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The Habsburg Military

From the time the Habsburgs established hereditary rule over Austrian lands in the thirteenth century until the fall of the Habsburgs, at the end of World War I, their armies were among the largest and most significant in Europe. For 200 years, Habsburg forces formed a bastion defending the continent against repeated Ottoman campaigns to overrun Europe. In 1529 and again in 1683, the Turks were turned back only after reaching the gates of Vienna. Count Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg, who commanded the imperial troops in the city, broke the siege in 1683 with the aid of German and Polish forces under the Polish king, Jan Sobieski, then drove the Turks back into the Balkans, finally ending the Ottoman threat.

One of Austria's greatest military commanders, Prince Eugene of Savoy, in concerted operations with Britian's Duke of Marlborough, won a series of victories over the France of Louis XIV in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14). Wars fought with the Prussia of Frederick the Great over Silesia in 1740-48 (the War of the Austrian Succession) and 1756-63 were less successful. The monarchy's military potential during the eighteenth century was limited by the emperor's dependence on provincial diets for recruits and tax receipts. The nobles of the imperial lands who controlled the enserfed peasantry had no fixed obligation to provide soldiers to the Habsburgs.

Austria was prominent in the coalitions that tried to check Napoleon Bonaparte's ambitions but was forced to accept humiliating peace conditions after being decisively defeated in 1800, again in 1805 when Napoleon occupied Vienna after the Battle of Austerlitz, and finally after the Battle of Wagram in 1809. Yet Austria joined with the other great powers in the final campaign resulting in Napoleon's downfall in 1814.

Habsburg armies displayed their loyalty to the monarchy in 1848 and 1849, suppressing the revolutionary regimes that had swept into power in Vienna, Budapest, Milan, and Prague. In 1859 Austria was provoked into war with Piedmont and its supporter, the France of Napoleon III. The Austro-Piedmontese War lasted only three months, but both sides mobilized large armies. The Austrians were defeated after bitter fighting at Magenta and Solferino, the young emperor Franz Joseph assuming personal command during the battle at Solferino.

Prussia established its domination over other German states by its victory over Austria in the Seven Weeks' War in 1866. The critical battle was waged at Königgrätz (Hradec Králové in the present-day Czech Republic). The Austrians, armed with muzzleloading rifles, suffered 20,000 casualties and 20,000 prisoners. The battle overshadowed Austria's victories over Prussia's Italian allies at Custozza and in the naval Battle of Lissa (Vis) off the Dalmatian coast in which a smaller Austrian fleet of ironclads overcame the Italians by bold use of ramming tactics. Following the end of the Seven Weeks' War, Austria experienced fifty years of peace until World War I broke out in 1914.

In spite of their size and distinction in individual engagements, Habsburg armies of the nineteenth century had known little but defeat in encounters with other major powers of Europe. The armed forces were often handicapped by uninspired or timid battlefield leaders. The principal cause of their failure, however, was the fact that, among the five great powers, which also included Britain, France, Prussia, and Russia, Austria allocated the lowest proportion of its revenue to its military establishment. Various political groups blocked adequate expenditures on the army. For example, the Prussian infantry, using breech-loading rifles in 1866, had four to five times the effective firepower of the Austrian infantry. The constant economizing was also reflected in the poor training of conscripts and in the quality of the notoriously underpaid company-grade officers. Tactics, based on frontal assault with fixed bayonets, were outdated. The quartermaster corps had a reputation for inefficiency and corruption.

The standing army of twelve corps had 240,000 men as of 1854. At its mobilized strength of 800,000, it was the largest in Europe, but the speed of mobilization and the capacity to move troops to the scene of battle was much inferior to that of the Prussians, who made full use of their growing rail system. As a matter of policy, conscripts were assigned to regiments far from their homes. A call-up involved slow train journeys for reservists; mobilization required eight weeks, nearly twice as long as mobilization of the Prussian army, which was organized by region.

The creation of Austria-Hungary (also seen as the AustroHungarian Empire) under the Compromise (Ausgleich) of 1867 separated the Hapsburg Empire into independent Austrian and Hungarian governments. Only the army, foreign affairs, and related budgetary matters remained joined under the emperor, who held supreme command of all forces in time of war. A new army law decreed universal three-year conscription followed by a ten-year reserve obligation. In practice, only about one in five of those liable to service were called up, and many were sent on leave after two years. The army of Austria-Hungary has been described as a state within a state. In an empire of ten nationalities and five religions, marked by ethnic conflict and sharp political and economic divisions, the army formed the only real bond among the emperor's subjects and the sole instrument through which loyalty to him could find expression.

Nevertheless, Austria-Hungary gave the impression of being a highly militarized nation. British historian Edward Crankshaw noted that not only the emperor but most males in high society never wore civilian clothes except when hunting. Select regiments of the army were splendidly outfitted, but, with a few dedicated exceptions, the officers, so magnificent on the parade ground, "shrank . . . from the arbitrament of arms as from an unholy abyss."

Regiments were organized along linguistic lines, although German was the language of command. Ethnic factors did not prevent recruitment of non-German speakers to the officer corps or their regular promotion. Hungarians, Croats, Serbs, Poles, Italians, Czechs, Slovenes, and Romanians could be found in senior positions. In the more prestigious units, most field-grade officers owed their ranks to birth or wealth. As of 1900, a majority of the officer corps in the Austro-Hungarian army were native German speakers, although only one-fourth of the empire's total population was German speaking.

Data as of December 1993

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