The Austrian Army Takes Stock: The 1798 Adjustierungsvorschrift

For the Austrian army it was indeed a moment to reflect on what had gone wrong in Italy and which reforms of tactics were now necessary. The practices of Guibert, the callous breaking of the rules of ‘civilised’ warfare, required a response. The Archduke Charles began to apply his considerable intellectual talents to thinking about new strategies to counter the innovative techniques of warfare used by the armies of Revolutionary France, now rapidly increased by the Levée en masse.

More formally, the Emperor and the ever-byzantine Aulic Council (Hofkriegsrat) focused on ‘essentials’. That meant first and foremost adapting the army’s appearance to the new era. The Adjustierungsvorschrift 1798 is a formidable document. Born in the aftermath of Napoleon’s victories in Italy and the surrender of Mantua, it is a clear attempt to breathe new life into an army fighting a modern war with an antique mentality.

The language alone was remarkable. Given that it bore the Imperial imprimatur it offered neither subtlety nor nuance in its condemnation of sloppy practices which by implication had cost the Imperial House so much blood and treasure in the fertile lands of the Po valley. The document was designed to shake the army out of its complacency and it brooked no argument.

For example the tendency of officers to wear items of civilian dress was described as a ‘dangerous delusion’ and a practice that not only ‘did not father a military spirit’ but was to be systematically ‘stamped out’ (ausgerottet). All luxury was to be eschewed and generals were not to appear in front of their men without their coats ‘fully buttoned’. Wigs were considered especially egregious and on these, along with the precise profile of officers’ porte-epée sword knots, the appropriate dimensions of command sticks and the amount of hair permissible under headdress, the new regulations were rigorous in attempting to impose a strict uniformity.

Visually the most significant development of the new uniform regulations was the phasing out of the old casquet headdress with its raised front (soon to be embraced and improved by the British army) in favour of a more impressive classical Roman-style helmet with a black and yellow crest. The crest was made of wool for other ranks and silk for the officers. Field and staff officers were to be equipped with helmets whose crests were made of a more luxurious ‘unturned’ silk.

The helmet, which was to be an imposing six-and-a-half Zoll high (16 inches), fitted the Josephinian legacy of relentless crusade towards total uniformity. It was to be worn by cavalry and infantry, and even Jaeger units, alike. Its front was adorned with a brass plate bearing the Imperial cipher. Ironically, this headdress would constitute one of the most expensive items of attire in the history of the Austrian army and would within ten years be replaced by a cheaper bell-topped shako.

While these regulations were implemented, Austria not only rearmed, she attempted to tie the dynasty to the army more closely. The Archduke Charles and his brother the Archduke John were both seen as figures to be exploited by the Emperor to raise the prestige of his House while at the same time ensuring that his own personal position remained uncompromised by any reversal in the fortunes of war. Thugut was convinced that in this way a certain counter to the prevailing zeitgeist could be organised to make sure the dynasty survived the storms that clearly were coming. That these tempests were on their way was the legacy of Campo Formio and a French army which needed to be supported by the loot and resources of countries outside France.

Austria had not been defeated. She had lost a few frontier battles but was still strong enough to bar an invading army. With Austria undefeated, Italy remained unconquered and the Napoleonic creation of the Cisalpine Republic as a satellite of France in northern Italy in 1797 remained vulnerable and flawed.

As a quid pro quo for digesting Venice, Austria had recognised the Cisalpine Republic where, by the order of the Directoire, Napoleon had declared the ‘people’ sovereign on 29 June. But in the new state, liberty after three coups d’état was equated with secularisation and the new regime of the Cisalpine Republic degenerated into arbitrary acts of violence and despotism. The earlier work of Joseph II was now brought to its logical conclusion: monasticism was abolished, the Papacy attacked, the churches and clergy pillaged. All religious orders were suppressed and all church property confiscated in two months of 1798. The secularisation of Italy was a tremendous revolution, again offering Vienna a great challenge: how could Austria tolerate Venetia continuing to apply the principles of the Ancien Régime alongside a revolutionary despotism aimed at driving the Catholic Church out of existence? These two systems could not survive side by side without an explosion. Thugut’s diplomacy had made certain that Campo Formio was the beginning of an immense general war, which would only end at Waterloo nearly twenty years later.

THE SECOND AND THIRD COALITION WARS

Although Austria’s armies had a mixed record against Napoleon, the fact remained that her forces were the only reliable ally England possessed. If Revolutionary France was to be contained, the Austrian army was the only instrument capable of doing so. The army continued to be in the forefront of every campaign. That it survived the hammer blows that now rained down upon it was a tribute to the long-lasting effect of reforms a generation earlier.

Barely was the ink dry at Campo Formio than Britain, Russia, Naples and Turkey began to see the ambitions of Revolutionary France in an ever darker light. As these countries drew together, it was apparent that the key to any credible coalition against Napoleon remained Austria. After much promise of gold on the part of London, Austria on 22 June 1799 formally signed a new alliance with Britain.

This war would bring new areas of campaign for the French, notably Egypt. For Austria, Italy would continue as a major theatre of hostilities. But the French remained obsessed with the Rhine. They therefore threatened Germany, which brought them inevitably into conflict with Vienna.

March of Suvorov through the Alps by Vasily Surikov.

The Swiss campaign

In the event, when war came, it was Switzerland that was to be the first battlefield to draw blood. Then as now, the Alpine lands were a strategic factor. They offered Paris the chance to cut the shortest lines of communication between the Austrian forces on the Danube and the Austrian army on the Po. Moreover, a strong position in Switzerland could always threaten any plans the allies might have for the invasion of southern France. An army of about 30,000 men under Masséna pushed east into the Engadine but soon faced a much stronger Austrian force under Hoetze and Bellegarde, a capable general of Saxon extraction. At Feldkirch the French were repulsed in some style. This encouraged the Swiss, unenthusiastic about the French occupation, to rise up and threaten Masséna’s lines of communication.

Meanwhile the French general Jourdan, nicknamed by his soldiers ‘the anvil’ on account of his always being beaten, crossed into the Black Forest at Basle where he promptly found himself face to face with the Archduke Charles at the head of 60,000 seasoned troops. On 21 March 1799, the Archduke attacked near Stockach, sending Jourdan reeling back towards the Rhine. At the crisis of this battle, the Archduke put himself at the head of six battalions of Hungarian grenadiers and twelve squadrons of cuirassiers in order to break up the attack on his right flank. It was an early sign of that complete disregard for his own person which became one of Charles’s hallmarks as a military leader. This physical courage was to be a feature of the Archduke’s generalship as much as his intellectual qualities.

Although the Austrians had fought well, it was their superiority in numbers that had, more than anything, carried the day. The Austrian grenadiers, formed into powerful elite tactical units following recent reforms, performed well. Notwithstanding his personal bravery, the Archduke was persuaded to relinquish the leadership of this attack to Karl Aloys zu Fürstenberg fifteen minutes after it started. Fürstenberg was promptly felled by case shot, forcing the Archduke to resume command.

Jourdan’s losses were about 5,000. The hotly contested woods of Stockach had cost the Austrians several thousand casualties as well. In typical Austrian style Charles contented himself with having put the French Army of the Rhine out of action rather than pursuing it and destroying it. To risk a battle when one’s opponents were already demoralised and defeated was not the Habsburg style and the Hofkriegsrat Aulic Council decreed that crossing the Rhine was too risky an operation. The Archduke was ordered to await reinforcements from Bellegarde and the arrival of Korsakow’s Russian corps. Jourdan was in any event already a broken man. Masséna on taking over the remnants of his army was horrified at the condition in which he found the troops.

Six weeks later, strengthened and reinforced, the allies renewed their attacks on the French positions around Zurich and the Archduke’s army crossed the Rhine near Constance. The French could not face such a concentration of forces and by mid-June the Austrians were in Zurich and the French had been driven off the St Gotthard Pass. Here the Archduke halted once again, though for practical reasons. His opponent, Masséna, had been re-inforced and had constructed a formidable defensive position on the Limmat behind Zurich. Reconnoitring the position, Charles saw immediately that to storm it would cost him many casualties. Critics of the Archduke in Vienna had already begun to play on the tensions between him and his brother the Emperor. Charles felt he could not risk putting a foot wrong with the cream of the Habsburg army if he was to enjoy the support of the court and government. Ideally, Charles envisaged a convergence attack but the other prong of this scheme, General Hadik’s men, had just been sent to join the Russians in northern Italy.

In Italy meanwhile the French were also checked. Schere, leading a fumbling attack on Vero, was beaten off by Kray at Magnano in the first week in April. By 6 April the French were behind the Mincio and by the 12th they had fallen back behind the Adda. In Rome and Naples, French troops were ordered to evacuate. Everywhere the military genius of Napoleon was absent, and indifferent leadership compromised French arms. When the Russian Suvorov joined Kray with his 30,000 men the allies could deploy 90,000 men and the Russian was made commander-in-chief. Napoleon was unimpressed; he described Suvorov as having the soul but not the brain of a great commander.

On 21 April Serurier’s division, left imprudently on the left bank of the Adda, was attacked by Suvorov and the Austrians. In a brisk action at Cassano, the French were virtually annihilated by an Austrian cavalry charge led by Melas, a talented officer and a Greek born in Transylvania. Once again the Austrian cavalry, in particular the Chevauxleger squadrons, proved that they were the most formidable horsed arm in Europe. Everywhere, the French fell back, heading for the safety of the Ligurian Alps. By late May, the Russians were in Turin, having defeated the French with Austrian help at the ferocious Battle of Novi.

At Novi, the French under Joubert effectively deployed their new tactic of mobile skirmishing infantry. The Austrian grenadiers were repeatedly driven back by swarms of French sharpshooters carefully positioned around their exposed flanks as they advanced. It fell to a young Austrian colonel who was Melas’s adjutant to see and suggest that the key to the French position was the right flank and ask for two brigades (Mitrovsky and Loudon) to help storm the position. This movement late in the day finally disordered the French whose commander Joubert fell with a bullet through his head just where the fighting was at its most violent. The Loudon Brigade of Grenadiers took their objectives at the point of the bayonet spurred on by the young colonel whose name was already becoming a legend: Radetzky.

In his official bulletin to the Emperor, Melas brought this name to wider attention:

I can find neither the words nor the expressions which can do justice to the courage and heroism of the army on this day. … Finally I cannot fail to mention to his Majesty the conduct of Lieutenant Colonel Count Radetsky who in so many moments displayed decisiveness, courage and restless energy and in this battle organising and leading the attack columns which contributed significantly to our victory.

Meanwhile another French force under Macdonald, which had evacuated Naples and attempted to menace the allied lines of communication, was caught by a combined Russo-Austrian force under Suvorov at Trebbia. In nearly three days of fierce fighting Macdonald lost more than 10,000 men and nearly all his guns. After barely three months, the French position in Italy had crumbled. In July both Alessandria and Mantua, which had been defended by French garrisons, had surrendered. Novi and Trebbia simply completed the picture of Gallic gloom.

Fortunately for the French, the old evil of malaria had once again sapped the Russian and Austrian soldiers’ strength and, for the moment, exhaustion prevented pursuit. Moreover, as was often to happen between the Russians and the Austrians, there emerged tensions at the level of command. Relations between Suvorov and Melas were cordial and the Russian made much use of the staff infrastructure the Austrian High Command put at his disposal but the allies moved at a slower pace than their opponents. Their failure to prevent Macdonald escaping with the remnants of his defeated army to join up again with Moreau showed that the Austrian military command had not digested the lesson that the new era of war exacted a high price for lethargy.

Moreover, there were political difficulties. Thugut in Vienna was unamused to hear that Suvorov single-handedly had restored the Piedmontese monarchy. Vienna was also understandably cautious at the prospect of invading France. A vigorous thrust towards Grenoble might have brought the entire edifice down but Vienna as usual was concerned with her own long-term interests, and these dictated action nearer to home. If there were to be an invasion of France then it would have to be through the old Austrian crown lands of Lorraine so that, when the time came to make another peace, these provinces could be under Habsburg occupation.

Archduke Charles withdrawn: Napoleon returns

Thus the fateful decision was taken to shift the bold Archduke Charles away from Zurich where he had achieved so much and move him back to the tributaries of the Rhine. In his place would come the Russians under Korsakow, a far less gifted commander than Suvorov. This weakening of the allies in Switzerland essentially doomed the coalition. As a British diplomat observed, ‘le vrai général’ in Austria was not Melas or the Archduke but Thugut.

A British expeditionary force of perhaps no more than 25,000 men might at this stage have ended the war, but no such force materialised and Masséna’s brilliant delaying tactics gave Buonaparte time to develop his strategy of threatening both the Danube valley and northern Italy. The stage was set for the moment when Napoleon returned from his triumphs in the shadows of the Pyramids and political victory in Paris to assume control over the armies he had led to victory barely a year earlier.

While the Archduke returned with his troops towards Mannheim, Mássena saw his chance. He faced only 45,000 Austro-Russian troops and the Russian contingent was inferior in quality and leadership. Mássena had been re-inforced and he now commanded 70,000 troops. On 25 September he attacked his opponents arranged in front of Zurich and sent them reeling. The French hold on Switzerland was consolidated further by movements that neutralised Suvorov’s and Korsakow’s attempts to renew the offensive.

Had the international situation been a conventional one, a negotiated peace might at this stage have been possible but Napoleon needed a dazzling military victory to shore up his domestic success after his elevation to First Consul. His regime needed glory as well as order to survive. Moreover, in Thugut he had a diplomatic adversary who was unwilling to concede defeat even if it meant the prosecution of a ‘war to the knife’. Events were all moving in Napoleon’s favour. The Russian–Austrian relationship was deteriorating as Thugut’s war aims were perceived by the Russians to have let them down in Switzerland. Thugut had become annoyed with his Russian partners over Piedmont and these feelings were reciprocated when the Austrians claimed Ancona. The Tsar had had enough of Austrian friction. He abruptly instructed his generals to begin their withdrawal. Russian troops would cease to be a relevant factor by February 1800. By holding Switzerland, the French had frustrated any attempt to invade the south of France.

The Austrians still possessed two fine armies in the field. That under Melas in northern Italy numbered nearly 110,000 men, while under Kray, in southern Germany, there was an even stronger force of 145,000. Napoleon would need to destroy one of these if his aims were to be realised. As their destruction would open the road to Vienna, the forces of Kray were Napoleon’s preferred target. But political problems soon arose over this.

Chief of these was Moreau, who commanded the French Army of the Rhine. He was both stubborn and unimaginative. Even after the events of Brumaire, Napoleon’s position was not so powerful that he could remove as prestigious a commander as Moreau. Moreover as First Consul there was a legal issue as to whether Napoleon could hold command in the field. Therefore Napoleon tried to foist on to Moreau his plan for the destruction of Kray by a swift march to outflank and annihilate the Austrian right wing. But Moreau found the strategy too bold and risky. As Napoleon wrote later from St Helena, ‘Le plan que Moreau ne comprend pas’ would have to be executed in northern Italy, very much Napoleon’s second choice, as a victory there was unlikely to end the war.

While Moreau advanced along the Danube sluggishly, Napoleon entered Italy along the most difficult and westernmost of the passes, the St Bernard. He had hoped to cross using the lower passes of the Simplon and St Gotthard but Melas was on the move and he could not risk debouching on to Melas’s troops. Moreover, if he was to rescue all that was left of the army of Italy at Genoa and Suchet’s forces on the Var, time was of the essence. Moreau meanwhile pushed Kray back, capturing some of his depots and taking some 12,000 Austrian troops prisoner. But the decisive battle was skilfully avoided by Kray, who kept his army together in a well-executed withdrawal that deprived Moreau of the ‘battle without a morrow’ which was always Napoleon’s aim.

In Italy, Melas’s troops were thinly spread with some 30,000 of his men pinned down by Suchet on the Var. A further 25,000 of his troops invested Genoa.This made it difficult for Melas to cover all the passes. Apart from a brisk defence at the formidable fortress of Bard where Captain von Bernkopf’s garrison held out for ten days from 21 May until 1 June, Melas’s troops held the Val d’Aosta lightly. The news of Bernkopf’s heroic stand did not reach Melas until Napoleon had managed to pass the bulk of his army over the Alps. When Bernkopf finally surrendered, Napoleon razed the fortress to the ground.

