup de main. In both cases, however, the attempt was thwarted by bad weather and poor visibility. Attempts to incite and support revolts against Turkish rule in the Balkans, especially in Montenegro, were also of little avail: the Russians no doubt were in a better position to win the hearts of their Orthodox brothers. At the beginning of February 1788, the formal Austrian declaration of war was handed over at Constantinople.

In the first campaign the Austrian forces at first did not fare much better either. Little progress was made along the Una and Sava, while the main army under Joseph II dug itself in around Belgrade but without seriously starting the siege; with 200–300 men falling ill per day, disease and summer heat were already taking their toll. Meanwhile, the Turkish vanguard had reached the Danube at Vidin in July 1788. At the beginning of August the Turks crossed the river and broke into the Banat, driving back the Austrian army corps there. Accompanied by some 20,000 soldiers from his main army, Joseph II hurried to the relief of the retreating Banat corps and took up a defensive position in the upper valley of the Temeş to stop the Ottoman advance. By mid-September, however, most checkpoints on the Danube’s northern bank had been lost: the whole river as far as Belgrade was now under Turkish control and the Banat thus lay wide open to Turkish incursions. On top of all that the enemy threatened to attack Joseph’s rear through Transylvania. At the end of September 1788 Joseph ordered his troops to withdraw to Caransebeş, while a false alarm sufficed to make the nervous army flood back in panic as far as Lugos. The Emperor returned to his camp before Belgrade in late October. By the end of the year, he was back in Vienna, demoralized by the withdrawal of September and visibly exhausted by what was to prove a fatal pulmonary disease.

The Turks in their turn did not advance further but rather began to clear the Banat after mid-October 1788, wreaking enormous havoc, as they moved: in the immediate border zone alone, 36,000 civilians were said to have been killed, abducted or forced to flee. Much of the laborious colonization work of the past decades had thus been destroyed within a few months; what was more, firmly based at Orşova north of the Danube the Turks might repeat their work of destruction whenever they wished.

Success in other theatres of war could hardly compensate for the embarrassing loss of face in the Banat. On the Una, at least, Dubica was taken in summer 1788, after Laudon had assumed command in Croatia and Slavonia. Novi followed in October, though it was not until July 1789 that Berbir finally surrendered to the Austrians. The army in Transylvania had initially gone on the offensive, invading the Turkish tributary principalities of Moldavia and Walachia. But soon, massive enemy counter-attacks directed against the mountain passes forced the Austrians on to the defensive. The most spectacular successes were achieved by the army in Galicia and the Bukovina under Sachsen-Coburg, who – ignoring the Emperor’s orders – took the offensive. Between April and July 1788, and again after September, Austrian troops occupied the Moldavian capital of Iaşi. In cooperation with Russian forces Sachsen-Coburg forced Khotin to capitulate in September 1788. St. Petersburg suggested that for the next campaign the Austrian troops in Transylvania should join the corps under Sachsen-Coburg and try to march further south towards the Danube. The underlying idea was to tie down Ottoman forces in that area in order to take pressure off the Russian operations against Bessarabia, which was expected to be the focus of a Turkish counter-attack. Joseph II, however, was furious: he had expected the Russians to occupy Walachia as far as the river Aluta and thus give the Austrians more freedom to capture Belgrade.

The weakened Emperor was unable to join his troops for the campaign of 1789, and so the 79-year-old field marshal Hadik, president of the Aulic War Council, assumed supreme command over the Austrian main army. Yet in spite of his past as a dashing leader of light troops he was no longer the man to capture Belgrade (which the Emperor desired as a pledge for peace negotiations with the Porte) and in late July 1789 the 72-year-old Laudon superseded him, despite his disappointing performance during the War of the Bavarian Succession. After pressing orders from Vienna, Laudon stormed Belgrade in mid-September. 62,000 Austrian soldiers faced a Turkish garrison of some 9,000 men, who finally capitulated on 8 October 1789.

Even in the other theatres of war, things went well that year. Renewed Turkish attacks on the Banat and Transylvania were repelled in the summer, while further east, in Moldavia, thanks to efficient cooperation, the allies had held the initiative ever since 1788. On 1 August 1789 Russians under Suvorov and Austrians under Sachsen-Coburg defeated the Turks at Focşani, followed by another decisive victory over the main Ottoman army under the grand vizier at Martineşti (22 September 1789). Thus, while Austrian forces were advancing down the Danube from the west, Walachia also lay open to invasion from the east. Even without the Russian auxiliary corps called away to the siege of Bender Sachsen-Coburg from the east and the Transylvanian corps from beyond the north occupied Walachia marching into Bucharest in November 1789. Meanwhile, the Russians secured the Dniester line by taking Akkerman (October 1789) and Bender (November 1789).

A high price had to be paid for these successes, which were impressive but not decisive: enormous war costs, heavy casualties among the civilian population of the Banat and equally high losses in the army decimated principally by illnesses and epidemics. Between June 1788 and May 1789 alone there were 172,000 sick and wounded on the army lists, 33,000 of whom died. By contrast the storming of Belgrade in autumn 1789 cost only 300 dead and 750 wounded. As a consequence of the steadily-rising demands of recruitment, unrest was growing in various Habsburg provinces. The exemptions granted to large sectors of society under the Konskription system had to be reduced in order to guarantee a regular supply of recruits, and this began to arouse resentment.

Kaunitz was at a loss to understand why, despite its modern equipment and high standard of training, the Austrian army found it so difficult to drive back ‘those barbarians’, as he called the Turks, into the recesses of the Balkans. No doubt psychological aspects still played a major role. The Turks remained the most dreaded enemy, and warfare in the Balkans continued to be markedly more savage than in a normal ‘cabinet war’ between Christian powders, the fate of Christian prisoners being particularly oppressive. The over-cautious and formalized western-style way of warfare proved woefully inadequate against charging hords of Turkish warriors whenever the undeniable superiority of drill and firepower on which the army’s self-confidence was essentially based could not be brought to bear. On principle, Lacy had strongly recommended a defensive posture and extreme caution: Spanish riders for the infantry, cuirasses and even the long-discarded helmets for the cavalry were once more produced from the armouries; fighting in large squares (en carré) was adopted for better safety in the open field. For the superiority of modern fighting methods to develop to the full, the rough terrain along much of Austria’s Turkish front was indeed considerably less suited than the wide open plains of Bessarabia or Moldavia, where the Russians but also Austrian forces under Sachsen-Coburg won spectacular victories over numerically far superior Turkish armies.

Austria’s rather bureaucratic way of waging war, very much concerned with preserving men and materiel, could not compete with the Russian variety of warfare merging modern western military organization with atavistic traits of ‘Asiatic’ ruthlessness (both against one’s own men and the enemy) which repeatedly shocked Europe. Moreover, unlike Russia, the Habsburg Monarchy was not separated from the Ottoman Empire by vast steppe zones that protected the more densely populated heartlands. Joseph II was thus forced to protect developed lands against immediate Turkish incursions along the immense common frontier with the Sultan and could not bring his military potential to bear on one point. In a further respect, Austria’s last Turkish war was clearly different from all former confrontations with the Ottoman Empire: it was a war conducted solely for power political reasons and aims and was not a defensive battle in the interest of Christendom. Hence neither the Reich nor individual German princes sent auxiliary troops, and some European states actually sympathized with the Turkish cause. Certainly the Sultan had started the war, but more in self-defence than anything else.


