Book Review: "Tactics and Procurement in the Habsburg Military 1866-1918" by John A. Dredger
It is hard to leave behind a book which wrote with an inspired hand and to move to one, which while solid, lacks the flare of the previous tome. Thus was my fate as I plunged into Tactics and Procurement in the Hapsburg Military 1866-1918 by John A. Dredger, after reading Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Hapsburg Officer Corps 1848-1918 by Istvan Deak. Of course, the books are very different. In contrast to Deak's volume, Tactics and Procurement deals with the funding decisions undertaken by the Austro-Hungarian military, the development of its doctrine (especially the doctrine of offensive a outrance in the Austro-Hungarian context), and the implementation of its tactics and active combat training. Instead of problems with funding being the cause for the defeat of the Hapsburg armies, instead they made for convenient excuses for the army, which itself bears primary responsibility for the defeat. While at times Beyond Nationalism touched on these concepts, it was fundamentally devoted to a careful statistical analysis of the world of Austro-Hungarian officers, and the army as a whole was just an extension of this, instead of being its principal focus. But while I run the risk of an early revelation of bias, the book lacks some of the flair of Beyond Nationalism, and despite all of its research, I believe it to be critically flawed.
An initial chapter in the book lays outs its objective and premise. Then, it begins in earnest, exploring the Austro-Prussian War, and the failings and flaws of the Austrian army - flaws that went beyond insufficient parliamentary funding or an inferior rifle, as defeat is often portrayed as being the child of. Then it examines how, after the catastrophic defeat against Prussia in the Austro-Prussian War, the Austrian army attempted to reform itself and examine its defeat, and the debates which it undertook towards its future, as well as the parliamentary and management problems it faced. It then moves to the Russo-Turkish war and perceptions of Russian military operations, and thereafter trial in arms of the conflict in Bosnia in 1878 is then briefly covered, along with the impressions formed of it and Austro-Hungarian performance there by Austro-Hungarian leaders. The following chapter - Chapter 5, From Progress to Reversion - is based upon Austro-Hungarian institution and response to the dramatically increasing firepower and tactically changing conditions upon the battlefield, concerning tactical principles, equipment, and education. Chapter 6 is similar, showing the return to the concepts of offense a outrance, under the leadership of Conrad, the Austro-Hungarian tactical instructor and later chief of staff, as well as reactions to the Boer war and the psychological and intellectual currents behind the idea of the "will towards victory" - the belief that the spirit would triumph over material and firepower. It also deals with artillery and some of the missed opportunities of the Austro-Hungarians, such as tank development, and the naval fleet. The final chapter is the operations of the Austro-Hungarian army during the war itself, against Russia in Galicia and against Serbia in the 1914 campaigns primarily, and then the remaining years of the war. A conclusion - chapter 8, sums up the book's main points.
One of the principal objectives of the book is to cover the tactical doctrine adopted by Austria-Hungary. What in essence sums up the doctrine, strategically, operationally, and tactically, that was adopted by the Austro-Hungarians? Despite flirtations with the tactical defense, the Hapsburgs seem to have broadly fallen into the model of strategic defense and tactical offense, as exemplified by their actions in Bohemia during the Austro-Prussian war, when their troops attacked into the withering fire of the Prussian troops, while the Austrians were simultaneously on the defensive in the theatre and relying on their fortifications. The cruel irony was that their fortifications there did absolutely nothing to stem the Prussian advance, while sucking up money which might have been used to better effect elsewhere. Tactically, Austrian commanders believed that their troops, with supporting artillery fire, and above all sufficient elan, determination, and discipline, would be able to conquer all before them at the tips of their bayonets. Naturally, these two concepts did not fit together well, as fortresses are of little use for an army which stresses the attack above all else, while field forces took horrifying casualties attempting to carry ou their offensive doctrine. This strategic defensive and tactical offensive doctrine is a bizarre inversion of the standard military doctrine of strategic offense and tactical defense - using the advantages provided by the defense, naturally easier than the offense, but in a way which forces the enemy themselves to respond to actions undertaken.
The second main objective of the book is the author's case that the Austro-Hungarian military's spending priorities were greatly flawed, and that by spending less on fortresses and battleships it could have had a much more effective field army. Here however, the author exaggerates his case. For example, he makes the claim that the army's spending on fortresses was expensive, and this impacted readiness in the 1866 war. This is butressed by his claim that fortress spending was 1,244,000 florins per year, compared to 370,000 florins spent by the Prussians. Comparatively, the 1865 spending by the military was 42,500 for rifles, 20,000 for artillery shells, 8,500 on new fortress cannons, and 317,000 for troops exercises. Thus the amount that the Austrians spent on their fortresses was stunningly large in comparison to the rest of their army expenditures, and it was its own economic mismanagement which prevent new equipment such as breech loading rifles from being acquired. However, the author then goes into extensive detail concerning the breech-loading rifle program established after the war, relating that the new breech-loading Werndl rifle cost 50 florins per piece, and that the army's order for 611,500 (not even enough to equip the entire army after the army law of 1868 introduced universal conscription) cost 30,550,000 florins - 37.6% of the 81,200,000 1867 army budget. If such an incredible sum of money was needed to re-equip the army with breech loaders, as the statistics the author provides demonstrates, then 1,244,000 spent on fortresses is miniscule in comparison - the army could have spent nothing on fortresses for decades and not have procured all the rifles it needed.
