Napoleonic Era: Austrian Army Reform I


A triumphant Archduke Charles of Austria-Teschen led the Austrians to victory at the Battle of Aspern-Essling.


The army had fought well but it had been out-generalled. After Ulm and Austerlitz, it was clear to the dynasty that two things were needed to offer the chance of success in any future struggle against Napoleon. First the Archduke Charles must be put in charge; and then the army had to be given time to train to adapt to modern warfare.

The Peace of Pressburg signed on Boxing Day 1805 did not impose a Carthaginian settlement on Vienna – that was almost to come in four years’ time – but the conditions were certainly onerous. As usual the Emperor Francis coolly summed it up in a letter to Tsar Alexander. The treaty, he wrote, ‘turned out to be capitulation before an enemy who pressed home his advantages to the full’.1 With that detachment and low-key logic which marked so many of Francis’s utterances, the Kaiser dispassionately concluded: ‘I have been forced to abandon part of my provinces so that I may preserve the rest.’ Amputation always signified life for the dynasty.

The ‘part’ that had to be sacrificed was significant: Venetia, Friuli, Dalmatia and Istria were all either rich agricultural lands or strategically important, although none of them formed part of the hereditary crown lands. The ceding of the Tyrol to Bavaria was another matter. The proud and tough men (and women) of the Tyrolean valleys spoke their own dialect and were fiercely contemptuous of outsiders. They only needed to hear a Bavarian accent for their hackles to rise. Heavy-handed Bavarian rule fuelled the embers of national revolt. The surrender of Lindau and the surviving Habsburg possessions close to Breisgau confirmed the anti-Habsburg arrangements in Germany.

These arrangements meant establishing the tapestry of German mini-states as dependencies of France. Baden and Württemberg had already been rewarded for their support of the Napoleonic cause. On 16 July 1806, the Napoleonic protectorate of the ‘Rheinbund’ confirmed the allegiance of sixteen princes of southern and western Germany who were now obliged, in the event of hostilities, to supply 65,000 soldiers to serve France. Amid great celebrations these little German princes, mediatised and much reduced, declared their wish to be forever separated from the German Empire. The Holy Roman Empire, which had been a Habsburg prerogative, had become an empty shell; its prestige diminished, its utility dismantled. Faced with the choice of the crown of Charlemagne or the guns of Napoleon, the leaders of these Lilliputian states had embraced collaboration.

Five days later, Emperor Francis laid aside the sacred regalia of the Holy Roman Empire and the magnificent crown of Charlemagne and never wore them again. Two years earlier, prompted by the defection of the German princes, the Emperor had been crowned Emperor of Austria. From now on the old Austrian crown lands were to be the engine of Habsburg power and, because many of the inhabitants were German-speaking, the dynasty saw clearly the need to ignite the flames of German nationhood, to ‘fight fire with fire’.

With the tenacity of purpose which characterised Austria throughout this period, the Emperor supported this policy with a new programme of military reform. The keystone of this reform was, at last, the elevation of the Archduke Charles. Putting aside the petty intrigues and jealousies of the court, Francis appointed his brother ‘Generalissimus’, supreme commander, as well as President of the Aulic Council.

With his usual energy, Charles immersed himself in turning the Austrian army into a modern force, capable of holding its own against the French. This was no easy task. After Austerlitz, Napoleon stood at the zenith of his powers. He was a warlord who seemingly had never known defeat. Charles worked away at his reforms: new units of reserves, new tactics and drills, new formations and more cost-effective uniforms. Napoleon continued to wage war. A year after Austerlitz, the Prussians were wiped out in a single afternoon on the fields of Jena and Auerstädt. For once Napoleon was not exaggerating when, in his dispatch of 16 November 1806, he noted: ‘Of the Saxon-Prussian army we have found nothing left. All of 145,000 men have been either killed or wounded or taken prisoner. The King, Queen, General Kalkreuth and 10 or 12 officers are all that have escaped.’

The Archdukes create a Landwehr and a Reserve

The experience of the Napoleonic Levée en masse and the scale of the armies now waging war had left the Archduke Charles in no doubt that the Imperial forces needed to be recalibrated to incorporate a flexible and reliable reserve drawn from a wider base. The creation of the Landwehr (militia) and Reserveanstalt (reserve depot) went a long way to achieving this, providing a source of manpower that could release regular soldiers for the front line once hostilities broke out. Charles did not expect too much of the Landwehr at first, convinced as he was that Napoleon’s army could only be defeated by highly trained regular troops. It was left to his brother the Archduke John, whose travels around Alpine Austria had left him impressed by the calibre and patriotism of the local population, to pursue the Landwehr idea to its logical conclusion. A shattered Prussia and a demoralised mediatised constellation of princes created a vacuum that could only be filled by Austria. The Archduke John knew well how to exploit this and Charles was happy to let his brother get to work on the new It helped that the news of Prussia’s annihilation at Jena encouraged many German writers to place their hopes for liberation not in Berlin but in Vienna. Thus the great Prussian writer Heinrich Kleist (1777–1811) turned his creative talents to praising the Archduke Charles while his Austrian contemporary Heinrich Collin (1771–1811), whose Coriolan inspired Beethoven, composed a poem with a refrain that became the hymn of the newly established Landwehr:

Auf, ihr Völker, bildet Heere!

An die Grenzen fort zur Wehre!

(Awake you peoples: form your armies!

To the frontiers: grab your weaponry!)

To Collin’s cries were added those of the younger Ludwig Uhland: ‘Awake powerful Austria!’ and Ernst Moritz Arndt: ‘Awake Friends! Franz is our Emperor not Bonaparte!’ and finally, striking a note of almost Prussian vengefulness, Max von Schenkendorf: ‘German Kaiser! German Kaiser! Come to Avenge! Come to Save!’ (‘Komm zu rächen! komm zu retten!’). These sentiments were not entirely welcome to Emperor Francis, who was always suspicious of populism. When told that someone at his court was a patriot, he waspishly and famously enquired: ‘But is he a patriot for me?’ a phrase later transposed and immortalised by John Osborne’s 1966 play of the same name.

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