Austria-Hungary’s Many Armies
Part Three: The Bosniaken
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
November 2021

Having brought a diplomatic end to the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War through threatened intervention on the side of the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary and Great Britain proceeded to reward themselves at their putative ally’s expense. The British took over “administration” of the island of Cyprus, considered strategically important to defend the Suez Canal, while Austria-Hungary did the same for the twin provinces of Bosnia and Hercegovina in the north-western Balkans, along with the right to garrison the Sanjak of Novi-Pasar which separated Serbia and Montenegro.

Bosnia and Hercegovina occupy a mountainous region of the north-western Balkans, and by 1878 were surrounded by Austro-Hungarian territory: Dalmatia to the south and Croatia to the west. Bosnia emerged as a vassal state of Hungary in 1154, becoming a kingdom in 1377 under Tvrtko I after fending off the Serbian kings Dusan the Mighty and Uros the Weak. Bosnians fought alongside the Serbs in 1389 on Kosovo Polje, but the kingdom fell to the Turks in 1463. A remnant held on under a duke, or herceg, in the southern part of the old kingdom which would become permanently known as Hercegovina. By 1481 Hercegovina was under Turkish rule as well, which would remain the case – excluding a brief period in the 18th Century when Austria held part of the region – for the next four centuries.

Austrian mobilization began even before the agreement had been sealed at the Congress of Berlin, with final approval coming in July 1878. The Congress concluded on 13 July and 82,000 Austrian troops rolled into the provinces starting on the 29th. Additional reinforcements raised the total to 153,000 by the autumn. By October they had secured the provinces, at a cost of 946 dead, 272 missing and 3,980 wounded.

Austrian troops battle insurgents at Jajce, 7 August 1878, suffering 600 casualties.

At first, the new administration made some astute moves, in particular, putting the Muslin clergy on the Austrian civil service pay scale and making them beholden to the Emperor for their subsistence. Bosnia-Hercegovina officially stood as a “co-dominium” of Austria-Hungary, under equal control of the two halves of the Dual Monarchy, with a military governor headquartered in Sarajevo who also commanded the garrison.

Just as quickly, the Austrians blundered. Conscription, along with a general disarming of the civilian population, had been introduced in the hinterlands of Dalmatia in 1869, the Krisvosije region bordering on Hercegovina. That led to open rebellion that was only put down after several months; 18 infantry battalions clamped down and still the Austrians had to roll back their demands for recruits and disarmament in exchange for a token surrender.

Dalmatia’s governor in 1869, Gabriel Rodich, served as a division commander during the 1878 occupation, so the institutional memory should have been fresh. Possibly hoping to crush Krisvosije as an act of vengeance for their prior humiliation, the Austrian administration instituted the same policy in Bosnia and Hercegovina as well as Krisvosije in 1881, to the same result. The Austrians had in large part brought this on themselves, funneling thousands of rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition into Bosnia-Hercegovina in the years just before the Russo-Turkish War, and now they found those arms turned on their own troops.

The late historian Gunther S. Rothenberg posited that the Austrians deliberately provoked the insurrection, and their ready and overwhelming response supports that thesis. Troops – all of them regulars – poured into the occupied provinces, small garrisons were pulled back from isolated posts, strings of blockhouses linked by telegraph wires and line of sight crisscrossed rebel areas, and small, fast-moving mobile columns hunted down groups of guerillas. Within six months resistance had ceased, and conscription went forward smoothly. It had been a very effective, if very expensive, undertaking.

The initial 1882 intake of conscripts formed four infantry companies, with recruiting districts headquartered in Sarajevo, Mostar, Tuzla and Banja Luka. Each district added another company each year, until by 1889 the Bosniaken, as they were known, numbered eight battalions of four companies each. In 1894 these expanded into four regiments, based on the same recruiting districts, and in 1903 a Feldjäger (light infantry) battalion was added, with one company raised in each district.

Like the Landwehr and Honvédség, the national regular armies of the Austrian and Hungarian halves of the Dual Monarchy, the Bosnian regiments did not have an Inhaber, or named “proprietor.” They were styled “Bosnian-Hercegovinian Infantry Regiment” and their number, which apparently was a long enough title even for the Imperial and Royal Army’s needs.