Michael Friedrich Benedikt Freiherr von Melas, (1729-1806)

Veteran Austrian general defeated by Bonaparte at Marengo in 1800. Having joined as a cadet officer, he served in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) to reach the rank of general. Recalled from retirement, he won several victories in Italy before his final defeat.

Born near Schässburg in Siebenburgen (Transylvania), Melas came from a Saxon family of Lutheran ministers and was raised in a Spartan environment, learning to ride and use weapons at an early age and attending the Schässburg Gymnasium (grammar school). At age seventeen, he joined the local Infanterie Regiment Schulenberg as a Kadett and saw action as a Leutnant (lieutenant) in the victory at Kolin (18 June 1757). Promoted to Hauptmann (captain), he commanded the grenadier company of Infanterie Regiment Batthnanyi, distinguishing himself in the storming of Schweidnitz on 1 October 1761 before becoming Feldmarschall Leopold Graf Daun’s adjutant.

Melas married Josepha Lock von Retsky on 11 September 1768. He transferred to the 2nd Karabinier Regiment in May 1778 as Oberstleutnant (lieutenant colonel), leading his division (two squadrons) in the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778-1779). Appointed director of the Remount Service, he was later promoted to Oberst (commanding colonel) of the Trautmannsdorf Kurassier Regiment. He led the Lobkowitz Chevauléger Regiment in the Turkish War (1788-1791) until promoted to Generalmajor on 16 June 1789 with command of a brigade. Promoted to Feldmarschalleutnant in June 1794, he commanded a small corps in Germany and repelled Kléber’s advance over the Rhine at Zahlbach on 1 December. Transferred to Italy in 1796, he commanded the Army Reserve under Feldzeugmeister Johann Peter Freiherr von Beaulieu against Bonaparte’s invasion. Briefly a temporary army commander, Melas proved an able deputy to Feldmarschall Dagobert Graf Würmser as they endured the later part of the defense of the fortress of Mantua until its surrender in February 1797. When the war concluded, Melas retired to his estates in Gratz, in Bohemia.

Despite suffering with rheumatism and what is now thought to have been Parkinson’s disease, he was recalled two years later and made Inhaber (honorary colonel) of the 6th Kurassier Regiment. As Austrian commander in Italy in 1799 alongside the Russian field marshal Alexander Suvorov, he defeated the French general Jacques Etienne Macdonald at the Trebbia in mid-June. On 15 August Melas led his troops in a furious bayonet charge at Novi against the French right flank to decide the battle for the Allies. After the Russians left, he led the Austrian troops in defeating the French at Savigliano on 18 September and Genola on 4 November before taking the fortress of Cuneo on 3 December. Melas’s surprise offensive in mid-April 1800 put Genoa under siege, and he reached the French border on the Var, at which point he was forced to return to Turin by Bonaparte’s advance. Massing his troops at Alessandria, he was defeated at Marengo on 14 June. He was appointed general commander of Inner Austria in September 1800 and then of Bohemia until 1803, when he retired.

Siege of Genoa, (April-June 1800)

The defense of the last French stronghold in Italy beginning in late April 1800 played a key role in pinning down substantial Austrian forces while Bonaparte, the First Consul, crossed the Alps with his army. Despite his promises to relieve the siege, Bonaparte abandoned the defenders under General André Masséna, who surrendered in early June after enduring considerable hardship.

With promises of resupply, Bonaparte persuaded Masséna to take command of French forces on the Mediterranean coast in early February. On 6 April, the Austrian commander Feldmarschalleutnant Michael Freiherr von Melas swept south, cut the French left wing under General Louis Suchet off from Masséna, and closed the ring around the walled city on 19 April. Left with 9,600 fit troops, the French attempted forays to obtain food, but they were usually frustrated by the Austrians and their local supporters. On 24 April the Allies demanded Masséna’s surrender. He responded that he “would rather be buried under the ruins of Genoa than surrender” (Masséna 1966-1967, 3-4: appendix). Three days later, Melas left Feldmarschalleutnant Peter Freiherr Ott von Bartokez with 24,000 troops, but without heavy siege guns he could only maintain a blockade to starve the French out. The British mounted a steady naval bombardment.

The city was able to eke out meager food supplies for a month, and some local merchant ships ran the blockade to deliver highly priced corn. Bread was being sold to local inhabitants, but this was stopped on 20 May when the Austrians cut the aqueduct, which supplied waterpower for the flour mills. The military ration was reduced to 153 grams of bread-made from flour, sawdust, starch, hair powder, oatmeal, linseed, rancid nuts, and cocoa-and an equal quantity of horseflesh. However, wine was plentiful, so each man received a daily liter. Once the horses had been eaten, the city’s cats, dogs, and rats were consumed. Townspeople resorted to boiled leaves and grass, seasoned with salt, before being reduced to boiling old bones, leather, and other skins. Each day, up to 400 emaciated bodies were dumped in an open grave. The civilian population of 120,000 was reduced by more than 30,000. Austrian prisoners aboard the prison hulks received a quarter ration. They resorted to eating their shoes and leather equipment before starting on canvas sails.

On 14 May Masséna mounted one final attempt to break the blockade through Monte Creto, but he was defeated and General Nicolas Soult was captured. That night, a naval bombardment conducted by gunboats spread disorder through the population until calm was restored at dawn, when Masséna ordered any group of larger than four to be shot. A British raid on 21 May was followed by popular insurrection. On 31 May rations ran out and desertions started. Seeing no sign of relief, Masséna offered to surrender on 1 June. His parley coincided with Melas’s order to Ott to lift the blockade and march north, but the Austrians delayed his departure until 4 June, when the surrender was signed and they took possession of the city.

References and further reading Duffy, Christopher. 2000. Eagles over the Alps: Suvorov in Italy and Switzerland, 1799. Chicago: Emperor’s. Hollins, David. 2004. Austrian Commanders of the Napoleonic Wars. Oxford: Osprey. Furse, George. 1993. Marengo and Hohenlinden. Felling, UK: Worley. (Orig. pub. 1903.) Hollins, David. 2000. Marengo. Oxford: Osprey. Masséna, André, prince d’Essling. 1966-1967. Mémoires d’André Masséna. 7 vols. Ed. Gen. Koch. Paris: J. de Bonnet (Orig. pub. 1848-1850.)

Hapsburg Military 17th-18th Century

The Habsburgs tried to fight the Thirty Years War using these structures by claiming that the Bohemian Revolt was a breach of the public peace, while presenting Swedish intervention as a foreign invasion. Throughout, they legitimated their operations by issuing mandates summoning their opponents to lay down their arms and negotiate. Those who failed to respond were branded outlaws to be targeted with punitive action. Habsburg supporters like Bavaria conformed to this approach, since it legitimated their own seizure of lands and titles from the emperor’s enemies. Initially, all belligerents tried to fund war from regular taxes, supplemented by foreign subsidies, forced loans and coinage debasement, the latter causing rampant inflation between 1621 and 1623. Most of the emperor’s early opponents were relatively minor princes who lacked either large territories or reliable foreign backers, and were forced to subsist by extorting money and supplies from the areas where their armies were operating. General Albrecht von Wallenstein’s `contribution system’, adopted by the emperor’s forces after 1625, attempted to regularize this and extended it on an unprecedented scale. Wallenstein hoped to win the war by awe rather than shock, assembling such overwhelming numbers that further fighting would become unnecessary. Drawing on imperial legislation since 1570, Wallenstein issued ordinances regulating what his troops could demand from local communities, thus entirely bypassing regular tax systems. Subsidies and taxes from the Habsburg lands were now reserved to buy military hardware and other items that could not be sourced locally, as well as servicing the loans on which the entire system increasingly depended.