Marengo: a battle won

The Battle of Marengo, by Louis-François Lejeune

As the day of 14 June dawned, Melas’s troops were completing their concentration on the Scrivian plain near the village of Marengo. Melas knew his business well. He was old enough to remember the relevant lessons of the Seven Years War and under him the Habsburg army demonstrated that it had lost none of its ability to mislead its opponents. A successful Austrian strategy of disinformation hoodwinked Napoleon completely. Fires were lit to give the impression that Melas was retreating towards Genoa. A number of ‘agents’ and ‘deserters’ found their way to Napoleon with tales of extremely low morale among the Austrian officers. The French pickets barely a few hundred yards away from the Austrian front line heard signs of movement at night but assumed it was the Austrians retreating. Even when the Austrian artillery opened up at dawn Napoleon believed it was simply a diversion to cover their withdrawal.

After an earlier engagement at Montebello, Melas had sent a trusted spy by the name of Toli to report to Napoleon on 11 June that the Austrians were extremely despondent and were only thinking of retreat. Primed deserters reinforced the message, including a prisoner whom Napoleon personally interrogated. This particular deserter was an émigré cavalry officer still wearing his Bourbon decorations, and his tale of Austrian ‘ruin’ was believed by Napoleon with near-disastrous consequences for him. Napoleon was therefore blissfully unaware of the forces deploying against him. He detached two divisions, one to watch the Po crossing, the other, commanded by Desaix, to march towards Novi in case Melas withdrew towards Genoa. The Austrians by then had seen the French dispositions around Marengo and, organising his army into three columns to cross the river Bormida at daybreak on the 14th, Melas promptly attacked with overwhelming force.

At first none of the French piquets could believe what was happening. As the Austrian columns marched out of their bridgehead in front of Alessandria with flags flying and bands playing, it became ominously clear that this was not the expected prelude to an Austrian withdrawal. Surprised and divided, Napoleon’s men were within hours fighting for their lives against a much larger force. Melas throughout showed considerable tactical flair and by 11.30 a.m., with Ott’s division threatening to outflank the French, the Austrian General Staff felt confident their opponent’s centre was about to break.

This battle, so decisive and important for Napoleon, ironically was a small one with barely 60,000 troops committed in total by both sides. By the standards of the later Napoleonic Wars it was a modest affair; ‘one of the smallest battles we ever fought,’ Radetzky recalled, though its political consequences were to be enormous.

Austrian confidence was justified as the grenadier battalions of Splenyi and the Chevauxleger cavalry of the Lobkowitz regiment had both distinguished themselves in the morning during spirited attacks, notwithstanding a murderous fire put up by the French around the village of Marengo which was protected by the Fontanone river. Radetzky suggested a flank attack on the village across one of the streams and Melas ordered Zach to execute it. But in the first sign of that mental and physical weariness which was to have such devastating consequences for the Austrians later that day, Zach, who had been on unbroken night watches for three days, was so exhausted that, having fallen asleep, he could not be roused quickly. It took him, Radetzky recalls, some time to ‘pull himself together and wake up’.

The flank attack finally went in with great elan before noon. At one stage the Jaeger and the grenadiers of the Splenyi regiment crossed the river Fontanone running over the backs of seventeen tough pioneers who formed a human bridge for forty-five minutes. Their success caught Napoleon by surprise and he tried in vain to deploy his guns. Much of his artillery, however, had been held up crossing the Alps thanks to the tenacious defence at Bard by Bernkopf’s men. By two in the afternoon the French centre was broken and Napoleon reluctantly conceded that he would have to fall back if he was to avoid the kind of annihilation he usually reserved for his opponents. Melas, leading a charge of the Kaiser Chevauxlegers personally (with Radetzky at his side), sealed the fate of Napoleon’s centre, which was forced to construct hastily a fighting withdrawal.

The French Consular Guard, Napoleon’s reserve, was committed and demonstrated the value of shock troops. They first fought stubbornly against an attack by Austrian dragoons, before seeing off the grenadiers of Splenyi. Finally surrounded, they formed a hollow square against the Austrian artillery. This ‘granite redoubt’, as Napoleon later called it, bought valuable time, but at great cost. Of the 800-strong Consular Guard more than 300 fell in less than an hour.

By 3 p.m., seeing the French lines beginning to break, Melas considered the battle won. Marengo was occupied and his grenadiers were triumphantly waving the debris that the French troops had abandoned on the field. French shakos were raised as trophies on the ends of Austrian muskets and bayonets. The units that had poured into Marengo now lost cohesion as they began plundering the abandoned French equipment. They had been fighting without respite for more than six hours.

Their 71-year-old commander, Melas, was also weary. Throughout the battle he had demonstrated an energetic front-line leadership which had been admired by many of the younger Austrian officers. He had taken part in two cavalry charges. Two horses had been shot from beneath him and one of his falls had left his arm severely bruised. As he picked himself up and regarded the battlefield, the General could be forgiven for thinking the battle won. Everywhere he looked, all he could see were the backs of the French infantry carrying out a forced retreat covered by their reserves.

Having been in the saddle for eight hours, and exhausted, he decided to retire from the battle, so he handed over command to his subordinates Kaim and Zach to organise the pursuit. Melas’s orders were clear: they were to destroy as much of the French army as possible with artillery and cavalry before they crossed the river Scrivia. Unfortunately, many of the Austrian generals, seeing their commander abandon the battle presumably to pen a letter to Vienna giving news of a great victory, followed his example.

Melas might be forgiven for underestimating his opponent. Napoleon’s military career lay mostly in the future but the Austrian made the unforgivable error of believing a battle was won when, in reality, it was far from over. It was Torgau all over again, only this time there was no Daun to extricate the Austrians from their fate.

There is no doubt that a determined and energetic pursuit by Zach with his cavalry would have crushed Napoleon before Desaix arrived so dramatically an hour later to turn the tide of battle. But Zach was still exhausted and had been cat-napping yet again when Melas ordered him to take over command. Indeed it was only with the greatest of difficulty that Zach was woken up. His bleary-eyed countenance did not augur well for an energetic pursuit. Meanwhile, rather than let his cavalry and artillery pursue the French, Kaim wasted much time bringing the units in and around Marengo to a semblance of parade ground order. As the Wallis regiment belatedly advanced up the road towards San Giuliano supported by the Liechtenstein Dragoons and artillery, the French began to organise a new line from which to attack the Austrians.

Marengo: a battle lost

While Zach struggled with his exhaustion, on the French side, a youthful, exuberant officer called Desaix, who had been deployed far away from Marengo, had heard the artillery fire of the battle. Immediately, he decided to disobey his orders and march his troops to the sound of the guns. He now arrived to greet Napoleon with the famous words: ‘This battle is completely lost. But there is time to win another.’ As the Austrians slugglishly organised a pursuit column, Desaix reordered his division to attack them. Another young and gifted officer, Kellermann, with barely 400 cuirassiers, charged the leading elements of the Austrian column in the flank with devastating effect just as they were reeling from Desaix’s initial counter-attack. Marshal Marmont recalls in his memoirs how the Austrian grenadiers of the Lattermann regiment were cut to pieces while thousands of Austrian cavalry looked on, seemingly mesmerised and frozen to their position barely a hundred yards distant.

Rarely in military history has a hastily improvised cavalry charge proved more effective. Marmont later said that three minutes earlier and the charge would have been repulsed, while three minutes later it would have come too late and Lattermann’s grenadiers would have broken Desaix’s assault. As Kellerman’s first squadron crashed into the Austrian flank, Desaix fell dead from a musket ball. But he had lived long enough to see the first fruits of his work. When the peaks of the tall Austrian grenadier hats had crested the slight ridge ahead of San Giuliano, the 9th Light Infantry had hurtled towards them with drums beating the pas de charge and with bayonets fixed. At the same time Marmont’s artillery had opened up on them with canister. The effect was dramatic. The grenadiers staggered and fired a volley, and it was Kellerman’s good fortune to strike the grenadiers in the flank ten seconds after they had discharged this volley. Caught in the act of reloading, the grenadiers were defenceless. As the semi-official Austrian account drily noted: ‘This attack, unexpected and executed with surprising swiftness, threw the Austrian infantry into disorder and dispersed it after a short resistance; many men were cut down.’

Under this murderous three-arm assault, coordinated to perfection, the rest of the Austrian column recoiled and then appeared frozen to the ground. A young grenadier ensign was bayoneted and his colour seized as his fellow soldiers looked on in amazement, seemingly paralysed. Behind them, one of their artillery wagons exploded. The Wallis regiment then broke and fled while the grenadiers continued to be slaughtered by Kellerman’s Cuirassiers.

More French cavalry arrived and one trooper seized the astounded Zach by the throat. The Liechtenstein Dragoons who should have immediately grasped the opportunity to counter-attack the French cavalry also seemed rooted to the spot by the sudden transformation of events. As some of Kellerman’s horse charged them they simply fled in terror, stampeding the ranks of the Pilati cavalry brigade who were attempting to ride to the rescue of the infantry. They found themselves surrounded by French cavalry reinforcements organised by Murat and galloped away in panic. Until this moment, the Austrian cavalry had still been regarded as the finest in Europe. Their pitiful performance, coming so suddenly at this stage of the battle, would rankle for generations to come. Even Radetzky in the months before his death would dwell on the Austrian cavalry’s failure to support the grenadiers at Marengo. Their action that evening required ‘closer analysis’ (‘es wäre interessant hierueber näheres zu erfahren’).

One of the Austrian accounts underlined this general incomprehension over the behaviour of the Austrian cavalry that day: ‘No one in the main column could understand the flight of the cavalry. The main Austrian formations, broken by the cavalry fleeing through it, began also to give way.’

Certainly, as Kaim attempted to deploy some infantry, the fleeing cavalry spread only panic and disorder. At one stage it looked as if the entire Austrian central column would be annihilated by the pursuing French. Fortunately for the Austrians, six battalions of fresh grenadiers under Weidenfeld were advancing towards the Austrian centre from Marengo. Their action demonstrated that, ably led, these new elite formations of grenadier battalions could perform wonders when grouped in larger tactical units.

Deploying as if on the parade ground, Weidenfeld’s battalions gave a textbook demonstration of a disciplined rearguard action, forming square to repulse Murat’s cavalry while allowing the fleeing central column to find its way back to the Austrian bridgehead. There a captured French officer observed the chaos and confusion: ‘I have witnessed some defeats in the course of my military career but I never saw anything like this.’ In the stampede this officer was thrown nearly 500 paces.

But despite this panic, the Austrians were not annihilated. Napoleon – or rather, Kellerman and Desaix – had won a great victory but they had not crushed the Austrians. French losses were one in four while Austrian losses were one in five. The Austrian losses still amounted to nearly 6,000 wounded and 963 dead. Though General Hadik died of his wounds, none of the other dead officers was of higher rank than captain. The fourteen officer fatalities were unusually low and hinted at the Austrian army’s officer corps having deteriorated in the 1790s.

But the First Consul had got all that he needed: a brilliant success and all the glory with which to ensure the continuation of his rule. Napoleon understandably named his favourite horse Marengo (at Marengo he had been mounted on another favoured steed Styria), and legend insists that his preferred dish was poulet à la Marengo. Melas cannot be faulted, save for giving up command too early. His troops had on the whole fought well for more than nine hours and his tactical disposition was inspired. He had 25 per cent superiority over his opponents when the battle opened. As one historian has noted: ‘It is hard to ask much more from any commander’s strategy.’

At first Melas could not believe what he was told but the abrupt change in fortune brought him rapidly to his senses and the following day he sued for peace at Alessandria, where Napoleon put the seal on the Austrian surrender of Lombardy and all her strong points in Piedmont. The ‘secondary’ theatre had after all furnished a decisive victory.

The details of the battle that reached Vienna caused consternation and anger. Radetzky later recalled that Melas possessed a ‘head which was better than his feet’. Irrespective of how good his head was, Vienna demanded it on a plate. Together with the hapless Zach, Melas was dismissed. The Austrian forces in Italy were placed under the command of Bellegarde.

The armistice of Alessandria was only a punctuation mark. During the next few months Austria’s army displayed that admirable tenacity which characterised Habsburg forces throughout their struggles with Napoleon and made them his most implacable foe on the Continent. Under Bellegarde, the army in Italy was reinforced to 120,000 men while the forces on the Danube were built up to a nominal and impressive 280,000 men. These were to deal with Moreau, who, with some 100,000 men, was encamped around Munich. Vienna found Napoleon’s peace terms unacceptable and was resolved to continue the war. The strategy involved remaining on the defensive in Italy while attacking Moreau in Bavaria. The Alessandria armistice was a vital breathing space.

Meanwhile enjoying the laurels of Marengo, Napoleon could now afford to give even Moreau orders. He no longer suggested but instructed Moreau to advance on Vienna along the traditional invasion route of the Danube. Macdonald would cover his right flank while Augereau on the Main would protect his left.

But for Moreau to achieve this, he had first to cross the river Inn where the Archduke John, nominally in command of the Austrian army there, enjoyed a strong defensive position. The Archduke John was another of the talented sons of Leopold who had to contend with a far less imaginative brother as Emperor. Unfortunately for the army, unlike the Archduke Charles, the inexperienced 18-year-old John’s gifts did not lie in the military sphere.

Intrigues around the archdukes: the Archduke John

Kray’s army that had faced Moreau had been beaten in a number of inconclusive actions and this was enough for the Emperor Francis and Thugut to request that Kray relinquish command. The obvious candidate for his replacement, the Archduke Charles, dropped out on the grounds that the Emperor, who had earlier resisted calls to place him in command, might be perceived as bowing to something as vulgar as popular pressure. Thugut warned that the appointment of Charles would only underline the mistaken earlier decision not to appoint him. Such were the convoluted thought processes of the court.

Baron Thugut, with ever an eye to the practicalities of the situation if they gave him the chance to ingratiate himself with his master, encouraged these thoughts with his own observation that the Archduke Charles would ‘only demand reinforcements’ which, as they were not available, ‘would only force him to push for peace’. Thugut knew well how to pander to the Emperor’s suspicions and jealousies of his brother. Charles, increasingly frustrated by his attempts at military reform running into the sands, took himself off to Prague, pleading one of his recurring attacks of epilepsy. Charles saw no point in Austria’s armies fighting a war in their present unmodernised condition. He counselled peace and a policy of playing for time to allow Austria to build up her strength.

This eminently wise policy was anathema to Thugut, who was prepared to gamble everything on a conflict with France à l’outrance. Thugut’s own position after Marengo was becoming precarious. His grasp of foreign affairs would pass to Cobenzl, a protégé of Kaunitz who favoured the old Kaunitz policy of seeking an agreement with France, even a Revolutionary France. These tensions proved disastrous not only for Thugut, who was forced to resign in September, but also for Austria. Cobenzl’s Francophile policies would not save him from a similar fate and he was dismissed shortly after Austerlitz in 1805.

Thanks to these petty intrigues, the army found itself in the curious position of not having a titular commander by the end of August 1800. What was needed, Thugut suggested, was a twin-track solution: two commanders. The first should be a de facto commander of enormous experience and proven courage; the second should be an enthusiastic archduke, not too difficult to handle, who would add the aura of the Imperial House to the cause.

Franz von Lauer

For the first candidate Thugut strongly recommended Feldzeugmeister Franz Freiherr von Lauer, a senior officer in the Engineers corps with a long experience of fortification design but little direct exposure to the challenges of command on the battlefield. Lauer had served under Wurmser in the First Coalition War and had been with him when Mantua fell. As a gifted specialist he had even won the coveted Order of Maria Theresa but his service record described him as lacking finesse and possessing a raw and aggressive temperament, which was married to ‘extreme self-regard’. He was also described as lacking that most important of military qualities: decisiveness. If these weaknesses were not enough, another report noticed that his soldiers held him in low esteem. All these personality defects paled into insignificance compared to his loyalty to Thugut, and Lauer’s impeccable connections: his sister was a lady-in-waiting to the influential Queen of Naples.

Thus, as is so often the case despite the apparent triumph of egalitarianism, connections triumphed over ability. To add lustre to this uninspired choice, the Emperor Francis knew there would need to be a figurehead to raise morale after the armies’ earlier defeats, and it could not be himself because the risk of defeat had to be kept at arm’s length from the throne.

But who was to be this hapless archduke: the scapegoat for any failure Francis’s army might incur? Francis first approached Archduke Ferdinand, brother of the Empress Ludovika, but Ferdinand wisely refused, having had long experience of court intrigue. Francis then suggested the role might suit the Archduke Josef, who pleaded Hungarian constitutional commitments. One by one, Thugut ticked the archdukes off his list until he reached John. It would after all only be a question of ‘appearances’ (Schein). The ‘real’ command would lie with Lauer.

