Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

 

 


 

Austrian Cavalry Regiments and Their Commanders: 1792 - 1815

By Istvan Nagy

Austrian Uhlans and Hussars
Austrian Uhlans and Hussars

The cavalry arm was traditionally strong in the Imperial Army. In the 17th and early 18th Centuries, the heavy cavalry were used often by the great commanders of the Emperor. Eugene of Savoy was originally a cavalry officer and he made the Imperial cavalry the best of in Europe. The kurassiers, as the main type, were used to charge and decide the battle while dragoons were light cavalry and mounted infantry, and were used to support the attack with firepower. About this time, the hussars appeared in Europe in large numbers and with great success. They were used to disrupt communications, for reconnaissance,  and to screen the army from the enemy. By the middle of the 18th Century, all of the European powers had hussars in their army to oppose the Hungarian Hussars of the Imperial Army.

In the second half of the 18th Century, the cavalry of the Imerial-Royal army altered. The light cavalry role of the dragoons was taken by the hussars and a new type of German light cavalry was raised: the chevauxlegers. The dragoons became heavy cavalry, but were sometimes used to support the light cavalry.

Emperor Joseph II reorganised the army from 1765 to 1781. The cavalry regiments also received a new organisation. A new type of cavalry, the elite carabiners, was introduced. The modernisation of the army was successful but the lack of able commanders hindered its success in the wars of Joseph II. The other reason of the lack of success was the small  numbers of the cavalry. The poor financial situation made it hard to raise and maintain the  cavalry regiments,  as they were  most expensive arm of the army.

The French Revolutionary Wars started with great defeats. The main reason was the lack of cavalry. [1] The Imperial-Royal Army had only a few regiments in the Netherlands. Although the Franch cavalry was weak that time, the Austrians were unsuccesful against them. The battle of Würzburg, which ended the War of the 1st Coalition was decided by the cavalry. By this ttime the Austrian commanders recognized that they could do better with the cavalry because the French infantry was very strong. A 5th type of the cavalry also appeared at this time: the Uhlans.

After the War of the 1st Coalition, the whole cavalry was reorganised. The dragoons and the chevauxlegers were converted to light dragoons and the kurassiers remained the only heavy cavalry type. After the loss of the War of the 2nd Coalition, the light dragoons were dissolved and the regiments reconverted to dragoons and chevauxlegers. The number of the regiments were decreased again.

The Wars of the 3rd and the 5th Coalitions, were lost again and the permanent weakness of the finances caused the lowering of the number of the cavalry. That time the reorganised and strenghtened French cavalry dominated against the Austrian cavalry. Only the light cavalry, mostly hussars and the uhlans, were able to earn some success [2] but it was not enought to win the wars or even a decisive battle. [3]

In the 1813-15 war,  the cavalry played an important role. In assotiation with the allied armies the Austrian army pushed the French from Germany and forced Napoleon to resign. The light cavalry was magnificent in that war. The hussars, along with the Russian Cossacks, were very effective against the weak French cavalry.

After the period of wars the peace remained smooth only with some rebellions. The army was reorganised but this reorganisation did not affect the cavalry. The number of the cavalry remained quite low.

The effectiveness of the Austrian cavalry was limited. There were two main reasons for this. The first reason was the low number. Beyond that the organisation of the army was a mistake. The cavalry could be effective only in great number and volume. Napoleon organised whole divisions (1500 - 4000 men), later corps’ (4000 - 8000 men) from the heavy cavalry. He used these divisions against the weakened enemy positions and broke them with charging power. The Austrian leaders used the cavalry only in brigades  of 1000 - 1500 men. The regiments fought mostly individual and it was very rare that whole brigades charged together. This caused reduced effectiveness of the cavalry.

The organisation introduced by Arckduke Charles tried to correct the problems but the use of the cavalry remained less effective. The big light cavalry regiments provided good reconnaisance and protection to the corps’. The reserve corps was made to collect the heavy cavalry but cavalry corps were never organised. The French example shows that the overall commander and the good hierarchical organisation was very important for the heavy cavalry.

The second reason for the ineffective cavalry was the lack of good cavalry leaders. The Austrian Army had only a few good leaders in the period and the good cavalry general was very rare. Only Frimont was in the level of Montbrun, Grouchy, Murat, Nansouty, Lasalle and many other French generals. There were very good lower officers. Some colonels and officers had the potential to became good general (e.g. Colonel Simonyi, who never reached the rank of general) but they were never promoted because the great number of  aristocrats in the ranks of the cavalry. Archduke Charles helped some officers be promoted but the Archduke was never able to earn total control over the army and many uncompetent and medicore generals remained in the ranks. The leader of the Reserve Corps in 1809, General of Cavalry Liechtenstein was a good cavalry leader (he decided the battle of Würzburg with a great charge in 1796) but after 1809 he retired. He would have been the right man for the lead of a cavalry corps.


Notes:

[1] The reorganised French army had little cavalry  and that should have given the Austrians the  opportuity to win, however their own cavalry was weak, and they were unable to take this chance. Only after the beginning years, was almost of the  cavalry used against the French. In the first years more cavalry regiments remained out of the war.

[2] The battle of Pordenone on the 15th April 1809 was one of the greatest advance guard manoveur of the Napoleonic Wars.

[3] The battle of Aspern was won by the Austrians but this battle was not decisive because the Austrian cavalry was unable to push the French curassiers and break through the French Army.

 

Sources

Thurheim, Andreas Graf. Die Reiter-Regimenter der K. K. österreichischen Armee. Wien: 1862.

Wredd, Alphons Freiherr von. Die Geschichte der k. u. k. Wehrmacht. Wien: 1898-1905. Band III.

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www.kuk-wehrmacht.de


 

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: October - November 2005

 

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