Wallenstein’s system suffered from several major flaws, not least the excessively high pay rates he allowed his senior officers and the rudimentary checks on graft and corruption. The numerous abuses feature prominently in contemporary criticism and subsequent historical discussion, but it was their political implications that made his methods so controversial. Wallenstein’s army tapped the Empire’s resources directly without reference to the Reichstag or the Kreis Assemblies. He gave the emperor an army funded by the Empire, but under Habsburg control and used to wage what was really a highly contentious civil war. Whilst contributions sustained the ordinary soldiers, their officers

The overwhelming desire for peace after 1648 led to the disbandment of virtually all forces in the Empire. Only the Habsburgs retained a small permanent army, which they redeployed in Hungary. However, the wider international situation compelled further discussion of defence. The emperor’s preferred solution was to return to the late sixteenth-century practice of extended Reichstag grants subsidizing the cost of the Habsburgs’ own army. This was politically unacceptable after the experience with Wallenstein. The electorates and several medium-sized principalities established their own permanent forces during the later 1650s and 1660s. The earlier militias were sometimes revived and adapted as a limited form of conscription providing cheap recruits to augment the professionals. The outbreak of almost permanent warfare on the Empire’s western frontier after 1672 saw these forces expand considerably, creating the first true `standing armies’ alongside that of the emperor.

This forged a new divide in the Empire between the `armed Estates’ (Armierten Stände) and their unarmed neighbours. Leopold I relied heavily on the armed Estates who could supply troops fairly quickly during both the Turkish War of 1662-4 and especially in the Dutch War of 1672-9 to defend the Rhine against French attacks. Collective defence became a modified version of Wallenstein’s system as Leopold assigned unarmed territories and cities to provide funds and supplies to support the troops of the armed Estates. Unarmed territories now risked slipping into mediate status under powerful territories like Brandenburg, Saxony, Hanover and the heavily armed bishopric of Münster, all of which tried to formalize their predominance by establishing protectorates. By 1679 it was obvious that the armed Estates intended to deprive unarmed ones of the right to participate in the Reichstag and Kreis Assemblies on the grounds they were no longer meeting their obligations to the Empire directly. This threatened to federalize the Empire through the medialization of smaller territories, shortening the status hierarchy to a collection of large and medium-sized militarized principalities.

Leopold realized this would undermine his ability to manage the Empire and he sided with the lesser imperial Estates at the Reichstag to force through a compromise defence reform in 1681-2, establishing a system of collective security lasting until 1806. The matricular quotas were revised more clearly on a regional basis, retaining the 1521 register for cash contributions, but assigning new manpower contingents to give a basic rate (Simplum) totalling 12,000 cavalry and 28,000 infantry. As before, these could be mobilized as a fraction or multiple of the basic quota. The reform succeeded, because it stabilized the status hierarchy without preventing any further change. The right as well as the duty of all Estates to contribute was confirmed. The role of the Kreise expanded to organize contingents from the smaller territories who could combine their soldiers into regiments of broadly uniform size. The smaller territories could still opt to pay cash in lieu, but the money was now to go through the Reichspfennigmeister (later the Imperial Operations Fund) to prevent them being bullied into unequal local arrangements by more powerful neighbours. All imperial Estates were free to maintain additional troops above what they should provide for the Empire, especially as such obligations were on a sliding scale with no theoretical upper limit. However, this did not amount to the `law of the gun’ (Canonen-Recht) as some critics maintained, because in 1671 Leopold prevented the armed princes from securing the Reichstag’s sanction for unlimited war taxes. Consequently, the legal position remained the one agreed in 1654 that subjects were only obliged to pay for `necessary fortresses and garrisons’, thus still allowing some scope for territorial Estates to decide what these amounted to, as well as for the emperor to intervene when they could not agree. The armed Estates were also still free to provide additional auxiliaries through private arrangements with the emperor that might advance their dynastic goals. Finally, collective defence remained tied to the established constitutional framework governing decisions for war and peace, thus anchored on the ideal of a defensive war, since only this was likely to secure the necessary approval through the Reichstag.

The collective structure was capable of substantial, sustained effort. Although the actual Kreis contingents (Kreistruppen) were always lower than the totals agreed by the Reichstag, it should be remembered that the Habsburgs always subsumed their own contribution within their own army, thus accounting for another 30 per cent above the numbers supplied by the smaller territories. Many of the auxiliaries also included men serving in lieu of Kreis contingents, because many princes wanted to keep all their soldiers together in a single force to increase their weight within the grand coalitions against France. For example, such forces accounted for 28 per cent of the auxiliaries provided during the War of the Spanish Succession.

The continuous warfare saw the total number of soldiers maintained by the emperor and imperial Estates rise from 192,000 in 1683 to peak at 343,300 in 1710. The most significant and surprising aspect of this rapid militarization was the disproportionate growth amongst the smaller territories, whose total strength grew by 95 per cent to reach 170,000 men, compared to a 75 per cent increase in the Prussian army to 43,500, and a 62 per cent rise in Habsburg strength to 129,000. Thus, imperial defence imposed a heavy burden on the Empire’s weakest elements, but this simultaneously ensured their political survival. The Westphalian and Upper Saxon minor territories used the Kreis structure to organize their own contingents, enabling them after 1702 to break free from onerous arrangements imposed by Prussia, Saxony and the Palatinate, which had previously provided troops to the imperial army on their behalf. In contrast to the almost universal disbandment in 1648, the Westphalian, Upper Rhenish, Electoral Rhenish, Swabian, Franconian and Bavarian Kreise agreed in 1714 to remain armed in peacetime by maintaining contingents at one and a half times the basic quota. Perhaps more surprising still is that militarization remained contained by a highly legalistic political culture (unlike, say, China in the 1920s where warlords created their own provincial armies with little regard to the republic’s formal order). Despite their lands being the most heavily armed part of Europe, the German princes continued to submit their disputes to judicial arbitration through the imperial courts, rather than make war on their neighbours.

The collective system mobilized 34,200 Kreis troops for the 1735 campaign during the War of the Polish Succession (1733-5) against France, while at least 112,000 recruits and auxiliaries were supplied to the Habsburg army across 1733-9.86 The disappointing outcome of this campaign and the parallel Turkish War (1736-9) combined with political disillusionment with the Habsburgs and the disaster of Wittelsbach imperial rule between 1742 and 1745 to weaken collective defence. Most territories reduced their peacetime forces and several withdrew from military cooperation at Kreis level. This trend was compounded by the underlying shift in the Empire’s internal military balance as the combined strength of the Austrian and Prussian armies expanded from 185,000 men in 1740 to 692,700 fifty years later, compared to the combined total of all other forces that dropped by around 9,000 men to 106,000 by 1790.


