Prince Eugene of Savoy and his General Staff at the Battle of Zenta

The ‘first age of heroes’

Confidence, that critical of military factors, allowed the Habsburgs’ army to assume the offensive rapidly. As it rolled the Turks out of central and eastern Europe, the army became better disciplined and organised. It was to become by the end of this period more than capable of holding its own against any force in the world, thanks in no small part to that dazzling architect of Habsburg military power, Prince Eugene.

A young, not very prepossessing or especially handsome youth had arrived in Vienna that autumn of 1683. Small even by the standards of his time, this man appeared almost crippled to his contemporaries, who found the idea that he might want to make soldiering his career risible. His manner was taciturn but his pride was Olympian and indeed he had much to prove. He had been spurned in his quest for a military career by the court of Louis XIV and his rage at this humiliation was unquenchable. When he arrived in Vienna he made enemies at court almost by blinking but Kaiser Leopold recognised early on that here indeed was a soldier of potential, though it is unlikely that even Leopold realised the full extent of the military genius whose spindly frame stood before him.

Eugene of Savoy like many a patriotic ‘old’ Austrian did not possess a drop of what today would be called Austrian blood. By birth he was Italian and his temperament and his rapidity of decision constituted what were once considered typical Latin traits. By upbringing he was French and this invested him with his limitless and rigid devotion to revenge and his obsessive detestation of the French monarch Louis XIV. When many years later, after France had come to regret all too painfully its rejection of Eugene, a message from the French court gingerly enquired whether Eugene after all might consider serving France and said that a dazzling career awaited him in the service of Louis XIV. The Prince of Savoy demonstrated that he neither forgot nor forgave: ‘I should like to accept the invitation to return to France,’ he replied, ‘but only at the head of an invading army to occupy it.’

Eugene had arrived with Lorraine’s polyglot relief force and had performed bravely with energy and imagination at the raising of the great siege. He was a natural choice to take a commission and perform a role in the pursuit of the Turkish hordes. With Vienna saved and the besiegers in full flight it was tempting to see the Ottoman lands as wide open for reconquest. Vienna would no longer be a border city on the fracture line of two empires, she would take her place – and this was the strategic significance of 1683 – at the heart of an immense domain protected from Islamic intrusion by a vast hinterland. This hinterland first and foremost was Hungary.

Asia, Metternich later quipped, began on the Landstrasse in Vienna, and though the Landstrasse hardly existed in 1683 the dusty tracks to the east of the Austrian city created (as they do even today) the sense of a limitless expanse stretching far into an unknown world. Only the fortresses offered punctuation marks on the horizon and one by one these would have to be captured or destroyed. From 1683 to 1699 the war against the Turks would pitilessly roll the Ottomans out of Hungary. But these were hard campaigns and, as so often happens after moments of euphoria, they suffered at first from excessive zeal and inadequate preparation.

On 27 September 1683, Lorraine’s cavalry entered the great fortress of Pressburg, but further east at Barkan the Turks caught the Polish hussars in an ambush which only Lorraine’s rapid deployment of his dragoons en masse prevented turning into a rout. The following month, the fortress of Esztergom, later to become the seat of the Hungarian bishops, was occupied and returned to the Habsburgs after eighty years of Ottoman suzerainty and a siege of six days. It really did seem as if nothing could stop the Imperial troops, and the news the same week of Kara Mustafa’s execution for failing to take Vienna raised morale further. By 1684, a coalition of the Venetian Doge, the Habsburg Emperor and the King of Poland pledged to wage continuous war against the Turk. With the capture of Visegrad in June the route to Buda, the key to western Hungary, was open.

But Buda, or as the Austrians called it, Ofen, was a formidable obstacle. Its ramparts were as thick as Vienna’s, but unlike that city it lay not on a flat plain but on a dramatic rocky hill above the Danube, dominating the surrounding landscape with its citadels and towers. A vast fleet of barges and supply vessels was sent from Vienna down the Danube to provision the siege forces with artillery and other weapons and victuals.

The Ottomans proved no less tenacious than the Viennese and after a year Lorraine broke off the siege as his troops were decimated by the terrible ‘Morbus Hungaricus’ or swamp fever, which persuaded the patriotic and influential priest Marco d’Aviano to advise Lorraine that the siege should be lifted, if only temporarily. By the time the siege was resumed a few months later, the Turks had used the interval to strengthen their defences and once again the Habsburg troops, though now reinforced by Prussians and Bavarians, found they could make little impact on the fortress. Only with the arrival of new guns in June 1686 did the siege resume progress and a breach on the Gellért side of the fortifications allow the Bavarians to gain a foothold. After several days of fierce combat, during which Prince Eugene’s hand was pierced by an arrow fired at close range near the main gate, the city’s defenders began to tire.

