Josef Radetsky, The Greatest General Of The Hapsburg Dynasty

by Daniel Russ on May 10, 2010

Josef Radetsky was born in 1766 and joined the Hapsburg military at 15. He was born into poverty and both  his parents had perished by the time he was 6 years old. He was left in the care of an uncle who spent his inheritance. Not unlike a situation we have seen many times previously, the army became his home when he was a teen.

In 1848 the Hapsburgs suffered a series of setbacks: revolts from merchants in Milan and Vienna, invasion from Sardinians in support of the Italians, and general revolts against the hard dictatorial rule of the Hapsburg military empire. Hungarians also wanted a new government and were trying to upend the current administration.

Radetsky had become a Lieutenant Colonel and when the Hapsburgs were defeated at Wagram, the purge of old officers left him in charge. His commanding officer said “ I know you won’t make stupid mistakes. Regular mistakes, however, I can bear”

One of the first things he did as a new commander was improve the Hapsburg army. He had men drill, re-instilled discipline and refit the army with new weapons and more accurate maps of Europe.

He also knew when to fight and when not to, a valuable reasoning tool according to Sun-Tsu. Once he understood that the Grand Armee needed another defeat before he struck, he waited. Radetsky knew the truth of hard European warfare. Soldiers were treated as slaves and were often exhausted and threadbare even after victories. He knew that Napoleon’s forces were no different. In fact he led elements of the Grand Alliance against Napoleon that led to the defeat of the French at Leipsig.

But no good deed went unpunished in the Hapsburgian empire. The political machinations occurred with regularity, and Radetsky had the audacity to marry a shopaholic, eight years younger than he. The debts she mounted up while he was away were very steep. When he returned from battle in 1816, creditors told him he could disown his wife, or pay the debts. Still quite in love, he chose the later. The fall from grace was so complete that the once great military leader was assigned to guard the castle at Olmutz.

Then fortunes changes. What would have been a time to retire became a time where Radetsy’s formidable organizational skills came to bear. The Bourbon dynasty fell and a new king took charge, Louis Phillipe. He had new liberal ideas. For some reason this alarmed the Francis I, fearing that a newly led France would invade Italy though the Alps. Francis asked Radetsky to come to the forefront again. Radetsky turned him down, but Francis I said “I will take care of your debts of you take care of your army”

Radetsky had at this time taken command of an army far too small to both keep the French out of the Hapsburg’s holdings and guard the Alpine passes. He wanted an army at least twice the size. To further the complexities he faced, the Hapsburg army consisted of members of its various constituencies: Austrians, Hungarians, Poles, Slavs and Czech troops. Radetsky made certain that the different nationalities were segregated. The Austrians were then put in charge of artillery, the Hungarians and Poles ran the cavalry, and Slavs served as infantry.

What he did that was incredibly progressive was focus loyalty not on nations, but on the army. He built esprit de corps, perhaps the single most important aspect of a modern army. Look at Robert E Lee who commanded an army one third the size of the army of the Potomac. Yet until Gettysburg, he knocked down one army corps after another. Lee knew that unit cohesion meant victory, and he knew the almost worshipful devotion of his troops to the Confederacy and to him would carry them.

Radetsy made time to speak to 100 of his men a day. He spoke five languages and remembered the details of each man’s story. He dined with his men daily and fought the thrifty bureaucracy that wanted war on the cheap. He made sure his men were fed and warm and supplied.

The result is reported by history. The Hapsburgs repelled the Italians during the Tobacco revolt and smashed armies at Custozza and Novarra. Leadership makes all the difference.

Battle of Liegnitz by Menzel

Source: Wikipedia, Military History Magazine


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Louis August 29, 2017 at 4:16 am

One of the intersting things is that his successor as comanding general of Austrian-Hungarian troops in Italy, during the war of 1866, used the same warplan as Radetzky, and managed to fight the enemy on the same battlefield (Custozza), and win again.

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