Two years before the 1848 eruption, tremors could be felt in Italy, and in Galicia where a revolt of the nobility was put down vigorously by the prompt action of an energetic young officer called Benedek. His less energetic contemporary, General Collin, further to the west, panicked and surrendered the city of Cracow to the insurgents, who promptly declared a national republic. But these events only illuminated the sky like flashes of lightning before the storm; they gave no inkling of what was to happen in Vienna two years later. The build-up to the revolutions of 1848 is known as Vormärz (pre-March) and describes the accumulation of perceived injustices and frictions which are ever the prelude to a popular uprising. As time passed, the innate conservatism of the system left it increasingly vulnerable to new challenges.

In Vienna, events finally came to a head on 13 March 1848. Students, the potential leadership of any revolt, armed themselves and began issuing a list of demands. These included press freedom, the abolition of serfdom, and, above all, the removal of the detested Chancellor Metternich who had come to personify cynicism, reaction and absolutism.

In the War Ministry, the minister, Latour, comprehended only too well the scale of the seismic challenge he now faced. He ordered a detachment of artillery guarded by a detachment of ‘pioneers’ along the Herrengasse. These were greeted with a hail of stones and, as the pioneers panicked and shot back, five civilians were killed. In the nearby Arsenal, Latour was surrounded by a violent mob. Under pressure, he was organising a plan to entrain two grenadier battalions to Hungary, from where there was more news of unrest. While one of these, the ‘Ferrari’ battalion, made up almost exclusively of Italians, marched off unmolested by the crowds, another, the ‘Richter’ battalion, found its way from its barracks in the Gumpendorferstrasse barred by a large mob.

The ‘Richter’ battalion, like all grenadier formations, was made up of composite units. However, the demonstrating students soon realised that this battalion consisted of exclusively German-speaking regiments drawn from IR 14, 49 and 59, three Alpine regiments recruited from Lower Austria, Upper Austria and Salzburg. United by a common language, the grenadiers and the students began to fraternise, the latter offering the former beer and wine until discipline was restored by their officers, who cleared a way with the help of a cavalry escort for the battalion to march to the Nordbahnhof two miles to the east.

As the regiment neared the station, they saw that a huge crowd had sealed all the approaches to the Nordbahnhof. To avoid bloodshed, the order was given to march to Floridsdorf along the Danube and entrain there but the same mob followed and sealed off the grenadiers’ access to that station.

Latour over-reacts

When the news of these events reached Latour, the minister over-reacted and sent two squadrons of cavalry, some artillery and the entire infantry regiment ‘Herzog von Nassau’ (Nr 15) to drive the mob from the Floridsdorf station and the Tabor bridge, which they had closed to the grenadiers. This mixed force was commanded by Hugo von Bredy, a distinguished officer from a long line of Irishmen who had served the Habsburgs for generations. By the time they arrived, the grenadiers had completely lost discipline and were fraternising with the students. Incensed by this lack of military spirit, Bredy began to deploy his artillery, only to see the mob begin to cart his guns off. As this was happening, the officer ordered his infantry to open fire. The volley that crashed out killed a score of people but was returned with interest by the armed students, who fired into the densely packed infantry, inflicting more than a hundred casualties. Bredy went down with a bullet through his head and the colonel of the Nassau regiment fell from his horse in the hail of firing. The ‘Richter’ Grenadiers rushed to throw in their lot with the mob and from that moment their 800-strong force became the backbone of the rebellion in Vienna. They fought with enormous courage and heroism but their example was not followed in the rest of Austria. Spectacular and significant as their defection from the Imperial House was, they were the only Austrian military unit throughout the entire crisis of 1848 to mutiny. Every other unit of the Austrian army remained loyal to the dynasty.

Imperial Russia’s Retreat 1915

German Cavalry entering Warsaw on August 5, 1915.

Not until April 1915 did OHL inform OAK in Vienna how it planned to use Mackensen’s 11th Army, and only then because it required Conrad to transfer two corps of his 4th Army to Mackensen’s command. Conrad again protested that the area of intended operations was on the front of which he was commander-in-chief, but had to accept this partial usurpation of his authority, since it seemed the only way to force Brusilov’s retreat from the Carpathian passes, where he was little more than 100 miles from Budapest, twin capital of the dual monarchy.

On paper, the Central Powers now had a coordinated strategy from the Baltic coast right down to the Romanian frontier. In East Prussia, Hindenburg’s forces consisted of the new 10th Army, 8th Army under von Below and 9th Army facing Warsaw. South of the salient, Austro-Hungarian forces were, from north to south, 2nd, 1st, 4th and 3rd armies. Russian forces holding the line were 10th Army in the north on the East Prussian border, 1st and 2nd armies defending Warsaw in the salient and the new 12th Army to the north-east of Warsaw. South of the salient, facing the Austro-Hungarians, were 5th, 4th, 9th, 3rd, 8th and 11th armies.

On 2 May Mackensen’s artillery loosed a devastating 4-hour barrage on a 35-mile stretch of the lines of Russian 3rd Army. He had tried to break through west of the River Narev in February and March, and was determined not to fail again. Mackensen had just over ten divisions in the line and another in reserve against the seven divisions of Russian 1st and 12th armies. He had 1,000 guns on this small front, with 400,000 rounds of shell, all coordinated by General Bruchmüller, the artillery expert, facing 377 guns with only forty rounds apiece. Immediately following the barrage, German infantry moved in, ready to tackle Russian survivors emerging from dugout shelters, but found instead almost all the men in the badly constructed front line, as well as the reserves, who had been held too far forward, lying dead because they had been cut to pieces in their trenches by shrapnel bursts and literally vaporised by high explosive (HE). It was about this time that the enormous numbers of casualties on the Russian fronts led to burials in ‘brothers’ graves’, where dozens and sometimes hundreds of men were buried in the same mass grave without discrimination of nationality, race or religion.

For the reality of what lies behind the bland body counts we have an eye-witness account. For those not killed outright and lucky enough to be brought to a letuchka, or mobile surgical unit, everyday nursing was in the hands of the krestovaye sestry – Red Cross sisters. A few of these women who braved all the discomforts and dangers of working close to the front lines were English. Florence Farmborough was a 27-year-old governess employed by a surgeon in Moscow, who had volunteered and been given a few weeks’ training in a hospital before spending a whole month in trains to reach the south-western front. Fortunately, she kept a diary, writing down events whenever she had time. With the general insufficiency of field hospitals, delay in treating even a small wound often meant death from infection. So the letuchki worked very close to the lines, moving frequently to keep up with advances and retreats. Florence’s first base was in a well-built house with several pleasant, airy rooms, where the nurses’ first task was to scrub every surface clean and paint or whitewash the walls. An operating theatre was set up and a pharmacy stocked with medicines and surgical material. They were told not to think they would be there long: the stay might be six months or six hours, depending on the movement of the front. Not knowing exactly what to expect, she took some solace in the scenery of the undulating Carpathian foothills.