A summons by Lorraine to the Turkish commander to surrender brought the reply that Buda would be defended ‘until my last gasp of breath’. Meanwhile the Imperial War Council had agreed that the capture of Buda would not bring offensive operations against the Turks to an end. A new war aim had been formulated and this was nothing less ambitious than ‘the annihilation of the Ottoman Empire’. A fresh artillery barrage a few weeks later breached the main gate and the Imperial troops poured in, wreaking havoc on all traces of humanity they could find, including women and children. Only with considerable difficulty did Lorraine get his men under control as the pent-up bloodlust of months took over and hundreds of innocent civilians were slaughtered with the greatest brutality and mutilation. Of the 13,000-strong Ottoman garrison, barely 2,000 survived.

With the fall of Buda in 1686 the great Hungarian plain and the Danube routes to Belgrade were open and Leopold, true to his alliance with both the King of Poland and Venice, pushed his forces south and east. The following year, at the Battle of Nágyharsány, the defeat of the Hungarians by the Turks at Mohács, a century and a half earlier, was avenged and a year after that Belgrade was stormed.

The capture of Belgrade was a triumph which rang the church bells throughout the Habsburg lands. It was the jewel in a campaign of conquest that had pushed Habsburg power hundreds of miles down the Danube. But in the uncertainty of war, which made Belgrade change hands with increasing frequency over the coming century, the Ottomans launched a vigorous counter-attack. The great city fell to the Ottomans the following year and the Habsburg forces’ grip began to weaken, beset by indifferent leadership and Ottoman tenacity. Eugene had returned west to Austria’s second front, the war against his hated foe Louis XIV, and it was only when peace was concluded in early 1697 that Eugene returned to Hungary.

His reputation preceded him. Against France Eugene had demonstrated that swiftness of movement which he had learnt during his campaigning against the Turks. It was to make him famous; the Siege of Cuneo was raised virtually as soon as the besieging French heard the Prince was riding to that town’s relief. He had also learnt, as Wallenstein had at the beginning of the century, that his cavalry, well handled, were some of the finest the world had ever known.

The bridge at Zenta

But it was to be back on the eastern front at Zenta in 1697 that Eugene, now commander-in-chief, was able to harness all his military experience to deal a crippling blow to the Ottoman Empire. In the fifteen years since the Siege of Vienna, his army had become better equipped and trained to deal with their eastern foe. Against an enemy that was formidable in hand-to-hand combat and deadly in its use of the ‘arme blanche’, the Imperial infantry had learnt the hard way to close ranks and maintain fire discipline. Those units that failed to move swiftly could face immediate destruction. Contemporary accounts are littered with descriptions of Imperial infantry cut to pieces for failing to form a line before the enemy was within 20 paces of them. Eugene imposed new training regimes which forced his men to react much more quickly. Eugene invested his troops with a keen sense of the need for speed almost as if his own sense of movement had been sharpened by his encounters with the Ottomans. After the slow, methodical warfare on the plains of Piedmont his lightning-like thought processes relished the fast-moving demands of eastern warfare. In Hungary he almost allowed himself to be led by instinct rather than planning. Nothing expressed this more vividly than his actions in the second week of September 1697, which culminated in Zenta.

On 11 September one of Eugene’s scouts caught a solitary pasha out riding without an escort. After failing to get any information from him the Prince ordered his Croat horsemen to draw their swords and prepare to cut off the pasha’s head, a command which unsurprisingly focused the Turk’s mind more acutely than had Eugene’s earlier request.

The pasha began to explain: Ottoman forces were at that very moment crossing the Tisza river at Zenta, not many miles from where they stood. On closer questioning, the prisoner thought it would take the best part of the day to effect the crossing. The pasha’s life was spared but Eugene immediately leapt into the saddle and rode with his hussars to Zenta, ordering the rest of his army to follow him at once. Eugene realised that he had been given a unique chance to win a great victory. By the time he arrived at Zenta, with the bulk of his cavalry, although the Ottomans had strongly entrenched the entry to the bridge their army was still crossing the river.

