Magazine article The Spectator

'For God and Kaiser: The Imperial Austrian Army', by Richard Bassett - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'For God and Kaiser: The Imperial Austrian Army', by Richard Bassett - Review

Article excerpt

For God and Kaiser: The Imperial Austrian Army Richard Bassett

Yale, pp.568, £25, ISBN: 9780300178586

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. …

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