In praise of the thin white line | Culture

The Austrian army? Bah, those losers, "many people will say, looking with disdain at the Habsburg troops, historically characterized by the white uniform of their infantry (yes, the thin white line). Talleyrand already sentenced that "L'Autriche a la facheuse habitude d'être toujours battue" (Austria has the annoying habit of always being defeated). But it is a mistake to belittle the Austrians. Napoleon himself, who defeated them so many times, emphasized his tenacity and his adaptability (the famous Anpassungsfähigkreit,if a thing with that name can be famous). "Did not you see the Austrians in Aspern?" He snapped at his cutesy Murat, "So you have not seen anything! Nothing!" Jo, and said the fierce Corsican who beat them so much in Austerlitz. In fact, Napoleon underestimated them until Wagram, where they taught him a hard lesson about what courage was. Since then, if I heard some young officer chulesco populated poppers and tight pants with much mise en scène despising the Austrian armies interrupted him sharply: "It is clear that you were not with me at Wagram."

Richard Bassetts tells it - which will be remembered for his splendid and illuminating biography of Admiral Canaris (Critic, 2006) - in what is possibly the definitive book about the Austrian imperial army, and it is without doubt a delightful read, full of anecdotes, adventures and sensational characters: By God and by the Kaiser (Desperta Ferro, 2018).

"From the first pages, from the chapter on the second siege of Vienna with its tenuous references to the winged hussars of King Sobieski, I have been thinking about you," Joan B. Culla, a great admirer of the book, told me. "Luckily, we will always have our common heroes (by the way, what kind Gottfried von Banfield, the Austrian air ace!)". How nice it is to be remembered for the winged riders of Sobieski and how solid are the friendships based on the readings, the aviators and the hussars. Always, we will always have the hussars.

A member of a historical reconstruction group characterized by Austro-Hungarian Hussar.
A member of a historical reconstruction group characterized by Austro-Hungarian Hussar.

Culla would have liked it especially For God and for the Kaiser, apart from the parade of dragons, cuirassiers, lancers, irregular panduros, grenadiers and jäger, by how he describes the bobbin lace that was amalgamating troops and nations (20) so different in the kaiserlich und königlich, k. (u.) k., the Imperial and Royal army of Francisco José, the last stage, in which, by the way, the white coat was lost, a color that had no place in the battlefields of the late nineteenth century, although until 1918 many of the the colorful tones (28 of red, blue and gray) of the Farbkastel (Faber-Castell!), the colored box, of the Habsburg army. And he will also have been delighted by the attention to the intense relationship of the Jews with the army, from the decisive participation of Samuel Oppenheimer, the only remaining Jew in Vienna, in the salvation of the city in 1683 before the Janissaries of Kara Mustafá, even the absence of anti-Semitic attitudes in the Austro-Hungarian officiality

Bassetts is a historian like a pine tree but also one of our own (he likes to visit battlefields and collect lead soldiers) and takes us through the stormy and complex history of the Austrian army (Teresian and Josefinian reforms, wars against Prussia, Napoleonic, Italy, World War I ...) sowing candy. It is not difficult: it is the army of The Radetzky March, by Joseph Roth, and The king of the two Sicilies, of Kusniewicz, and in which militated, like officer of cavalry (11º of hussars) and aviator Count Almásy, future explorer of the desert.

It is a pleasure how Bassetts stops to explain to us the history of the Austrian ulano uniform lent by General Koller to the imprisoned Napoleon to camouflage himself and avoid the wrath of the crowd on the way to Elba; the adventure of the Austrian contingent in the 55 days in Beijing (the siege of the delegations by the Boxers), the adventures of the spy colonel Redl, the adulterous relationship of Radetzky with his Italian housekeeper Giudita Meregalli, who gave him eight children and one Cotoletta alla Milanese of yummy, or that the painter Oskar Kokoschka fought in the regiment of dragons No. 15 (Erzherzog Joseph, light blue warrior, red breeches, golden helmet: what a way to go against the Russians!). He also tells us, as Culla points out, the story of Von Banfield, the handsome pilot of seaplanes, like my grandfather, although he, thank God, did not bomb Venice: my sister Graziella would never have been forgiven.

The Austrian ace Von Banfiel in his Lohner seaplane Type L.
The Austrian ace Von Banfiel in his Lohner seaplane Type L.

Bassett explains in his book that he got to know Von Banfield, a name that is quite an explosive onomatopoeia, in Sad at the end of the seventies, and to establish friendship with the old ace naval (9 confirmed victories), the last surviving holder of the Order Militar de María Teresa and the last living man who had been personally decorated by the Emperor Francisco José. They had good times.

The historian demonstrates in For God and for the Kaiser (the Austrian war cry) that the reputation of incompetence of the Habsburg army has no justification. What happens is that he never risked everything or anything (which allowed him to fight again), and that because he could not afford it: he was the guarantor of the dynasty, a solid bond created since the imperial cuirassiers of Dampierre saved the archduke Fernando of his enemies in June 1619, earning in passing the right to gallop through the Hofburg by blowing his trumpets and banners unfurled ... It is no longer, says Bassett no soldier of that army who saw the centuries. The last one who served in their ranks, in which people as varied (and some as little martial) as Wittgenstein, Schrödinger, Adolf Loos or Rilke (not to mention the fictitious Trotta, Emil R. or Herbert Menis) The banner de Lernet-Holenia), died more than a hundred years ago in 2008. But it is a pleasure to sit down now, open the pages of this splendid book and see again the columns of old soldiers march through history, towards the inevitable twilight.


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