Alternatively, another source which sucked up large amounts of money was claimed as being administration and mal-administration, with a surplus of too many high ranking officers and pensions, which drained away troops from the field forces. This seems much more plausible, as it had been noted in Beyond Nationalism that in 1860 Austrian military administration cost 48.4 of military appropriations, while it was 42% in France and 43% in Prussia. But how to fix this is something which the author doesn't go into. In general, these issues over procurement that he presents - the outsize spending on fortifications which didn't match with the doctrine of the offensive, and the acquisition of prestigious but relatively ineffective battleships even for those with bad naval geography (such as Austria-Hungary or Russia), were something which gripped all of the European states (and spending on battleships is not necessarily something army officials have control over...indeed, whether the Austrian and Hungarian parliaments would have approved spending on the army instead of the navy is not something the author notes, as part of little attention paid to civilian political concerns). They are less well suited to be examined in an Austro-Hungarian context, but rather in a European context. Unfortunately the author does not perform in providing detail to make this international comparison. Everybody spent large amounts of money on battleships - given the diminutive size of the Austro-Hungarian navy, even though the author provides excellent domestic statistics demonstrating that the navy consumed more in ship construction than the army had spent on smokeless powder, rifles, fortresses, and artillery combined, one must assume foreign nations spent even more - and fortresses, where the author quotse Conrad as saying that Italy spent more on its fortifications, and the only hard figure presented was that Prussia spent 370,000 florins on their fortresses compared to 1,244,000 spent by the Austrians by their own, while the Prussian military budget was roughly half as large - so that although the Prussians did spend less, it was "only" around 40% smaller. Therefor, why did the Austro-Hungarian military still perform in such a mediocre fashion, when all suffered under the same proposed handicaps? This is an an answer which the author's points raise, instead of diminishing, and it is one he never answers, and it is one which again and again raises its head. The Russians spent vast sums on their fortresses and on their battle fleet, and yet the Russian military crushed its Austro-Hungarian opponent in the early battles of 1914. Fortifications and battleships are only part of the story, and a very small one at that, and in of themselves couldn't have been as decisive as the author proposes, barring incredible (by the standards of 1914) Austrian strategic and tactical competence.
If I disagree with some of the equipment elements of the book and the thesis expounded by the author, I think that his analysis of Habsburg tactical doctrine is basically sound. He does an excellent job of demonstrating the reforms which were carried out on the Hapsburg army after the Austro-Prussian war, and also in showing why these were limited in their effectiveness, as well as showcasing the problems encountered during the war itself. An example was the attempt to raise the intellectual standards of the army, which sundered upon competing bureaucratic factions in the military, as a conservative proposal to promote officers who had showed god battle performance, fast track promotion of officers with high test scores in military academies and good records, establish reserve officer corps, and place age limits upon older officers was replaced by competitive examinations for promotion and hence centralization upon the war minister. Senior officers were not pleased, and a theoretically reasonable, if flawed, system was then cast aside and a compromise between the two adopted with privileges granted to general staff officers, and focus upon theoretical knowledge-based promotion. This sort of bureaucratic approach is something that the book does well. He also provides excellent discussion of Austro-Hungarian equipment and the technical capability of its weapons, although there are flaws here as well - while he discusses the field artillery with fairly reasonable detail, he fails to make, well, any reference to heavy artillery, nor to machine guns or aviation, before the beginning of the war, and even after then detail is scarce. Sometimes he even verges on the ridiculous, such as claiming that Austro-Hungarian emphasis upon Gunther Adolf Burstyn's experimental 1911 tank design, the "Motorgeschütz", could have produced a substitute for cavalry in 1914! Given the horrible reliability, speed, range, logistics concerns (after all, oil supplies are hardly assured), and production cost of early tanks, and the years required to figure out an appropriate doctrine and tactical usage for them, this seemingly casual remark is bizarre.
Overall, to me this book is a very good study of Austro-Hungarian tactics, doctrine, equipment, and internal military politics, although civilian politics are neglected - it is incredible that there can be a book about Austria-Hungary and its spending without discussion of the ten-year renegotiation of its economic and monetary clauses! The author's objective is to move past this, but the fact that he doesn't even mention the biggest problem in the Austro-Hungarian political economy is stunning. It doesn't have the same beautiful prose and liberal usage of quotes that Beyond Nationalism utilized, but it is clear and well written. I principally see the book's shortcomings in regards to its spending on the military : while it might be correct in some cases (and in others, such as the example of Austro-Prussian war fortress spending, it doesn't seem to be so), it focuses too heavily on an Austro-Hungarian context instead of on a European one, when these ideas were universal among the continental European powers. It does not provide the tools in which to compare these, and thus leaves us crucially lacking in knowledge of how other European powers responded to these problems. I believe that the author's attempts at counterfactual, that the Austro-Hungarian military would have been dramatically better served if it had spent its fortress and battleship funds on other more pressing areas in the army, to be while possibly true, an unrealistic and a-historical counterfactual proposition in 20th century Europe. Thus although the central thesis is at best greatly flawed. This does not detract however, from the large amount of research and excellent examination of the functioning of the Hapsburg army, which makes the book a very useful volume for examining the Austro-Hungarian army. It is a well researched book, and one with many excellent insights, but unfortunately it is one which is let down by the author's thesis being narrow, unrealistic, and often ill-supported, and the occasional crucial exceptions that he leaves out.
© 2018 Ryan Thomas