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The Life and Legacy of Svetozar Borojevic von Bojna

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Field Marshal Svetozar Borojevic von Bojna

Field Marshal Svetozar Borojevic von Bojna


Svetozar Borojevic was born on 13 December 1856. His birthplace was the village of Umetic, which was then part of the Military Frontier region of Austria-Hungary.

The Military Frontier was a region settled with landowning peasants that swore allegiance to the Austrian crown and came under its direct supervision. In exchange for religious freedom and land grants, its residents had to serve the Austrian Empire as Grenzer, or Granicari—specialized troops that would be mobilized to repel Ottoman Empire incursion into the southern lands of the monarchy.

Thus Svetozar was born in a region steeped in martial traditions, with his own father Adam serving as a border guard. Svetozar was baptised in a Serbian Orthodox church, and is widely accepted as being of Serbian descent. However, his personal letters have revealed that he on occasions referred to himself as a Croat, as the Millitary Frontier was on Croatian land, and was inhabited by various peoples, among them Serbs, Croats and Vlachs. It is unclear whether this meant that Svetozar viewed himself as an "ethnic" Croat or as a citizen from the region of Croatia.

Although his ethnic origin is open to interpretation and dispute, one thing is clear. Svetozar Borojevic was a loyal subject of the Austrian monarchy, and he served its emperors until the dying days of the monarchy with loyalty and determination.

Austrian Military Frontier region

Austrian Military Frontier region

Early Life and Military Advancement

Young Svetozar was enrolled in cadet training school at the early age of 10. He was destined to follow in the footsteps of his father, and perhaps even in the footsteps of his ancestors, who more likely than not also served the Austrian crown as Granicari.

His studies led him to the town of Kamenica, and even further to Graz, a city in the heartland of the German speaking part of the empire. It is here that Svetozar imbibed German culture and the language.

By 1875, Svetozar had achieved the rank of lieutenant in the Croatian Home Guard. Thus, Svetozar started his military career not in the Imperial & Royal army, but the Home Guard, which was meant to serve as a defensive reserve. This complicated situation was brought about by the Austro-Hungarian compromise of 1867, whereby the monarchy was divided into two component parts, and the army was divided into a tripartite force.

The Imperial & Royal army was the preserve of the Austrian side of the monarchy, while the Royal Hungarian Honved represented the Hungarians. The Croatian Home Guard fit into this awkward structure due to the fact that while the Croatian crown was officially subordinate to the Hungarian Crown of St.Stephen (which was itself officially subordinate to the Austrian throne) it had the right to levy troops.

Svetozar's big breakthrough came during the 1878 Austro-Hungarian occupation of the Ottoman Empires province of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Historically it was a pivotal moment, as the once mighty Ottoman Empire, whose raiding and military advances twice brought it to the gates of Vienna, was now powerless to resist the Austro-Hungarian advance. As the inhabitants of this region were South Slavs, the Croatian Home Guard was instrumental in the takeover. Its troops spoke the language of the new terrritory, and some even had links to people residing there. Svetozar served with the occupying forces, and after undergoing additional training, was made a colonel in 1897.

By this point he was serving in the Imperial & Royal army, although he was not officially transferred from the Croatian Home Guard until 1903. In 1905, he was made a Hungarian noble and won the honorific of von Bojna, thus becoming Svetozar Borojevic von Bojna. In 1908, the year that Austria-Hungary formally annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, Svetozar was made a Field Marshal Lieutenant.

Further promotions followed, and by the outbreak of World War I, Svetozar Borojevic von Bojna found himself commanding the Sixth Corps on the Eastern Front, facing Imperial Russian troops from Austro-Hungarian Galicia.

Austrian Grenzer/Granicari troops

Austrian Grenzer/Granicari troops

World War I

The outbreak of war found the Austro-Hungarian army stretched between two fronts: Serbia in the south and Imperial Russia in the east. To make matters worse on the Eastern front, the Austro-Hungarian army had to bear the brunt of the numerically superior Imperial Russian army themselves, as their ally Germany concentrated troops on the Western front.

This was a desperate gamble to knock out France in the early stages of the war, and it failed. The cost in lives was tremendous, especially for the hard pressed Austro-Hungarian troops. By September of 1914 Svetozar had been promoted to commander of the Third Army, and was involved in key battles for the control of the Austrian crownland of Galicia. His army temporarily pushed the Russians back and relieved the siege of Przemysl, but this early success ultimately proved futile in the face of the Imperial Russian colossus.

By early 1915, the Third Army was pushed back to the Carpathian mountains. Sensing weakness in the enemy lines, the Third Army participated in a counteroffensive that managed to turn the tide on the Russians, going so far as to retake the fortress of Przemysl. However, Svetozar would not see its liberation personally, as a new threat resulted in his urgent recall.

Austrian and Russian troops at the battle of Limanova, Galicia

Austrian and Russian troops at the battle of Limanova, Galicia

Emperor Karl I inspecting a Bosnian regiment

Emperor Karl I inspecting a Bosnian regiment

Defence of the Italian front

In May 1915, Svetozar Borojevic von Bojna was transferred to the Italian front. Although the Italians were nominally allies of the Austro-Hungarians and the Germans, they had declared neutrality at the outbreak of war.

It was no secret that Italy coveted the Tyrol, Trentino and Trieste regions of Austria-Hungary, with some politicians in Italy calling for even Dalmatia and its islands to fall under their control. Their claim was based on historical occupation, as well as the fact that some of these territories had Italian majorities, while others had sizable Italian minorities. Svetozar was put in charge of the Fifth Army, which was tasked with holding back the Italians.