John was certainly a talented young man and, like his military brother Charles, he was to develop outstanding intellectual gifts but at this stage he was only 18 and had not even completed his basic military training. He had just about mastered how to sit correctly on a horse but his hours were still spent being shouted at on the drill square.

John only realised that he was destined for the army on the Danube at the beginning of September. Unsurprisingly, he was shocked. His astonishment would no doubt have been even greater had he known that he was to be given ‘command’. That detail was still kept secret from him and he fondly imagined he might serve as some unimportant adjutant.

These thoughts were confirmed when John received his orders to join Charles at the front. It is worth noting as another symptom of Habsburg methods in dealings with each other that the Archduke John did not possess even a uniform, or for that matter much more than the odd shirt. Materially and mentally he was unprepared for what was coming. It was winter but luckily his aunt, the Queen of Naples, hearing that her nephew was off to war, sent him some beautiful Neapolitan shirts of exquisite wool and cotton.

Joining the Emperor the two brothers rode together for some days until they reached the Bavarian pilgrimage village of Altötting. Not by a single phrase did the Emperor let slip or imply that he had plans for his brother. It was only two days later that the Emperor summoned John to his presence and gave him a letter outlining his ‘command’. John was dumbstruck but knew where his duty lay. The Kaiser explained painstakingly that the ‘command’ was really about raising the morale of the troops and that the real power of executive command would rest with Lauer. John would obey Lauer to the letter and not question or withhold his signature from any of Lauer’s orders, which would be published as if they hailed from the Archduke. All communication with the Emperor was to run directly and exclusively through Lauer.

In this way Francis was ensuring that should disaster befall his forces not an iota of criticism would fall on him. The Archduke would act as a form of covering fire; a dazzling decoy for the opprobrium that might otherwise have attached itself to the Emperor. And if things went well, then Lauer could always be praised to ensure it did not all go to the young Archduke’s head. Moreover, it would be good to have another archduke competent in military affairs to prevent excessive prestige passing to the Archduke Charles. There are few more revealing episodes than this to illustrate the Habsburgs’ internecine rivalries and the callousness with which members of the family could be sacrificed to the ‘greater good’.

Lauer’s plans were not entirely without merit but their weaknesses soon became apparent. He first decided to abandon the very strong position his forces enjoyed along the Inn and push Moreau back on to the Bavarian Alps. This operation had barely got under way when Lauer changed his mind and decided to give up outflanking Moreau and to attack frontally, despite the fact that Moreau was now digging into a good defensive position near the forest of Hohenlinden.

The Archduke John meanwhile, young, sensitive and insecure and, full of doubts over the ambiguity of his role, had sought the advice of his talented brother Charles. But Charles knew better than to interfere with his elder brother’s plans and simply offered John the following counsel: ‘However difficult and tough your situation is, you must not flinch from it. Remember that the really great man reveals himself when, despite the crisis he finds himself in, he remains always calm and collected’ (‘in keiner Gelegenheit aus der Fassung kommt’).

A few days later, Charles sent some strategic recommendations to John concerning the lie of the land in the Bavarian theatre. But in a confidential letter, which for once did not pass through Lauer’s hands, Charles was at pains to stress that he could not help his younger brother and that his own isolation at court now meant that his advice would always be questioned. ‘Do what you wish with my suggestions but it may be best not to make any use of my letter. It is my desire to serve but not to appear.’

Lauer was convinced that the strong defensive position he had enjoyed on the Inn could now be sacrificed in favour of a more aggressive policy. The Austrians had used the succession of truces which had been declared during the autumn months to reorganise and replenish their forces: volunteer units from Tyrol, insurrection levies from Hungary, an assortment of light troops, all made their way to join Lauer.

Disaster at Hohenlinden

Moreau at Hohenlinden (Galerie des Batailles, Palace of Versailles)

The weather had turned to snow and sleet, making it increasingly difficult for the Austrian scouts to judge either the strength of their opponents or their precise dispositions. This contributed significantly to the slow speed at which Lauer advanced, and it allowed Moreau to dig in for a strong defensive battle. Unfortunately, in this vacuum of intelligence Lauer’s chief of staff Franz Weyrother believed the situation to be much more favourable for attack than in reality it was. He ordered a swift march to crush Moreau’s right flank but this march soon degenerated into bottlenecks and delays. Lauer and Weyrother now changed plan and favoured a march along a new route towards Munich.

The first contact was on the Austrian left flank at Ampfing. The Austrians here had overwhelming superiority but the redoubtable Ney commanded the French and he conducted an exceptionally stubborn defence. Nevertheless, the numbers the Austrians brought to bear forced the French back. The Austrian offensive had been a success although the Austrians incurred nearly twice as many casualties as the French.

Four Austrian columns advanced on Hohenlinden, which lay astride the Munich road. It was heavily forested, which meant that communications would be impaired, and the onset of more snow and sleet did nothing to help. Moreau conceived a plan of particular elegance. He surrendered the high points of the forest to give the impression he was falling back while luring the Austrian column under Kolowrat into a trap. As they debouched from the woods and approached Hohenlinden, a strong flanking force led by Decaen and Richepance would take the Austrians by surprise.

As the Austrian advance guard emerged from the woods it quickly overwhelmed the French. Two grenadier battalions of the Sebottendorf regiment under General-Major Spannochi attacked their opponents with a bayonet charge and drove them back. Supported by three Bavarian battalions, the grenadiers advanced steadily until a strong French counter-attack drove them back to the treeline. Attacked by cavalry, the grenadiers formed square and repulsed three charges by a hundred chasseurs. Though it had been Moreau’s strategy to lure the Austrians, he was surprised at the ease with which they advanced: one by one the hamlets around Hohenlinden fell to the Austrians. A battalion of the Gemmingen regiment stormed Forstern while another battalion, this time of the Branchainville regiment, captured the village of Tarding. Spurred on by their commander Prince Schwarzenberg, another battalion, the old Walloon regiment of Murray, swept into Kronacker, the key to the French left wing.

But on the French right wing the forward elements of Richepence’s division had had better luck against the Austrians under Riesch and Kolowrat. They outmanoeuvred Kolowrat’s forces. Riesch’s troops took so long to reach the battlefield that Richepence was able to move his forces between the two columns with devastating consequences for Kolowrat. Suddenly Kolowrat, already engaged to his front and flank, faced an attack from his rear.

News of Richepence’s movements quickly reached Weyrother, who rode swiftly in the direction of the fighting to see for himself what was happening. A storm of artillery greeted him, throwing him from his horse and depriving Lauer of his chief of staff at the critical moment in the battle. Three regiments of Bavarians who held this sector of the front cracked under the pressure of four infantry charges and fled. (The high ratio of Bavarian prisoners to casualties has been interpreted as suggesting the Bavarians’ heart was not in the struggle.) As Kolowrat’s regiments on the Austrian right flank were gradually surrounded by Decaen and Grouchy, the situation on the Austrian rear and right flank became critical.

Meanwhile at Kronacker, Schwarzenberg became aware that all was not well with the rest of the Austrian forces. He received an order to withdraw. Suddenly, a lull in the fighting occurred. As the smoke parted, a French officer appeared with a white flag, the traditional method for the victor or vanquished to parley, and called on the Austrians to surrender. Schwarzenberg replied by ordering his artillery to redouble their rate of fire. But the Austrians were falling apart, caught in a tactical noose which Moreau was relentlessly tightening.

Fortunately for the Austrians, it being December, darkness fell over the battlefield by five o’clock and under the cloak of this natural camouflage Schwarzenberg found a path through the woods to extricate what was left of his men. The battle was over. Hohenlinden was as complete a victory for the French as any general could have wished. Moreau, with none of the dash or energy of Napoleon, had won a decisive victory. In Napoleonic style he had destroyed his opponents’ army far more convincingly than even Napoleon had done at Marengo. For the loss in dead and wounded of fewer than 3,000 men, Moreau had inflicted more than 12,000 casualties, including prisoners of the Austrians and their Bavarian allies. The loss of 50 Austrian guns, a number unheard of since the Seven Years War, was a disaster of particular humiliation. The utter failure of the Austrians to coordinate their attacks was dubbed by a Bavarian general present as ‘ignorance and ineptitude’.

During the orgy of blame that engulfed Vienna in the aftermath of the disaster of Hohenlinden, little attention was paid to the fundamental flaws in the Austrian strategy. The Archduke Charles with his keen strategic sense noted that the battle had been lost by ‘fragmentation’ of the Austrian forces which, divided into columns beset by poor communications, invited defeat. But no one listened to the Archduke Charles. Unfortunately, Weyrother, after surviving Hohenlinden, would live to devise another over-complicated allied battle plan, this time near the Moravian village of Austerlitz. In the meantime, the Archduke Charles was summoned back to take command of the shattered remains of the army and pick up the pieces.

The Archduke Charles returns

Agreeing in his own words to ‘willingly sacrifice myself for the interests of the state’, Charles replaced his brother and Lauer on 17 December with full Imperial authority to command. The sight which greeted him was beyond his experience and as he reported to his brother, the Emperor, dispiriting. Less than half the army that had fought at Hohenlinden was still intact and what remained looked more like an ‘Asiatic horde than a disciplined European army’.

An armistice was a priority for the army though Thugut opposed it, still favouring a ‘war to the knife’. Charles noted: ‘if Moreau refuses to sign we are lost’. Fortunately Moreau had his own concerns, notably the Austrian citadels threatening his lines of communication, which he had had to bypass. Accordingly, the next day an armistice was signed at Steyr in Upper Austria.

While the Archduke Charles took over the remnants of the Austrian army north of the Alps, Melas was succeeded south of the Alps by Bellegarde. To his credit, Melas did everything to ensure the transition was as smooth as possible. Preliminaries were signed at Treviso in late January. A few weeks later a Neapolitan force under the ‘unfortunate’ Mack, an Austrian general of whom we shall hear more, was wiped out. Much of Italy was again under French control and the Second Coalition against France had collapsed. Constrained by her pledge to London not to make peace until February, Vienna prevaricated until the formal peace was signed on 9 February at Lunéville. Blamed for all the disasters that had befallen Austrian arms, Thugut was sacked.

The Austrian diplomats who convened at Lunéville were led by Cobenzl and faced an unhappy task. After Marengo, Napoleon would have been satisfied with a frontier on the Mincio for his satellite Cisalpine Republic. After Hohenlinden he would accept nothing less than the Adige much further east. The Treaty of Lunéville confirmed Archduke Charles’s warning that Austria would pay a high price for going to war in such an ill-prepared way. The treaty terms were of a harshness unknown in earlier Habsburg history. France cemented her claim to the left bank of the Rhine, and Austria had to accept the German principalities’ ‘mediatisation’ as well as recognising the ‘independence’ of the Ligurian, Cisalpine and Batavian republics which, together with Switzerland, were now firmly within Napoleon’s sphere of influence. Such a state of affairs could not represent the status quo for the Habsburgs. The humiliating terms of Lunéville meant that Vienna would immediately prepare for the next war against Napoleon.

The four years of peace were not wasted by Vienna. A series of reforms helped the army rebuild morale and ensured that the mistakes of the Second Coalition War were not repeated. Principal among these was the central issue of command. The Archduke Charles was not only given a command but he was placed in charge of the deliberations of the Aulic Council. But in a repeat of the previous campaigns’ errors of judgement, the Archduke was not to be present at the principal theatre of the coming conflict. Instead of realising that Marengo had been Napoleon’s choice of ground for unusual reasons and that he would have preferred to fight on the road to Vienna, the Austrians continued to believe that northern Italy would be the principal theatre of operations in the coming war. The Archduke was therefore given a command in that theatre.

To be fair, the Archduke Charles only had himself to blame for this assessment. On 3 March 1804, he had submitted a memorandum detailing how the French were unlikely to want to march all the way across Swabia and Bavaria and would therefore, in the event of hostilities, almost certainly seek a resolution in northern Italy where their lines of communication were far more cohesive. Moreover, the Archduke argued, in the Italian theatre there would be a tempting opportunity for the French to drive the Austrians back on to the Alps beyond Trieste. A victorious French army could menace Vienna via Styria as it had done in the closing phase of the First Coalition War.

Ulm and the unfortunate Mack

Thus was the scene set for depriving the Austrians of the one general who might have averted the multiple disasters that would fall upon their armies in the months of 1805. Because Charles argued so forcefully that ‘the Adige must therefore be considered the first and most preferable theatre of war’, it was only logical that the Archduke should take command of the 90,000-strong army in Italy, supported by his brother, the now not so inexperienced Archduke John in the Tyrol.

The Austrian forces north of the Alps were to coordinate their activities with the Russians, who numbered some 50,000 men under General Kutuzov. The 70,000 Austrian troops allotted to this theatre of operations were to be commanded by Mack. Charles instructed him to take special care to avoid confronting the French without the support of his Russian allies.

Mack, whose leadership in Italy in 1801 had not prevented the destruction of the pro-Austrian Neapolitan army, was a man whose imagination far outstripped his abilities. His qualities are hard to assess. He was a protégé of Lacy in the War of the Bavarian Succession and took part in the storming of Belgrade. His temperament appears to have been highly strung, and a fierce argument with Loudon after that campaign almost resulted in a court-martial.

In the campaigns in the Austrian Netherlands, Mack earned the praise of the Archduke Charles but the two men fundamentally disagreed on Austria’s strategy. Mack always favoured a more aggressive approach to the French. A severe head injury during one of the earlier campaigns had made him difficult to deal with and his Neapolitan troops were said to have contemplated doing away with him on many occasions during the disastrous campaign of 1801. Tolstoy has left us a very brief portrait of the ‘unfortunate Mack’ in War and Peace. It is not flattering.

Mack argued forcefully that the Austrians should push forward without waiting for the Russians and occupy Bavaria and its resources. When asked whether there was not a danger that his forces would be caught by a larger French army, he dismissed such warnings with the phrase : ‘All anxiety on this front is unfounded’. There was not ‘the slightest chance’ of the French intervening before the Russians arrived.

Mack drove his army into Bavaria, where the Elector carefully welcomed the Habsburg forces but made sure that his own troops were withdrawn to the valley of the Upper Main where eventually they would side with the French. It was one of many Bavarian moves that displayed traditional anti-Austrian proclivities. By the beginning of October 45,000 Austrian troops were strung along the 150-mile-long front between the Inn and Ulm. The supply train barely kept up with Mack’s progress and his artillery lagged far behind. But Mack was convinced his dispositions would confront the French as they attempted to break out of the Black Forest. Another Austrian force under Jellačić was approaching from the direction of the Tyrol, and a small but significant body of troops under Kienmayer, positioned to the rear of Mack’s force, would establish contact with General Kutuzov’s Russians.

It is hard to know whether Mack’s plans might have worked against an eighteenth-century opponent but Napoleon was arguably at the height of his powers as a continental strategist and he now moved to strike quickly and effectively against his principal continental foe. Contrary to the Archduke Charles’s supposition, Napoleon intended to strike the mortal blow at Vienna from north of the Alps. While Masséna was sent with 50,000 troops to face the Austrians in Italy, Napoleon marched his men to the Rhine, which they reached in twenty-nine days.

More than 75,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry and 400 guns then marched from the Rhine to the Danube. One by one the German princes offered to help Napoleon. Since Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor of France the previous year, the German princes, or Reichfürsten, had increasingly orientated themselves towards Paris. Already in 1803, the Reichdeputationshauptschluss (the conclusion of the Reich deputation) had come to a decision in Regensburg that undermined Emperor Francis’s prerogatives. The ‘Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation’ over which Francis II was supposedly emperor had become nothing more than a polite fiction. Napoleon’s ambitions had illustrated vividly the shell of a concept which, its centuries-old history notwithstanding, could not survive the combination of French military might and revolutionary ideas. He had mediatised the German princes, altering the political map of their lands. In Vienna, the Emperor and court had seen the direction the wind was taking and already had begun to take steps to adjust to the new realities. The historic title of Holy Roman Emperor was becoming utterly meaningless and needed to be converted into something altogether more in keeping with the zeitgeist. Thus on 14 August 1804 barely two months after Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor of France, Francis II of the Holy Roman Empire became Emperor Francis I, Kaiser Franz I, of Austria.

