Portrait of Prince Eugene of Savoy by Jan Kupecký. Shown here in late middle age.

Austria, Grenadier zu Pferde (Horse Grenadiers) 1730 by Rudolf von Ottenfeld

Eugene’s military reforms and Austrian white

Eugene was keen to incorporate lessons learnt from his campaigning next to Marlborough. In his role as President of the Imperial War Council, he had initiated a number of reforms to the Imperial forces which further emphasised the distinctive character of the army he had led to victory in both eastern and western theatres of war.

His experience of all three infantry had led him to the firm conviction that a greater degree of uniformity was necessary if efficiency was to be maintained and even improved. He had been impressed by many aspects of Marlborough’s war machine, not least the steadfastness of his infantry and its fine drill. He had also seen at first hand the hardiness of the Prussians under his command and their stoical ability to survive the fiercest of attacks. Above all, Eugene’s experience of effective cavalry screens in his campaigns with Marlborough and the great value of mounted scouts in his campaigns against the Ottomans encouraged him to favour the development of light cavalry.

It is interesting to note that according to at least one authority (Ottenfeld) the Austrian cavalry officers were deliberately chosen to include a small but significant proportion of soldiers who had risen through the ranks. Eugene, whose detestation of all things to do with Louis XIV’s military machine was legendary, strongly believed that one of the defects of the French military system was that its officer caste was too remote from its other ranks. An officer cadre that was drawn too exclusively from one narrow level of society bred complacency and inertia. It was important that the ‘best families’ produced a great share of the officer corps but the social distance between the French cavalry officer and his troopers was in Eugene’s view simply too wide.

These views would have a long-term effect on the social make-up of the Habsburg officer corps. Unlike that of France or, notably, Prussia whose officer corps was exclusively drawn from the Junker families, it would not be bound entirely by the hierarchy of social origins. Even the British army was dominated well into the twentieth century in its upper echelons by the Anglo-Irish Protestant ascendancy: most of the field marshals of the Second World War were from Ulster. The Austrian army at this stage in its development embraced diversity and social mobility.

Eugene also addressed the issue of recruitment of all arms with a reforming zeal. He consolidated the system whereby regiments recruited in particular areas (Bezirk). He was convinced that local people who knew or were related to each other would fight best together in the same regiment. The regiment should recruit ‘the relatives and people who are known’ to men already serving.

Eugene also insisted on the highest possible standards of physical appearance. ‘Manly faces and a good figure’ were among his requirements. Convicted criminals and deserters were banned from recruitment, the latter on account of the inevitability that they ‘having deserted once will certainly desert again’. Because an army had many requirements in its day-to-day activities in peacetime, Eugene believed that priority should also be given to craftsmen in the recruitment process. Above all, where possible the men should be ‘good young people from good homes’.

The reforms bore fruit and accompanied a significant expansion in the numbers of regiments in the Habsburg forces. Between 1697 and 1710 Infantry regiments increased from 29 to 40 in number. Each regiment was composed of 12 companies, each of 150 men. Cavalry expanded too. By 1711 the seven Cuirassier and one Dragoon regiment of the decade earlier had been increased to 20 Cuirassier regiments, 12 Dragoon regiments and, notably, five Hussar regiments.

This new establishment demanded a concomitant overhaul of military expenditure. In 1699 Leopold I had initiated a system whereby part of each soldier’s pay was retained for equipment and uniform costs. Officers continued to pay for their own full dress and battle equipment and uniforms. Pay was standardised between regiments, the normal daily rate for an infantryman being two and two-thirds kreutzer and, for a cavalry soldier, 5 kreutzer. The pay was increased in the ranks as and if the soldiers received promotion to non-commissioned rank (e.g. corporal: 4 kreutzer). The captain detailed to oversee regimental payments was instructed to ensure each soldier was given a receipt (Zettel) detailing all deductions from his pay for equipment. This is an early example of the bureaucracy that became a hallmark of all things military for the Habsburgs.

