Prince Eugene - George Upton

War of the Spanish Succession

King Charles the Second of Spain died on the first of November, 1700, without leaving a natural heir to the throne. He was the last Hapsburg of the older line, and so they flattered themselves at the castle in Vienna that they could take this rich inheritance as a natural right. A sad disappointment awaited them. Charles the Second had, at the last moment, made a will in favor of France, appointing the grandson of the King, Duke Philip of Anjou, sole heir. It was very evident how this had been accomplished. Louis the Fourteenth had schemed and intrigued to get this rich inheritance for his family, and King Charles the Second of Spain was a weak character.

When the news reached Vienna it caused the greatest consternation, not only at court, but among all classes of the population. The people rioted in the streets of the capital; the ministers demanded that the Emperor should suppress the disorder; and the Crown Prince, Joseph the First, an active and passionate young man, went so far as to send for the French minister, the Marquis de Villars, and to denounce this proceeding of his master as under-handed and deceitful.

It was not to be wondered at that war soon broke out; the bloody War of the Spanish Succession, which lasted from 1700 to 1714, humbled, indeed, the arrogant Louis, and also inflicted great harm upon Germany. It is remarkable that one hundred and seventy years later the throne of Spain was again the bone of contention, and that it was again a French sovereign who was most concerned in the affair. This later ruler was chastised much more promptly and more thoroughly than his ancestor.

Crafty Louis the Fourteenth understood how to gain allies rapidly. These were the hypocritical Elector of Cologne, the Duke of Savoy, and unfortunately also the German Emperor's own son-in-law, the warlike and fiery Elector, Max Emanuel of Bavaria, the conqueror of Belgrade. They were all seduced by the vain promises of the French King that a crumb from the French inheritance should fall to them, and they lent a hand to the false ruler on the Seine, to war against the imperial house. The Emperor, on the other hand, stood quite alone, an almost pathetic figure in the great drama about to be enacted, but resolved from the bottom of his heart to risk everything in support of his rights.

The French were more enterprising than the Germans. While the recruiting drum was still heard in the crown-lands of Austria and warlike bands were still streaming in from all sides, not forgetting the imperial troops grown gray in the service and fresh from the Turkish wars, the French had already entered Italy in order to occupy the Spanish possessions in the spirit of the old adage, "Possession is nine points of the law." Starhemberg mobilized the imperial army in the Tyrol. It was a matter of course that the Field-Marshal Prince Eugene of Savoy should command it. Associated with him were two experienced French soldiers, two brothers-in-arms, the Prince de Commercy and the Prince de Vaudemont.

With thirty thousand men, "amongst them not one coward," as Eugene assured the Austrian Crown-Prince Joseph, Starhemberg and Borner advanced into Italy. On the twentieth of May, 1701, Eugene joined them at Roveredo. The French were commanded by Marshal Catinat— Eugene had once before, as we know, met him face to face in Italy. Catinat had made good use of his time and occupied all the mountain passes which led out of the Tyrol into Italy. The republic of Venice then held the eastern half of upper Italy. Under these circumstances many of the bravest and best heads in the army were very dubious about attacking the French. But Eugene was willing to take the responsibility; for such emergencies, he thought, the Emperor had made him a field-marshal. He was in very good spirits. Now the time had come to strike a blow at the French and especially at King Louis.

How different was his present position in Italy compared with that which he had occupied during his first campaign! He was now completely independent. The vain and crafty Catinat must be shown what he had learned, and he must uphold the glory of the German arms for the discomfiture of Louis. He must enter Italy, that was certain; and he knew how thoroughly Catinat had intrenched himself. Eugene quickly made up his mind; he absolutely must attack him; he had not studied the tactics of the great Carthaginian, Hannibal, for nothing. Like him, he chose a passage over the Alps. For this enterprise alone, had he fought no other battles, nor rendered any other service to the Emperor and the country, Eugene would have gained immortal renown. All the more so, as at that time many of the facilities were entirely lacking which would now be at the service of a general.