Kaiser von Oesterreich

The new title of ‘Emperor of Austria’ was an invention. Francis was not interested in an ‘Empire of the Austrians’. The Empire was that of the Casa d’Austria (House of Austria) but in taking the double-headed eagle of the Holy Roman Empire to be the flag of what was now called the Austrian Empire, the Emperor was not sacrificing an iota of Imperial continuity. At the same time, the new concept gave emphasis to his ‘crown lands’: a slightly more cohesive and durable ship in which to sail in these stormy times than the loose grouping of unreliable and spineless German Reichfürste. His two brothers, Charles and John would exploit the opportunity to capitalise on Napoleon’s ambitions for Germany by stirring the pot of German nationalism and pushing Vienna towards leadership of the German ‘nation’. But in 1805, such ideas were barely moving and Kaiser Franz was certainly not fighting for ‘Germany’s honour’ as Mack’s forces gathered around Ulm. Mack’s army was to fight as it had always fought: for the dynasty.

By the second week of October, Napoleon was at the Danube. A short and sharp encounter at Wertingen between Murat’s cavalry and a force of 5,000 Austrians under Auffenberg revealed a demoralised and passive Habsburg army virtually unchanged since the disaster at Hohenlinden. This was a portent of things to come. Mack became obsessed with Ulm as ‘the key to half Germany’ and imagined that his forces were not only superior in numbers to the French but also in possession of all the topographical advantages. Ulm would be an offensive base for launching powerful actions against the French. Because the Russians would never have consented to serve under someone as lowly born as Mack, the Emperor Francis had appointed another archduke, the Archduke Ferdinand as titular head of Mack’s army.

The relationship between these two men left much to be desired. Mack and the Archduke Ferdinand did not cooperate even along the lines of the Archduke John and Lauer four years earlier, and the subordinate generals began to sense the tension between the two men. Mack, clearly insecure and over-challenged, confused activity with progress. Half-baked schemes to advance one unit here or there were quickly abandoned to be replaced with other schemes that were never fully carried out. All the while his opponent gathered his strength to pounce.

On 11 October the approaching Russian army was estimated to be nearly 200 miles away, or at least more than two weeks’ march distant. Napoleon realised that Mack, by concentrating his forces around Ulm, had actually made the job of defeating his opponents piecemeal much easier. At the same time, at Austrian headquarters, the grim reality of Mack’s position was becoming clearer by the hour. His scouts reported French units everywhere. Napoleon spurred his troops on, noting that but for Mack’s forces he and his army ‘would be in London now, avenging six centuries of outrage’.

On the same day at Albeck, a large force of Austrians, led by Mack, probing for indications of French deployment and for possible routes of a breakout, came into contact with the 5,000-strong division of General Dupont. In the ensuing action Mack managed to drive the isolated French back but he did not follow this up, perhaps because he was slightly wounded in the engagement. The victorious Austrian force simply returned to Ulm.

The Capitulation of Ulm, by Charles Thévenin

Schwarzenberg’s breakout. Ulm’s surrender

There the Archduke Ferdinand, increasingly exasperated by Mack, secretly planned with Prince Schwarzenberg a nocturnal breakout to the north with the 6,000 cavalry. These rode out of Ulm at midnight on 14 October hotly pursued by French dragoons but by two o’clock they had made good their getaway. The following day Mack attempted a further breakout but was checked by Marshal Ney at the Battle of Elchingen where the Austrians were forced to fall back to Ulm in driving rain.

Two days later, a staff officer of Napoleon, Ségur, reached Ulm and at three in the morning asked Mack to surrender. Mack played for time and agreed to surrender on the 25th if the Russians had not arrived. But the morale of the Austrians was beyond repair. A storm on the 18th caused the Danube to burst its banks and carry away much of the Austrian camp as well as the unburied corpses that had turned Ulm into a ‘pestilential latrine’.

A day later Napoleon summoned Mack to Elchingen. In return for a written declaration that the Russian army was still impossibly far away, the Austrian agreed to surrender his army and the city, ‘the Queen of the Danube’ to the French the following day. As the rain ceased, the sun came out to reveal a long column of Austrian soldiers winding out of Ulm. On the small hill overlooking the city a party of seventeen Austrian generals resplendent in their white tunics and scarlet breeches looked hesitantly at Napoleon. A French officer asked one of the Austrians to have the kindness to point out which of their number was their commander. The Austrian replied: ‘Moi monsieur: l’homme devant vous. Je suis le malheureux Mack en personne.’ When presenting his sword to Napoleon, the Frenchman savoured the moment and returned it with the words: ‘I return the general’s sword and ask him to pass on my best wishes to his Emperor’.

Francis was less obliging. On his return to Vienna, Mack was court-martialled, stripped of his rank and decorations, including the Maria Theresa Order, and then sentenced to a two-year spell in prison. The Habsburg ire was understandable. Mack had lost 51 battalions of infantry, 18 squadrons of cavalry and 60 guns. The Archduke Ferdinand reached Bohemia with barely 2,000 cavalry and the Austrian forces under Jellačić advancing from the Tyrol, unsupported and outnumbered, were forced to surrender on 14 November. The road to Vienna now lay wide open and an army of 75,000 Austrian troops, fully equipped to guard its approaches, no longer existed.

Marshal Kutuzov’s Russian soldiers were still several days’ march away but the forces they had hoped to link up with had literally vanished into thin air. Kutuzov had achieved prodigious feats of human endurance in marching his army from distant Galicia to the Danube valley. Thousands of stragglers had had to be abandoned and the footwear of most of those who had reached Austria was sorely in need of repair. By the time Kutuzov reached Braunau on 27 October, rumours of the disaster at Ulm were beginning to circulate.

The plight of Kutuzov now merged with the plight of defenceless Vienna. While Napoleon detached significant forces to guard the Alps and prevent the forces of the Archduke Charles marching to the relief of the Imperial capital, he manoeuvred the bulk of his army to cross Bavaria to find and annihilate the Russians.

Kutuzov, who had linked up with some Austrian remnants, abandoned Braunau and withdrew to a tighter line of defence 60 miles east on the banks of the river Enns. On the last day of October a firefight broke out between a large French force and some Austrians supported by Russian light troops at Traun. The allies conducted a disciplined withdrawal. As Kutuzov retreated along the Danube, he paused at Amstetten. While a French force under Mortier was dispatched to the north bank of the Danube at Linz to find the Russians, Kutuzov was reinforced by another Russian column, which had marched from the Turkish frontier.

The Russian scouts reported Mortier’s position and, with the help of an able Austrian staff officer called Schmidt, Kutuzov drew up plans to defeat Mortier under the ruins of Durnstein castle so beloved of legend as the place where Richard the Lionheart was rescued by the minstrel Blondel. The skirmish was short but sharp: the gifted Schmidt was one of the fatalities but after a fierce fight the French withdrew to the south bank under the cover of darkness.

Lannes seizes the Wiener Donaubrücke

Napoleon immediately drew up plans to bring more of his army over the Danube to the north side and so prevent the Russians from linking up with any Austrians positioned around Vienna. The key to this strategy was to be the seizure of the Wiener Donaubrücke, a series of very fragile structures which carried the main road across the river to the north of Vienna.

Though the bridge was primed for destruction and guarded by the Austrians, the French generals simply walked across and announced to the astonished Austrians that, as an armistice had been declared, there was simply no point in any more blood being spilt. It struck one Austrian officer that all was not well when he saw the French grenadiers marching in step across the bridge but Marshal Lannes assured him his men were simply briskly marching ‘to keep warm’ in the cold temperatures.

The Austrian commander at the Donaubrücke had been retired for fifteen years. Count Auersperg was certainly not in the first flush of youthful energy. But as a later historian has pointed out, Auersperg’s failure to defend the bridge denotes a failure ‘of the will and intellect, if not downright imbecility’. Even the French could not believe it. But Lannes was after all a Gascon.

The passage of Lannes over the Danube not only threatened Vienna, it severely compromised Kutuzov. Moreover, if Vienna were lost, Austrian troops coming up from south of the Alps would face a formidable obstacle in their path before they could link up with their Russian allies.

Kutuzov moved as rapidly as he could to get his army out of harm’s way and withdrew north while his colleague, Bagration, threw up a screen at Schöngrabern, which Murat mistook for the entire Russian army. He sent an envoy to Kutuzov offering an armistice ‘now there was peace between France and Austria’. Bagration was not taken in by the lie and Kutuzov paid the French back in their own coin by sending two staff officers to discuss terms and drag the talks out for 24 hours while Kutuzov got his army safely away. When Napoleon heard of the ‘armistice’ he was incandescent and sent a swingeing note to Murat who, when he received it, began to wake up to the fact that the Russians in front of him were not as numerous as he had first thought. By the time Murat attacked it was almost dark and the Russians detonated Schöngrabern to create a formidable obstacle to any pursuit. Covered by a regiment of Jaeger, Bagration confused the French sufficiently for Kutuzov to pass safely into Moravia by the following morning. By the time Napoleon reached Znaim to settle things with Murat his mood had blackened, not least because he had just been given an account of the Battle of Trafalgar.

Kutuzov continued to Brünn (today Brno in Moravia) where, joined by a strong Austrian force under Liechtenstein, he managed to bring his forces up to a formidable 80,000 men. Moreover, further reinforcements were on their way. Ten thousand elite troops of the Russian Imperial Guard were at Olmütz (Olomouc) in northern Moravia, having marched all the way from St Petersburg. More troops were marching from Poland and nearly 10,000 Austrians were assembled under the Archduke Ferdinand in Bohemia.

Above all, the Archduke Charles had managed to bring his army out of Italy in brilliant style, suddenly turning and attacking his pursuers. Meanwhile in Moravia, Napoleon was greeted with great warmth by the local population, famous for the beauty of their womenfolk, their native charm and wit. The Moravians found the French an altogether more agreeable occupying force after the Russians. But the French army was not in brilliant shape. Exhausted by its forced marches and far away from home, it needed a swift victory. If it were to retain its cohesion it would be as well to fight the decisive battle as soon as possible.

The Pratzen heights: Austerlitz

Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz, by François Gérard

Between Brünn and Olmütz, where the allies were concentrating, Napoleon carefully reconnoitred the landscape and found, a few miles outside Brünn, the Pratzen plateau. He felt sure this would be where his troops would fight a great battle.

At Olmütz meanwhile, Kutuzov was greeted by both the Russian and Austrian Emperors. It was immediately apparent that the Tsar was primus inter pares and in command. The Austrian contingent was relatively small and undistinguished. The Habsburg Emperor felt it was beneath his dignity to oppose the will of the Tsar. The only Austrian to retain any influence over the military decisions was the ill-starred Austrian Chief of Staff, Weyrother, who had taken the place of the able Schmidt, killed by a musket ball at Dürnstein.

Unlike Schmidt, Weyrother lacked a firm grip on reality and, as we have already seen, had contributed significantly to the fiasco at Hohenlinden. The wiser counsels – Bagration, Kutuzov, Miloradovič and Dokhturov – favoured playing for time and if necessary wintering in the Carpathians to await re-inforcements, including the Archduke Charles, as well as the imminent declaration of war by the Prussians on the French.

But Tsar Alexander favoured a more dramatic response and Weyrother fell into line with typical Austrian Anpassungsfähigkeit (ability to fit in) and urged an advance on Brünn where the allies could menace Napoleon’s right flank and send him retreating through the trackless mountains above Krems far to the west.

Weyrother divided the 89,000 troops at the allies’ disposal into five columns but resolved to keep each column in close communication with the others, perhaps having learnt the dangers of excessive fragmentation at Hohenlinden. The Austrian contingent, 25,000 men including 3,000 cavalry, was commanded initially by Kolowrat but was transferred to Prince Liechtenstein. By the time battle was engaged, it had dwindled to twenty and a half battalions and forty-five squadrons of cavalry, amounting to 15,700 men.

From the beginning the allied deployment was plagued by inconsistency and woolly thinking on the part of the Austrian staff under Weyrother. Weyrother had planned to menace Napoleon’s right flank but, by the time the allied army began to concentrate, it was heavily configured against the French left flank. The need to correct this error took 48 hours partly because Weyrother had only the haziest idea as to where Napoleon’s right flank was.

In any event the Pratzen heights were to be critical to both sides’ thinking. For Weyrother and the Russians it was the key to the French right. For Napoleon it would be the bait to lure the Russians into a battle of annihilation. Austerlitz, as Napoleon told his marshals on the eve of the battle, was not to be ‘just an ordinary battle. … I prefer to abandon the ground to them and draw back my right. If they then dare to descend from the heights to take me in my flank, they will surely be beaten without hope of recovery.’

To persuade the ranks of green-coated Russians to descend the heights an elaborate and theatrical ‘retreat’ by Murat’s cavalry was staged. By mid-afternoon, the Russians indeed began to descend and Napoleon had a leisurely dinner of Grenadiermarsch (fried potatoes, noodles and onions), confident that his trap was about to be sprung. At dawn, he issued further instructions and the village of Tellnitz was cleared of a squadron of Austrian chevauxlegers. A thick fog concealed the movements of Napoleon’s army from the Russians on the heights. As the visitor to the battlefield can see today, the roads at the foot of the hill would be invisible from the heights in bad weather and Napoleon planned to take full advantage of his opponent’s ‘blindness’.

For his part, Weyrother did not discern the subtlety of his opponent’s thinking. An allied officer, Langeron described how the Austrian ‘came in with an immense map showing the area of Brünn and Austerlitz in the greatest precision and detail’. (The Austrian military cartographic institute set up by Maria Theresa was renowned for its maps.) As Langeron noted: ‘Weyrother read his dispositions to us in a loud voice and with a boastful manner which betrayed smug self-satisfaction.’ His audience of Russian generals was scarcely any better mentally prepared. Kutuzov had been drinking heavily for some days and was dozing half asleep in his chair. He and the other officers showed little interest in what the Austrian said.

Weyrother proposed a left flanking movement spearheaded by the Austrian contingent with a powerful mixed column under Kienmayer, who would force the lower Goldbach stream with five battalions supported by twenty squadrons of cavalry. Two strong Russian columns would then cross the Goldbach and begin a decisive attack on the French right. All the reports, concluded Weyrother, suggested the French were weary and suffering from poor morale, especially their cavalry. As Weyrother pointed out, the Austrian army knew every inch of the terrain as they had conducted exercises there in 1804. It is still subject to debate to what extent the Russians understood what the Austrian was proposing. As Weyrother’s orders were written in German, some time was needed to translate them into Russian.

Unsurprisingly, the execution of Weyrother’s plan left a lot to be desired. While Kienmayer’s battalions of barely 3,000 men, drawn from far from undistinguished regiments, was soon engaged, the Russian columns collided with each other. Liechtenstein’s cavalry milled about aimlessly without orders until the Prince ploughed a route through the Russian infantry to reach the point where he assumed he was supposed to be. As the Russian columns became mixed up with each other, Weyrother watched from a hill, his face increasingly anxious. He felt he could hear the French below, but neither he nor anyone else on the hill could see them.

Meanwhile below, Kienmayer’s Szekler infantry was bravely storming the village of Tellnitz only to be cut down by well dug in French voltigeurs. Five times they stormed across the Goldbach only to be driven back. Eventually the elite 7th Jaeger reinforced them and drove the French out. But Kienmayer’s skirmish was a sideshow. A strong French force advanced under the cover of the mist on to the Pratzen heights to emerge in what Napoleon would later refer to as the golden sun of Austerlitz.

Towards nine in the morning a fierce battle developed along most of the front. As the French retook part of Tellnitz they began fanning out. An Austrian regiment of Hessen-Homburg hussars under Oberst Mohr charged them with devastating effect and Kienmayer was able to reoccupy the village. Mohr mistook the French 108th regiment for Bavarians, whom the hussars hated; few Frenchmen escaped.

The hapless French survivors of the 108th attempted to flee to the north only to come under murderous fire from their own side, a French light infantry regiment. Tellnitz was now safely in Austrian hands and two regiments of Austrian cavalry passed through it to take up attacking positions to the west. Further to the east, the village of Sokolnitz was engulfed in flames as Russian artillery bombarded it at close range. An hour later Sokolnitz had been occupied by the Russians, who had engaged the best part of 5,000 men to clear the village of a single regiment. However, the arrival of two French brigades sent the Russians back into the north-western corner of the village from where they repeatedly failed to drive the French out. Some 33,000 Russian and Austrian troops were now bogged down, attempting to put the Goldbach and its villages well behind them.