Eugene immediately had his cavalry attack the entrenchments in close formation, achieving almost complete surprise. The Turkish defenders panicked and began to withdraw on to the bridge, where they were overcome by indescribable confusion and terror. Attempts to rally failed and, as Eugene’s infantry came up an hour later with the artillery, the entrenchments were stormed and volley after volley was poured into the mass of Turks on the bridge. His artillery pounded the forces on the other side of the river. Within six hours the devastation was complete. Twenty thousand Turks lay dead or wounded and more than 10,000 had been drowned as the crowded bridge collapsed under Austrian shellfire. Eugene lost just 350 men. So dazzling was this victory that the victors captured not only the Sultan’s seal, treasury and harem (some eighty strong) but also the entire Ottoman baggage train, including nearly a hundred camels.

Austrian Army 1700-22

The Treaty of Karlowitz and the reorganisation of the Military Frontier

The political consequences were no less dramatic. Within less than eighteen months the Treaty of Karlowitz was signed, on 26 January 1699, ending centuries of Ottoman power in Central Europe. Turkey was obliged to surrender Hungary and even parts of Bosnia, which Eugene had raided returning, according to a contemporary account, with ‘many beautiful Turkish women’. The picturesque land of Transylvania though nominally independent would henceforth be governed by Austrian appointees. At a stroke the entire eastern frontier of the Habsburg Empire had been shifted many hundreds of miles to the east. Even the Military Frontier, the fortified borderlands between the two empires, had to be reorganised to incorporate these new territorial acquisitions.

Originally created, as we have seen, in 1553 as a form of cordon sanitaire running from Senj across Sisak to Durdevac, the Military Frontier had been financed by the Styrian nobility and administered by the War Council in Graz. From the 1630s, the Habsburgs had encouraged immigration from the Turkish provinces, offering the privilege of internal self-administration and freedom of religion for the settlers along the Military Frontier so that many Serbs of Orthodox religion found refuge in what gradually became one long, armed encampment where every tenth inhabitant was under arms.

After the Treaty of Karlowitz this frontier was now vastly expanded to include Lower Slavonia, Illyria and the Banat. New units of locally recruited cavalry known as Serežan were engaged for piquet and police duties among a population that was extremely mixed but, thanks to the continuous skirmishing, increasingly made up of resourceful and practical men, natural warrriors often capable of rising rapidly through the ranks. This huge extension of the Military Frontier would feed the tactics and manpower of the Balkans into the Imperial standing army for its campaigns in the coming century, giving Austrian arms a reputation for dash and style.

Politically, Karlowitz marked decisively the decline of one empire and the rise of another. Throughout south-eastern Europe Christians rejoiced at the fall of the Turkish oppressors. Optimism and euphoria abounded. From Mount Athos a group of Orthodox monks made a pilgrimage all the way to Vienna to lay at the feet of the Emperor Leopold a beautiful icon of the Virgin Mary. They were convinced that within months the Imperial armies would liberate the entire Balkan peninsula.

It was not to be. Left to their own devices, no doubt Leopold and Eugene would have seen Karlowitz as a brief armistice. They contemplated pushing the Turks further back and reconquering, again, Belgrade, left by the Treaty of Karlowitz in Turkish hands. But the completion of this particular ‘Austrian mission’ in the east was never to happen, though several wars would still be fought against the Ottomans throughout much of the next years. It would be more than a century before the monks of Athos and Greece were, in Metternich’s memorable phrase, ‘condemned to life’, and then Austria would play no significant role in the struggle for Greek independence.

Marlborough (l) and Eugene (r) went on to spectacular success in an enduring partnership throughout the war.

War with France

Austria, secure to the east, now turned towards her other great ‘mission’ whereby she contributed forcefully to the balance of power in Europe. This mission meant that she could not be indifferent to the activities of Louis XIV of France.

The issue of who would succeed to the Spanish throne at the beginning of the eighteenth century after the death in 1700 of the infirm and childless Charles II, son of Philip IV, was not one any Austrian Habsburg could regard with Olympian detachment. When Louis XIV proposed uniting the Spanish with the French throne the response could only be war. Not for the last time would Austria become the lynchpin of a coalition whose aim was to prevent mainland Europe from falling under the dominance of a single power.

While shifting the focus of the Austrian Habsburgs dramatically from the east to the west, the War of the Spanish Succession would provide the world with extravagant confirmation that as a military power the Habsburg armies were a force to be reckoned with. Hard though it might be to imagine a more dazzling victory than Zenta, Prince Eugene was about to demonstrate with the Duke of Marlborough his brilliance even more impressively than he had on the parched plains of Hungary. The small Bavarian village of Blindheim, not far from the banks of the Upper Danube, was surrounded by lush grass and fertile fields.

