Avalanche Press


Battles of 1866:
A Brigade’s Story

During the years before the 1866 war, the Austrian army devised a new doctrine relying on bayonet attacks by its infantry. The reliance on these deep storm columns made the infantry the primary battlefield arm, despite the excellence of Austrian artillery and cavalry.

Today we have a look at a typical Austrian infantry formation of Southern Army, Anton Baron Scudier’s brigade of VII Corps. Southern Army fought at Custoza, and had adopted a “lighter,” easier-to-handle organization of three brigades (Northern Army corps had four).

When mobilization began, VII Corps had four brigades, each at about half strength. As a Southern Army formation, it had a higher proportion of regulars on hand than those stationed in other parts of the empire. Mobilization completely shuffled the peacetime assignments, with different regiments now brigaded together under different commanders.

Scudier had commanded a brigade in V Corps, stationed in Mantova. He brought the elite 10th Feldjäger Battalion with him to Verona for VII Corps mobilization, and received two V Corps infantry regiments: the 19th “Kronprinz Erzherzog Rudolf” from Daun’s brigade and the 48th “Erzherzog Ernst” from Piret’s brigade. From Weckbecker’s VII Corps brigade came the 2/VII artillery battery.

The 10th was considered by many the toughest single battalion in the Austrian army, with a fearsome reputation after its destruction of Pius IX’s Swiss Guard in hand-to-hand fighting at Vicenza in 1848. The 19th, recruited around Raab (Györ) in western Hungary, had fled the battlefield at Solferino in 1859 and had a very poor reputation. The 48th, from Nagy-Kanisa in central Hungary, also was not a prime posting.

In the Austrian system, a regiment’s reputation gave it first pick of junior officers. The status of elite “house” regiments like the 4th “Deutschmeister” or 32nd “Maria Theresa” became self-fulfilling, as the best young officers sought appointments there. While the regiments assigned to Southern Army had some allure due to Italy’s charms and the aspect of seeing action, the 19th and 48th were Southern Army’s dumping ground for malcontents and incompetents.

Scudier’s nemesis.

Scudier appears to have blamed his new corps commander, Feldmarschallleutnant Joseph Freiherr von Maroicic di Madonna del Monte, for giving him a misfit brigade. Maroicic, the coarse-spoken son of a Grenzer (border troops) captain, had won the Military Order of Maria Theresa at Vicenza in 1848 and thus gained his title. Contempt for the commoner raised above his station seeps from Scudier’s letters and diaries. Their relationship sank even further when Maroicic selected the 10th Feldjäger for detached duty along the Po River.

Maroicic, in turn, suffered fools with ill grace and had a powerful sarcastic streak. Ordered by the War Ministry to report all “political actions,” he filed a 44-page blow-by-blow description of a bar fight involving two of his soldiers, a pimp and a prostitute. Scudier’s pretensions irritated Maroicic, who tried to get him sent to Northern Army. Northern Army’s commander, Ludwig von Benedek, plucked every other high-born brigade commander from his old post in Italy — but told Maroicic he could keep Scudier.

Scudier stood second in seniority among Southern Army's brigadiers. He had commanded a brigade in Southern Army for several years before the war. During the 1859 war, he led a brigade in Benedek's VIII Corps for a short time before taking over as Second Army chief of staff, and he served in that capacity at Solferino. He’d been transferred out of V Corps to clear the way for an officer junior to him in standing, Gabriel Rodich, to take command. Worse still, Rodich was of common birth.

The baron was a very unhappy man when war with Italy broke out.

At 3 a.m. on 24 June, 1866, Maroicic’s three brigades broke camp around Verona and set out to seek battle with the Italians. Ordered to send only one brigade forward and keep his others in reserve, Maroicic selected Scudier’s as his spearhead.

Scudier's troops came under Italian artillery fire about 9 a.m., and Scudier's attached artillery returned the fire. Seeing IX Corps move forward, Scudier — according to Maroicic's report — resolved on his own to join in the attack. Scudier sent both his regiments forward about 10 a.m. against the cypress-covered Belvedere heights including the village of Custoza. This rise dominated the battlefield. There they met firm resistance from the Italian army's toughest brigade, the two elite regiments of the Sardinia Grenadiers.

