Austria’s last Turkish War 1788–1790

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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