John Keegan, perhaps the greatest British military historian of recent years, felt that the most important book (because of its vast scope) that remained unwritten was a history of the Austrian army. Richard Bassett has now successfully filled the gap, and few could be better qualified to do so. During many years as the Times’s correspondent in Vienna, Rome and Warsaw, he made friends with most of the leading local experts, as his acknowledgements testify.
The Habsburg army had a reputation for inefficiency and bureaucratic control, which led to Talleyrand’s sneer that it had ‘an unfortunate taste for being beaten’ — a view not borne out by the fact that in the course of three centuries it won more than 350 major victories, far more numerous than its defeats, even though by 1914 it had not fired a shot in anger for a whole generation.
Like Napoleon’s armies with their battle cry of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’, the Austrian regiments’ loyalty was to the Habsburg dynasty, and not to the multiracial empire. Its commanders never pushed their victories too far, and never sought to annihilate their enemies. What mattered was the honour and prestige of the Habsburgs, first and most clearly shown by the last-minute rescue by the Imperial Cuirassiers of the Emperor Ferdinand II from the Bohemian rebels in the Hofburg in 1619. Equally remarkable was its composition. By 1918, various highly decorated regiments contained Bosnian Muslims, Alpine Catholics and Orthodox Serbs, sometimes commanded by Jewish officers (under Franz Joseph, anti-Semitism was a penal offence). Without the element of personal dedication, it is hard to see how such a mixture could have held together.
The first great set piece is the defeat of an immense Ottoman army at the gates of Vienna in 1683, chiefly organised by Count Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg. The arrival of the cavalry under Charles of Lorraine, and of a further 25,000 under Jan Sobieski, the King of Poland, saved the day. But without the heroic defence conducted by those within the city, there would not have been a day to save.
Next came the defeat of Louis XIV in the War of the Spanish Succession, led by the brilliant Prince Eugene of Savoy, culminating in his alliance with Marlborough, and his later recapture of Belgrade from the Sultan. After Eugene’s death the Emperor Charles VI was keener on preserving the empire through diplomacy than with having a strong army, but the Empress Maria Theresa’s reforms gave the army new life for the forthcoming struggle against Frederick the Great, who was always quick to blame others for his own considerable mistakes. If Frederick was great, this book shows that Maria Theresa was greater.
The reform of the Austrian artillery under Prince Liechtenstein, and similar reorganisation of the infantry and cavalry, led to the crushing defeat of the Prussians at Daun in 1756, followed by further decisive victories at Kunersdorf and Maxen, where the Austrians captured 14,800 men, including 16 generals, together with 71 pieces of artillery, for the loss of 900 casualties. So much for Talleyrand.
In the following century the victories and ultimate destruction of Napoleon are too familiar to need summarising. After its earlier defeats, Napoleon could not believe that the Austrian army would emerge, phoenix-like, to prevail at Aspern-Essling.
The new war with Prussia in 1866 was a disaster, however, owing partly to the complexity and duplication of the army’s functions, and Austria took some years to recover. In 1914 came the treachery of Colonel Redl, who betrayed the entire Austrian order of battle to the Russians, and committed suicide when found out. (There is no better guide to the Austrian military atmosphere at the time than Joseph Roth’s brilliant novel TheRadetzky March.) But the mingled politico-military lead up to Sarajevo makes for fascinating reading. Splendid personal details emerge, such as the British delaying the declaration of war to enable Franz Joseph to remove his cash reserves from the Bank of England where he had always kept them.
This book has one shortcoming. Apart from seven small plans of battles, the lack of maps makes it often almost impossible to work out what is going on, or where. A table of dates would also have been helpful. Nevertheless, the determined reader will find the book an eye-opener.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20 Tel: 08430 600033. John Jolliffe is the translator of Froissart’s Chronicles and the editor of Raymond Asquith: Life and Letters.