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The name given to the army of the Habsburg Monarchy after the country became Austria-Hungary in 1867. Behind the impressive pageantry and tin soldier uniforms, the Imperial and Royal Army could only have been accounted close to one of Europe's great fighting forces if one remembered that the Prussian-staffed German army was just across the border.

The Army have been immortalised as bodgers in Jaroslav Hašek's classic novel The Good Soldier Švejk, but critiques of its military effectiveness almost miss the point: the army was less a lean, mean fighting machine, more the ultimate affirmative action programme for a famously multi-national empire.

Imperial and Royal

The Imperial and Royal Army was one of the few truly central state institutions left after the Ausgleich agreement of 1867, which Emperor Franz Joseph was forced to sign after losing the German unification contest to those pesky Prussians at the Battle of Konnigratz the previous year. The Ausgleich - German for Compromise - created separate Austrian and Hungarian entities which enjoyed nearly all the functions of an independent state, except foreign policy and national defence.

All institutions still covered by central government bore the name Imperial and Royal, signifying that they owed allegiance to Franz Joseph as Emperor of Austria and, equally, as King of Hungary, a separate identity of which the Magyars had always been fiercely proud. In fact, the Magyars' position on the army had made Franz Joseph lucky to get away with any sort of Ausgleich at all: the Hungarian negotiators had initially insisted on a separate Hungarian army altogether, and fiercely resisted arrangements for empire-wide conscription.

The impasse was resolved by the creation of Austrian and Hungarian reserve forces, distinct from the Imperial and Royal Army and essentially the national guards of the two halves of the Monarchy. Austria's was known as the Landwehr, and Hungary's the Honvéd. Croatia-Slavonia, an autonomous region inside Hungary, also had its own reserve, the Domobrani, but this was effectively under the Honvéd's control. Originally intended as very much second-line units, the reserves did not have their own artillery branches until 1912, when the Hungarians kitted out the Honvéd with heavy cannon and the Austrians followed suit.

In theory, conscription into the army was universal, with exceptions only made for the Tyrol (which enjoyed special historical privileges), Trieste and parts of southern Dalmatia around Kotor and Dubrovnik. Initially, 105,400 recruits were called up annually, and the figure increased to 125,500 in 1889; it was not revised upwards again until 1912, despite the Empire's increased population.

A draft lottery system was in place, so that only those recruits who drew the highest numbers went into the army itself: others received eight weeks' training as reservists every year, and the recipients of the lowest numbers entered the Landsturm, Austria-Hungary's equivalent to Dad's Army. The Landsturmers surely counted themselves the most fortunate of the conscripts, until heavy early losses in World War I saw whole divisions of them rushed to the front hardly knowing how to hold a rifle.

The Radetzky-march splendour of the Imperial and Royal Army concealed the fact that the Habsburg Monarchy, traditionally Europe's bulwark against the Ottoman Empire, enjoyed the longest peace in its history between 1867 and 1914, hardly seeing active service beyond the conquest of Bosnia-Herzegovina from the Ottomans in 1878 as a protectorate and formalising the annexation thirty years later.

Franz Joseph, however, would not have had it any other way: Austro-Hungarian foreign policy consisted of making herself useful to Europe as the overarching power in a region which, her celebrated diplomats reminded the continent at every opportunity, would inevitably be made anarchic by competition between the criss-crossing Slav nationalisms of the area.


For the officer corps, however, the Army represented all that was best and unique about the Monarchy's character, assembled from the personal possessions of the Habsburg dynasty. Trained at the Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt or in cadet schools throughout the country, the future officers looked up to Franz Josef with intense loyalty (a sentiment known as Kaisertreue), and owed their allegiance to the dynasty rather than to any nation; history teaching at the Academy resembled a timeline of the Habsburgs' finest hours.

Although non-Hungarian officers generally used German in everyday speech, they did not align themselves with the pan-German nationalists who became vocal at the end of the nineteenth century, nor with the nationalists of whichever community they belonged to by descent (Hungarian officers, however, were a different matter). As the importance of the artillery and other technical branches increased, a large cadre of Czech-born officers developed.

On the parade ground and the battlefield, only eighty major commands (essentials such as 'Right', 'Left' and 'Fire') were given in German: otherwise, as long as at least 20% of the unit's soldiers spoke a language other than German, military life was conducted in whatever language, or languages, the soldiers spoke.

The Army recognised ten other languages - Magyar, Czech, Slovak, Serbo-Croatian, Slovene, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, and Romanian - and officers were expected to learn whichever tongues were necessary to command the units to which they had been assigned. On average, they spoke slightly more than two non-German languages, although a pidgin Armee-Slawisch sufficed to paper over any unit's linguistic cracks.