And how did he accomplish this daring feat? Thousands of soldiers and inhabitants of the surrounding country were kept busy early and late making a passageway for the troops over the steep mountain paths. Here a shoulder of rock was broken away with shovels, pickaxes, and crowbars; there a steep declivity was graded; at another place a dam was made out of great logs, or a bridge was built over a gorge. Withal Eugene's greatest task was to keep Catinat in ignorance of the road which he was preparing, although the Frenchman could scarcely dream of the possibility of such a surprise. He kept General von Guttenstein constantly before the French army so that Catinat should think that Eugene's position was just behind the General's vanguard.

Early on the morning of May z6 the march began, which was to equal the most celebrated feats of this kind in ancient as well as modern times, and indeed to surpass most of them. The army advanced in two sections and by two different roads. The dragoons who were delegated to accompany the infantry had to dismount and lead their horses by the bridles. The cannon were hoisted with ropes, and the wagons were taken apart and carried. Arrived at the top, the cannon were drawn by oxen, while soldiers and peasants walked beside them to keep them from sliding off the paths or to lend a hand where the road was steep. In places where a cart had never crossed these inaccessible mountains, a whole army now found passage. In the best of spirits the soldiers moved forward, delighted with this silent and beautiful world, past dizzy precipices and yawning depths, through virgin forests and rough moraines.

By the fourth of June, Eugene with the whole Austrian army had achieved the "surmounted impossibility" as he jokingly called this daring alpine march, and Catinat was greatly astonished to see him appear before him with his 30,000 men. He was already half beaten, for with the enemy so close at hand, he could not make up his mind which plan to choose. He spread his troops along the river Etsch, fatigued them with constant marching and counter-marching, expected an attack first in this quarter, then in that, and did not know what to do—quite a contrast to Eugene, who had long ago made up his mind what course to take.

At last the decisive moment came. In the night, between the eighth and ninth of July, Eugene crossed the Tartaro with 11,000 men and made a sharp attack upon the enemy intrenched at Castagnaro. The Austrians fought like lions. It was not long before the place was taken and the French expelled. From there, Eugene marched his whole force against the town of Carpi. He met indeed with great difficulties in this territory, which was intersected by canals, morasses, rice-fields, and brush, but he managed to overcome them all. The armies were soon to measure their strength once more. One side fought as bravely as the other. Eugene's horse was shot under him, and he received a slight wound, in spite of which he led his troops on to victory at Carpi. Inspired by his previous successes, he developed an enterprise, a daring of conception, and a facility in carrying out his plans, which made this one of his most brilliant campaigns.

On the twenty-seventh of July he crossed the Mincio, to Catinat's great alarm. After this movement Catinat had but one thought, to reach the Oglio, where, covered by this river, he might prevent the Austrians from entering Milanese territory. On this retreat the French proved themselves true barbarians. They laid waste the country wherever they could, burned and plundered shamelessly, but in revenge many of these robbers were shot down by the embittered peasantry. The Austrian soldiers who followed them were greeted as deliverers from the French yoke.

In Paris there was great consternation over the misfortunes of Marshal Catinat. Proud King Louis had counted on victory and here was nothing but Job's comfort. But what provoked him most was the fact that it was the little abbe with the disagree able face who had gained these victories over his troops. To mend the situation and ensure success for the future, after recalling Catinat, the King's former playmate and intimate friend, Marshal Villeroi, was intrusted with the command of the army in Italy. He boasted that he would soon drive Eugene back into the Tyrolese mountains, and promised the Parisians that he would teach three Princes (Eugene, Commercy, and Vaudemont) to dance to his piping, and even that he would send them back prisoners to the French capital.

In the beginning he really seemed formidable, for he brought fresh troops to Italy, so that he outnumbered the Austrians, two to one. His first move was to reoccupy the left bank of the Oglio. Prince Eugene had good reasons for not interfering, which Villeroi with truly comic shortsightedness characterized as "a sign of weakness and fear." But Eugene understood very well what he was doing and what remained to be done. He now took up an excellent position with his troops facing in three directions, placed his cannon in a masterly manner, and thought to himself: "If you want anything of me, I am ready for you!"