Alongside these financial innovations, Prince Eugene and the Imperial War Council attempted to introduce more consistency in the regimental uniforms, still largely at this stage in the hands of the regimental colonels. As ‘pearl grey’ wool was the cheapest and easiest material to conserve, this colour, which under the Danubian sun bleached easily to a lighter shade of off-white, began to be more and more widely adopted. It was still not by any means ubiquitous until in 1707, on 28 December, Eugene, as President of the War Council, issued a decree allowing only three regiments (Osnabrück, Bayreuth and Wetzel) to wear green or blue. Six months later, on Leopold’s death, the new Emperor, Joseph I, approved an order insisting on ‘bleached grey’ for all regiments with the exception of the garrisons of Prague and Gross-Glogau. By the winter of 1708 most regiments had adhered to these regulations and the traditional picture of the Austrian soldier in white with facings of various shades of blue and red became more widespread.

Like Field Marshal Daun later, under Maria Theresa, Eugene believed the soldier would look after his uniform better if he considered it to be his own. But compared to the uniforms of England and France Austrian service dress was not only less ornate but generally of cheaper quality. This economy underlined the severe financial restraints that governed military outlay and in which the remarkable career of Samuel Oppenheimer alluded to earlier during the Siege of Vienna also played a role. On Oppenheimer’s death in 1703 the state finances with which he had shored up Eugene’s campaigns against the Turks went bust and drastic cuts had to be made to all areas of military expenditure.

The new Emperor Joseph I (crowned in 1705) strongly supported Eugene’s policies. Joseph was very different from his father even in appearance – he looks to have been one of the few pre-modern Habsburgs not to have had the typical Habsburg lip. Fair-haired and blue-eyed, he was strikingly handsome. An enthusiast for the arts, he was also fascinated by the science of war. He supported religious toleration and coming to an understanding with the Hungarians. But the Magyars could not trust a Habsburg and their predilection for violent rebellion cast a constant shadow over Joseph’s reign. It was manifested in the form of a peasant war in which a people’s army under the leadership of Ferenc Rákóczi brought death and destruction to parts of Silesia and Moravia. This rebel made it with his men virtually to the gates of Vienna until he was defeated by the shock of trained troops. The Hungarian revolt, though decisively put down by General Heuster, was followed – to the Hungarians’ great surprise, by a peace of dazzling magnanimity.

Joseph was advised by brilliant men who had detested the unwieldiness of his father’s administration, and his brief six-year reign, as well as being marked by clemency and tolerance, was characterised by reforming zeal and a proud indifference towards the Francophile Pope. When Clement XI threatened to excommunicate Prince Eugene who was about to encamp on papal territory, Joseph recalled that Comacchio on the Po delta had originally been an Imperial domain and promptly ordered Eugene to occupy it without delay.

Joseph’s efforts to develop his and Eugene’s ideas for the army came into constant conflict with financial realities. At one point in 1708 Eugene in exasperation wrote acidly to Count Zinzendorf, Joseph’s Foreign Minister: ‘the troops have not been paid in August a single kreutzer. I leave it to Your Excellency to imagine how the men can be saved from their inevitable collapse.’ These constraints especially affected the recently expanded cavalry regiments. Despite these problems, Eugene’s reforms were strongly supported by Joseph. As an archduke, he had fought in Eugene’s army with some distinction. Reform proceeded as fast as Imperial bureaucracy would permit. As well as recruitment, uniform and organisation, the President of the Imperial War Council also addressed the issue of tactics.

Although some historians have dwelt on the influence of the Turkish wars on the Austrian army’s campaigns in western Europe, Eugene appears always to have regarded the two spheres of war as separate. In fact he insisted on a firm separation between the tactics to be used against the Ottomans and those used against western European armies. For example he gave clear instructions that against the Turks his cavalry should always form three lines to protect against the shock surprise tactics of the Ottomans, whereas against western European cavalry his horsemen were to be drawn up in only two lines. A cavalry veteran himself, on becoming President of the Imperial War Council one of the first steps Eugene took was to increase the establishment of the Dragoon regiments from ten to twelve companies.

Noting the need in the western sphere for formal arrangement of his cavalry, Eugene also set the exact distances between his units. The two lines were to be no more than five paces apart and the horses similarly spaced in the line. The positioning of the kettledrums, trumpeters and ‘lifeguard’ or reserve squadron were all carefully considered.

In 1711, shortly before Joseph I died tragically young of smallpox, he and Eugene had further agreed to strengthen the cavalry by the incorporation of grenadier companies among the dragoons. These were, like the infantry grenadiers, not formed into separate units but were elite companies of existing regiments. At more or less the same time the Cuirassier regiments were to be reinforced by the addition of carbine-equipped companies who were given the short carbine with a socket bayonet.