An 1898 postcard shows Army uniforms from several of the Dual Monarchy’s armies. The Bosniaken are the guys wearing fezzes, infantry in dark blue, Kaiserjäger in gray.

The Bosniaken wore a Turkish-style red fez with a black tassel, a light blue coat with red collar and cuffs, blue-gray cloak and light blue trousers. It was strikingly different from anything else in the Imperial & Royal wardrobe. The Feldjäger wore the pike gray of the Kaiserjäger, with the fez. Officers only wore Bosniak garb if they themselves hailed from Bosnia; otherwise, they wore the standard Imperial and Royal uniform (dark blue until 1908, when it gave way to a pike gray uniform similar to that worn by the Kaiserjäger). The Bosniaken adopted pike gray for field wear in 1910, complete with a pike-gray fez, but kept their light blue for parades.

The troops reflected their homeland’s religious composition. In 1913, the last year for which statistics are available, 31 percent of the troops were Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), 39 percent were Eastern Orthodox and 25 percent were Roman Catholic. The Common Army established a training program for Islamic clergy, to give their Muslim soldiers the same access to spiritual guidance as their Christian comrades, and senior clerics were consulted to help write an oath to the Emperor that could be sworn by Islamic soldiers in good conscience.

The Bosniaken quickly gained a reputation for fanatical loyalty to their Emperor, and the Army responded by stationing them in four of the Dual Monarchy’s major cities. Two battalions each went to Trieste, Graz, Vienna and Budapest, where they were deployed against urban rioters in 1905. The Bosniaken had become the regime’s enforcers, taking over the role formerly held by the Croat and Serb Grenzers in earlier times.

Austria-Hungary formally annexed Bosnia-Hercegovina in October 1908, to forestall any attempt by the Young Turks, who had just seized power in Constantinople, to resume Turkish rule in the provinces. An international crisis seemed likely to lead to a European-wide war, but diplomacy prevailed at the last moment. Austria-Hungary paid compensation to the Turks and evacuated the Sanjak of Novi-Pasar. The Serbs and Montenegrins seized the region five years later and scotched an Austrian scheme to build a railway connection between the Dual Monarchy and Ottoman Turkey.

While the annexation affair almost brought about the First World War six years early, the outwardly peaceful takeover did not placate the Muslim and Serb populations – about two-thirds of the total. The unrest did not flare into open rebellion and eventually subsided once Russia, Serbia and Montenegro all recognized the annexation. The Croats reacted with pro-Habsburg enthusiasm, which cooled when it became clear that Bosnia and Hercegovina would not be joined to Croatia to form the third, South Slav segment of a Triune Monarchy. For the Bosniak regiments, the change in legal standing had no effect at all.

The Bosniaken made up exactly the infantry component of a Common Army division: four regiments of four battalions each, plus a light infantry battalion; the Bosniaken had machine gun detachments for each of their battalions, per the Common Army’s tables of organization for 1914, but no artillery units. But the four regiments were assigned to four different infantry divisions, with the Feldjäger joining the 1st Bosnian-Hercegovinian Infantry Regiment in Vienna’s crack 25th Infantry Division.

This Bosniak infantryman (left) and Kaiserjäger still guard Slovenia’s border.

The Bosniaken proved themselves in battle from the start. All four regiments (and the Feldjäger battalion) went to Galicia to face the Russians in August 1914 and did not initially see action against the Serbs (though they would do so later). The 2nd Bosnian-Hercegovinian Infantry Regiment would become the most-decorated regiment in the Imperial and Royal forces by war’s end, receiving 42 Gold Medals for Valor.

The Bosniak forces expanded greatly during the course of the Great War, adding four more infantry regiments and seven more Feldjäger battalions. Each existing regiment lost of one its existing battalions to provide a cadre as the Imperial and Royal Army underwent a service-wide reorganization (undertaken in the midst of the most intense war the planet had ever seen).

The Bosniaken appear in Infantry Attacks: Franz Josef's Armies in their own traditional blue livery with the Bosnian Lily (which would, later in the century, become the symbol of Bosnian resistance to Serb aggression). The Bosniaken are organized on the same tables as the Common Army, so their ratings are the same, but their morale is usually higher than other Austro-Hungarian units. They draw from the same pool of leaders as the Common Army.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published an unknowable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold knows the number.

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