And they came. It was on the first of September, 1701, at the little town of Chiari. With the greatest ease the Austrian outposts were carried and, with the fiery impetuosity which is peculiar to the French in a first assault, they advanced against Eugene's entrenchments. To their great surprise they saw scarcely a man, for Eugene had ordered his soldiers to lie down behind their redoubts and not to fire until the enemy were within fifty feet. Many a brave soldier's fingers, as he watched the advance of the French, may have itched to pull the trigger while they were still at a distance. But their beloved General had given the order and they never moved an eyelash! Suddenly the fire burst forth from all sides, and whole columns of the French were mowed down. Again the second and third ranks fired and the cannon fell in line with volleys of grape-shot. That was indeed a surprise. It was an awful massacre.

Marshal Villeroi was so disconcerted by this beginning that he did not know what to do next. He issued no orders and left his army unprotected under the adversaries' constant fire. It was his corps-commanders, Catinat and Duke Victor Amadeus of Savoy, who arranged for the retreat of the army. Eugene did not remain passive, but drove the enemy out of every position, replacing them with his own men. At Chiari sixty thousand Frenchmen were vanquished by twenty-five thousand Germans. The enemy suffered a loss of over two thousand men, among them two hundred officers, while the Austrian army counted only thirty-six dead and eighty-one wounded. This was a cheap victory.

But besides their armed enemy the French had another enemy in the peasants of Lombardy. The country favored the Germans more each day. Every night wagon-loads of provisions were voluntarily sent to them, while the French began to suffer hunger and want. Added to this came continuous showers of rain, making impassable roads. In a few words Villeroi described the condition of the army to the King: "To remain here longer would be to ruin our fine cavalry." Thus quickly had the boastful Marshal changed his opinions and forgotten utterly his promise to teach the three princes to dance.

On the thirteenth of November the French retired once more across the Oglio. Eugene's batteries assisted them in a most unwelcome manner. He then sent out patrolling parties, who continually harassed them, giving them no time to take breath. He took Caneto from them and drove them out of the whole Mantuan territory. The city itself was still occupied by the French, but they could take no comfort in it, for Prince Eugene had it well blockaded and watched night and day. Eugene showed such tireless energy that it seemed as though he were just beginning the campaign instead of having already brought it to a glorious conclusion, thereby augmenting the power of the imperial house and gaining the affection and sympathy of the people. Now, one sovereign after another began to reflect that it might be better for his own interests if the Emperor, instead of Louis the Fourteenth of France, held the balance of power.

The first to decide in favor of the Emperor was the new King of Prussia, Frederick the First. He promised the Emperor to furnish an army of ten thousand men. Then came Denmark contributing six thousand men. Hanover also did not hold back. Still more important was it that England and Holland declared for the Emperor, of course in their own interests; for while France had the ascendancy they feared for their commerce with Spain and the East and West Indies.

Meanwhile Duke Victor Amadeus earned scant thanks in Turin for the help he had given. Though he had fought bravely at Chiari and had led his soldiers into the thick of the fight, yet he was under suspicion in Paris. All the misfortunes in Italy were attributed to him, and they would have been glad to put all the burden of failure on his shoulders. This the faithless Savoy saw full well, but did not consider it the proper time to draw his threatened head out of the French noose, and he did not have the courage to declare openly for the Emperor.

Marshal Villeroi spent the winter in Cremona living care-free a life of pleasure and luxury. The three princes had long since heard of his promise to make them dance in Paris. They may have thought that it would be a good idea to make him dance in Vienna. These were amusing thoughts to while away the dreary hours of camp life, but were at first vague and without definite purpose. They would have liked best to take the whole nest, Cremona, with its rare bird. But just now there was no time; and besides this, all the means for a complete siege were lacking, although the desire for it grew greater from day to day.