Mackensen pressed on with the German 11th Army in the centre, flanked by Austrian 3rd and 4th armies, demolishing any sustained Russian resistance with more massive artillery bombardments. Conventionally, Russian units north and south of the CP advance should have attacked the flanks, but Stavka was afraid of Brusilov’s 8th Army being too exposed on the south-western front and ordered a general withdrawal to straighten the line, in the absence of sufficient heavy artillery – and especially sufficient stocks of shell – to even slow down the CP advance. Casualties rapidly mounted to the million mark, with reinforcements arriving and being thrown into battle after only two or three weeks’ training.

Three days after Florence’s arrival on this front, there was a sense of foreboding in her entry for 28 April, which recorded the arrival of a first batch of fifty wounded men, whose wounds had to be dressed before they were sent on to Yaslo. Against the booming of cannon fire, the soldiers voiced their dismay that German troops and heavy artillery had been sent to this section of the Front. ‘We are not afraid of the Austrians,’ they said, ‘but the German soldiers are quite different.’

Two days later, the new nurse of Letuchka No. 2 was shocked by a colossal influx of seriously wounded men after Russian 3rd Army was cut to pieces and 61st Division – to which the letuchka was attached – lost many thousands of men. The reality of a combat nurse’s exhausting life had sunk in:

We were called from our beds before dawn on Saturday 1 May. The Germans had launched their offensive. Explosion after explosion rent the air. Shells and shrapnel fell all around. Our house shook to its very foundations. Death was very busy, his hands full of victims. Then the victims started to arrive until we were overwhelmed by their numbers. They came in their hundreds from all directions, some able to walk, others dragging themselves along the ground. We worked day and night. The thunder of the guns never ceased. Soon shells were exploding all around our unit. The stream of wounded was endless. We dressed their severe wounds where they lay on the open ground, first alleviating their pain by injections. On Sunday the terrible word retreat was heard. In that one word lies all the agony of the last few days. The first-line troops came into sight: a long procession of dirt-bespattered, weary, desperate men. Orders: we were to start without delay, leaving behind all the wounded and the unit’s equipment! ‘Skoro, skoro! Quickly! The Germans are outside the town!’

Again and again, the surgeon, orderlies and nurses of Letuchka No. 2 fled eastwards out of towns and villages as the German spearheads entered them from the west. The arrival of a Cossack despatch-rider on his mud-flecked pony meant packing up the instruments and tents, always to head further east. Sleep-deprived, the nurses nodded off to get whatever rest they could in the jolting horse-drawn carts bumping over unmade roads. This was the Great Retreat of 1915.

In April 1915 Hindenburg also continued his push on the northern front into Russian-occupied Lithuania and Courland, relieving Königsberg and capturing the Russian naval base of Libau (modern Liepaja) on the Baltic coast in early May. On 2 May Mackensen’s now very mixed armies opened an attack from the line of the Vistula River, all the way south to the Carpathian Mountains. Preceded by an enormous barrage, it was a huge success, with Russian 3rd Army suffering severe losses. The advance continued with the capture of the ruined fortress of Przemyśl – which could not be defended because of all the damage caused during the Russian siege and the demolitions carried out by the Austrian garrison before surrendering in March. Less than three weeks later, Lemberg was also recaptured. The joint German-Austrian attack continued its momentum, driving the Russians back to the River San just over a week after that. By the end of the month, the front had shifted 100 miles to the east.

By 15 June Letuchka No. 2 had moved so many times as the front collapsed that it was back inside Russia, but the retreat was not over yet. Asleep on their feet, the nursing sisters collected up all the equipment and re-packed again and again as the temporary haven of care for the suffering where they had worked the previous day fell into the hands of the enemy. Bumping along the bad roads in unsprung carts, two of the nurses were ill – partly, Florence thought, from the sustained anxiety. Trying at night to sleep on a carpet of pine needles in the forest, she heard the nurse lying beside her crying quietly. When dawn came, they merged again into the stream of humans and animals, all moving eastwards. Entire herds of cattle were being driven by their owners with droves of sheep and pigs. And always behind them black clouds of smoke rose into the sky as all the peasants’ hayricks and barns full of straw were fired, to deny them to the enemy. She wrote:

It was said that the Cossacks had received orders to force all the inhabitants to leave their homes so they could not act as spies. In order that the enemy should encounter widespread devastation, the homesteads were set on fire and crops destroyed. The peasants were heart-rending. They took what they could with them but before long the animals’ strength gave out and we would see panting, dying creatures by the roadside, unable to go any farther. One woman, with a sleeping infant in her arms, was bowed almost double by a large wicker basket containing poultry, which was strapped to her back. Sometimes a cart had broken down and the family, bewildered and frightened, chose to remain with their precious possessions, until they too were driven onwards by the threatening knout of the Cossack or the more terrifying prospect of the proximity of the enemy.

Near Lublin in the salient 5,000 Cossack cavalry and Russian artillery wiped out two crack Austrian cavalry regiments, mostly killed in medieval manner by sabre or lance. Knox described one Austrian officer taken prisoner after having the whole of his lower jaw carried away on the point of a lance. Joseph Bumby described his capture like this:

I was left alone in front of the Russian trenches with six dead men on my left and the forest on my right. The Russians were 200 paces behind me when I was shot in the neck. In the evening when the firing died down, some Russian soldiers came close and called out to me. One escorted me to a house in the village of Něgartova where they gave me bread, tea and cigarettes, but they stole my gloves and some canned goods I had. Then they gave me some straw to sleep on.

One always recalls the first night in captivity, after which it all becomes a blur.

After General Alexander von Linsingen recaptured Strij with the Galician oilfields, which were 60 per cent British-owned, a cartel of businessmen in Berlin pre-echoed Hitler’s plan to enslave the populations of Russia, Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states. The southern end of the Russian lines was now floating unanchored and Mackensen continued pressing his advantage for four months with the tsarist forces retreating all along the Russian fronts – which ran from Latvia in the north, looped around Warsaw and, with most of Galicia back in Austrian hands, continued south to the Romanian border.

On 7 July Russian forces took thousands of POWs on the northern front and pressed on to take the key fortresses at Königsberg and Allenstein before being driven back. Florence Farmborough’s mobile surgical unit was then attached to 5th Caucasian Infantry Corps. Her diary records that, of 25,000 men, only 2,000 were left. But the major defeat of that terrible midsummer was due to a joint German and Austrian push towards Warsaw. Although Stavka managed to extricate three armies from encirclement, once the loss of the Polish salient became inevitable, an evacuation of all civilians was ordered, with the destruction of all homes, food and animals in the scorched-earth policy used against Napoleon. Knox recorded the start of the Third Battle for Warsaw on 13 July, of which the first warning came when human intelligence indicated that the frontier railway stations at Willenberg, Soldau and Neidenburg were being enlarged to handle more traffic. After a feint along the River Vistula, the Germans opened up a hurricane barrage on 12 July, which showed that they had no shortage of shells on this occasion. The weather had been dry and roads were at their best, so one corps of Russian 1st Army had to counter forty-two large-calibre enemy guns with only two of its own, with the result that an entire Siberian division was virtually wiped out amid widespread panic. The infantry attack came in on 13 July, when the Russian troops withdrew from the front line without pausing to defend a second defensive line that had been prepared on the line Przasnysz–Tsyekhanov–Plonsk–Chervinsk. The majority of Russian conscripts being of peasant origin, when a scorched-earth policy was ordered in retreats, they routinely drove off livestock and looted other possessions from civilians, which slowed down their movement, with the result during this retreat the enemy cavalry caught up and broke through in the centre of the line, attacking the slow-moving and vulnerable transport columns. The term ‘scorched earth’ requires clarification. It seems that poor peasants lost everything, as did the Jews. But noble estates belonging to rich Polish landowners who had connections with German, Austrian and Russian high commands, could ‘arrange’ for their lands and property to be left intact.