Meanwhile on the Pratzen heights, the French under Ste-Hilaire and Vandamme had collided with the fourth Austro-Russian column delayed by the usual deployment problems, the chief of which was Liechtenstein’s improvised passage through their ranks. The surprise and shock of seeing the French, who seemed to appear from the fog below, galvanised the senior Russian officers. Suddenly the allied position had become immensely perilous as the rear of their three most advanced columns was about to be threatened by the unexpected appearance of the French on the heights. With commendable speed the fourth allied column recognised the danger and deployed, splitting into two. At the same time, the second allied column, which still had not reached the plain of the Goldbach, halted and, seeing what was happening on the heights behind them, reversed front and marched back up the heights against the right flank of Ste-Hilaire’s breakthrough.

Major Frierenberger’s guns

Meanwhile from the east a mass of unidentified regiments was advancing towards Ste-Hilaire. In the mist it was difficult to make out who they were. As they approached an officer called out from 300 yards in barely audible French: ‘Don’t shoot. We are Bavarians.’ At first the Frenchman appeared satisfied by this but an enterprising officer as a precaution reordered his line to fire on the newly arrived troops if they proved hostile. As he climbed forward to reconnoitre at close range, he recognised the white Austrian uniforms. Although at first the troops appeared rather unpromising – the French account noted a number of invalids – the brigade which had emerged under General Rottermund contained 3,000 men, recognisable by their orange facings, of the elite Salzburg ‘House’ regiment, tough mountain fighters who with their Styrian counterparts would become some of the most highly decorated units in the Austrian army. Supported by a Russian brigade, the Austrians stormed the heights at the point of the bayonet. Weyrother watching from nearby had his horse shot from beneath him. But the French held on to the Pratzenberg, counter-attacking with the bayonet and slaughtering the wounded. Slowly the Russians fell back. Langeron’s attempts to reinforce them from the plain below ran into a withering crossfire. At the little hamlet that is now called Stare Vinohrady, the Salzburgers fought stubbornly until attacked by two and a half brigades from three sides, but the allied fourth column on the Pratzen had ceased to exist. As the French poured in their fire from every side, the allies began to break into disorder.

Further to the north, attempts by Hohenlohe to deploy cavalry floundered on the clay and vines of Stare Vinohrady. Time and again the allied cavalry counter-attacks were poorly coordinated. The Austrian artillery showed its traditional professionalism when a Major Frierenberger arrived with a battery of 12 guns from Olmütz.

These guns from Olmütz reached Rausnitz at the moment when fugitives came pouring back to confirm the frightful news of the various disasters experienced by the army. The commander, although he had no real covering force, positioned the battery on the most advantageous site on some high ground to the right of Welloschowitz. The army he faced was a victorious one. Undaunted, the Austrian battery opened up in its turn against the main battery of the French and their leading troops. The Austrians fired their guns with such skill that they compelled the French to pull back their batteries in a matter of minutes. Some of the French pieces were silenced and the advance of the whole French left wing ground to a halt.

The gallant Austrian artillery major had not only enabled Bagration’s units to escape total destruction, he had successfully blocked the road to Hungary. Frierenberger’s actions were but a glimpse of success in an otherwise grim landscape. In an epic cavalry engagement the Russian Chevalier Garde, resplendent in dazzling white uniforms, had been annihilated by Napoleon’s Guard cavalry, putting paid to the Russian reserve’s attempts to retake the Pratzen heights. With the heights secured, Napoleon attacked the rear of the first three allied columns as they battled along the Goldbach below. A giant pincer movement was about to destroy a good third of the allied army. At Tellnitz, the Austro-Russian force which had been in non-stop action for nearly eight hours began to organise a fighting withdrawal. It had screened the retreat of the remnants of two Russian columns and it was high time to fall back. The Austrian cavalry formed the rearguard and the O’Reilly Chevauxlegers, perhaps the finest light horse the Habsburgs possessed, repeatedly charged the pursuing French cavalry and deployed a battery of horse artillery to good effect, keeping at bay an entire division of dragoons under General Boye. Napoleon, having seen this, was furious at the Austrian cavalry’s superior quality. He ordered a hapless aide-de-camp to go and ‘tell that general of my dragoons that he is no f— good’.

‘A battle has been fought …’

Kienmayer had conducted a model withdrawal without losing a single gun. But as the sun shone through the mist nothing could disguise the scale of the defeat. The Austrians and Russians now rallied on the road to Hungary. Though reinforcements were arriving, notably Merveldt, it was clear to both Emperors that this coalition war was over. Francis with his characteristic detachment sent a message to his wife saying simply, ‘A battle has been fought … It has not turned out well.’

Francis knew it was time to see what terms he could secure from the French Emperor. Liechtenstein was sent to arrange the preliminaries, and at two in the afternoon on 4 December, a carriage escorted by a squadron of lancers and a squadron of hussars came into sight on the road to Hungary. The Austrian cavalry halted 200 paces behind while the carriage continued, stopping only where Napoleon was waiting in front of a hastily prepared fire. The door of the carriage opened and out stepped, immaculate in white and red beneath an enormous greatcoat, the Austrian Emperor. With all the breeding of his House he gazed impassively as Napoleon made to embrace him. Not by a flicker did he betray for a second his emotions. The Frenchman may have crowned himself an Emperor but in every inch of his demeanour the Austrian Kaiser demonstrated that, galling though the aftermath of a lost battle might be, the Habsburgs were above such petty humiliations. Prince Liechtenstein attempted to break the ice but it was Francis himself who thawed the atmosphere with a few polite superficialities designed to put the Corsican upstart at his ease. Eyewitnesses noted Francis’s solemn bearing. Though only 36 years old, Francis appeared a generation older, his hat balanced on the back of his head, carrying a stick and incapable of the slightest spontaneous movement, so it seemed to the French.

The chill in the air soon dissipated, and within twenty minutes the sounds of laughter could be heard. Francis had won an armistice for himself and it would take effect within 24 hours. The hard-pressed Russian and Austrian troops could withdraw unmolested.

Austrian dead numbered about 600, considerably less than those of their Russian allies, many of whom appeared to have lost their lives as wounded men bayoneted by the French towards the end of the battle. Another 1,700 Austrians ended up as prisoners but, on the whole, the army’s discipline had held throughout the day, in contrast to their Russian allies.

By 1400 hours, the Allied army had been dangerously separated. Napoleon now had the option to strike at one of the wings, and he chose the Allied left since other enemy sectors had already been cleared or were conducting fighting retreats

But Weyrother’s planning had proved another example of disastrous Austrian staff-work. Once again allied columns, as at Hohenlinden, had been too far apart to offer each other practical support. Once again, as the battle developed in a way different from Weyrother’s calculations, Austrian staff-work had proved incapable of adapting. The Russian generals lost each other in an orgy of blame but on the whole the collective Austrian view appears to have taken its cue from the Kaiser’s low-key response. The Austrian units had fought well, in some cases exceptionally well, but the battle itself had ‘not gone very well’.

The diplomatic consequences were to prove demanding for the Habsburg Emperor and his empire. Venetia, Friuli, Dalmatia and Istria went to the arriviste ‘Kingdom’ of Italy, while Tyrol and the Vorarlberg were handed over to the detested Bavarians. The spineless leaders of the German states were rewarded for their craven behaviour and elevated to such portentous titles as Grand Duke or, in the case of Bavaria and Württemberg, King. Kaiser Franz lost more than 2.5 million of his subjects and his family’s traditional hegemony in Germany and Italy. It was not in the nature of the House of Austria to regard these calamities as anything more than a temporary setback. In four years the sword would be taken up again and this time at the head of the Austrian army there would be one of the outstanding soldiers of the age.

Metternich and the Map of Europe

Clemens von Metternich came to office as Austrian foreign minister in 1809. A Rhinelander who had lost all to revolutionary France and Napoleon, his debts were at the time of his appointment reckoned at 1.25 million gulden. His master, Emperor Francis II (1792–1835), was bankrupt too. Unable to redeem the state bonds he had issued, Francis survived financially only by printing money and by the expedient of confiscating his subjects’ silverware in exchange for lottery tickets. The debt owed by the imperial treasury in 1809 amounted to 1,200 million gulden, to which should be added a further 1,000 million gulden in unbacked paper notes. Two years later, Francis would declare bankruptcy, reneging on all but 20 per cent of the state debt, busting in the process many manufacturing and agricultural enterprises.

Francis’s territorial capital had withered too. At first, Francis’s armies, led by the emperor’s brother, Archduke Charles, had almost held their own against the French during the long War of the First Coalition (1792–1797), bearing the brunt of the land war in alliance with Great Britain, Prussia, and the Dutch Republic. Although obliged to give up the Austrian Low Countries and Lombardy, the Habsburgs were compensated by the terms of the Peace of Campo Formio (1797) with Venice and its hinterland of Venetia, Istria, and Dalmatia. Venice’s strategically vital Ionian Islands in the Adriatic went, however, to France, with the island of Corfu now having Europe’s largest fort. Its enlargement presaged the major expansion of French power into the Eastern Mediterranean that led to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798.

Napoleon became first consul of France in 1799 and, five years later, emperor of the French. His ambition was to enlarge France beyond its natural boundaries, to create a barrier beyond it of satellites, and to maintain on the periphery a cordon of enfeebled and compliant states. In pursuit of this goal, he pulled the Habsburg territories apart. As the British prime minister William Pitt the Younger presciently observed in 1805, upon hearing of the Habsburg and Russian defeat at Austerlitz, ‘Roll up that map, it will not be needed these ten years.’ Following Francis II’s participation in the wars of the Second and Third Coalition against Napoleon (1798–1802; 1803–1806), in both of which Francis was obliged to sue for an early peace, the Habsburgs not only lost almost all they had gained at Campo Formio but also surrendered the Tyrol to Napoleon’s Bavarian ally and the remaining Austrian possessions in the old duchy of Swabia (Further Austria) to Baden and Württemberg. The only consolation was Salzburg, which Francis annexed in 1805.

Francis stood aside from the War of the Fourth Coalition (1806–1807), but hoping to take advantage of Napoleon’s discomfiture in Spain, where the French were bogged down in a long war of attrition, he joined with Britain in April 1809 to renew the struggle. Napoleon reacted, however, by speedily taking Vienna. Then, building a pontoon bridge across the Danube, he caught Archduke Charles unawares, forcing him to commit to battle prematurely. The Battle of Wagram, fought on a fifteen-mile front over two days in July 1809, was not decisive, and the archduke was able to withdraw his troops in good order, but it had used up the whole of Habsburg resources, obliging Francis to seek peace. The Treaty of Schönbrunn was devastating. Croatia together with Trieste, Gorizia (Görz-Gradisca), Carniola, and a part of Carinthia were now transformed into the Illyrian Provinces, which Napoleon made a part of France. West Galicia, which Francis had taken in the final Third Partition of Poland (1795), was absorbed into the puppet Duchy of Warsaw, and a further slice of Galicia was ceded to Napoleon’s latest ally, Alexander I of Russia.

But Francis’s losses in the wars with Napoleon were more than territorial. In May 1804, Napoleon had crowned himself emperor of the French in Paris. In order, so he claimed, to maintain parity with Napoleon, Francis II now declared himself to be emperor of Austria, thus adding a hereditary imperial title to the elected dignity of Holy Roman Emperor. It was a wise move. Just two years later, Napoleon established the Confederation of the Rhine, appointing himself as its president. Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden, and thirteen smaller states promptly defected from the Holy Roman Empire to join the confederation. Noting that ‘circumstances have rendered it impossible to discharge the commitments made at my imperial election’, Emperor Francis now formally declared the bond that joined him to the ‘state entities of the German Empire to be dissolved.’

Without a ruler, the thousand-year-old Holy Roman Empire came to an end. Even so, Francis’s decree of dissolution, published on 6 August 1806, commenced by reciting his titles as Holy Roman Emperor, including the designation ‘at all times Enlarger of the Empire.’ Fortunately, by having previously instituted the title of emperor of Austria, the Habsburgs were able to keep hold of an imperial title. But their numbering changed. So Holy Roman Emperor Francis II became Austrian Emperor Francis I; his successor became Ferdinand I rather than Ferdinand V, and so on.

Francis did, however, take over the double-headed imperial eagle, in use since the fifteenth century, and the imperial colours of black and yellow, making these purely Habsburg symbols. In the case of yellow, it curiously became a Brazilian one too. In 1817, Francis’s daughter, Leopoldine (1797–1826), married Prince Pedro of Portugal during his family’s exile in Brazil. Following Pedro’s declaration of Brazilian independence in 1822, it fell to her to design the country’s flag. Leopoldine duly combined the yellow of the Habsburg flag with the green of the Portuguese and Brazilian house of Braganza. Brazil’s football team still plays in Habsburg colours.

As ambassador to Paris, Metternich had warned against a new war with the French, considering it reckless. Vindicated by Wagram and by the harsh terms Napoleon imposed, it was no surprise that Emperor Francis should have appointed him foreign minister in 1809. Metternich’s main concern at this point was to buy time, on which account he urged a policy of peace towards France. The emperor concurred, to the extent of sacrificing his daughter Marie Louise by having her marry the upstart Corsican commoner. Even she was third best, for Napoleon had previously been looking at two Russian princesses, but the first turned him down, and the second never obtained her father’s approval.

An elegant dandy, Metternich was as much at home in the boudoir as the conference hall. But Metternich’s liaisons allowed him intimacies of more than one kind. A notorious and indiscreet gossip, he also traded secrets. When he needed to know more, he simply arranged for the diplomatic mail to be opened. Most spectacularly, after 1808 Metternich had the former French foreign minister and state councillor Talleyrand in his pocket. The information which Talleyrand passed on, including military dispositions, went straight to Emperor Francis as evidence obtained from ‘Monsieur X.’

Between March and September 1810, Metternich was in Paris, officially as part of the delegation attending Napoleon’s marriage. He used the opportunity to fathom Napoleon’s intentions, frequently staying up with him until four AM while Napoleon rehearsed his genius. It was clear to Metternich that Napoleon’s ambition had not yet been sated, but his next move was uncertain. On 20 September, in Napoleon’s palace at St Cloud, the emperor of the French disclosed his aim to conquer Russia. ‘I had at last obtained light,’ Metternich later recalled. ‘The object of my stay in Paris was attained.’ Four days later, he left for Vienna.

Metternich planned carefully. The outcome of a Franco-Russian war was uncertain, and to back either or neither side invited danger. So Metternich opted instead for ‘armed neutrality’: he would support Napoleon, but only against Russia and not in the main assault. Behind the scenes, he advised Tsar Alexander that the Habsburg army would only play a supporting role. As it turned out, the army led by Prince Schwarzenberg acquitted itself so well that the tsar lodged a protest with Francis.

The campaign of 1812 saw Napoleon commit what was then the largest ever army in the history of warfare—about six hundred thousand men, of which only thirty thousand were under Schwarzenberg’s command. Although the French reached Moscow, they were by October in headlong retreat and eating their horses. Generals January and February did the rest. In the wake of the retreat from Moscow, Napoleon’s adversaries regathered, joining together in 1813 to form the Sixth Coalition. Although Napoleon managed to organize a new army, he was decisively defeated at Leipzig at the so-called Battle of the Nations by a combination of Habsburg, Russian, Swedish, and Prussian forces (Saxony and Württemberg defected halfway through the four-day battle to join the winning coalition).

As the allies pressed westwards into France and British forces crossed the Pyrenees from Spain, Talleyrand in Paris seized the initiative. Leading what was left of the French senate, he declared himself head of a provisional government and Napoleon to be deposed. Talleyrand then proclaimed the Bourbon dynasty restored by the people of France ‘of their own, free will.’ Louis XVIII objected to Talleyrand’s interpretation, for he considered himself to rule by divine right, irrespective of his people’s wishes, but the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy was entirely to Metternich’s satisfaction. With Russian troops deployed as far west as Calais and thus within eyeshot of the English coast, Metternich had already discerned that Russia was now the leading continental power; he saw a strong and stable France as a counterweight.

The map of Europe was repaired at the great international conference, or congress, which met in Vienna from November 1814 to July 1815. The congress was by every measure an apogee of Habsburg power, however much the long wars had also been fought by others. Its proceedings were halted for several months during the ‘Hundred Days’, when Napoleon escaped from Elba (as Metternich had predicted) briefly to recapture power in France. The Congress of Vienna brought together two emperors, four kings, eleven ruling princes, and two hundred plenipotentiaries. There were daily banquets, either in the Hofburg or in Metternich’s chancellery building, balls, hunting expeditions, portrait sittings, operas, and concerts. Beethoven conducted in person his Seventh Symphony—it was an expiation of sorts for his Third, the Eroica, which he had ten years earlier dedicated to Napoleon.