One of the three, Prince Commercy, was a cunning fellow; when he had made up his mind to a thing it was not easy to dissuade him. He was the one who had been most annoyed by Villeroi's promise to the Parisians. He now concocted a plot, splendid in its way, which I shall describe to you. Field-Marshal Prince Commercy was already acquainted in Cremona from earlier times. A priest who lived there had been a companion of his student days at the University. They exchanged confidential letters, and one word led to another. Through this priest (Antonio Cosoli was his name) he learned casually that an old empty canal, which had been unnoticed by the French forces, intersected the fortifications and was connected with the cellar of the house owned by Father Cosoli. This fell in nicely with Commercy's plan. He immediately communicated the discovery to Prince Eugene, who took this opportunity of introducing his soldiers into the town, so that he might perhaps gain possession of it. He knew that the gates were not well guarded, and that there were even no sentries on the walls; all of which favored his undertaking.

On a pitch dark January night, whose terrors were augmented by a storm of wind and rain, the troops which Eugene had selected for this surprise broke camp. There were grenadiers, cuirassiers, and hussars, altogether about four thousand men. Another somewhat smaller band was guided along the Po by Prince Vaudemont, to take the bridge by storm and enter the town by way of the river. Eugene, Commercy, and Starhemberg rode on ahead of their troops to a house about two thousand yards from Cremona. The troops should have arrived there at two o'clock in the morning, but were delayed until about five o'clock by the heavy rains and muddy roads. Major Hofman of the Geschwind regiment, led by a trusty guide, stole with his grenadiers through the long canal scarcely two feet broad, which had until this time served only as a refuge for the rats. He had orders to remain concealed in the priest's house until Colonel Count Nasary of the Lorraine regiment and Lieutenant-Colonel Count Knefstein of the Hebenstein regiment could likewise penetrate into the town by the same means. Hofman was to overcome the guard at the Margaret Gate as quietly as possible, to open the gate, and then by means of three columns of fire on the walls, to give the signal for the advance of the troops out-side. Lieutenant-Colonel Count Mercy was commanded then to enter the city, gallop to the Po Gate, and open it for Vaudemont.

The plan succeeded perfectly. The French guard was overcome and the gate opened. In full gallop with drawn sabres the German cavalry dashed through the streets to the appointed places. The infantry took the important posts, and Eugene with his staff betook himself to the court-house, to direct the further movements of the troops from there. There was but one more thing to do: it was necessary to hold themselves on the defensive until Prince Vaudemont had surprised the bridge, to throw open the gates for him, and then with united forces to compel the enemy to surrender or to annihilate them.

Marshal Villeroi had returned in the evening from Milan, where he had doubtless eaten and drunk well, and he was now sleeping like a dormouse. It was not until seven o'clock in the morning that a few musket shots were heard near his quarters. Drunk with sleep, the Frenchman turned over in bed. A lackey broke into his room with the terrible cry, "The Germans are in the city!"

You should have seen the Marshal jump up then! He was in great haste! He quickly threw on some clothes and sprang upon his horse. Too late! At that moment German soldiers saw him and pulled him down. They squabbled over him, for they suspected a lucky catch and each wanted to claim him. Just then an officer, the Irishman MacDonald, threw himself upon the struggling soldiers and freed Villeroi from his painful predicament. The Marshal offered him ten thousand pistoles and a regiment in the French army, if he would allow him to escape. Now for the first time the Irishman perceived what a rare bird he had in his snare, but the loyal fellow refused these brilliant offers and led his captive to headquarters.

Starhemberg recognized Villeroi immediately, received his sword, and then sent him to Prince Eugene. In spite of the seriousness of the situation it must have been a merry meeting. The spectacular drama "three dancing princes" had come to naught, and the Parisians would have to forego this promised pleasure. Instead Marshal Villeroi was marched away to Ustiano.

In the meantime the shooting, drumming, and shouting in Cremona had grown so loud that the French realized what had happened. One of their officers, who was just about to lead his battalion to the parade ground, threw himself heroically on the Germans and so gave his countrymen time to assemble. In spite of this, they would have been conquered if Prince Baudemont had arrived from the Po Gate, which Count Mercy had opened for him. But here a very desperate fight had taken place. Two Irish regiments in the French service had attacked brave Mercy, taken him prisoner, and burned the bridge over the Po, thus preventing Vaudemont from crossing the river.