On 16 July the fortified line Makov–Naselsk–Novo Georgievsk was reached, where Russian 4th Corps was sent immediately into combat as they stepped off the trains from Warsaw. Even this desperate measure was too little, too late. On the night of 18 July the retreat continued to the River Narev. After four German divisions forced a bridgehead on the right bank, it was decided to evacuate Warsaw. By this time, Russian 2nd Army had only a single corps remaining on the left bank, 4 miles outside the city. On the night of 4 August this too retreated to the right bank, after which the Vistula bridges were blown at 0300hrs on 5 August. The German scouts reached the left bank at 6 a.m.

By the time Warsaw fell to Mackensen that day, Russian losses in the war totalled 1.4 million casualties and nearly a million officers and men taken prisoner. The ‘black summer’ continued, but the German advance – in places up to 125 miles from the nearest railhead – was fraught with problems, corps commanders complaining that fodder for horses was impossible to obtain in sufficient quantity as they drove through primeval forest and hit the Pripyat marshes where, ironically, there was no drinking water for men or horses until it had been boiled.

There was already trouble brewing in the subject nations on both sides. A Czech independence faction wanted to use the war to break away from Austrian domination. The Slovaks wanted independence from Hungary. If not the Tsar, at least the Russian government was aware that the Finns, Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, as well as the Caucasian nations subdued in the nineteenth century, were all waiting for the right moment to escape from Russian hegemony. In a feeble attempt to purchase the loyalty of the vassal races, the tsarist government promised reforms – which stopped short of independence – to Poles and Finns, to the Slavs of Galicia and to the Jews, although Nicholas was a strident anti-Semite.

Morale in some Russian units was still good although losses already totalled 3.8 million killed, wounded and taken prisoner. Even these figures are to some extent conjectural. General Hindenburg wrote:

In the Great War ledger the page on which the Russian losses were written had been torn out. No one knows the figure. 5 millions or 8 millions? We too have no idea. All we know is that sometimes in our battles with the Russians we had to remove the mounds of enemy corpses in order to get a clear field of fire against fresh assaulting waves.

On the day following the surrender of Warsaw, Colonel Knox lunched about 1,000yd from the firing line with the commander of the elite Preobrazhenskii Guards Regiment, founded by Peter the Great. They ate from a camp table covered with a clean white cloth and all the officers seemed in excellent spirits. When Knox asked about strategy, one of them joked: ‘We will retire to the Urals. When we get there, the enemy’s pursuing army have dwindled to a single German and a single Austrian. The Austrian will, according to custom, give himself up as a prisoner, and we will kill the German.’ There was laughter all round.

In another light-hearted moment Knox recorded two Jews discussing the progress of the war in a market. When one said, ‘Our side will win,’ and the other agreed, a Pole standing nearby asked which side was ‘ours’. Both the Jews said: ‘Why, the side that will win.’

What was the truth of the Russian belief that Slavs in Austro-Hungarian uniform would willingly surrender at the first opportunity? Firstly, as Bolshevik commissars were to do with fellow Russians a few years later, the officers and senior NCOs of Conrad’s predominantly Slavic units were ordered to shoot any men preparing to give up without a fight – as did also British and French NCOs and military police on the Western Front. Secondly, unless all the men in a particular group were agreed about surrender, there was always the possibility of an informer giving away the plan. Ferdinand Filacek was a Czech metal-worker from Litomysl who was called up, aged 18, in August 1914. Arriving at the front in mid-November, he was taken prisoner near Novy Sad on 5 December. It is true that he was temporarily out of danger, but the next year was spent in three different POW camps at Kainsk, Novo-Nikolajevsk and Semipalatinsk (modern Semeï in Kazakhstan) a sparsely inhabited area 2,000 miles east of Moscow, where the Soviet Union would explode hundreds of nuclear devices during the Cold War.

Ottoman Enemies: Austria and Russia

In 1643 the Ottomans retook Baghdad from Persia; in the 1660s the Koprulu grand viziers finally destroyed Venetian power in the Levant, and took Ukraine; in 1711 Peter the Great and his army were holed up on the River Pruth, and sued for an abject peace; even in the 1730s the Austrians, hoping for a whirlwind victory like the one Prince Eugene had won for them twenty years before, were driven out of Belgrade instead. Sometimes it seemed that by a convulsive effort the empire could shake off lethargy and confusion, and discover some of its old direction.

But the troughs from which the Ottomans climbed were deeper every time. In 1674 they lost their first land battle against the Habsburgs at St Gotthard. Then came the crushing failure at Vienna in 1683; a string of defeats culminating in the humiliating treaty of Karlowitz in 1699; the no less disastrous treaty of Passarowitz, in 1718; the inescapable rise of Russian power in the eighteenth century, and the indefatigable resistance of Persia. These were hammer blows the empire sought to deflect by a variety of retreats: into diplomacy, safer territory, nostalgic fantasy, or selfishness. People moved to carve themselves out a place in an enterprise which struggled, first to maintain the status of a lofty power, then against failure, and lastly against disintegration, as the effort to pull together and recoup grew harder with the years.

The treaty of Belgrade in 1739, and treaties with Persia in 1748, gave the empire almost half a century of unprecedented peace. When the Ottomans chose to break that peace with a new series of Russian wars in 1784, they were roundly defeated, and the exercise proved only how fantastic all their expectations had become, and what little use they had made of this respite. By the end of the eighteenth century, Russian armies could lunge at Edirne; Napoleon took Egypt in 1800; and the integrity of Ottoman dominion, such as it was, was maintained as much by the bickerings of foreign diplomats as by any active policy of the state.

Some say that the causes of Ottoman decline are to be sought on the periphery, which no longer provided the empire with fresh blood; others blame it on the behaviour of the palace. Old-fashioned historians observed that the warrior blood of early sultans had been diluted, drop by drop, by the foreign slave-girls of the harem; as late as 1911 Professor Libyer computed the falling-off, and declared that the Ottoman Sultan possessed no more than one part in a million of Turkish blood (another historian corrected him by factoring in the Turkish odalisques, and thus arrived at a sum of about 1/16,000). But they also point to the entry of Muslim boys into the slave caste of the empire. Some see the empire’s nemesis not in western imbroglios but in the perpetual struggle with Shi’ite Persia, which promoted a stale orthodoxy and beggared the treasury. Foreign historians tend to blame the international forces of capitalism – their capital, their force – and suggest that the West reduced the empire to a peripheral producer of raw materials. Turkish historians repatriate the faults: they demonstrate that western trade had a negligible influence on the empire until the nineteenth century. But the military experts, taking the last Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683 as a moment of reckoning, suggest that Austria and Russia were beginning to learn lessons that the Ottomans themselves had already started to forget.