Charles VI : The last embers of Spanish inheritance

The new Emperor was Joseph’s brother, Charles VI, on whose account the War of the Spanish Succession had been waged. The maritime powers, having fought to prevent the crowns of Spain and France uniting, had no wish for the crowns of Spain and Austria to be reunited by a single Habsburg, and thus the new Tory government in London broke off the alliance with Vienna.

By the terms of The ‘Great Betrayal’, as the series of treaties concluded in Utrecht in 1713 were called in Vienna, the Spanish crown was awarded to a Bourbon after all, on condition that no individual could be King both of France and Spain. France as a military power was humbled and Austria gained suzerainty over the Spanish Netherlands, Naples, Milan and Sardinia, this last soon to be swapped for Tuscany. At the Habsburg Kaiser’s request, the treaty confirmed a token of gratitude for Prussia’s support in the war. Henceforth the Prussian Elector would be allowed to style himself ‘King in Prussia’.

But, Spain or no Spain, Austria was great even though she did not have in her new Kaiser, Charles, a great Emperor. Charles VI, in appearance, resembled his father Leopold. In character, he was imbued with the stiffness of the seventeenth-century Spanish Habsburgs. In 1703, after he had been proclaimed King of Spain, he travelled as Charles III through Holland and landed at Portsmouth where Marlborough conveyed him to an audience with Queen Anne at Windsor. From this meeting we have the charming portrait of an eyewitness, Rapin:

The court was very splendid and much thronged; the queen’s behaviour towards him was very noble and obliging. The young king charmed all present; he had a gravity beyond his age, tempered with much modesty. His behaviour was in all points so exact that there was not a circumstance in his whole deportment that was liable to censure.

But Rapin’s account also noted the outlines of a certain Hispanic severity: ‘He paid an extraordinary respect to the queen and yet maintained a due greatness in it. He had the art of seeming well pleased with everything without so much as smiling once all the while he was at court, which was three days. He spoke but little and all he said was judicious and obliging.’

This demeanour though correct was not necessarily calculated to impress. He felt all the aspects of Habsburg Spain’s greatness very keenly. Moreover, he lacked his late brother’s open-minded tolerance of non-Catholics; hence his scrupulously correct but cool behaviour at the English court described above. So it was no surprise that the loss of Spain was traumatising for one who had seemed destined to rule as King. In Vienna during the long fogs of the winter months and their fierce biting winds, he thought of recreating the Spanish Escorial in the great monastery of Klosterneuburg on the banks of the Danube. To this day, Klosterneuburg’s domes show in the splendour of their decoration the power of Charles’s dreams. This Hispanic mentality meant that Charles rarely considered the army he had inherited. He placed more faith in diplomats than in soldiers. His indifference towards the army was born of bitter experience. After all, he had lost Spain even though Habsburg armies had fought with success.

Moreover, his experience in Spain, a great seafaring nation, stimulated Charles to seek compensation. Now north of the Alps and serving as monarch of largely landlocked territories, he favoured the advice of Spanish navigators and merchants rather than his Austrian generals. The great port of Trieste was encouraged to be the entrepôt of the Habsburg lands and the Imperial and Royal East India Company set about the foundation of a trading empire which, within a generation, showed all the signs of being able to rival that of the great maritime nations. At Britain’s request, for supporting the Pragmatic Sanction the company was later disbanded.

Charles VI remained defined by the sudden loss of Spain and his reign was overshadowed by the neurotic fear that his House would also lose the empire in the west unless he took concrete steps to ensure that his successor could inherit his realm without challenge. To this end he issued the Pragmatic Sanction in 1713, the year of the Utrecht treaty. This domestic edict was to ensure the succession for Charles’s children, as yet unborn, in preference to the daughters of Joseph I. It established the right of sole inheritance by the eldest son or, if no sons existed, by the eldest daughter. By its terms, the Austrian Habsburg line was finally freed from the possibility of a divided inheritance.

Once his eldest child, Maria Theresa, was born in 1717, Charles began seeking the recognition of the European powers for the Sanction but this process was not only unhappy in its constant genuflection to the wishes of other nations but it involved Vienna in many harmful concessions.

