Slovenes in the Habsburg armed forces

Rok Stergar



In this paper on Slovenes in the Habsburg armed forces, I will try to present the experiences of the inhabitants of the Slovene lands with soldiering in the period of Habsburg rule. The emphasis will be on the period from 1868 to 1918 when compulsory national service was in force, and when almost all men served in the military for three years.

Slovene lands started coming into Habsburg hands in the late 13th century. In the next couple of centuries Carniola, Styria, Carinthia, Istria, Triest and Goriško (Gorizia, Görz) became parts of Habsburg hereditary lands that later evolved into Austrian empire. But this evolution was not uncomplicated. Several wars that were fought in the next centuries meant that the population of Slovene lands had ample opportunity to get acquainted with wars, armies and fighting. But most of the fighting was done by mercenary armies levied by the king or provincial diets.

The rule of Maria Theresa and her wars with the Prussian king Frederic the Great brought a major change. The introduction of selective life-long military service in 1763 was an important turning point in military history of Slovene lands. Instead of regiments of professional soldiers the army now consisted of recruits. But military service was still not a universal experience. It was limited above all to single, young sons of peasants and "unreliable elements".

During French wars the standing army was greatly enlarged and home-guard (Landwehr) units where organised for the first time. The Landwehr was essentially a militia force called upon only when war was imminent and used in secondary operations. To enthuse the Landwehr with patriotism to fight the French, propaganda in national languages was also used. An oath of a militiaman in Slovene language from this time is known.

During the French occupation (1809-1813) of a large part of Slovenia (Illyrian provinces) a regiment of light infantry and several other units were recruited by the French. Most of their soldiers shared the fate of Napoleon's Grand Armée and perished in Russia.

After the French were defeated, the old military organisation was re-established. A major reform came only after the shocking victory of Prussian army in the battle of Königgrätz (1866). It became apparent that short but universal national service (as practised in Prussia) is the way forward. In 1868 several army laws were passed by the Austrian and Hungarian parliaments. Military service was shortened to 3 years and became universal.

During the next decades the army slowly evolved, but political will and therefore necessary funds for a much-needed modernisation were lacking. Therefore the armed forces were ill prepared for their last war – World War I. They suffered enormous loses in the first months of fighting, but eventually managed to adapt and continue fighting until the end. Surprisingly all the peoples of this multinational army stayed loyal to their state, their ruler, and their oath, thus proving that pre-war fears of a wide spread disloyalty were unfounded. Slovene soldiers were but a small part of this great battle; for the most part they fought quite well and they excelled on the Italian front.

At the very end, as a result of political and national turmoil in the monarchy, the army started to disintegrate, too. But the last flag of the old empire was flown by the isolated Austro-Hungarian army group in Albania.

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