War provided an excuse to raise more taxes, a full quarter of which were spent on the Sultan and his palace. War took the janissaries and the spahi cavalry off the streets. War brought the Ottoman Empire into the field, kindled some of the old flame, and set the elderly mechanism creaking and whirring into life again. Success or failure at the march’s end was really beside the point; and wars continued to be punctiliously waged even when Ottoman armies journeyed, not as a glorious caravan to lands of booty, but to dismal and near-inevitable defeats.

Both Austria and Russia benefited from coming late to the imperial feast: they were able to arrange their command structures, their tax-gathering efforts, and their technology to suit the modern style of warfare. The superiority of massive infantry divisions backed by mobile field artillery over medieval cavalry charges and heavy bronze siege cannon had been proved in Central Europe during the Thirty Years’ War, when the strategy had been imported from France and Italy. It demanded much more from the state, for while knights who took revenues from their own lands were satisfied with the plunder they could seize from others, and remained, in essence, marauding hordes, the new style of warfare demanded huge discipline, systems of co-ordination, and a massive investment of funds – training, wages and supply. This in turn called for a very efficient tax system, encouraging the growth of a sophisticated bureaucracy backed by military force: if the countryside was to be milked, it had to be held hard.

The Russians eventually turned out to be very good at this. With their seemingly limitless reserves of manpower, they were quick to settle, cultivate and tax newly conquered lands, which paid for the army moving up ahead. Because they were moving on the whole into underpopulated territory, north and north-west of the Black Sea, their conquests had greater homogeneity than the Austrians could impose in Central Europe, or the Ottomans had ever considered imposing on the Balkans when they slipped in their horsemen as one link in the tax system. The passage of Ottoman armies, not composed of disciplined conscripts but of predatory horsemen and hired guns, and the high-handed attitude of the privileged janissaries towards peasants, did nothing to encourage settlement on the Ottoman frontier. Austria and Russia used armies as a palisade behind which people could be settled for tax and cultivation, which financed the next advance. The Ottomans left settlement to private initiative.

The support mechanisms which the Ottomans had excelled at establishing from early times were now looking old-fashioned. The guild-bound artisans of Constantinople were not up to manufacturing matériel and arms on the scale that modern war demanded. The tax system was fairly rudimentary, and nothing in Ottoman experience or training prepared them for the business of managing the enormous funds a modern state was obliged to raise, protect and disburse for war. Ottomans did not, on the whole, engage in trade; they worked in administration; their minorities, Greeks, Jews and Armenians, separated from them by a gulf of culture and sympathy, traditionally looked after the money side.

The Austrian years were dominated by Prince Eugene of Savoy, who brought drill and discipline, promotion by merit and a clear command structure to the Austrian armies. Within a few years the Austrians were able to inflict regular defeats on the Ottomans with armies no larger than before. Under Eugene, the Austrians had taken Belgrade and Nis; in 1697 they had defeated Sultan Mustafa IV in person at Zenta, on the lower Tisza, thwarting Ottoman efforts to recover the middle Danube, and created the conditions by which the Habsburgs gained Hungary and Transylvania in the peace of Karlowitz in 1699. Following a resumption of war, the treaty of Passarowitz in 1718 established Habsburg rule over Serbia itself, and it might have seemed that the Austrians were poised to sweep the Ottomans back into Asia. But ‘pride spread the veil of negligence over the eye of sagacity’, as an Ottoman historian once wrote. Eugene’s brilliance and daring so overawed his junior officers that when he was dead, and they had the command, they fatally sought to imitate his daring, while possessing none of his brilliance. Trying to repeat history without Eugene in the campaigns of 1734–6 they found themselves losing most of their gains to Ottoman armies which, if not brilliantly generalled, and no longer splendidly equipped, were very obdurate. The treaty of Belgrade in 1739 overturned many of the decisions of Passarowitz, and Serbia was returned to the empire.

The spirit of victory now moved decisively to Russia. The Tsars began to develop a sort of scientific rhythm to secure and settle the great steppe, which extended south of Muscovy to the northern shores of the Black Sea; after which they could reach out with both arms to encircle the so-called Turkish lake. By 1774, when Russia inflicted the humiliating treaty of Kucuk Kainardji on the Ottomans, Austria’s own twin-headed eagle seemed to peer uncertainly now east, now west; and in token of her confusion she was working as Russia’s poor relation, in the field at least. Austrian armies suffered one of their most terrible defeats near Slatina in 1788, when the order to halt one night was mistaken, by men further down the column, as the shout of ‘Allah!’ Believing the Turks had sprung an ambush, the troops panicked. The drivers of the ammunition carts lashed their horses to full speed, and at the terrible sound of their wheels, which sounded to the infantry like the charge of enemy cavalry, the soldiers fell out of line and clustered together in terrified huddles, firing wildly in all directions. At daybreak, without an enemy in sight, the corpses of 10,000 Austrian soldiers lay scattered across the snow.

The momentum of Russian victory, though, was slow to gather. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the Russians were harassing and nibbling at the frontiers of the Crimea, where the treaty of Karlowitz had given them a toehold. They had, as the Tartar chief informed the Sultan, begun to intrigue with his orthodox flock, reaya, the Tsar casting himself in the light of a redeemer. The Swedes, at war with Russia, urged the dangers of the bear. In 1710, accordingly, the Grand Mufti issued a fatwa licensing war against Russia as not only justifiable but necessary. Thirty thousand janissaries were enrolled; the Kapudan Pasha readied the fleet, and the Russian ambassador was clapped up in the Castle of the Seven Towers, by way of declaring war.

Peter the Great secured his advance into Ottoman realms by buying the favour of the two hospodars, of Wallachia and Moldavia – but Prince Brancovich of Moldavia was playing a deep game, and when Peter’s army had crossed the River Prut to begin its advance through the principality the Tsar found that the supplies he wanted were not forthcoming. His men were already suffering from hunger and disease, and he boldly determined to push on and capture a vast stockpile of weapons and food which the Ottomans had made for themselves further south. The Ottomans had undoubtedly benefited from the unpalatable defeats registered by the treaty of Karlowitz twelve years before, and had been spurred into making improvements in their army and intelligence. While Peter marched down the right bank of the Prut, believing the Grand Vizier’s army still far away, the Ottoman army was even now advancing up the left bank to meet him. Ten thousand Crimean Tartars had brushed aside an advance guard which attempted to prevent them crossing, and very soon the entire Russian army found itself holed up between the Prut and a marsh. From the opposite bank the Ottoman guns prevented any soldier from approaching the river, and after two days of desperate fighting the Russians were unable to break the Turkish encirclement.

On 21 July 1711, Peter signed a treaty promising to keep within his own dominions in future, and to retreat from Azov, which had given him an entry into the Black Sea. Entirely at the mercy of the Grand Vizier, he was allowed to withdraw on astonishingly light terms. Peter himself never re-opened hostilities with the empire in his lifetime; but the project was only deferred, and in 1774, when the situation was reversed – when the Russians had swept victorious right up to the Balkan passes, and the Vizier discovered that he had just 8,000 men to defend the Bulgarian pass at Sumla and sued for peace, the Russian general Romanzoff delayed putting his signature to the treaty for four days, allowing it to fall on the anniversary of the treaty of the Pruth, to expunge the memory of that humilating reverse.

