Austria-Hungary’s Many Armies
Part One: The Honvédség
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Though derided by some as a patchwork empire, or polyglot monarchy, Austria-Hungary managed to stay together through the Age of Nationalism thanks to artful political compromise. No group got everything they wanted; most all of them usually ended up with something. Only the cataclysm of the First World War finally destroyed the Dual Monarchy, and that only took place after Austria-Hungary had held up to incredible economic, social and political strains. Despite all that, the ramshackle empire still almost won.
Nowhere was the art of compromise more evident than in the monarchy’s armed forces. While Austria-Hungary had a common Navy, it had anywhere from three to six separate armies, depending on how one wishes to count them. All of them swore allegiance to Franz Josef; some as emperor of Austria and some as king of Hungary.
The bulk of Austrian land forces were part of the Common Army, known as the K.u.K. (Kaiserliche und königlich, or Imperial and Royal) Army. This force was descended from the old Imperial Army, styled Imperial-Royal from the time of Maria Theresa, and included all of the proud old “House Regiments” bearing the names of the old heroes and carrying battle honors stretching back to the Thirty Years’ War. In 1914 it numbered 102 infantry regiments, along with supporting cavalry and artillery and most of the Dual Monarchy’s technical services.
The other forces included the Hungarian Honvédség and Austrian Landwehr, both of them first-line forces equal (at least politically) to the Common Army by 1914. In addition, the Tirolean Kaiserjäger considered themselves a unique branch, and the Bosniaken recruited in Bosnia-Hercegovina also stood apart from the other regiments. Finally, both the Austrian and Hungarian halves of the Dual Monarchy fielded a Landsturm, a second-line militia.
Like the Austrian Landwehr, its doppelganger the Hungarian Honvédség began in 1867 as a militia charged with secondary security duties. During the negotiations that created the Dual Monarchy, the Hungarians demanded that the Imperial Army be divided between Vienna and Budapest. There would be a separate Hungarian army command and Ministry of War, and the Hungarian Army would wear its own uniforms, march under its own banners and most important of all would respond only to Magyarul as the language of command.
Gyula Graf Andrássy, the newly appointed minister-president of Hungary and the chief negotiator for his side, proved ready to compromise with the army’s negotiator, Lt. Col. Friedrich Beck (Franz Josef’s personal military aide, and thus holding far greater status than his rank might suggest). Recognizing that Andrássy needed symbols, Beck offered a separate Hungarian militia reporting to its own ministry. This force would wear the same uniform as the Common Army, march under the same flags and hew to the same standards of training and equipment. The only noticeable difference would be the use of Magyar as the language of command. And so the Honvédség, or Royal Hungarian Army, was born.
Over the next four decades Hungarian politicians continued to demand their own flags and uniforms, with little success. Under the 1867 compromise the Honvédség could not field artillery, but as early as 1870 Andrássy tried to undermine this by offering to purchase enough Gatling guns to equip each Honvéd regiment with its own dedicated battery, at Hungarian expense. The War Ministry refused the offer, declaring the weapons to be artillery pieces and thus disallowed, but the acquisition of artillery for the Honvédség became another goal of Hungarian nationalists. Once again a compromise was reached: The Gatling guns could be bought, but had to be stationed in fortress garrisons.
By 1881, the nationalists had scored another victory with the Common Army’s reorganization into fifteen corps districts based on geography. This meant that in the future entire divisions and corps could be considered “Hungarian,” and during the discussions that led to the reorganization, the Honvédség had secured the guarantee that its battalions would not simply be attached to larger Common Army formations but instead deployed in their own divisions and even corps.
The Honvédség remained small, however, taking in less than 10,000 men a year while the Landwehr inducted twice as many and the Common Army ten times the number. Once the annual eight-week training period ended and most recruits returned home, the Honvédség usually numbered less than 4,500 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. Within the Common Army, many officers not only resented the Hungarian force, some saw it as a potential enemy. When nationalist feeling swept over Hungary in 1902, Hungarian politicians began a series of loud demands that the Common Army be “magyarized,” with new flags, uniforms and the Magyar command language for those units raised in the Kingdom of Hungary (including those recruited from Croats, Slovaks, Romanians and others — this was by no means a demand for minority rights but rather a call for greater repression).