The French had now retired into the houses and from thence kept up a well-directed fire on the Austrians. Hour after hour the battle wavered; the Austrians began to run short of ammunition. Besides this, Eugene was afraid of being cut off from his line of retreat by General Crequi, who was probably marching toward Cremona. Therefore at five o'clock in the afternoon, as twilight began to fall, he gave orders to evacuate the city. He took with him as prisoners nineteen officers, four hundred soldiers, seven standards, and five hundred horses. Besides this, the French lost twelve hundred dead and wounded in the streets of the city, while the Emperor's troops lost only six hundred. Marshal de Villeroi was taken to Graz, where he was held for nine months and well treated, then exchanged without any ransom for a Count Waldstein, who had been taken by the French at Carpi. The French proclaimed Eugene's retreat from Cremona as a victory for themselves and composed couplets in which they congratulated themselves on having held Cremona and having lost Villeroi.

The French King now appointed Duke Louis of Vendome in Villeroi's place. Louis and Eugene had formerly been playmates. Both had had an honorable career and were now to play at the terrible game of war as opponents. They appreciated one another's talents also; at least Eugene frankly said that Vendome was a formidable antagonist.

But the game was now quite a different one. Vendome's army, through new accessions, numbered nearly eighty thousand; Eugene had, as before, his thirty thousand. How was it possible to achieve success, as Vendome was constantly on the alert and was determined to make good the mistakes of his predecessors, Catinat and Villeroi? Besides this, Eugene's army began to need money, arms, and clothing. The Council-of-War in Vienna replied to his urgent demands only with embarrassed shrugs. The old president of the council, Ehren-Starhemberg, had passed away, and the other gentlemen were perhaps not so well disposed toward the young Field-Marshal, who had been promoted so rapidly. Therefore it was all the more necessary that Eugene should keep cool and take every possible precaution. But one must have the means to execute as well as the brain to plan, in order to be successful. And the means were now sadly lacking, so that Eugene was obliged to keep very quiet and avoid an engagement for the present, that the enemy might not have an opportunity of destroying him; for the Frenchman was very anxious to distinguish himself by a brilliant coup. And now Eugene conceived a clever plan. Should it succeed, it would be something to capture Vendome, even if he could not cripple his army. Through a loyal Piedmontese, Eugene had learned that Vendome occupied a house which stood quite alone on the Lake of Mantua. It should be an easy task to approach by water, to surprise the Marshal and carry him off in a boat to the opposite shore into Eugene's camp. He lost no time in carrying out this enterprise. On a mild June night twelve boats carrying two hundred picked men under Marquis Daria were launched. They moved cautiously and silently forward. On arriving, Daria disembarked with a few soldiers and called out to the sentry that he had brought some sick Frenchmen from Mantua. Instead of beating down the sentry, as had been commanded, one of the soldiers with unpardonable zeal fired upon him, and the comrades who had remained behind in the boats also began firing. This made such a terrific uproar that Daria thought it best to retire as quickly as possible.

Thus unfortunately, this attempt, which with a little more caution might have turned out so well, failed. Eugene was highly indignant, caused a rigid investigation to be made, and the guilty ones were well punished. Vendome was so angry at the attempt to take him prisoner and send him to Vienna that he shelled the Austrian camp, but could not prevent Eugene from taking his revenge by surrounding Mantua with redoubts.

Soon after these events Eugene's army suffered a hard blow, due likewise to the great carelessness of the higher officers. Austrian cavalry had driven back the enemy to the Crostolo. At Santa Vittoria they took up a position which, on reconnoitring, Eugene found to be very insecure. He turned over the command of the cavalry to the master of ammunition, Count Auersperg, although he seemed to have a premonition of disaster. Auersperg conducted the affair with the most unpardonable carelessness, placed no sentries, and neglected every precaution. Of course disaster followed. Vendome took him by surprise, and so sudden and unexpected was the attack that the men did not even have time to seize their horses and mount. Now, too late, Auersperg sought to repair his mistakes. He rallied his soldiers about him and, scorning death, placed himself at their head and managed to drive the enemy back, and even to take some standards from them. The French infantry, however, advanced and commenced a murderous musketry fire, which the cavalry was not long able to endure. They turned for flight. Many tried to swim the Tassone, but were carried away by the current or found death on its marshy banks. A wild charge of the dragoon regiment, Herbeville, then drove back the enemy and rescued the scattered and fleeing comrades.

