The Potato War:
War of the Bavarian Succession

The story began with Part One.

Four days after the Elector’s death, Karl Theodor sent heralds into the streets of Munich proclaiming his accession, his envoy to Vienna signed the Partition Treaty, and Austrian troops began marching over the borders to occupy the new Habsburg lands. Almost immediately, Karl Theodor’s enthusiasm began to cool. The agreed deal – one-third of Bavaria, including its most economically valuable districts, for bastard support – was not enough. Instead, the new Elector wanted to take up Kaunitz’s expanded offer and exchange all of the Electorate for all of the Austrian Netherlands.

With the better part of Bavaria already in Austrian hands, that deal no longer was on the table. At best the Emperor might give Karl Theodor a few scattered bits and pieces of the Habsburg holdings in the Netherlands or Swabia, but nothing that could form a coherent new state. The unhappy Elector ratified the treaty anyway on 14 January, and the affair appeared to be settled.

Unknown to Joseph and Kaunitz, their key ally had already decided to sit out this crisis. On 6 February France signed an alliance with the Americans rebelling against British rule, committing her to active intervention in the war. Even the tears of Marie Antoinette, daughter of Maria Theresa, could not convince King Louis XVI to reverse course. In March the French informed the Prussians of their neutrality in any upcoming war, and told the Austrians that France would not fulfill her treaty obligation to provide at least 24,000 men to fight alongside Maria Theresa’s troops.

Heartened by this news, Frederick moved to further isolate the Austrians. He declared that Prussia would give no aid to the American rebels and respect the neutrality of Hannover, ruled by Britain’s King George III. In February, Turkish troops landed in Crimea to support a revolt against the Russian occupiers. although local Russian forces put down the rebellion with genocidal frenzy word came from St. Petersburg that Russia’s Catherine II believed renewed war with Turkey likely to break out at any moment; the empress would not intervene in a German war.

By March, both Austria and Prussia had begun to mobilize for war. The Austrian army brought 180,000 men into Bohemia to confront the Prussians, a far larger array than the Habsburgs had ever fielded during the Seven Years’ War. But Prussia more than matched that armament, with 190,000 Prussian and 30,000 Saxon troops under arms.

By the next month, the former Austrian chief fo staff Franz Moritz Graf von Lacy had returned from a five-year furlough induced by poor health and in a flash of his legendary energy drew up a “Defense Plan for the Kingdom of Bavaria” – the very plan that the Austrian North Army would dust off for use in the 1866 Austro-Prussian War. Lacy’s plan foresaw, correctly, that the Prussians had two avenues of approach to Bohemia, one from the west through Saxony and one from the east through Silesia. Given the size of the Prussian army, they could be expected to use both routes.

The theater of war.

Lacy split his forces into two armies. The Iser Army of 80,000, commanded by Ernst Gideon Freiherr von Laudon, faced the routes our of Saxony and the Elbe Army of 100,000, led by Lacy himself with his close personal friend the Emperor Joseph II in nominal command, protecting the passes out of Silesia. The Austrians barred the Prussian approach routes with trenches and intense networks of sharpened wooden stakes, backed by plentiful artillery.

Frederick’s men crossed the border on 5 July without the nicety of a declaration of war. The king himself commanded the advance from Silesia, with his brother Henry leading the troops out of Saxony. The Prussians reached the Austrian field fortifications and promptly halted. Frederick found that Lacy had taken away his advantages in battlefield maneuver; if the old king wanted to come to grips with the Austrians, he would have to make a bloody frontal assault against their lines. On both fronts the Prussians probed for a weak spot, only to be met by the prompt arrival of Austrian reinforcements moving on their interior lines.

By August, the Prussians began to die of disease and starvation. Austrian patrols probing abandoned Prussian camps reported heaps of dead horses. Prussian foragers turned out local villagers and confiscated all of their food, and dug through their fields in search of potatoes – leading soldiers to label the conflict The Potato War.  From their primary fortified camp at Königgrätz, the Austrian guns dominated potential Prussian approach routes.

“We now have to battle not simply against men,” Frederick wrote, “but against powerful positions and strong artillery.”

On the Austrian side, wagon trains of food, fodder and other needed supplies rolled regularly into the front lines. Lacy’s logistical system, prepared in the years after the Seven Years’ War, functioned superbly in its first real test. The Austrians did less well in terms of sanitation and water supply – concepts as yet little understood – and suffered badly from disease.

By late September, Prince Henry had abandoned attempts to out-flank Laudon along the River Iser and fallen back into Saxony. Frederick ordered a retreat a month later. Both armies went into winter quarters while patrols fought small, bloody actions in the mountains and passes.

Through the winter, both sides attempted to relieve the situation by bringing allies into the war, while Austrian Empress Maria Theresa pressured her son Joseph to make peace. While Lacy’s logistical system had kept the troops well-fed and well-clothed, it had also proven extremely expensive and the empress did not believe that her realm could afford another campaign season at those costs.

That attitude suited Vergennes, the French foreign minister. His American war had not provided the quick success for which he had hoped, and he feared that the Austro-Prussian quarrel could easily explode into a general European war. That would doom his chances of concentrating the forces of France and Spain against Britain. Vergennes quickly offered his good offices to hammer out a peace between Austria and Prussia to be guaranteed by both France and Russia.

As mediated by Vergennes, the peace treaty gave Austria a small slice of Bavarian territory known as the Innviertel, that remains part of Upper Austria today (and hosts the birthplace of Adolf Hitler). Frederick received inheritance rights to Ansbach and Bayreuth for one of his relations, while Bavaria paid Saxony cash compensation for said rights. Each side had suffered just under 20,000 casualties

The War of the Bavarian Succession, often dismissed as a strange interlude, instead gave a preview of how war would be waged in the coming industrial age: a war of position and logistics, with advances possible only under generals willing to accept massive losses. Frederick refused the butcher’s bill for such an assault, and both Austria and Prussia proved unable to meet the financial burden of maintaining huge armies in the field. And health science had not yet worked out how to keep large numbers of men disease-free in a camp environment.

If not for Vergennes’ successful effort to prevent Britain from executing her usual strategy during this period of fighting to the very last drop of German blood, the War of the Bavarian Succession could easily have drawn in the other European powers in a new world-wide war. That was probably the more likely outcome, but history does not always see the more likely outcome actually unfold.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold really is named for Leopold Daun.