During the latter decades of the 19th century, armies across Europe took on a new function as the “school of the nation.” Recruits would be inculcated not just with the order of arms, but with national pride and, most of all, the national language. New technology required more extensive training, and illiterate recruits would have to be brought up to speed with the written word as well. And that written word, just like spoken orders, would be in the language of power. In France, Breton recruits were beaten savagely for speaking their own tongue; likewise, in Italian barracks Sicilians had to speak Tuscan dialect, now styled as “Italian,” and Piedmontese soldiers had to learn to like spaghetti or starve.
The French army in particular proved wildly successful, labeling ancient and proud literary languages like Provencal “a mere patois” and reducing them to oddities spoken only by angry poets. Through the means of universal conscription, French nationalists conducted a ruthless cultural cleansing that wiped out Occitan and Breton as well, imposing a homogenized “French” culture over all the republic’s inhabitants in just two generations.
Hungarian politicians understood this trend, and considered it vital that at least part of the Imperial and Royal Army be re-cast in a Magyar mold. This would both serve their own ends of wiping out “lesser” cultures and languages like those of the Slovaks, Croats and Romanians, but also make sure the same did not happen to Hungarian ways as recruits came home speaking German, having their first experience of literacy in German, and, by extension, thinking like a German. If Magyar culture was to survive, the army would have to speak Magyarul.
By April 1905, serious revolutionary outbreaks in Russia had spooked the Austrian leadership and the Common Army’s General Staff finalized its own “Fall U,” a war plan for the military occupation of Hungary. The Honvédség was expected to resist and try to hold Budapest, and it was assumed that the Common Army’s Hussar regiments and some of its Hungarian infantry regiments would join them. Even so, the staff predicted a fairly easy campaign and recommended that field artillery not be used as the gunners might refuse to fire on civilian-populated areas. Instead, if fire missions were required within the city they should be entrusted to the Imperial and Royal Navy’s Danube Flotilla, whose mostly Croat crewmen, the staff study claimed, should have no moral qualms about dropping live rounds on the Hungarian capital.
Violence broke out in most of the empire’s major cities November 1905, with crowds demanding broader voting rights. The General Staff sent out sealed orders for military intervention in Hungary, but there would be no civil war and every corps staff returned their packet unopened. The emperor suspended the Hungarian constitution in February and dispersed the kingdom’s parliament, but used Honvéd troops to close the proceedings and appointed a Honvéd general as military governor. The gesture worked: No civil unrest broke out.
When parliament reopened in the spring of 1906, the Hungarian leaders compromised with the emperor. They had seen that the common Hungarian had no desire to spill his blood for the Magyar elite, and feared the rise of a Croat-Serb coalition demanding its own rights and privileges from the Hungarian government. They promised to make no further demands to divide the Common Army, alter its traditions or insist on the Magyar language of command.
In return, the Honvédség would become a real army, with training and equipment — including artillery — on the same scale as that of the Common Army. Honvéd officers could now attend the Common Army’s staff and technical schools, and the Honvédség would have its own technical branches as well: medical services, engineers, intelligence and signals. The annual recruit quota would be raised as well.
The Hungarians held to the agreement for all of 30 months, agitating again for the Magyar command language in October 1908. The emperor gave in to them again, at least for units where over half the rank and file spoke fluent Magyar. The next year, Honvéd units began to receive artillery, obsolete pieces handed down from Common Army batteries then receiving the new M1905 weapons. While the Hungarians proved willing to spend on their own Honvédség, they resisted many spending bills for the Common Army, where the annual recruit quota remained at the level fixed in 1889 despite a huge increase in population.
Not until 1912 did the Common Army’s recruit quota rise to match the Dual Monarchy’s population, as part of a compromise elevating the Honvédség to first-line status. The eight Honvéd infantry divisions and the Honvéd cavalry division marched to war in August 1914 alongside the Common Army, fighting on all fronts. Like the Common Army, the Honvédség expanded during the war, but even during the most grave crises Common Army and Honvédség were not mixed in the ad hoc divisions and brigades formed at the front (including those most Austrian of military formations, the “official ad hoc” infantry divisions that briefly served on the Italian front).
Honvéd troops appear in their own colors in Infantry Attacks: Fall of Empires. They have their own infantry, cavalry (Hussars only), artillery and leaders — just like Panzer Grenadier, when I designed Infantry Attacks I wanted to be sure we avoided “pretend this unit is actually that one” situations, and to give every national army its own color scheme. The Honvédség was a national army in its own right, one owing allegiance to the same sovereign as the Common Army and the Austrian Landwehr, so it’s only right to treat it that way in the game.
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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.