Austria Goes to War

The Army became the focus of a major constitutional crisis in 1903, when Franz Joseph proclaimed the Chlopy Army Order which appeared to downplay Hungarian nationhood. The strongman Prime Minister István Tisza, in office from November 1903, made much of the crisis, and it was only resolved after the Emperor threatened Budapest with the introduction of universal suffrage which would have undermined the Magyar nobility's dominance of the Hungarian parliament.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne, took much interest in army reform, although took his father's line that war should be avoided if at all possible. Franz Conrad von Hoetzendorff, the Army's chief of staff from 1906, had no such qualms, and dreamed up new plans against the old enemy, Italy, and the rising new enemy Serbia, almost every year.

Conrad's anxieties about Serbia became more widely shared after her gains in the Balkan Wars, a period which seemed to prove to the high command that military force worked wonders after all: in June 1913 the kingdom of Montenegro was dissuaded from its quixotic occupation of the port of Scutari after a strongly-worded Austro-Hungarian ultimatum.

Franz Ferdinand's assassination on June 28, 1914, won the Monarchy's decision-makers around to Conrad's way of thinking, and an intentionally unacceptable ultimatum was delivered to Belgrade, backed up by a supposed blank cheque from Berlin.

Even when it became apparent that Russia would enter the war, Conrad persisted in following his latest Serbian plan and sent B-Staffel into the Balkans as if nothing had happened: the consequent weakness of the Central Powers' front against Russia forced the German commander Helmuth von Moltke to unexpectedly re-route three divisions east, playing no small part in the deadlock on the Western Front.

Not entirely unsurprisingly, the Army quickly suffered grave losses against the Russians in Galicia, and the Serbian campaign went little better: many of the career soldiers had already lost their lives after the first harsh winter of the war. The Imperial and Royal army which staggered through to 1918 was more and more an extra wing of the German army, even being outfitted in the Germans' field grey.

The campaign which pushed the Serbians all the way to Corfu, and the victory over Italy at Caporetto in October 1917, both occurred with extensive German aid in the same way that eastern-bloc armies would be staffed with Soviet military advisers.

Hej, Sloveni

Becoming a citizen army for the first time, it was more vulnerable than before to the grievances of civilian life, and desertions by Slav and Romanian soldiers ran in tandem with the growing appeal of their nationalist movements at home. One particular Czech division had left Prague, when mobilised in August 1914, bearing a banner reading 'We're off to fight the Russians and we don't know why', and caused much alarm when it deserted en masse across Russian lines at Zborów the next year.

The high command looked on small-scale treasons such as these as indications of what the whole army would do if given half a chance. In fact, the Russian front was more unwieldy than the Italian, and occasions of fraternization with the enemy were not unknown as conditions became more harsh: it was not difficult for the two empires' soldiers, many of Slavic origin, to find common cause.

Czechs deserting across Russian lines used to sing what was effectively their national anthem, Hej, Slovani, to be recognised as brothers; up to 70,000 of them were taken prisoner and formed into a Czech Legion which the Triple Entente intended to use as an Allied army. Instead, they became caught up in the chaos following the October Revolution, took control of the Trans-Siberian Railway and took part in the first stages of the Russian Civil War.

Many Austro-Hungarian soldiers were more motivated to fight against Italy, not least the Croats and Slovenes. Their national aspirations were directly incompatible with Italian war aims, which claimed a large extent of the Adriatic coast. Eleven inconclusive battles were fought on the Isonzo river, which became Austria-Hungary's Somme.

As war-weariness increased and the Army was unable to supply itself, a number of set-piece mutinies took place, often incited by some of the 630,000 ex-prisoners who flooded back from revolutionary Russia: the best-known in fact took place in the navy, in February 1918 at the Kotor base. Desertion, in that final year, became endemic, with over 250,000 absconding. Most were simply anxious to return home, alarmed by rumours from the home front, but some took up banditry and became part of the roaming green cadres which presented Vienna with yet another public order headache.

Vittorio Veneto

One last Italian-front offensive on the river Piave in June catalysed the wave of desertion, which until then had primarily affected Czechs. However, the myth has endured that the Habsburg army outlasted the Habsburg state: the new young Emperor Karl I proclaimed a federal reorganisation of the Monarchy on October 16 in a fruitless attempt to hold back the secession movements which, in some cases, had already openly declared themselves.

The Army saw its last action at Vittorio Veneto, ostensibly holding out until November 2; yet by that date even some German and Magyar soldiers had streamed away, and the defence of the Habsburgs' honour was left to some regiments from the Tyrol.

Certain of the surviving officer corps, imbued with Kaisertreue, seemed to refuse to accept that the old Empire had fallen away from under them. In Hungary, a number of these legitimists took part in the crushing of Béla Kun's Communist regime in Hungary in 1919, and were involved in plots to reinstate Karl as the Hungarian king.

The last of these - in which Karl got as far as being helicoptered into the suburbs of Budapest - took place in 1921: Karl was packed off to Madeira instead, and the legitimists threw their weight behind the authoritarian Miklós Horthy, who had commanded the Imperial and Royal Navy during the war.

Read more:
István Deak, Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps 1848-1918
Gunther E. Rothenberg, The Army of Francis Joseph

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