At eleven o'clock in the evening, Eugene learned of the unfortunate occurrence. He immediately took all precautions to prevent the enemy from making any further advance. Indeed he soon did still more: he retrieved this disaster by the battle at Luzzara on the Po, on the first of August, 1702. At that place Vendome occupied an excellent position protected by dams, moats, and barricades. The battle did not begin until nearly five o'clock in the afternoon. Twenty-four thousand Germans were opposed to fifty-three thousand Frenchmen.

Eugene's army was divided into two columns, one of them led by Starhemberg, the other by Field-Marshal Prince de Commercy. The latter opened the battle. His soldiers threw themselves upon the enemy from a dam, behind which they had been concealed, and were received with a terrible hail of shot. On horseback, within sight of all his men, Commercy remained in the thick of the fight. Suddenly—hit by two balls at once—the hero fell from his horse, dead. His men hesitated and gave way. This made a dangerous breach. But Eugene's keen eye guided the battle. Two imperial regiments and the Danes hurried up to their support. Backward and forward surged the battle. Success seemed out of the question. Then Eugene himself came dashing up. With that bold disregard of death which was characteristic of the hero, he put himself at the head of his men and led them forward once more. In a solid column the battalions advanced. Nothing could restrain their heroic ardor. They climbed the dike and threw the enemy back on their camp.

On the left wing of the imperial army, commanded by Starhemberg, the fighting was even more bitter. Opposed to him was the flower of the French troops under Vendome's own leadership. With impetuous courage Starhemberg pushed forward. Nothing could withstand him. He drove the enemy before him in a rout. It seemed as though they were becoming demoralized; the French retreat looked like flight. In the zeal of the pursuit a wide gap was made in the ranks of the Austrians. As Eugene had done, Vendome now recognized the great danger to his right wing. He formed, from the reserves and several other regiments, a tremendous storming column, which he hurriedly threw upon the Starhemberg troops, who were already drunk with victory. He broke through their front ranks and forced the whole wing into a hurried retreat. Disaster was imminent and only timely and effective assistance could save the day. At the decisive moment Prince Vaudemont came rattling up with his heavy cavalry. This successful attack gave Starhemberg time to reform his regiments and to push on to a renewed assault. This took place with great effect, supported by the well-aimed fire of Borner's artillery. Although the French did their best to hold their ground—53,000 against 24,000—it was of no use, they were obliged to retire into their protected camp. Eugene's plan was to storm this immediately and drive out the French. But his regiments were so exhausted that the setting sun counselled both struggling parties to take a much needed rest.

The day at Luzzara placed a new leaf in Eugene's victor's wreath, although Vendome and later prejudiced historians would like so well to dispute this. The French celebrated the day as a victory, fired salutes and caused the bells to be rung in Cremona and Milan. In his quiet fashion Eugene comments upon this: "One should allow them to shout a little, as the innkeeper does his guests when they have settled their accounts." This comment of the General passed from mouth to mouth and described the situation perfectly. The fact was, however, that it was the Austrians who held possession of the battle-field, and even on the next day and the following ones Vendome contented himself with sending a cannon ball now and then among the Austrians. If he was not badly beaten at Luzzara, why did he not again attack Eugene and his handful of men? Why did he not follow up his victory?

For the present no new enterprises were undertaken in Italy. The Frenchmen lacked courage and the Austrians the money for them. In Eugene's own words: the want of everything was much greater than he could describe or one could believe who had not himself seen it; and in the war office in Vienna there were words but no funds, which are the sinews of war.