The 19th quickly stopped and its troops refused to move. Capt. Ludwig Szábo strode in front of the men, cursing them in Magyar, calling them cowards and onanists while waving his sword, before uttering a primal scream of rage and turning to charge the Italian grenadiers on his own. Only the regiment's 5th and 6th companies followed, and those went forward reluctantly. While the 19th Infantry Regiment faltered, Col. Max Fischer brought his 48th to the top of the Belvedere heights. A savage bayonet fight erupted along the crest of the Belvedere, as the Italian 3rd Grenadier Regiment counter-attacked and stalled the attackers.

Soldiers of both sides today rest together
in Custoza’s military cemetery.

Troops from IX Corps joined the attack, surging over the crest where they met yet another counterattack from the Italian grenadiers. The IX Corps regiments had already begun to waver when they were struck in the flank by a bayonet charge from the Lombard Grenadier Brigade, led personally by King Vittorio Emanuele's younger son Amadeo. The young prince plunged into the mêlée just like his father at Palestro in 1859, and the Austrians began to fall back. A Czech infantryman shot the prince in the chest, and the grenadiers halted in shock as their leader lay bleeding on the ground.

Brignone’s grenadiers continued their assaults, but Scudier’s troops held onto the Belvedere heights and some houses on the fringe of Custoza. Meanwhile, fresh Italian troops poured into the threatened sector. After a heavy bombardment the Italians sent in the Cacciatori delle Alpi brigade, a unit formed in 1860 from the pick of Garibaldi’s Red Shirts. This tradition gave the unit considerable élan, and they ejected Scudier's troops from the rest of the village but could not take the Belvedere.

Italian gunners on the Belvedere await an Austrian charge.
By Giovanni Fattori, Museo Fattori-Livorno.

IX Corps sent most of its reserve to strengthen Scudier, and this arrival seems to have broken the brigadier. He left the IX Corps troops to hold the line and ordered his men to the rear. But Scudier’s retreat continued once his men had moved beyond Italian rifle range. A Southern Army staff officer found the 19th Regiment at 3 p.m. about six kilometers from the Belvedere, while VII Corps’ other outnumbered brigades were locked in combat on the Belvedere. Four hours later another found them still there, having set up camp.

Scudier told both staff officers that his men were too exhausted to return to action. By the end of the year, Scudier had been court-martialed, though the emperor quashed the action before the court reached a verdict. Shunned by the officer corps, thanks to the emperor’s patronage Scudier continued to receive promotions and even sponsorship of the 29th Infantry Regiment (one of the IX Corps units whose arrival sparked his flight from the Belvedere), yet remained a bitter old man into his 80s, and until his death he argued that Maroicic ordered a withdrawal. The troops ended up much further away, Scudier explained, because of a “misunderstanding” by the 19th Infantry Regiment's commander. Maroicic won the Maria Theresa again for his personal bravery later that afternoon, and briefly commanded Southern Army later in the war.

Most Southern Army brigades numbered just over 7,000 men, and so start at a combat strength of 8. Scudier’s had lost the 10th Feldjäger, and so it rates a 7 at full strength.

The typical Southern Army Austrian brigade starts at a morale of 7. This is similar to the Army of Northern Virginia in Gettysburg. These contained a high proportion of long-service regulars and Southern Army held regular peacetime maneuvers. But Scudier’s troops don’t rate the same respect as other Southern Army regulars, and this lowers them to a 6. Plus they have a weak commander, and that lowers them again to a 7.

In contrast, another VII Corps brigade, Johann Töply’s, rates 8-7. It does not have an elite regiment: The 43rd “Alemann” was a Transylvanian German unit, and the 65th “Erzherzog Ludwig Victor” a Magyar unit from northeastern Hungary. Each had solid but not spectacular reputations. His light infantry battalion was the Slovene 7th Feldjäger. Töply himself had held the prime regimental command in the Austrian army, that of the 4th “Deutschmeister,” and was seen as one of the army’s top troop commanders.

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