Eugene’s final triumph: boldly by battery besieges Belgrade

The birth of Maria Theresa coincided with Eugene’s arguably most spectacular feat of arms. In the same year, Eugene crowned his military career and retook Belgrade. In 1715, the Turks had broken the Treaty of Karlowitz and declared war against the Venetians and besieged Corfu. When the Venetians appealed to the Emperor, as a guarantor of the Karlowitz treaty, for help, Charles brushed aside appeals from the Porte and dispatched Eugene to Hungary at the head of a small army including many veterans of his campaigns against the French. In addition, thanks to the settlement of Szatmár with the Hungarians, many Hussar regiments were suddenly available, an indispensable light cavalry arm which Eugene respected and admired. Well screened from an Ottoman army of more than twice his size he camped at Peterwardein, whose fortifications erected by him in an earlier campaign the Turks had not destroyed. Without delaying, the following morning he deployed his cavalry to attack. Eugene’s horsemen surrounded the wings of his enemy and after some stubborn resistance initially by Janissaries began to encircle the Ottoman army while Eugene personally led his infantry into the Turkish centre.

At the same time six gunboats on the Danube, deployed by Eugene, opened fire and the Peterwardein garrison made up largely of Serbs poured out to take part in the slaughter. The Grand Vizier who commanded the Ottomans was killed and Eugene captured more than 250 artillery pieces, 50 standards and immense treasures. By three o’clock, more than 30,000 Turks lay dead on the field near Karlowitz where the treaty had been signed seventeen years earlier.

Eugene now proceeded to invest and capture Temesvár (Timişoara), the key to the Banat and the last of the ancient dependencies of Hungary retained by the Turks, before moving on to besiege Belgrade. Belgrade was a formidable obstacle: the Belgrade garrison was 30,000 strong, it had supplies for at least two months and its strategic importance meant that it would receive assistance from other parts of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, after two months of fruitless investment, Eugene’s forces found themselves pinned by a relief force into the marshy ground between the Danube and the Save where, exposed daily to enemy fire and fever, their morale began to decline rapidly. The Turkish relief force kept up the pressure and was soon threatening Eugene’s main line of communication over the Save. At the same time their lines pressed closer and closer. Eugene was in danger of becoming trapped in the feverish delta of the confluence of the two great rivers below the Belgrade fortress of Kalemegdan.

Calling a council of war Eugene urged a general attack under cover of darkness as the only means of retrieving the situation. His commanders supported him and the following night he personally inspected every outpost of his forces to give refreshment and support to his weary men ahead of the attack. His forces numbered 60,000 men but of these a third was on the other side of the Save so that he had barely 40,000 men with whom to attack a force reckoned at more than 200,000, the largest army the Sultan had sent west since the Siege of Vienna. The attack was scheduled for the following midnight and was to be preceded by a mortar bombardment.

The explosions caused chaos and many casualties but thick fog disorientated the attackers and although they achieved a degree of surprise, their opponents rallied, with the result that Eugene’s forces were in danger of being thrown back in total confusion. A couple of hours later the sun rose, dispelling the fog. Instantly Eugene saw the crisis as his right wing was in danger of being outflanked by the Ottomans. Placing himself in front of his second line of infantry, sword in hand, he summoned his cavalry and charged the enemy and, though wounded, his example rallied his troops, who pressed forward and drove the Ottomans back with wild cries of ‘We will conquer or die!’ This infantry attack proved successful and Eugene’s men, seizing the enemy cannon, turned and fired them into the disordered Ottomans. Once again imminent defeat had been turned into victory and so precipitate was the Turkish retreat that many were crushed to death in the stampede.

Belgrade thus once more fell to the Austrians and by the Treaty of Passarowitz, the following year in 1718, a truce of twenty-five years was signed and the Austrians secured much Balkan territory, including the Banat, which comprised parts of Serbia, Bosnia and Romania.

But though the Treaty of Passarowitz cemented the reputation of Austrian arms at its zenith, subsequent military commitments proceeded less gloriously. Many of these were undertaken as a result of the demands of the other powers in return for supporting the Pragmatic Sanction. The campaigning to the west and the east proved less successful than a generation earlier and it left the reputation of the Imperial forces much diminished.

First Saxony demanded participation in the ill-fated War of Polish Succession. Then Russia demanded renewed hostilities against the Turks. England needed no help in wars but simply insisted on the Ostend trading company and the Imperial and Royal East India Company being disbanded. All of these events had unhappy consequences for the Habsburg domains.


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