In the war that was coming, Kaiser Leopold did not find it easy to ally himself with the Protestant maritime powers, England and the Netherlands. But the world had changed and it was a sign of Leopold’s intelligence as a monarch that he possessed the ability to realise that he must adapt to the new circumstances and draw the correct conclusions from events. He was, understandably, outraged by the Pope’s support of France, whose diplomatic machinations had taken every advantage of Leopold’s difficulties in the east. With the Ottomans defeated, Leopold did not flinch for a moment from defending the interests of his house and from entering battle for the Spanish inheritance even though in military strength and statesmanship he was far inferior to his French cousin. (Louis XIV, like Leopold, was also the son of a Spanish Habsburg mother.)

The war began in a rather understated way on the north Italian plain near Legnagno. A French army under the dry and unimaginative Nicolas Catinat had occupied and fortified the Rivoli defile above Verona to ensure that a patchwork of Italian possessions remained loyal to Louis XIV. Catinat was encouraged by the court to demonstrate boldness and defeat the Habsburg troops as soon as possible should they descend from the Tyrol. Unfortunately for Catinat, Eugene was at the summit of his abilities in 1701 and his troops, fresh from the war of movement and energy in the east, were as keen as their commander to gain ascendancy over their French enemy as soon as possible. Eugene raised the old military art of the feint to new levels of sophistication. The Italian campaign of 1701–2 was subsequently overshadowed by the glittering victories of Blenheim and Oudenarde but this opening of the war revealed all Eugene’s armies’ qualities which later were so admired by the Duke of Marlborough.

As Catinat was expecting Eugene to approach via Rivoli, the Imperial commander wasted no time sending out messages en clair that this was precisely what he was doing. At one point Eugene proved so successful in giving the impression that he was entering Italy along the Adige that even his corps commanders believed this was their planned route. In fact Eugene had long decided to descend on the Italian plain through Vicenza further to the east. By guaranteeing Venetian property and keeping a firm grip on his troops to ensure that the agreements with the Veneto land-owning families were respected, the secret was well kept. Any soldiers found looting were summarily executed, much to the relief of the locals, who gradually came to welcome the Imperial troops and prefer them to their French foes. A key part of Eugene’s great success in masking his real intentions was the support of the Venetians of the plain whose understandable antagonism to a foreign army was powerfully reduced not least by Eugene’s excellent relations with the local clergy. By 27 May Catinat had to report to Paris that, despite his ‘vigilance’, Eugene had succeeded in reaching the Venetian plains without giving battle.

Where Eugene was bold, Catinat was cautious and in a fierce cavalry engagement on the Mincio, Eugene forced the French to retreat over the Oglio in a strange series of manoeuvres which is sometimes called the Battle of Carpi. The news of this engagement, coupled with the fact that the army of Louis XIV had not, contrary to popular belief, defeated or even hindered Eugene’s deployment, was enough for Paris to sack the hapless Catinat and send the aged Villeroi to replace him.

Villeroi in his early seventies was an experienced general but, at this stage of his career, rich years at court had sapped his appetite for risk. ‘It is difficult,’ Louis XIV said later to him, ‘at our stage of life to have much luck.’ As soon as he was established on the plains of Lombardy, Eugene set about constructing a powerfully defensive position in front of the fortress town of Chiari. He was aware that the French would be encouraged to take the offensive and his plan now was to create an anvil of such strength that the hammer-blows of the French would prove incapable of making any serious impression. For supplies he raided the estates of the wealthy Mantuan aristocracy while giving strict orders that the possessions of the less well off inhabitants were to be untouched.

The position at Chiari was well suited to Eugene’s ends. Streams protected his forces on three sides and the earthworks he set about constructing with the fortress at his rear offered no scope for surprise cavalry attacks. His infantry was arranged into a solid line three ranks deep. Thus drawn up they waited until the French infantry had dressed their lines and advanced to within 15 paces. At this moment they let fly three volleys of such withering effect that within an hour Villeroi had suffered nearly 3,000 casualties.

The news of the French defeat resounded around Europe, emboldening the maritime powers to sign the second treaty of the Grand Alliance. The Austrian infantry had proved capable of being stubborn in defence and were well drilled against what were then considered to be the finest foot soldiers in Europe.


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