Prince Eugene’s military reforms


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

Prince Eugene of Savoy 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.

The army neglected

Eugene saw the need to keep the army strong but Charles preferred to pour money into projects like the Klosterneuburg monastery and the magnificent Karlskirche rather than the equipment and drill of his troops. The Karlskirche, completed in 1737, the year after Eugene’s death, was the architectural expression of Habsburg political and religious rule, fusing Greek and Roman elements with motifs drawn from the Ottoman Empire. Conceived by Fischer von Erlach, it remains to this day the masterpiece of Austrian baroque. But by 1737 this building – envisaged as the crowning glory of a style long associated with the Counter-Reformation – seemed only to reflect hubris and fiction. The state was on the verge of bankruptcy and the spoils of so many of Eugene’s victories were to be thrown away on the foolish new Turkish war.

In the Polish war, Austria was isolated from her traditional ally England though once again she faced the French and their Bavarian allies. Countless manoeuvres and skirmishes went on, with a battle at Clausen near Trier which saw the Hussars fight bravely against heavy odds. But this was indecisive, as was a more sanguinary engagement at Crocetta in 1734 near Parma.

The so-called Russo-Austrian-Turkish War was also pointless for Austria. It culminated in a major Austrian defeat at Banja Luka. A Turkish army under the command of Ali Pasha, son of a Venetian doctor and a Turk and a veteran sirdar of the Persian wars not only surprised the Habsburg forces besieging the town but in a single day’s fighting routed them so comprehensively that barely a few hundred out of some 15,000 Austrians and Grenzer (recruited from the borders) made it back up the Morava valley.

Banja Luka occurred one year after Prince Eugene had died in 1736 and it was a sinister portent of problems to come for the House of Austria. A little later, an Austrian army under Wallis was routed near Belgrade at the Battle of Krotzka by a well-prepared Ottoman army that showed every sign of learning from its past mistakes. Though Wallis withdrew his forces in good order, he was compelled to surrender the following day.

The blow to Austrian prestige was colossal. In the years since Eugene had taken Belgrade, the Habsburg forces had begun to atrophy under his successors. The infantry and cavalry were still excellent but the commanders had become courtiers rather than military leaders. Wallis was brought back to Vienna in disgrace, court-martialled and imprisoned. (He would be released three months later by the new Habsburg monarch, Maria Theresa.)

In the closing months of his life Charles VI had worked tirelessly to receive recognition for his Pragmatic Sanction. This much-misunderstood document did more than serve to secure his domains through the female line over the claims of earlier Habsburg heirs. The Pragmatic Sanction also vouchsafed the inseparable and indivisible nature of the Habsburg territories. But however impressive the language, as an exercise in statecraft it was folly compared to the modernisation of an army. Despite Eugene’s earlier reforms, the army was losing ground to new tactics and better-trained rivals. Charles secretly seemed to know this, which was why he placed so much trust in the diplomatic support of the Great Powers. He thought to shore up his possessions and his succession on a rock of legal and diplomatic agreement. In this he was encouraged by countless obsequious placemen and courtiers.

Charles VI’s upbringing under the eye of Prince Liechtenstein, the Master of the Household had been unfortunate. Liechtenstein, the exception to the rule in this otherwise talented family, was of ‘mean intellect, pedantic knowledge and obsessed with alchemy’. Charles was a poor judge of character and his choice of Liechtenstein’s nephew, Altheim, as confidant gave inordinate influence to a cunning intriguer whose judgement was as shaky as Charles’s. In Altheim’s case it was married to vaulting ambition. Altheim’s creatures soon filled many of the high positions of state and, as tends to happen when nepotism is not tempered by ability, the rot quickly set into the fabric of empire. Only Eugene gave Charles the advice he needed: that France was recovering; that England was an essential ally for the Habsburgs and that Spain was the dream of the past; that a strong army was worth a dozen Pragmatic Sanctions.

Earlier, when Eugene had briefly taken the field in the campaign in northern Italy, a young Prussian prince had been attached to Eugene’s staff and he carefully noted the failure of the Austrian commanders to respond rapidly to the great warlord and the lumbering deployment of the Habsburg infantry in the siege campaigns. Like Eugene fifty years earlier, this youth seemed at first glance unsuited to war. He too was highly strung but he watched the Austrian Generalissimus like a hawk and would later write of Eugene that ‘everything I know about war, I learnt from that great man’.

The young Prussian’s name was Frederick and the House of Austria would not have long to wait to see him prove just how well he had digested the lessons he had imbibed from the last months of Eugene’s career.

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