Metternich got much of what he wanted. Most of the Habsburg territories were returned, and although the Low Countries were lost, there was compensation in the form of Lombardy and Venetia, which were now combined to make the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia within the Austrian Empire. Along with Venetia came Dubrovnik and Venice’s other possessions on the Dalmatian coast. Tuscany and Modena, although not incorporated in the Habsburg lands, continued to be governed by archdukes drawn from the Habsburg line, while Parma was given over to Francis’s daughter, Marie Louise, the estranged wife of Napoleon. The congress additionally recognized the annexation of Salzburg and gave over a sliver of Bavaria. It further restored Galicia and Lodomeria to Habsburg rule, although with some territorial adjustments, including the loss of Cracow, which now became a free city.

Importantly too, France was not punished but returned to its borders in 1792, and Saxony was not sacrificed to Prussia. The Holy Roman Empire was not restored either, but a German Confederation, which included the Austrian lands, was put in its place under Habsburg presidency. The royal titles bestowed by Napoleon on the rulers of Saxony, Bavaria, and Württemberg were retained, and Hanover was given one too. The congress also permitted the bigger German principalities to keep the smaller ones that they had gobbled up during the recent war, reducing the new confederation to just thirty-four members (several others joined later). In so doing, Metternich ensured that the German Confederation had enough capacity to resist French and Russian encroachments, as well as to hem Prussia in.

The overall result of these changes was that the new Austrian Empire comprised a concentrated block of territory in Central Europe, with extensive influence northwards over the German Confederation, and southwards into Italy. It was enough to keep Russia and France apart and for the Austrian Empire to hold the balance between the two. It was a masterful redrawing of the map of Europe. A grateful Emperor Francis rewarded Metternich with the castle of Johannisberg in the Rhineland—he had in 1813 been given the honorific title of prince and would in 1821 receive the equally honorific office of chancellor.

Metternich was never less than duplicitous. Notoriously, in communicating with his ambassadors abroad, Metternich would send three letters. The first would announce a policy position; the second would indicate to whom it should be disclosed, and the third would give the real policy. Metternich continually referred to his principles, his interest in maintaining the rule of legitimate monarchs, and his goal of a lasting peace and balance of power in Europe. Like so much else, none of these were his true aims. Metternich’s interest was to maintain the influence of his master and of the newly proclaimed Austrian Empire, particularly in respect of the German Confederation and Italy. His stress on legitimacy was a cover for maintaining the status quo, which he had stacked to Austria’s advantage. When it came to the legitimate rights of Spain to its rebellious Latin American colonies, of the Poles to their historic kingdom, or of the city of Cracow to independence (he sent in troops to occupy it in 1846), Metternich was uninterested.

Metternich always stood close to the emperor, generally keeping him abreast of events and policy, although often filtered and filleted in such a way as to earn his approval. Metternich advertised his relationship to Francis as if they were political twins. As he remarked, ‘Heaven has placed me next to a man who might have been created for me, as I for him. The Emperor Francis knows what he wants and that never differs in any way from what I most want.’ Francis seems to have concurred, although he explained that Metternich was the kindlier of them. In truth, Francis had better things to do than pore over dispatches. His interest was instead to examine the sealing wax that had been used on them. An eager student of wax production, he reputedly delayed opening letters from Napoleon until he had scrutinized the wax used to close them. Making bird cages, lacquer boxes, and toffee also occupied his time, as did the glasshouses of the Schönbrunn.

The ‘Big Four’ at the congress were Tsar Alexander, Metternich, Prince Hardenberg for Prussia, and Lord Castlereagh for Great Britain, but Talleyrand also had an influence that was often decisive. Following the Congress of Vienna, the four agreed to meet periodically ‘for the purpose of consulting upon their common interests … for the repose and prosperity of nations, and for the maintenance of the peace of Europe.’ Tsar Alexander added to this his own plan for a brotherly bond of peoples, based on the ‘sublime truths’ of Christianity. Metternich famously described the tsar’s Holy Alliance as a ‘resounding nothing’, but he deftly changed the text of the tsar’s plan from a union of peoples to a union of sovereigns, thus once more stamping the monarchical status quo on the map of Europe.

Defending the status quo and upholding the rights of legitimate rulers obliged the four powers and France to intervene whenever the threat of revolution presented itself. This suited Metternich, since it permitted Austria to march into Piedmont and Naples in 1821 to defend their monarchs, thereby enlarging Habsburg influence in the peninsula. It was, however, unwelcome to politicians in Britain and France, who found themselves committed to support all established governments, including those which resisted even the slightest reforms. Metternich’s attempts to extend the guarantee to include Ottoman Turkey exemplified the British predicament—that, as Castlereagh foresaw, a ‘general European police’ was intended to act as ‘the armed guardians of all thrones.’

Four congresses met between 1818 and 1822, at Aachen, Opava (Troppau) in Austrian Silesia, Ljubljana (Laibach) in Carniola, and Verona in Venetia. The last three were held within the Austrian Empire, thus acknowledging Metternich’s influence and making it easier for him to open the diplomatic mail. But unlike Russia, Britain and France were increasingly unwilling to be drawn into the business of defending unpopular rulers against their subjects. With the main powers divided on the principle of intervention, the congress system fell apart. A precedent of sorts had, however, been established that international crises might be better resolved through conferences than by going to war.

After 1822, Metternich increasingly relied for support on Prussia and Russia, cementing an uneasy alliance of the three ‘northern courts’ of Vienna, Berlin, and St Petersburg. (Europe was still at this time thought to be divided north-south rather than east-west). Meeting at Münchengrätz and Berlin in 1833, Emperor Francis, Tsar Nicholas of Russia, and Prince Frederick William of Prussia agreed to maintain ‘the conservative system as the unquestionable basis of their policies’, and they affirmed that all rulers were entitled to call upon one another for military aid.

With the acquisition of Venice and its Adriatic possessions, the Habsburgs had inherited a navy, comprising in 1814 ten ships of the line with several gun decks, and nine smaller frigates. At first, the fledgling fleet languished in disrepair, being mainly used to carry mail and ferry sightseers along the coast. Gradually, however, its value became apparent: to convey the archduchess Leopoldine to Brazil in 1817 and a few years later to cement a new commercial treaty with China. So unused were the Chinese to Habsburg vessels that they did not recognize the red-and-white naval standard introduced by Joseph II, obliging the captain to hoist instead the old black and yellow flag of the Holy Roman Empire with the double-headed eagle.

The fleet proved its value in 1821 when it supported land operations in the invasion of Naples. It was also deployed against Greek corsairs who plundered merchant shipping to support an insurrection in the Peloponnese. By the late 1820s, the Habsburgs had more than twenty vessels patrolling the Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean. It was, however, the activities of Moroccan pirates that gave the navy sudden importance. In 1828, the sultan of Morocco repudiated his agreement not to molest Habsburg shipping and began attacking commercial vessels passing through the Mediterranean on their way to Brazil. One of these was the Veloce bound for Rio de Janeiro out of Trieste, whose crew were held for ransom. To rescue the men, Metternich ordered two corvettes and a two-masted brig with several hundred troops aboard to sail to the Moroccan coast. The expedition was a resounding success, culminating in the bombardment of the port of El Araich. Shortly after, the sultan renewed his treaty with Emperor Francis.

The navy remained, nevertheless, small, comprising in 1837 just four frigates with single gun decks, five corvettes, a paddle steamer, and some smaller vessels. The merchant marine, by contrast, comprised five hundred large commercial vessels, and from Venice, Trieste, and Rijeka (Fiume) it dominated commerce with the Ottoman Empire and North Africa. Many of its ships belonged to two companies in the establishment of which Metternich was active: the Danube Steamship Company, founded in 1829, and the Austrian Lloyd, which was incorporated in 1836. Both were engaged in the Black Sea and East Mediterranean trade, and Metternich pushed the Ottoman sultan to grant preferential terms to Austrian merchants in the trade in cotton and silk. When the pasha, or governor, of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, attacked Ottoman Syria in 1839, Metternich instructed the Austrian fleet to join the British navy in bombarding Beirut and blockading the Nile delta in support of the sultan. The pasha subsequently agreed to open his territories to European merchants, of which the Austrians were the first to establish themselves.

Austrian ships not only transported cotton and silk but also took charge of much local commerce in the Eastern Mediterranean, including the movement of grain and other agricultural produce. They were also deeply implicated in the slave trade, transporting captives from Alexandria in Egypt to the markets of Istanbul and Izmir (Smyrna). Although figures on the slave trade are speculative, about a million Africans were transported to the Eastern Mediterranean in the nineteenth century. Of these, many tens of thousands travelled in ships of the Austrian Lloyd. Indeed, investigations as late as the 1870s disclosed that there was not a single Austrian Lloyd vessel working the Alexandria to Istanbul route that was not carrying slaves. A few of the wretches ended up in Vienna, working there as household servants under the description of ‘persons of unclear legal status.’

Austrian commercial expansion in the East Mediterranean was a colonial venture without territories. It bore many of the hallmarks of the more visible colonial empires in terms of its economic exploitation of indigenous resources and the paternalistic zeal of the diplomats and entrepreneurs who oversaw its expansion. They came not only to found trading depots but also to convert, bringing an iron gunboat down the White Nile in support of Catholic missionaries. Since the Habsburg emperor also acted as the protector of Catholics in Egypt and the Sudan, the extension of the faith increased his political weight there. The Geographical Society in Vienna was happy to record in 1857 that the Austrian flag had been planted only three degrees north of the Equator and looked forward to the steady development under its shadow of ‘Christianity and civilization.’

As Habsburg merchants pressed southwards into Africa, they found the local population uninterested in the manufactured wares, textiles, and umbrellas that they put up for sale. So they traded currency instead, mostly the large silver coins known as Maria Theresa thalers. First minted in 1741, the thaler stabilized in design and content in 1783, bearing the date 1780 to commemorate the year of the empress’s death. Of a good silver content and impressively sculpted, the Maria Theresa thaler became the medium of exchange in Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa, and the Indian Ocean, being used to buy gold, ivory, coffee, civet oil (for perfumes), and slaves. It was, as one Ethiopian slave girl remarked in the 1830s, the coin ‘which serves to buy children and men’, but it was also, when threaded on a wire, a neck ornament and the medium through which local rulers collected tax. The Maria Theresa thaler remained an official currency in Ethiopia until 1945, in Muscat and Oman until 1970, and continues to this day in informal circulation as far afield as Indonesia.

Metternich himself observed that he ‘may have governed Europe occasionally, but Austria never.’ His principal sphere was foreign policy and, since they were regarded as almost foreign countries, Hungary and Lombardy-Venetia. The plans he put forward for the administrative reform of the Austrian Empire were neglected by the emperor. Metternich’s bugbears were the committees of state, which examined policy in laborious detail and proceeded by taking votes. Far better, he thought, to have ministers with real power, who coordinated policy between themselves. But Emperor Francis opposed him. ‘I want no changes, our laws are sound and sufficient’ and ‘The time is not suitable for innovations’ were comments typical of Francis’s political immobility.

Both Francis and Metternich agreed that there was a revolutionary threat to the Austrian Empire and to the established order in Europe. They were mistaken only in one respect, for the revolutionary threat was not coordinated by a secret committee in Paris, as they and many other statesmen imagined, but operated more loosely, almost in the manner of modern terrorist ‘franchises.’ Many of the revolutionary leaders in Naples, Spain, Russian Poland, the Balkans, and Latin America knew each other, fought in each other’s wars, and circulated to one another draft constitutions and revolutionary manifestoes. They operated secretively through cells and so-called societies of friends, which borrowed from freemasonry their rites of admission, system of passwords, and bloodthirsty oaths.

Metternich used Austria’s presidency of the German Confederation to push through a programme of censorship that applied throughout its territory, exempting only works of more than 320 pages, since these were thought too tiring for readers and censors alike (not 20 pages as historians often allege, but 20 Bogenseiten—that is, folded quires of 16 printed sides). He additionally forced the German rulers to clamp down on political organizations, demonstrations, and representative institutions that trespassed on their sovereignty. In the Austrian Empire, however, censorship was patchy, since there were only twenty-five censors employed in Vienna with responsibility for ten thousand titles a year. The liberal Allgemeine Zeitung, published in Augsburg, and the Leipzig Grenzboten circulated freely, with only occasional issues being confiscated, while the official Wiener Zeitung published foreign news both extensively and impartially.

Generally, repression was light, since Metternich preferred to monitor opinion through informers and surveillance than to prevent it forming. He recalled fondly his childhood tutor, ‘one of the best of men’, who had gone over to revolutionary republicanism, and he had no wish to punish errant convictions. There were political prisoners, but they had usually done something wrong, either through belonging to a banned society or by actively plotting insurrection, rather than just holding the wrong opinions. Even in Lombardy-Venetia, a hotbed of conspiracy, Metternich’s officials put more trust in La Scala than in the police, reckoning that just as the circus had tamed the ancient Romans, so the opera might make Italians more pliant. In Hungary and Transylvania, Metternich had the ringleaders of the liberal opposition—Louis Kossuth, László Lovassy, and Nicholas Wesselényi—gaoled in 1837 on charges of sedition. But they were held in fairly comfortable conditions in the Špilberk (Spielberg) prison in southern Moravia and amnestied after three years.

The most determined opposition to Metternich’s rule came, however, from within government itself. The bureaucracy continued to be infused with reformist zeal and to push for the improvement of society. Despite Emperor Francis’s resistance to innovation, the bureaucracy’s achievements were remarkable: a new code of criminal law in 1803; a civil code in 1811, which removed the distinctive legal status of the nobility; new technical and mining colleges; and support for ambitious commercial and industrial undertakings, particularly railway construction and the laying of telegraph lines. Obliged to take an annual oath that they were not members of secret societies, the bureaucrats joined the next best thing, which were the reading clubs, where foreign newspapers and banned books circulated with police approval. Of the thousand or so senior officials in Vienna, some two hundred were members of the Legal and Political Reading Union, where they could read Rousseau, the works of the early Swiss communists, and even Il Progresso, the mouthpiece of revolutionary Young Italy.

The bureaucrats pressed for the abolition of peasant servitude and for tenant farmers to be given the land they cultivated. But that meant compensating the landlords, which would use up resources otherwise earmarked for the army. Metternich’s foreign policy rested on the possibility of intervention, so he was in favour of a large military budget. The bureaucrats accordingly looked to Metternich’s rival in the administration, Count Kolowrat-Liebsteinsky, who had the main responsibility for financial affairs. Kolowrat was no reformer, but he was no fool either. As he remarked to Metternich, ‘Your instruments are force of arms and the rigid maintenance of existing conditions. In my view, this will lead to revolution.’ By cutting military expenditures, Kolowrat briefly balanced the budget for 1830–1831, on which account his political influence grew disproportionately.

In 1835 Francis was succeeded by his son, Ferdinand. Childhood rickets had left Ferdinand with epilepsy and a deformed skull, but his principal disability as a ruler was his complete lack of interest in affairs of state. Like several of his forebears, Ferdinand’s preoccupation was botany—the genus of flowering tropical plants called Ferdinandusa was named in his honour. On his deathbed, Francis advised Ferdinand ‘to govern and not to change’, but he wisely instituted a regency council or state conference to act on Ferdinand’s behalf. The state conference became the vehicle whereby Kolowrat consistently impeded Metternich, blocking any expansion of the military budget but failing also to relieve the condition of the peasantry for fear of unravelling the state’s finances. Following a bloody uprising in Galicia in 1846, in which the peasants massacred their lords, collecting their heads by the wagon load, the need for reform in the countryside became urgent, but the state conference was frozen by wrangling and by its inability to reach decisions.

During Ferdinand’s reign (1835–1848), Metternich lost control of internal policy, to such an extent that many of the repressive features of the period were not of his creation but the work of Kolowrat or of his close allies in the state conference. Even so, it was Metternich who was identified with all the shortcomings of government as well as of the international order. In Stendhal’s The Red and the Black (1830), the exiled Count Altamira discards the beautiful Mathilde at a ball to speak instead to a Peruvian general, because ‘he so despairs of Europe as Metternich had organized it.’ Anton von Auersperg’s political poem Walks of a Viennese Poet (1831) has the Austrian people hammering on Metternich’s door begging to be let free. Indeed, by 1848 Metternich had in popular discourse become ‘the chief blood-sucker of all blood-sucking ministers’, ‘the wicked demon’, and ‘money swallowing, drinking the blood of the people.’

