Monday, December 13, 2010

Birthday Greetings #20

Happy birthday to Field Marshal Svetozar Boreovic von Bojna. With a name like that he can only be a Habsburg army general. He was in fact one of the most capable commanders the Habsburgs possessed in the First World War. It is a testimony to the heterogenous nature of the Habsburg officer corps that this hero of the empire was actually a Croatian born Serb. He came of Grenzer stock, the irregular soldier/farmers who had guarded the Habsburgs southern borders with the Ottoman empire in days gone by. His father had served as a corporal in one of the border regiments and after long service was rewarded with promotion to leutnant.

Boreovic joined the Croatian National Guard (then part of the Hungarian reserve forces known as the Honved) serving first in the ranks but gaining rapid promotion to leutnant. Thereafter a combination of military study and good service propelled him up the ranks. He served in the Habsburg occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (far from a bloodless affair) and garnered medals and commendations for his performance. As a major general he was ennobled taking "von Bojna" as his predicate.

The start of the First World War saw him commanding the VI Corps of the Imperial and Royal Army which he led against the Russians as part of the Fourth Army. In a disastrous campaign Boreovic's performance was one of the few bright sparks and he rapidly gained a reputation as a skillful and very tough general. A ruthless disciplinarian, he drove his men unmercifully but at the same time attempted to weed out incompetents from the ranks of his junior officers. Sadly he could do little about the incompetents above him.

Boreovic's moment of glory came when Italy declared war on the Habsburg empire in 1915. The forces guarding the Italian border were barely worth the name and Boreovic was transferred there with a handful of exhausted units from the Russian front. If the Italians had attacked immediately they could hardly have failed to be successful but they mobilised slowly and refused to launch a full scale attack until they had brought up their full force. This gave Boreovic enough time (just) to prepare a defence. Over the next two years the Italians would hammer at his defences, always with superiority in numbers and firepower but the Boreovic's army held them back.

Admittedly he was lucky. While the soldiers of the Habsburg army were indifferent to fighting the Serbs and appalled at fighting the Russians even the most unreliable nationalities were quite eager to fight the Italians. The German High Command which had an understandably low opinion of their Habsburg ally always added the qualification "except against the Italians". Part of the reason was that Italy coveted Slovenia and large parts of Croatia and had gone to war to get them. The Slovenes and Croats might not have been crazy about their imperial overlord but there was no way they wanted to swap him for the Italians.

After eleven battles along and around the Isonzo river Boreovic dialled in German assistance and went on the offensive driving the Italians almost back to Venice. This was an impressive achievement but it concealed weakness. Boreovic had gone on the offensive because he doubted the ability of his troops to survive another defensive battle. After four years of war the Habsburg empire could barely feed its soldiers and the troops that marched victoriously after the Italians were hungry, ragged and not a little desperate. The Italians managed to stabilise their lines and the offensive came to a halt. An attempt in 1918 to launch another attack was an even more desperate throw of the dice and after some successes it was called off in the face of more effective Italian resistance.

While Boreovic fought the Italians the empire he served was falling to bits; when the Italians launched their last offensive the empire had already dissolved. Boreovic pulled back with what troops he could save but most went into Italian captivity. His final act was to offer to lead his remaining troops on Vienna to crush the revolutionaries and save the emperor's throne. Emperor Karl, who could read the writing on the wall, refused. After the war Boreovic tried to go home, offering his services to the new Yugoslav government but they refused to accept him and by offering he had invalided the pension he was entitled to from the Austrian government. He was rather surprised that the only field marshal the Southern Slav peoples of the empire had produced was not welcome in Yugoslavia but the answer is probably that he was too much the Kaisertreu Habsburg officer. Loyal to his oath to the emperor and indifferent to nationality it is likely that he was an object of suspicion for one of the empire's successor states.

He settled in Carinthia in Austria which was as close to Croatia as he could get and died in relative poverty in 1920. It is pleasing to note that he was interred in Vienna at the expense of ex-emperor Karl who picked up the tab for his burial.

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