Although the situation seemed hopeless, with the Austro-Hungarians fighting on three fronts, a number of factors intervened to help them hold the line. First, the Italians were unprepared for attacking over the mountainous border areas, while Austria-Hungary was able to call on the loyalty of its South Slavic subjects. The Slovenes, Croats, Serbs and Bosnians that made up the bulk of the defense force knew that if they did not hold the line, the enemy would soon be in their homes, their villages and their towns. This was no faraway battle for Galicia, this was a fight for their own lands. This spirit was so strong that when the high command wished to abandon the majority of Slovene lands to the Italians in order to build better defensive positions, Svetozar persisted in holding the line with Slovene troops. He rightfully saw that the South Slavs would stand fast when it came to defending their homelands.

Outgunned, outnumbered and outmatched, the defenders on the Italian front had only the mountainous terrain and their intrepid commander to their advantage. The Italians wasted no time in pressing the attack, and over the course of the next two years launched a total of 11 offensive actions.

The defenders would slowly give ground, each time exhausting the Italians as they scampered up the slopes, under continuous fire. As soon as the front line fell to the enemy, Svetozar would order a counteroffensive front the rear echelons, which usually pushed the exhausted and overstretched Italians back. Svetozar's defensive doctrine was brutal, yet simple. Wear the enemy down as he attacks, and counter-attack immediately, giving him no time for rest or reinforcement. While these tactics proved successful, they took a large toll on the defenders.

Even then, the troops loyally regarded him as Nas Sveto (Our Sveto, for he too was a South Slav) and fought tooth and nail to keep the enemy out. Svetozar relied on his crack Dalmatian and Bosnian regiments, which inspired fear into the enemy with their ferocious counterattacks. The fighting would often take place hand to hand in the trenches, with the men using clubs and truncheons against the Italians. With each defeat of the Italians, Svetozar and his men grew in stature throughout the monarchy. Svetozar was known as the Knight of the Isonzo, and by August 1917, he was in command of the Southwestern Front, which was later renamed Army Group Borojevic.

Success at Caporetto and Ultimate Defeat

As well as being one of the finest defensive commanders of the World War I, Svetozar Borojevic von Bojna took part in one of the most successful offensives of the Central Powers.

The Battle of Caporetto, sometimes known as the twelfth battle f the Isonzo, was launched on 24 October, 1917. A combined German and Austro-Hungarian force surged forward and caught the rigidly deployed Italian army unaware. New infiltration tactics were used, allowing the troops to bypass strong points and advance deep into the enemy rear.

In just under a month, the Italians were pushed back to the Piave river, even though at the start of the battle they had an overall 3:1 superiority in artillery and manpower. The Italian losses mounted to over 300,000 men, with 260,000 captured, compared to 70000 losses for the Central Powers. Such was the success of the attack that Italian losses were almost greater than the combined force attacking them. The front stabilized at the Piave river, and the battle of Caporetto marked the high point of Austro-Hungarian military success.

A final last-ditch offensive to knock Italy out of the war was launched in June 1918, but this time the Italians were ready. The offensive was stopped, and with great loss to the Austro-Hungarian forces. These were losses that the monarchy could ill afford, and from then until the end of the war, the best that could be done was the maintenance of the defensive positions on the Piave river.

As the fortunes of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy sank, so did those of Svetozar Borojevic von Bojna. By October 1918, the Imperial Army was disintegrating, with many troops deserting, and even the loyalist battalions losing hope in any chance of victory. The Italians launched a final offensive, the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, which shattered the demoralized Imperial Army. Its troops had already lost heart for a fight, especially as the monarchy lost control of its Czech, Slovak, Hungarian and South Slavic lands due to secession.

Svetozar retreated with the remnants of his army, and offered his services one last time to the emperor. He sent a telegram to Vienna offering to march to the capital and defend the capital against revolutionaries. His offer was never taken up, and by November 6th, he officially no longer had an army to command. By December 1, 1918, Svetozar Borojevic von Bojna was retired as a field marshal of the Austro-Hungarian empire (now defunct).

The battles of Caporetto and Vittorio Veneto

The battles of Caporetto and Vittorio Veneto

Final Years

After the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Svetozar Borojevic von Bojna became a citizen of one of its successor states, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. He offered his services to the new state but was refused. As an Austro-Hungarian field marshal, he had served in the army of the former enemy of the new state. Even though Svetozar never fought his own countrymen, the South Slavs, he was snubbed.

While he remained in Southern Austria, even his personal belongings coming from the southern parts of the monarchy were confiscated. Death followed shortly after, on May 23, 1920.

Svetozar Borojevic von Bojna left a poignant note in his memoirs. He was the "only Field Marshall the South Slavs ever produced". However, time would vindicate the Knight of the Isonzo. Contemporary history reveals that Italy was induced to join the war against Austria-Hungary by being promised large tracts of South Slav lands as compensation. The secret Treaty of London promised parts of Slovenia and Dalmatia, as well as northern Croatia.

It was only by the inspired defense on the Isonzo and the spectacular offensive at the battle of Caporetto that the Entente realized the worthlessness of the Italian contribution to the war effort. In turn, they decided to allow the people of these regions to unite with the Kingdom of Serbia, forming the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later known as Jugoslavia).

Thus, even though he was an Austro-Hungarian loyalist, Svetozar Borojevic von Bojna and the men that served him ensured that the new South Slav state emerged with as much of the territory of the South Slavs as possible.

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