Yet Metternich’s achievement lies on the map of Europe. Cast aside by Napoleon, it was restored by him, and he gave the new Austrian Empire a commanding position in the centre, from which it might even spill Maria Theresa thalers into Africa. The borders that Metternich helped draw up in Vienna in 1814–1815, and that he strove to maintain, survived to the extent of forming the broad outline of the European state system until 1914. With a stable core, Europe’s great-power conflicts were ‘peripheralized’, and moved eastwards to the Ottoman Empire and southwards into colonial rivalries. Between 1815 and 1914 there were just four European wars, all of them short, whereas between 1700 and 1790 there had been at least sixteen major wars involving several or more leading powers. Metternich did not bring peace to Europe, but he gave Europe the foundation on which its statesmen might choose peace if they wanted it. Guided by Metternich, the Austrian Empire emerged from the marginal status accorded it by Napoleon to the main arbiter of Europe and, for almost forty years, a bastion against revolutionary disorder.

Metternich: Strategist and Visionary Hardcover – 5 November 2019

A compelling new biography that recasts the most important European statesman of the first half of the nineteenth century, famous for his alleged archconservatism, as a friend of realpolitik and reform, pursuing international peace.

Metternich has a reputation as the epitome of reactionary conservatism. Historians treat him as the archenemy of progress, a ruthless aristocrat who used his power as the dominant European statesman of the first half of the nineteenth century to stifle liberalism, suppress national independence, and oppose the dreams of social change that inspired the revolutionaries of 1848. Wolfram Siemann paints a fundamentally new image of the man who shaped Europe for over four decades. He reveals Metternich as more modern and his career much more forward-looking than we have ever recognized.

Clemens von Metternich emerged from the horrors of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, Siemann shows, committed above all to the preservation of peace. That often required him, as the Austrian Empire’s foreign minister and chancellor, to back authority. He was, as Henry Kissinger has observed, the father of realpolitik. But short of compromising on his overarching goal Metternich aimed to accommodate liberalism and nationalism as much as possible. Siemann draws on previously unexamined archives to bring this multilayered and dazzling man to life. We meet him as a tradition-conscious imperial count, an early industrial entrepreneur, an admirer of Britain’s liberal constitution, a failing reformer in a fragile multiethnic state, and a man prone to sometimes scandalous relations with glamorous women.

Hailed on its German publication as a masterpiece of historical writing, Metternich will endure as an essential guide to nineteenth-century Europe, indispensable for understanding the forces of revolution, reaction, and moderation that shaped the modern world.

by Wolfram Siemann (Author), Daniel Steuer (Translator)

Italian First Offensives 1915 Part I

Yellowed prints of the 1866 border show simple guardhouses beside stone bridges. Farmers pose, squinting, by the barrier poles alongside their carts and livestock, while children play at the roadside under listless flags. Few traces of that frontier can be seen today. On the outskirts of Cormons, a guardhouse has been adapted into a loggia for a private home, sheltering an expensive car. Deep in its stony bed, the River Judrio trickles past the end of the garden. Traffic whines along the SS356 highway, a hundred metres away, beyond a monument marking where the first shots were fired in Italy’s last war of independence. The inscription says that on the night of 23/24 May, Italian customs officers opened fire to stop Austrian reservists from burning the wooden bridge over the Judrio. A few hours later, the first Italian casualty was brought back across the bridge on a farmer’s cart.

The 23rd was a Sunday, and parish priests along the border warned their congregations that war was coming. Hostilities officially com menced at midnight. Assuming supreme command, the King over came his diffidence and spoke to the people – something he rarely did. The solemn hour of national claims had struck, he cried, standing on the balcony of the Quirinale palace and waving a flag. The enemy were battle-hardened and worthy; favoured by the terrain and by careful preparations, they would fight tenaciously, ‘but your indomitable ardour will certainly overcome them’. It was an oddly subdued performance. Even so, according to press reports, the crowd was delirious. With this ordeal behind him, the King hurried to the front; he did not want to miss a moment of his army’s dash to glory.

The army was not, however, dashing anywhere. Full mobilisation began on 22 May and was scheduled to take 23 days. It took twice as long; the army was not fully deployed until mid-July. The general staff had prepared for war as if it would occur in peacetime conditions. Little allowance was made for systemic stress and breakdown, all the concomitants that Clausewitz called ‘friction’.

When the fighting began, Cadorna had some 400,000 men in the plains of Veneto and Friuli. Yet, these hastily concentrated forces included only two of the army’s 17 regular corps – fewer than 80,000 rifles. On the lower Isonzo, the Third Army was to rush to the river, establish bridgeheads and capture Monfalcone. Gorizia was to be isolated by taking the hills that flanked the city. On the middle and upper Isonzo, the Second Army’s priority was to take the Caporetto basin and then the Krn–Mrzli ridge. The Fourth Army was supposed to pinch the neck of the Trentino salient by occupying a series of towns in the north: first Cortina, deep in the Dolomite mountains, then Toblach (Dobbiaco) and Bruneck (Brunico). The First Army was deployed defensively around the western side of the salient.

Cadorna should have had the benefit of co-ordinated operations by Russia and Serbia, but the Serbs were in no condition to attack and anyway resented Italian ambitions in the Balkans, while the Russians were paralysed after heavy losses in May and early June. The Italians were on their own, and the long build-up deprived them of surprise. Also, Austrian agents in the border areas had been feeding them disinformation, so they were expecting ambushes and sabotage on the roads to the east.

There was another reason for the Third Army’s snail’s pace. As it rolled into action, Cadorna replaced its commander, General Zuccari, because he had delayed his arrival at the front or possibly to settle a score. The timing was astonishing; Zuccari’s successor, the Duke of Aosta, took up his command on 27 May, exactly when the Third Army should have been smashing the enemy lines. The Italians crept to the Isonzo instead of racing there. The cavalry were ordered to take the bridges above Monfalcone on the morning of the 24th. But their commander, expecting tough resistance, wanted to keep contact with the supporting infantry, so the Austrians had time to blow the bridges that afternoon. Cadorna blamed the men’s lack of ‘offensive spirit’, rather than poor preparation, sheer inexperience, or the enemy’s skill at spreading false reports.

The Habsburg secret services scored real successes in April and early May 1915. Italian intelligence reported that the enemy had eight or ten divisions on the Italian border – around 100,000 infantry. In fact, the Isonzo frontier was guarded in mid-May by only two divisions – some 25,000 rifles, supported by around 100 artillery pieces. Intelligence from the Alpine regions was no better. Crucially, Cadorna was unaware that in the Tyrol and the Dolomites the Austrians had withdrawn to a defensive line some way behind the state border, leaving large tracts of territory near Lake Garda and north of Asiago practically undefended.

The Habsburg commander in the Tyrol reported on 20 May:

We are on the eve of an enemy invasion. We have erected a weak line of combat on the border, but we have only 21 reserve battalions and seven and a half batteries along a front of some 400 kilometres. All our proper troops are on the Eastern Front [meaning Galicia]. Only the Trent zone is a bit better fortified and sufficiently garrisoned … I don’t know what will happen if the Italians attack vigorously, everywhere.

The reservists were mostly labourers who had been building the defences and were then put in uniform, given a rifle and basic training.

There was no vigorous attack. West of the Isonzo, only the Fourth Army under General Nava and the Carnia Corps were deployed to attack, targeting the Puster valley and Villach. With just five divisions, Nava’s force was too dispersed to make much impact. They had only one heavy battery and no other means of breaching wire: no gelignite tubes or even wire-cutters. Small wonder that Nava’s men advanced so slowly in May and June. An Austrian officer posted in the Dolomites wrote on 23 May that, if the Italians knew their business, they would march overnight and reach the Puster valley inside Austria by morning; nothing could have stopped them. But they did not know their business, and the window closed. The Fourth Army occupied Cortina five days after the Austrians evacuated it, then delayed the offensive proper until 3 June, for no clear reason. This gave the Austrians ample time to strengthen their line. Lieutenant General Krafft von Dellmensingen, leading the German Alpine Corps on this sector, recalled that the Italians’ initial superiority was so great that they could have broken through at will. ‘We expected them to do just that, and were more and more astonished when they let two weeks and more pass without moving.’ The Italians never got near the Puster valley.

In Carnia, the mountainous hinge of the entire front, the Italian force was, again, too small for its ambitious tasks of breaking through at Tarvis. No artillery was available until 12 June and anyway there were no tracks or roads to bring the batteries close to enemy lines, so it was impossible to attack the well-protected approaches to the passes into Austrian Carinthia.

West of Carnia and the Dolomites, General Brusati, commanding the First Army, was straining at the leash. Although he had only five divisions for a sector of 130 kilometres around Trentino, he was dismayed by Cadorna’s decision not to let him attack.2 So he attacked anyway, achieving no success because he chose the only strongly fortified zone in his sector: the high ground between Trent and the coastal plain. His offensive unfurled as if in slow motion.

With Habsburg troops pouring in from Serbia, the balance was changing every day. By 24 May, the Austrians had 50,000–70,000 men on the Italian front. A further 40 battalions (40,000 men) arrived by the end of the month. By mid-June, there may have been 200,000 Habsburg troops facing the Italians. Nonetheless, Italy had a broad advantage of at least 4:1 in fighting strength for the first month of the war. This disparity was not admitted at the time, or under Fascism. Mussolini would claim that the Italians had faced 221 enemy battalions. The Austrians credited the Italians with 48 divisions (44 infantry, 4 cavalry), instead of 35. Each side overestimated the other’s initial strength, but the overestimation had dire consequences for one side only.

Local people had helped the Austrians to erect barriers across the border roads, using trees, glass, barbed wire, and even farm implements. They also warned the advancing Italians about mines, traps and electrified wire barriers that did not exist. Nosing tentatively forward, skirmishing with Austrian patrols but meeting no fierce resistance, the Italians only reached the Isonzo on the 26th. The brunt of Cadorna’s attack was planned to take place across the river, between Sagrado and Monfalcone, a distance of 12 kilometres, east of the lower Isonzo. The bridges were all blown. Further days were wasted in exploring the riverbanks. Heavy rain had swollen the Isonzo and its tributaries. What with accurate enemy fire and shortages of bridging equipment, it proved impossible to cross the river until the night of 4/5 June. Once they reached the eastern side, the Italians found that the enemy had flooded the low-lying area between the river and the Carso by closing the sluices on a raised canal. The Italians blew up the sluice gates, but too late to save the troops from being bogged down. This bought the Austrians more time to prepare their defences on the Carso ridge.

The rapture and creeping disillusion of early June were chronicled by Giani Stuparich, a volunteer from Trieste. Stuparich enlisted in the 1st Regiment of Sardinian Grenadiers at the end of May and entrained for the front at once. He was a fastidious man and the company in the crowded carriage (‘two Florentines … a Roman … a Sicilian … one from Livorno’) soon became tiresome. A sergeant in the reserves made ‘loudly incomprehensible speeches about humanity, barbarism, sacrifice, duty and many other muddled concepts’. Looking for distraction from the chatter, Stuparich noticed a silent figure in the corner of the carriage. ‘He is not listening or talking, he is the only one rapt in a preoccupation that he cannot account for, but it fevers his expression and stiffens his limbs, paralysing his soul in an intense stupor.’ His mouth hung open, his eyes were fixed and shining. He was a peasant in uniform, perhaps leaving home for the first time in his life, probably fluent only in dialect. The nameless man was still far from the front, but even now he could not grasp what was happening. Wrenched from his family and routine for reasons neither explained nor understood, he was in shock. While the writer saw this and was moved, too much separated them for a friendly word to be uttered.

At Mestre station, outside Venice, the men see wounded soldiers waiting for transport away from the front. ‘There are thousands of them!’ says one of the Tuscans in a trembling voice. (Thanks to censorship, he would have had no idea of the initial casualties.) Smells of blood and iodine seep into the carriage. Like the peasant in the corner, the wounded say nothing. The train moves on towards the front. Marching to the border, the men are nervous, starting at shadows by the roadside. Beyond Cervignano, there are tree trunks across the road. Bersaglieri speed past them on bikes, raising trails of dust. A public fountain slakes their thirst. They sleep on their capes under the stars, and awaken spangled with dew. Ordered to carry heavy cauldrons, Stuparich – a bespectacled, intense, 25-year-old intellectual – notes euphorically that his body alone could not have borne the weight; ‘my strength is sheer willpower’.

They cross the Isonzo on 5 June, ‘a tremendous, foaming azure current cut by pontoons’. His rucksack no longer weighs him down. Near the front, smells of putrefaction emanate from the roadside bushes, but the men are too hopeful to be gloomy. Marching towards Monfalcone on 8 June, they talk excitedly about reaching Trieste within a fortnight. Giani dreams of being one of the first to enter the main square, covered in dust. Next day, he reaches the Carso. The unit is sheltering from Austrian fire in a dyke. They clamber out, and come face to face with a rocky, barren hillside. ‘A chilly gust of wind hits me, a bullet whistles over my head, then another, then more buzz past my ears with a softer, keening sound.’

The Carso figures in this story as a landscape, a battlefield, practically a character in its own right. It is a triangle of highland with vertices near the hill of San Michele in the north, Trieste in the south, and somewhere around the town of Vipava – deep inside Slovenia – in the east. To the south and east, it merges into the limestone ranges that reach into Slovenia and Croatia, and ultimately stretch all the way along the eastern Adriatic coast to Montenegro. In the north, it is bounded by the valley of the River Vipacco. It is from the west, however, that the Carso shows its most impressive aspect, at first like a bar of cloud on the horizon, then surging from the ground.

There is a legend about the origins of the Carso. God sent an archangel to take away the stones that stopped people from growing crops. The devil saw the angel flying high over a land with beautiful woods and streams and meadows, carrying a huge sack. Hoping for treasure, the devil approached the archangel from behind and slashed his sack with a knife. Out poured the stones, covering the beautiful country below. God was sanguine: ‘No harm is done. The people in that country sheltered the devil instead of praising my name. Let this be a lesson to them. Let this be the kingdom of stone, where men labour to survive. Then they will learn not to trust the devil.’ The local people chased the devil away, but too late. The Carso remained a wasteland, as God had ordained.

The Carso only reaches 500 metres in height, like the chalk downs in southern England, but it feels like a world apart. The surface is uneven, pitted with sinkholes where water has drained into the stone. If you stumble, it is easy to break an ankle or cut yourself to the bone. Someone likened the Carso to an immense petrified sponge. It is a hydrologist’s laboratory, a potholer’s playground; fissures in the surface open into grottoes and caverns that lead deep underground. The largest holes, called dolinas, are conical, steep-sided depressions up to 200 or 300 metres across and 50 metres deep. Formed by water erosion and often plugged with fertile red soil, they were oases of cultivation on the arid plateau, where otherwise only goats could forage.

The Carso was almost trackless, and thinly populated – by Slovenes, not Italians, living in hamlets of limestone blocks, roofed with lichened stone. Habsburg forestation projects had created woodland around the fringes, but the plateau proper was almost treeless, for the natural flora was sub-alpine heathland, with thyme, cyclamen, narcissi, and juniper bushes. The fauna, too, was distinctive: boar, deer, lynx, jackals and horned vipers were all found. The climate is harsh. In winter, the Carso is swept by winds, including a cold, dry north-easterly called the bora that can gust at 100 knots. Rain turns the red clay to gluey mud. Summer turns the Carso into a desert; clouds form over the sea and pass overhead without releasing a drop of rain.

Made of rock that reflects the heat, waterless when not flooded, hard to walk over, let alone run, the Carso might have been designed as the last place on earth for trench warfare. Shellbursts were like volcanoes erupting. When heavy shells hit limestone, the fragments of steel casing and stone could maim soldiers a kilometre away. Trenching was extremely difficult without drills, under fire. Mattocks and picks were no use when solid rock lay on or just below the surface, so both sides built low walls of loose stones, knee-high and easily demolished by incoming shells. Disgust for these dry-stone defences is vividly expressed in war memoirs. The novelist Carlo Emilio Gadda, who fought on the Carso, found a memorably painful image when he wrote of the contending generals who ‘scraped their massacred battalions over those hills like matchsticks’.

The day when Giani Stuparich’s unit reached the Carso, 9 June, the Sardinian Grenadiers were involved in capturing Monfalcone. With 10,000 people, Monfalcone was the biggest town between Gorizia and Trieste, and it was booming, thanks to shipbuilding and chemical industries. Its capture gave the Italians their first triumph.