The treaty of Kucuk Kainardji, signed on 21 July 1774, was very different from the treaty extracted from Peter some sixty years before; it mirrored, rather, the treaty of Karlowitz signed with the Austrians in 1699, when the Ottomans were forced to give way in Central Europe. In 1774 they lost control of the northern shore of the Black Sea. Kucuk Kainardji made the Crimean Tartars independent of the Sultan, an obvious preliminary to their absorption into the Russian Empire, which took place ten years later. The Sultan was permitted to retain his role as Caliph, but this was a shadowy title at best (Selim the Grim, who had allegedly earned it by his conquest of Arabia and the Holy Cities, had not used it himself; its importance rose only as the temporal authority of the Sultan waned). The Principalities, Moldavia and Wallachia, were returned to the Porte, but the Russian ambassador was given the right to make representations on their behalf. Russian merchant ships were allowed access to Ottoman waters, which meant that for the first time since the Conquest, foreign ships might pass through the Bosphorus. The Russian ambassador was entitled to represent the interests of a new church that was to be built in Constantinople, as well as its ministers; and by sleight of hand this became, in the end, a claim by the Tsar to act as ultimate protector of all his co-religionists in the Sultan’s realms.

At St Gotthard, in 1674, the Ottomans had suffered their first true defeat on an open field (‘Who are these young girls?’ the Grand Vizier wanted to know when he saw the French cavalry advancing, with shaven faces and powdered wigs: but ‘Allons! allons! tue! tue!’ was a cry the Turks did not forget). The Austrian general in command during that engagement wrote later of the tremendous courage and obstinacy displayed by the Ottoman troops, but he was astonished, too, by their inexplicable failure to make use of the pike, which he called ‘the queen of weapons’.

The Ottomans did have a horrid arsenal to draw on all the same, from jabby little daggers to a sinister militaristic version of the long-handled scythe; yet a century later it was not the pike but the bayonet that Ottoman armies lacked. In the summer of 1774 General Suvarov appeared as Russia’s genius, and the bayonet’s devotee. ‘The ball is a fool – the bayonet a hero!’ was one of his maxims. He taught his soldiers to attack instantly and decisively: ‘attack with the cold steel – push hard with the bayonet!’ His soldiers adored him, and he never lost a single battle. He joshed with the men, called the common soldiers ‘brother’, and shrewdly presented the results of detailed planning and careful strategy as the work of inspiration. He announced the capture of Ismail in 1791 to the Tsarina Catherine in a doggerel couplet, after the assault had been pressed from house to house, room to room, and nearly every Muslim man, woman and child in the city had been killed in three days of uncontrolled massacre, 40,000 Turks dead, a few hundred taken into captivity. For all his bluffness, Suvarov later told an English traveller that when the massacre was over he went back to his tent and wept.

Phönix D I

Whereas Austria-Hungary had developed one of the world’s first successful reconnaissance aircraft-the Etrich Taube-it lacked the financial resources and industrial infrastructure to see substantial increases in aircraft production until the last 2 years of the war. One reason for its problems was that its overreliance upon Lohnerwerke GmbH before the war had left Austria-Hungary without a strong domestic industry, forcing it to allow German firms (Albatros, Aviatik, and Deutsche Flugzeug Werke) to establish subsidiary divisions within the country, something it had been reluctant to do before the war. In addition, Austria-Hungary allowed the somewhat unscrupulous financier Camillo Castiglioni to obtain a virtual monopoly over the aircraft industry when he purchased Igo Etrich’s Brandenburg company (later known as Hansa-Brandenburg) and gained controlling interest in Phönix Flugzeugwerke A. G. and the Ungarische Flugzeug Werke AG (UFAG). Compared with their German counterparts, Austro-Hungarian firms were far less efficient, with approximately twice as many workers being required to build an airplane in 1918. As a result, Austria-Hungary had no choice but to import aircraft from Germany to meet its wartime needs. Nevertheless, the Austro-Hungarian aircraft industry did produce one of the war’s better fighters in the Phönix D. I, but it unfortunately came too late.

The Phönix D. I biplane was intended as a replacement for the Hansa-Brandenburg D. I. Although it was produced in smaller numbers (120 D. I, 45 D. II, and 48 D. IIa fighters) than the Aviatik D. I and did not begin entering service until October 1917, the Phönix D-series fighters are generally considered the best fighters designed and produced in Austria-Hungary.

Previously, the Phonix Flugzeug-Werke firm had been contracted to produce the Hansa-Brandenburg D I fighter under license. When it became apparent by 1917 that the infamous Star-strutter could not be developed further, the company embarked on a new aircraft. The design eventually incorporated a fuselage similar to the D I and also sported wings of unequal span that ended in rounded wingtips and swept-back leading edges. It was also considerably more powerful than the earlier machine, being propelled by a 200- horsepower Hiero engine. One interesting innovation was locating the armament within the engine cowling. This enhanced streamlining but placed the guns beyond the pilot’s reach if they jammed. The resulting craft was faster in level flight but somewhat unstable and slow-climbing. The Austrian government, hardpressed on all fronts, nonetheless ordered the new craft into immediate production. In the spring of 1918 it entered service as the Phonix D I and was deployed with army and navy units.

The new machine was far from perfect, but it represented a dramatic improvement over the earlier Star-strutter. In capable hands the D I proved more than a match for the Italian Hanriots and SPADs. The D. II series was lightened by approximately 100 lbs and featured a more aerodynamic wing design, resulting in improved maneuverability. The D. IIa was powered by a 230 hp Hiero inline motor, which increased maximum speed to 115 mph and slightly improved its rate of climb. All versions featured twin-synchronized Schwarzlose machine guns, but they were placed within the engine cowling, which denied the pilot access in the event of a jam. Nevertheless, it proved to be a match for Allied fighters.

The new D II model had introduced balanced elevators and other refinements, but the craft was judged too stable for violent acrobatics. On this basis, a few machines were fitted with cameras to pioneer single-seat high-speed reconnaissance work.

An improved model, the D. III, was entering production just as the war ended, but none saw service. Sweden purchased twenty-one Phönix D. III fighters after the war and later produced an additional seventeen after obtaining the license rights. It remained in service with the Swedish Army Air Force until 1933.

Phonix then concocted the D III model shortly before hostilities concluded. It featured a more powerful engine and ailerons on all four wings, which greatly improved all-around maneuverability. The war ended before the D III could be deployed, but 158 examples of all versions were delivered.

After the war, Sweden expressed interest in obtaining several copies of the D III along with manufacturing rights. Seventeen were ultimately constructed, and they rendered useful service until 1933.

Type: Fighter

Dimensions: wingspan, 32 feet, 2 inches; length, 21 feet, 9 inches; height, 9 feet, 5 inches

Weights: empty, 1,510 pounds; gross, 2,097 pounds

Power plant: 1 x 230-horsepower Hiero liquid-cooled engine

Performance: maximum speed, 117 miles per hour; ceiling, 22,310 feet; range, 217 miles

Armament: 2 x 7.92mm machine guns

Service dates: 1918-1933