An Austrian Defeat, April 13, 1849
|Written||13 April 1849|
Written: by Engels on April 13, 1849;
First published: in Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 272, April 14, 1849.
We are returning to the two Army Bulletins issued by Windischgrätz.
The 33rd Bulletin begins:
“His Highness, Field Marshal Prince zu Windischgrätz had learned that important rebel forces are concentrating between Gyöngyös and Hatvan and has therefore ordered Lieutenant-Field Marshal Count Schlick to undertake a reconnaissance in that area.”
“Had learned"! Windischgrätz undoubtedly “learned” this in a most poignant fashion in the battles which forced his troops to retreat from Kaschau to Waitzen and from Felegyhaza to Pilis, a distance of from 20 to 30 miles, in face of the victorious Magyars.
But to come to the point.
This “reconnaissance” by Schlick on April 2 initiated a series of engagements which lasted for five days and ended on the 6th with the general retreat of the imperial forces to the walls of Pest. Let us try to describe the course of these engagements on the basis of the very inadequate information available and especially on the basis of the imperial Bulletins themselves in order not to ascribe too great an advantage to the Hungarians.
According to Bulletin No. 34 the position of the imperial forces was as follows:
The Austrian army was extended in a long line from Balassa-Gyarmat via Waitzen and Aszod to Szegléd. The second army corps commanded by Ramberg constituted the left wing, and its most advanced brigades (Götz and Jablonowsky) occupied positions not at Losoncz, as was previously boasted, but six miles further back near Balassa-Gyarmat, Vadkert and Waitzen. Schlick with the third corps were in the centre and had taken up positions in the vicinity of Hatvan and Aszod behind the Zagyva. Jellachich with the first corps made up the right wing which was extended from Szegléd to the vicinity of Jasz-Bereny and was likewise behind the Zagyva, but a little further back.
This was the position of the imperial forces according to the Bulletins.
Confronting them were two of the main bodies of Magyars. The northern corps under Dembinski, Görgey and Klapka advanced on Schlick from the direction of Gyöngyös. A second corps, whose commanders are not named, confronted Jellachich and was a few miles from his main forces, from Jasz Apáti to Szolnok. The River Zagyva separated the hostile forces along the whole line.
Schlick moved out of his position on April 2 and crossed the Zagyva near Hatvan. But, as was stated in Bulletin No. 33,
“the strength of the enemy forces was so much superior to his own that he found it preferable to establish himself in a strong position near Gödöllö until the arrival of more reinforcements. In the course of this withdrawal Capt. von Kalchherg of the Prohaska Infantry was ordered to destroy the bridge behind Hatvan.
"Captain Kalchberg and his very brave company carried out this order with most exemplary endurance under very fierce cannon and small-arms fire, thus delaying the enemy to such an extent that he was hardly able to molest the retreating corps.”
So — a lost engagement for the Austrians and a retreat halfway back to Pest. All they could achieve was reduced to the fact that “the retreating corps could hardly be molested”.
The Zagyva near Hatvan is only a small, narrow stream, hardly seven miles from its source. The demolition of the bridge could, at best, only delay pursuit by artillery, perhaps also by the infantry, but certainly not by hussars. And it is precisely pursuit by light cavalry which is most unpleasant for a retreating army in this undulating terrain merging into plains.
In Bulletin No. 34 this first Austrian reverse is already transformed into a victory.
“It was this” (the Magyar advance guard commanded by Dembinski) “which was attacked on the 2nd of this month by Lieutenant-Field Marshal Schlick and driven back to Hort with considerable losses (!) in cannon and in prisoners (!!)”
Windischgrätz credits his readers with such short memories that he believes they will already have forgotten by the 9th of April what he had printed on the 7th.
If this passage means anything at all, it is that “considerable losses in cannon and in prisoners” applies not to the Magyars but to the imperial forces.
As a result of this reverse, Windischgrätz was compelled to concentrate his forces further. The Csorich division from the left wing (2nd corps) was hurriedly sent for and moved from Waitzen to Gödöllö. Jellachich was ordered to move up and maintain contact with Schlick. Windischgrätz himself went to Gödöllö on the 3rd and to Aszod on the 4th. (This was stated in Bulletin No. 33. According to Bulletin No. 34 Windischgrätz came to Gödöllö only on the 4th. This is how these Bulletins agree!)
Jellachich moved his corps in a north-westerly direction from Szegléd closer to Gödöllö. It was attacked during the course of this operation near Tapio-Bicske, on the 4th. The Bulletin now declares:
“Major-General Rastic quickly went over to the offensive, attacked the superior advancing enemy forces with the bayonet and threw them back, on this occasion 12 cannon were seized, four of which were harnessed and immediately taken to safety, while the remaining 8 were spiked. We took many more prisoners but we also deplore the loss of brave Major Baron Riedesel and Cavalry Captain Gyurkovics of the Banderial hussars. ”
At first, it was 17 cannon that had been captured; then it was 14, finally it was 12, but these were harnessed and taken to safety. Now, at last, it is admitted that although 12 cannon were captured, eight of them had, unfortunately, to be left behind. They were, however, spiked, so it is said. Not much value can be attached to this either. But it is precisely the fact that eight captured cannon had to be left behind, which shows how victorious the action near Tapio-Bicske was. If one is victorious one remains master of the battlefield, and if one is master of the battlefield one is also master of unharnessed cannon on it.
The “glorious action” near Tapio-Bicske is thus at bottom, once again, a reverse, the second suffered by the imperial forces during their “reconnaissance-in-force”.