While infantry of the Messina Brigade entered the town directly, the Grenadiers circled around the back. If you drive through Monfalcone today, you glimpse a white monument on a low hilltop behind the main square. This is the Rocca, literally ‘the Rock’, a miniature fortress with a squat limestone tower, 10 metres square, hooped by walls four or five metres high. Fortifications stood here for centuries before the Venetians built this tower some 500 years ago. (The lion of St Mark, its forepaw resting on the Gospel, is still visible on the façade.) It is a superb vantage-point, looking forward over the plains of Friuli and the Gulf of Trieste, and rearward to the Carso. A prehistoric trade route from the Adriatic to the Black Sea passed by this place.

Italian First Offensives 1915 Part II

Looking from the western rim of the Isonzo valley, across to Mount Mrzli. The Italians clawed their way up this 1,200-metre face, but could not take the summit. Colonel De Rossi’s view in May 1915 was from a lower elevation.

The fight for the Rocca on 9 June was fierce but short. The Austrians pulled back across a valley to a hill called Cosich. At 112 metres, Cosich stands only 30 metres higher than the Rocca, but it was naturally apt for defensive operations. A smug Viennese journalist dubbed it the ‘Hotel Cosich’. The Austrians were not budged from it until August 1916.

Stuparich found Monfalcone deserted, ‘almost spectral’. The shop¬ fronts were shuttered. He did not know it, but the Austrians had ordered a complete evacuation on 24 May, and only 3,000 determined Italians stayed behind, sheltering in cellars from the shelling. Then a shutter went up, a head peered out. Rumours spread that a sweet shop had opened, but what the soldiers wanted was liquor. They ransacked the houses for ‘souvenirs’, stealing pictures, furniture, cutlery, even clothes. For days afterwards, troops wandered around kitted in women’s blouses, until these too were infested with lice.

That evening, Giani walks up to the Rocca. The air is fragrant with pine resin. At dawn the next day, the Austrian artillery on Cosich is silhouetted by the slanting light. The Grenadiers feel unaccountably sad; even the officers seem discouraged. A rumour deepens their gloom: other platoons in the battalion may have taken heavy casualties from Italian artillery. This is soon confirmed; a hundred men have been killed by friendly fire. (The battery commanders did not learn to co-ordinate their fire with infantry advances until the following summer.) This raises the losses around Monfalcone to nearly 300. Giani reports that the terrible accident brings the advance to a halt. He feels the sinews snapping in his breast. He wants to weep but cannot, and has no appetite for supper. Only yesterday Trieste seemed so close, as if they could reach it in one bound. Now it seems so far away.

A few days later, the pinewoods around the Rocca catch fire from the Austrian guns. After the blaze, the ground is carpeted with ash that swirls up and coats the soldiers’ faces. Then the rain starts again, and the ground is churned to soaking mud. By mid-June, Monfalcone is in ruins.

On the day the Italians took Monfalcone, the Second Army made its first attack on the little hill of Podgora, to the west of Gorizia. The troops had crossed the river below San Michele with relative ease, but made no headway on Podgora. There was an equally futile attempt on Mount Sabotino, north of Gorizia. By 11 June, Cadorna realised what he was up against. Gorizia was, he admitted, a proper trenched camp buttressed by mighty hills: Sabotino and Podgora west of the Isonzo, Monte Santo and San Gabriele to the east, and then San Michele to the south. These hills were the town’s outlying ramparts, rising abruptly some 600 metres from the valley.

Also on 9 June, the Italians clashed for the first time with the Austrians on the lower Isonzo. It happened at Sagrado, a little town south-west of Gorizia. Before dawn, a battalion of the Pisa Brigade crossed a pontoon that had been thrown across the river where a sandy islet in midstream made the work easier. (The islet is still visible today.) The artillery hammered the enemy forward positions beyond the river. The major blew his whistle, the Italians – unaware how vulnerable they now were – jumped up to yell ‘Savoy!’, the name of the royal family, and ran forward from their improvised bridgehead. Suddenly the Austrian positions erupted with devastating fire. The pontoon was destroyed and the battalion pinned down without supplies or support. The Italians fell back to the river, and used bayonets when their ammunition ran out. As the Austrians closed in, they threw some newfangled weapons that the Italians had never seen – hand-grenades. The Italians waded back to the little island – the water was only a metre and a half deep – and burrowed into the sand as best they could. At nightfall, the handful of survivors floundered back to the western shore, leaving behind some 500 dead.

It was an astonishing blunder. Why was the operation launched with no secure bridgehead on the far side of the river? Why were the obvious risks not anticipated and planned for? These questions were not asked, even though the first massacre on the Isonzo had happened a week before, some 80 kilometres away, on the middle reach of the river, between the towns of Tolmein (now Tolmin) and Karfreit, better known as Caporetto. The Italians had advanced more rapidly on this sector. As elsewhere, they expected stiff resistance but met with almost none. On one of the hilltops above Caporetto, they found nothing but a defiant message scrawled in faulty Italian and stuffed into a bottle. The message ended, ‘Thus misfortune will come to our powerful enemies the Italians. Long live Austria! Long live the Emperor!’

By the morning of the 24th the Second Army controlled the western ridges above the valley. What did they see? Except for the weaving line of the Isonzo, the area between Flitsch (now Bovec) in the north and Gorizia in the south – where the river issues onto the plain – was a vast jumble, with no paths on the tops and very little surface water. Picture hills like the highest ranges in Wales or Scotland – around Snowdon, the Ben Nevis massif or the Cuillins of Skye, but with limestone instead of slate, granite or gabbro. The tops are often jagged, though sometimes they undulate like the Pennines. The hills rise a thousand metres and more from narrow valleys. Sheer cliffs drop to remote corries. The hills are linked by ridges that rise and fall, merge and separate like giant waves in a choppy sea. Only the Isonzo valley widens into basins where hamlets or little towns huddle the river, and farmers use every scrap of soil for crops or grazing. A rough road runs beside the river. Tracks lead up to a few higher hamlets with summer pastures. Scrubby undergrowth covers the lower slopes. For the most part, the landscape is a stony wilderness.

The Italians entered the hamlet of Livek, above Caporetto, a few hours after it had been abandoned by the Habsburg military police, who left their shiny new barracks in such a rush that the cooking pots were full of sauerkraut. As in the other ‘liberated’ villages north of Gorizia, the local people were Slovenes. The only one who spoke Italian was a woman called Katerina Medves. When she offered coffee to an ailing infantryman, he would not touch it before she drank some herself.

By the end of the day, several villages had been occupied on the eastern bank of the river, at the foot of the mountains. By the 24th, only a few Austrian reservists were left in Caporetto, which was taken the next morning. (A Slovene child, seeing the Bersaglieri approaching by bicycle and fascinated by the plumes on their hats, cried out ‘Daddy, daddy, look at all the ladies coming here on bikes!’) The Italians made their way carefully to the old stone bridge over the Isonzo, which presses through a canyon a few metres wide. Inevitably, the bridge had been blown. Scanning the hillside across the river, they saw several Austrians gazing at them from the undergrowth. Why didn’t they open fire? Then they realised these enemies were straw dummies in uniform. The first prisoners of war were taken the following morning.

At this point, inexplicably, the regiments in the Isonzo valley were ordered to sit tight by the corps commander, General di Robilant, based more than 20 kilometres away in Cividale. Up in Livek, the 12th Bersaglieri milled around for four days, gazing into the valley below and at the Mrzli ridge that rose 1,000 metres on the far side of the river. When their commander, Colonel De Rossi, asked Katerina Medves about nearby Austrian positions, she shrugged: there were none. Scanning the motionless landscape with binoculars, he could not be sure she was lying.

De Rossi was baffled by the orders from Cividale, and with reason. The prime objective in this sector was to capture the peaks of Krn and Mrzli and the lofty connecting ridges, in order to outflank the town of Tolmein. If the Italians took Tolmein, they would control the crucial railhead at Santa Lucia; then they could throttle the Habsburg defences all the way from Gorizia to Tarvis. In frustration, De Rossi ordered his sappers to throw a footbridge over the Isonzo on the 27th. When he sent his men across the bridge to prepare positions under Mrzli, on the 30th, he was ordered to pull back to Livek. Other units, he was told, were active on Mrzli.

General di Robilant had unaccountably ordered a reserve division in Cividale to lead the attack on Mrzli ridge. The 26 battalions of Alpini4 and Bersaglieri stood by and watched as the reservists crept up the flanks of the Krn and Mrzli massifs. The Italians did not realise that Mrzli was unoccupied. Sitting in Tolmein and desperately short of men, the Austrians had expected the Italians to swarm over the valley and onto Mrzli. When they realised this was not happening, they sent units of a mountain brigade onto the ridge. Later that day, the 28th, the Italians finally tried to take Mount Mrzli, and found themselves fighting one of the strongest units in the Habsburg army: the 4th Bosnian Regiment. They could get no further than a ridge at 1,186 metres on the north-west shoulder of the mountain, still 200 metres below the summit. Ferocious fire made it impossible to secure this ridge, and they fell back.

De Rossi’s men were let off the leash on 1 June. They climbed to the ridge below the summit and charged up the steep slope, led by officers brandishing sabres. Machine guns cut swathes through their ranks, but they got within 50 metres of the enemy. That night was mild and clear, and De Rossi crawled to the forward Italian position. The zinc coating on the barbed wire was silvery in the moonlight, which shone on the Austrian line, a rough wall of stones below the summit. The Italians captured this line in a dawn attack. Instead of finding themselves as masters of the hilltop, however, they were stuck. The final slope up to the summit was packed with barbed wire. Pinned down by Austrian fire, De Rossi decided to explore possible routes down to the river on his left, northwards. But another officer jumped up and, in what De Rossi called a fit of madness, ordered his men to attack. This man, Lieutenant Colonel Negrotto, was in the grip of nationalist fever; his letters home described the war as pitting ‘luminous Latin civilisation’ against ‘the barbarous but disciplined German culture’.

Hit in the spine by machine-gun fire as he tried to stop this suicidal attack, De Rossi was paralysed for life. Further north, where Mrzli converges with the Krn massif in a jumble of knife-like ridges and gullies, the Italians hurled themselves towards the summits with no greater success. As well as using their firearms, the Austrians piled boulders into pyramids and rolled them down the mountainside. By 4 June, the Italians had lost more than 2,500 men on this sector, including nearly a hundred officers. Cadorna’s judgement on the assaults on Mrzli was succinct: ‘heroic but senseless’. The Austrians were so dismayed by the loss of the little ridge at 1,186 metres that officers of the defending battalion were court-martialled. Nevertheless, Austria had got the better of this first engagement on the upper Isonzo.

The Italians had done better further north. Krn itself, which soars like a shark’s fin 2,000 metres above Caporetto, was taken in a daring pre-dawn attack by the 3rd Regiment of Alpini on 16 June, with their boots swaddled in sacks of straw to reduce noise. It was a glorious success, the first of the war, presaging others that never materialised. One of the three casualties provided Italy’s propagandists with a cult hero. Alberto Picco was a young officer from Tuscany, a handsome boy, the centre-forward and first captain of his home town’s team, La Spezia, where the soccer stadium still bears his name. He died in his captain’s arms.

Elsewhere the Italians were fatally diffident. They took the hamlet of Plava, halfway between Gorizia and Tolmein, at the end of May, but only managed to cross the river on 9 June. There were two objectives. One was Mount Kuk (611 metres), a couple of kilometres to the south. Looming in front of them was a smaller hill, which, like most of the nameless hills and peaks along the front, was known by its metric height above sea level: Hill 383.

Kuk was swathed with barbed wire, and the Italians were tricked by Austrian camouflage. The trees seemed to rain grenades, and death blazed from the undergrowth. The 37th Infantry Regiment lost half its men and most of its officers before being pulled back to the river. The survivors were ordered to join an attack on Hill 383, defended by a tough Dalmatian regiment, the 22nd Infantry, whose commander urged the men to defend their ‘Slavic soil’ against the ancestral foe. Decades later, a veteran recalled that the Austrians seemed to know exactly when the Italians would emerge from their positions on 16 June. Given the quality of Habsburg intelligence, they quite likely did possess this information. Even if they did not, the cycle of preparatory bombardment and frontal attack was pathetically predictable.

It was like the end of the world and you would have thought a volcano was erupting. Down below, the Isonzo was boiling. I was wondering how a humble infantryman could come out of this inferno alive. We were going up all the time, under an avalanche of fire; I was praying all the time. There were already big holes in our line …

Despite horrific losses – almost five hundred dead, nearly a thousand wounded – the Italians took the hill. The Austrians hid in dug-outs and tunnels along their second line while the Italians celebrated and then slept. Early next day the counter-attack drove the Italians halfway back to the river. Among the prisoners taken was a lieutenant, a deputy in the Italian parliament, who spoke freely about his army’s desperately bad medical service and worsening morale.

At the northern end of the Isonzo front was the little town of Flitsch, overlooking broad meadows a dozen kilometres upstream from a dogleg bend in the river. By early June, the Italians controlled this bend and much of the ridge that runs from here to the Krn massif. Yet, the sector commander did not try to take the town, even though Cadorna’s orders were to do just this as quickly as possible. For Flitsch occupied a strategic position. It is dominated by a hulking mountain called Rombon, reaching up almost 2,000 metres from the valley floor. Whichever side held Rombon would have a stranglehold on Flitsch and control the access to the northern passes. The Austrians needed to make Rombon unconquerable; the Italian pause gave them the chance to make it so.

During the first month of war, Italy lost 11,000–20,000 men. Austrian losses were around 5,000. Cadorna’s army was incapable of successful offensives against competently defended positions. He had failed to instil the ‘offensive spirit’ into his senior officers. Circular orders were no substitute for direct exhortation, in person. To close observers, he gave the impression of being only half engaged. What he did do was start a rolling purge of the officer corps that continued throughout his tenure; by October 1917, Cadorna had dismissed 217 generals, 255 colonels and 355 battalion commanders. This ungentlemanly harshness shocked the career officers, who became more frightened of being ‘torpedoed’ than of carrying out absurd orders or sacrificing their men’s lives pointlessly. Combined with Cadorna’s intolerance of anything that might smack of insubordination, the sackings discouraged ambitious officers from sharing their thoughts on the course and conduct of the war.

In fairness, his faith in the frontal infantry offensive was no more dogged than Joffre’s or Haig’s. But he was fighting in terrain that exposed the flaws in this doctrine with utter ruthlessness. The poor quality of organisation and equipment was already having an effect. There were disturbing cases in June of conscripts spitting at the national flag. Many soldiers were disappointed by the local civilians’ cool response to their liberators, so unlike the acclaim promised by the newspapers. Instead they were met, for the most part, with shuttered windows and ‘hard Friulan faces’. Some of the soldiers began to wonder if their cause was just, after all. Their heroic idea of war was fading, and, in questions of morale, the volunteers were bellwethers; doubts that assailed them were soon felt more widely.

The opening moves in any military endeavour are likely to be clumsy, especially when the attacking army lacks relevant campaign experience. Armies learn as they go, often more quickly than their own commanders. Translating fresh information into tactical thought is a challenge for any staff headquarters in war. Without free-flowing communication, lessons can hardly be learned. It was clear by early June that the channels in this army were badly clogged. Beyond this, the situation facing Cadorna in late May was worse than he had reasonably expected. Allied efforts to break through at Gallipoli had failed, so the Central Powers did not have to bolster the Turks. The Balkan neutrals, Romania and Bulgaria, had not come off the fence. Italy was alone.

By 10 June, Cadorna recognised that matters were not going to plan. He told his family that the advance faced great difficulties and a trench war was looming – a prospect he detested. Salandra was under pressure from warmongers whose euphoria was beginning to curdle. A note of asperity crept into his communications with Cadorna, who warned that the campaign would take a long time, and advised Salandra to inform the public of the real situation. This advice was not taken.

Meanwhile, as the clashes died down in the second week of June, Cadorna’s army set about hacking trenches and gun emplacements in the limestone, carving mule-tracks in zigzags up the mountains, and draping the valley with telephone wires and cable ways suspended from triangular wooden stanchions that can still be found in the forests that now cover the lower hillsides. Pontoons over the Isonzo were strengthened, swept away by late spring rains, rebuilt. Barracks were built in the rear. Cadorna took over the archbishop’s palace in Udine which he named the ‘Supreme Command’ instead of the traditional ‘General Headquarters’. The commanders of the Second and Third Armies set up their headquarters closer to their sectors. By 21 June, Cadorna was ready to start the war in earnest. With over a million men on the plains of Veneto and Friuli – the greatest force ever assembled in Italy – he issued orders for a general advance towards Trieste and Gorizia. The first battle of the Isonzo was about to begin, but the Austro-Hungarian army was better prepared than anyone had thought possible in May.