What military battle was a mistake

Austria was once very big, today it is no longer. The major European power became a small state that hardly plays a role either militarily or politically - a result of the First World War, in which the Austro-Hungarian military suffered devastating defeats right from the start. The culprit was the pompous arrogance of the military commander Conrad von Hötzendorf. But there are also other examples in red-white-red military history in which serious mishaps and blatant misjudgments led to military disasters. Non-fiction author Hans-Dieter Otto describes in his recently published book ("Missed Siege", Residenz Verlag) examples of Austrian military commanders' mistakes. Otto came to military history through his own traumatic experiences: The lawyer experienced the bombing war and zero hour in Berlin in 1945: "For an eight-year-old it was like the end of the world."

SZ: Mr. Otto, have you found out in the meantime why the Austrian military has repeatedly botched battles that have long been won?

Hans-Dieter Otto: There are mainly two reasons. On the one hand, the Austrians had the bad luck a few times of meeting opposing generals who were among the greatest of their time and who were strategically and, above all, tactically superior to them. Friedrich II of Prussia was one. And Napoleon Bonaparte, the Emperor of the French, another.

And the second explanation?

It probably has something to do with the prevailing Austrian mentality at the time and the more relaxed way of life in general. Comfort, comfort, vanity: Generals and high officers tended to do this again and again. Her weak leadership was sometimes blatant. The common soldiers could fight so bravely. But the Austrians also achieved brilliant and glorious victories on the battlefield. And they also had excellent generals, such as Prince Eugene during the Turkish wars.

But he was actually French.

They weren't all whistles, there were a few other great strategists too. But it is true that many of the Austrian generals were more parlor than fighting lions, who shamefully failed in an emergency.

An example, please.

Field Marshal Lieutenant Karl Mack von Leiberich led the imperial army remarkably poorly in the autumn of 1805. With his wrong decisions he contributed significantly to the defeat at Ulm. His enemy intelligence was miserable. When he received news that Napoleon's troops were marching on Ulm from several directions in order to encircle the city and the main Austrian armed forces, Mack stayed in Ulm instead of withdrawing in time and saving his soldiers. Mack trusted reports launched by the French secret service that the English had landed at Boulogne, that a counter-revolution had broken out in Paris and that Napoleon would return home in a hurry. Now the outmaneuvered Austrians no longer had a chance. Mack had to surrender quickly. Tens of thousands of his soldiers and 26 generals were captured without firing a single shot.

What happened to mack?

Napoleon let him go as if he wasn't taking him seriously. In Vienna, Mack was brought before a court martial and sentenced to death. But the emperor pardoned him. After a few years, Mack was fully rehabilitated.

In which cases did the Austrians fail because of their comfort?

Take the battles between Austrians and Prussians like those of Leuthen in 1757 and Hohenfriedeberg in 1745. While Friedrich sat with his soldiers and spooned soup with them, the Austrian general Prince Karl made himself comfortable in a castle far away from the troops. He kept his distance because that was befitting. He asked messengers to report on the situation and then made decisions mostly on the basis of outdated information.

How did old Fritz do it?

Friedrich led the front. He had a much quicker and better overview and was therefore able to direct and react quickly. As with Leuthen, when shortly before the start of the battle he recognized a mistake in the formation of his troops and quickly reformed them in order to have a chance at all against the numerically far superior Austrians. In order to achieve a better attack position in a crooked battle order, he risked a daring, two-hour flank march in front of the enemy and right past him!

How did the Australian troop leaders react?

They actually believed that the Prussians had recognized the hopelessness of their situation and would withdraw to avoid a battle. Field Marshal Leopold von Daun's words to his officers have been handed down to us: "People pop (go), don't disturb them!"

What naivety!

Yes, as a result of a confidence bordering on arrogance! We have a third point as the reason for many of the Austrian missed victories. Sometimes, however, they had good reason to, because their troop strength often exceeded that of their opponents. Sometimes this exaggerated confidence in victory and the associated underestimation of the enemy also led to a fiasco, as in August / September 1914 in the case of the Austrian Chief of Staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf. He firmly believed that he could easily defeat the troops of the Russian tsar deployed in Galicia. So he started a hasty attack there before he had all of his divisions together. The Austro-Hungarian armed forces were unable to recover from the catastrophic defeat in the Battle of Lemberg throughout the First World War.

Was his arrogance fatal to another Austrian military leader?

Yes, in the Middle Ages. Duke Leopold III. von Habsburg wanted to punish renegade Swiss with his army and was defeated in 1386 near Sempach.

To what extent were the Swiss superior?

In terms of armament and military experience, they weren't. Most of them were Swiss farmers who had gathered in piles. They had no armor. Instead, they tied wooden tablets around their arms. They hardly had any weapons either, some only fought with a stick in their hand.

How were the Austrians prepared?

The Austrian knights were well armed and well trained. For them the whole thing was more of a punitive expedition. They did not expect any serious resistance, let alone a bloody battle. This carelessness was their undoing. On a steep mountain slope Leopold let the knights dismount from their horses. In doing so, he deprived her of a decisive advantage. Because on foot the knights in their heavy armor moved like lame ducks. The agile Swiss farmers attacked them and slaughtered them one by one.

At Königgrätz in 1866 the Prussians defeated the Austrians and their allies and thus sealed the supremacy of Berlin. You leave this battle unmentioned - because it does not belong to the "unnecessarily lost" category?

In fact, I thought about taking Königgrätz with me too. But there were some important reasons against it. The speed and mobility of the Prussian troop units as well as the superior Prussian weapon technology in the form of the modern needle rifle made it impossible to see this defeat of the Austrians as a "missed victory".