Now however Windischgrätz himself took charge of the army and achieved the following gains:
“On the 5th of this month the Field Marshal launched an attack on the enemy forces stationed near Hatvan in the course of which a division  of Civalart’s Uhlans and three squadrons of Kress’ light cavalry attacked four divisions of enemy hussars with remarkable bravery and gained a brilliant success with the small loss of two dead and ten wounded.
"Sixty dead hussars, including two officers, were left on the battlefield. In addition the insurgents suffered forty wounded and thirty-two taken prisoner, including one officer.”
Windischgrätz relates some incidental deeds of heroism performed by a few squadrons of the imperial cavalry on this occasion; but what we are not told is what was the outcome of the whole “attack”. Obviously in this case too an isolated, momentarily favourable episode is singled out from an engagement that was, on the whole, unsuccessful, in order to cover up the adverse results of the whole action.
The result of this engagement was the retreat of the imperial forces to the walls of Pest. These engagements, Windischgrätz tells us, brought home to him “the superiority of the enemy, especially in light cavalry, in the quite open terrain” and he was therefore compelled to concentrate, as quickly as possible, all three army corps in the immediate vicinity of Pen.
Incidentally, this movement of his troops was the result far less of strategical calculations than of dire necessity. Windischgrätz admits that the enemy
“followed him with great speed and launched his attack especially against the first army corps drawn up near Isaczeg while supposing that he was engaging the 3rd army corps deployed near Gödöllö.”
Thus during a hard pressed retreat the only satisfaction Windischgrätz had was that the Magyars routed a different corps from the one they intended.
In the course of this retreat battle was again joined on the 6th
“during which the Fiedler Brigade, reinforced by a detachment from the Lobkowitz division, forced the enemy to retreat, which he afterwards sought to cover by a large-scale attack by 12 squadrons of cavalry. But this was thwarted by a Rank attack made by two squadrons of Kress’ light cavalry and one squadron of Max Auersperg’s cuirassiers, as a result six more cannon were captured from the enemy who left many dead on the battlefield, for the well-directed fire of our guns wreaked havoc in his ranks”.
Even the Kölnische Zeitung has not written a more colossal piece of nonsense about strategic matters. A brigade, reinforced by a divisional detachment, compels the victorious and overwhelmingly superior Magyars to retreat! In order to cover this retreat the Magyars launch a large-scale attack with twelve squadrons of hussars — against such a small force of infantry! But even better: these twelve Magyar squadrons are put to flight by three squadrons of the imperial cavalry, and, finally, six cannon are captured!! One can see that Windischgrätz, accustomed to victory, was forced once again to single out a few favourable incidents from an engagement which, taken as a whole, ended most unfavourably and so to provide an historical fable much more fantastic than all the Münchausen stories in the world put together.
Things went no better with the brave Ban Jellachich.
“He, too, made a spirited attack on the enemy and then took up the positions assigned to him.”
These few words provide sufficient proof that Jellachich had to face an arduous engagement and to fight his way through in order to be able to withdraw to Pest. What the losses were we shall soon know.
Windischgrätz, in this position in front of Pest, is now
“determined to await those reinforcements which at this moment are advancing against the Hungarians from all sides and since his army is fully concentrated, this enables him to operate in all directions with such forces as circumstances may require”.
Görgey and Dembinski may already have foiled the noble Field Marshal’s well-intentioned plan as also his final ludicrous boasting.
If the two Bulletins are taken together, it emerges that the imperial forces have been driven back all along the line and are confining themselves to the defence of Pest. No doubt we shall soon be hearing about Dembinski’s assault of Pest or the measures he is taking in the rear of the imperial forces.
All non-official dispatches report that the defeats suffered by the imperial forces are far more significant than the Bulletins admit. The sound of uninterrupted gun-fire all along the line has been heard in Pest since the 2nd. The withdrawal in the streets of Pest began from the 3rd and 4th onwards. Munition and pack-wagons, reserve gun-carriages, wagons carrying wounded, individual unarmed men who were not wounded, alternated. Defence measures were taken in the whole town, at various points houses were requisitioned for the military; personnel are held ready to destroy the pontoon bridges at a moment’s notice.
In Pest, Hungarian banknotes rose in value, in Breslau Austrian securities fell, following private letters from Pressburg which spoke of a decisive victory by the Magyars near Gödöllö. We will disregard for the time being the report in the Breslauer Zeitung that Jellachich had been cut off and that Schlick was threatened with the same fate, since the gains made by the Hungarians, already admitted by the imperial forces, are quite sufficient.
The Kölnische Zeitung threatens that within twelve days 30,000 Italian troops will be arriving in Hungary. We shall examine this tomorrow. In addition, it talks menacingly about the advance of 40,000 Russians on Transylvania and finally about 18 battalions commanded by Hammerstein which are to force their way across the Zips. The Russians are not yet there and Hammerstein has so far only given the order for the mustering of an army corps near Dukla on the Galician-Hungarian frontier. By the time he has finished doing this the Magyars may be far off.
- Banderial hussars (from the Latin banderium — banner) — the name given in medieval Hungary to cavalry detachments of nobles that under their own banners formed part of the royal army or of the armies of the big feudal lords. In this instance, the reference is to the regiment of Banderial hussars formed in July 1848 in Croatia. It took part in the marches of Jellachich’s army against revolutionary Hungary
- Cavalry units of the Austrian army included not only squadrons but also larger tactical formations — divisions, which usually consisted of two squadrons.