Blog 3: Hungary's only military genius

Hungary’s only military genius

General Artúr Görgey’s battles against Austria, Russia, and his boss, Lajos Kossuth

Part 1, the Winter Campaign

Görgey was the most prominent general during the Hungarian War of Independence of 1848-49. His leadership as commander of the Army of the Upper Danube during the Winter Campaign, and as commander in chief during the victorious Spring Campaign saved the revolutionary cause and rattled the very foundations of Europe. He is the best military leader Hungary has ever produced, displaying a set of skills commonly associated with the likes of Hannibal of Carthage and Napoleon Bonaparte. This piece is part one of a trilogy dedicated to his military exploits.

The only military genius

As a nation that hasn’t waged a winning war in the last 530 years (the last victory came in 1487 by Matthias Corvinus’s famous Black Army), Hungary isn’t exactly known for its military might. However, even this half-millennium of heroic and unheroic defeats saw moments of strategic brilliance, individual courage, and respect towards enemies that merit the country at least a page in the great book of modern military history.

Görgey should be on the front and center of that page. Trained as a chemist and as a hussar, he rose to become supreme commander of the armies of an entire nation at the age of 30. He made complete fools of the Austrian Imperial Army, evicting it from Hungarian territory with a force that was inferior in numbers, artillery pieces, and training. When Russia allied itself with Austria, he fought the two great powers against impossible odds, escaping encirclement and beating back the enemy countless times, topping off his achievements by going circles around the armies of the Russian juggernaut, much to the Tsar's annoyance.

The general military situation on the other fronts of the war, as well as his own hopeless situation forced him to finally surrender to the Russians. His ongoing rivalries with fellow officers and politicians, especially with Governor-President Lajos Kossuth, saw him painted as a scapegoat for the defeat of the revolution. For 150 years, he held the reputation of Judas of Hungary.

Recent efforts by historians allow us to reach a much more favorable verdict, with some even calling him the Napoleon of Hungary, a claim that some may find outlandish. What can't be disputed is that, at a time when the strength of a nation depended on its politicians and its generals, him and Kossuth were both crucial elements in forging the basis of Hungarian identity. Their combined efforts weren’t enough to win the war, but they built a nation for a country that hasn’t existed since 1526, and wouldn't exist until 1920. As poet-historian Pál Gyulai wrote:

Hogy nyomorultan el nem vesztünk, That we did not perish in our misery,

S két szörnyü vészt kibirhatánk, That we survived two great perils,

És nemzetűl nagyobbá lettünk, And grew greater as a nation,

Győzőn, legyőzve egyaránt: In victory, and in defeat:

Köszönjük Kossuth lángszavának, We owe the fiery words of Kossuth,

És Görgei erős kardjának. And the strong sword of Görgei.

With Görgey in charge Hungary's armies won victories against impossible odds before their dignified surrender: a fine origin story for a nation. To this day for many Hungarians the glorious fight for the right of existence against the powers of the world, protecting our values and our traditions of brilliance -- be it in sports, sciences, or arts -- from our greedy neighbors is still a reality. For better or for worse, Görgey's own brilliance helped shape this reality.

September 29-December 14: The rising star of Görgey

Early 1848 is known as the Springtime of Nations, the largest revolutionary wave in all of Europe. The Empire of Austria was particularly affected, facing revolts in Vienna, Pest, and Northern Italy. The Habsburgs elected to compromise with the Hungarian revolutionaries of March 15, essentially providing them autonomy while they were busy dealing with the uprisings in the German-speaking parts. Sustained autonomy has never been their intention, however, and by the summer of 1848 the revolutionary government at Pest, and the Viennese court were openly hostile to each other.

While sporadic fighting has been going on since July 1848 against Serbian insurgents, the War of Hungarian Independence truly broke out when the Ban of Croatia, Josip Jelačić invaded Hungary on September 11th, 1848. He was acting on orders from Emperor Ferdinand to dismiss the revolutionary government and restore order. During this time Görgey was merely a captain of the reserves, and had no ambitions at all for leadership.

He had been a trained officer, but he abandoned the Hungarian Noble Guard of the Emperor in Vienna to study chemistry in 1845. He had a very distinguished and promising early career in Prague before joining the cause of the Hungarian revolution in spring 1848.

He was tasked with monitoring pro-Habsburg sentiment in the hinterland. He may very well have stayed in obscurity were it not for a chance event. On September 29, the day when Jelačić’s offensive was halted in the Battle of Pákozd, he captured a pro-Habsburg Hungarian noble, Count Ödön Zichy who acted as informant and courier for the Croatians. Görgey charged him with treason and had him hanged, an action that put him on Kossuth’s radar in a favorable way.

The President-Governor promoted Görgey to the rank of major and placed him under the command of Colonel Perczel in frontline duty. The reserves were ordered to screen the right flank of the Croatian army, composed of 10000 militiamen and led by General Roth. Perczel and Görgey had only about 3000 reservists. However, Jelačić’s invasion and quick defeat filled the country with revolutionary fervor, and more than 15000 Hungarian insurrectionists rose up under the command of Major Csapó around the Croats. Görgey, ignoring the orders of the inexperienced and incompetent Perczel moved on Roth, and along with Csapó’s troops forced the surrender of the whole Croatian army at Ozora on October 7.

Perczel, Görgey, and Csapó were all promoted, and a bitter rivalry formed between Perczel and Görgey. On October 6 the people of Vienna rose up for a second time in one year, causing Emperor Ferdinand to flee. The Hungarian main army under General Móga chased Jelačić to the Austrian border but stopped short of coming to the Viennese rebels’ aid. The Austrian army surrounding Vienna was stronger than the Hungarians, but the Viennese were sympathetic to the Hungarian cause and they badly needed help. This was a time of hesitation and confusion for Hungary as it was fighting the Habsburgs by proxy, but was not officially at war with Austria.

On October 26th the Austrian army under General Windisch-Grätz began the bombardment of Vienna and Kossuth begged Móga and his officers to relieve the city. His call was answered by an enthusiastic Görgey upon which Kossuth offered him command of the whole army which Görgey refused. On October 30 Móga moved on Windisch-Grätz but lost the Battle of Schwechat, the first major battle of the war between Austrian and Hungarian forces.

Görgey fought in the vanguard in that battle with some success, but at the first sound of Austrian gunfire the Hungarian insurrectionist and reserve infantry routed, forcing the whole army to withdraw. The next day, the Austrians stormed the city and crushed the uprising. On November 1st, Móga was relieved, and Görgey was named general by Kossuth and given command of the Hungarian army.

December 14-January 5: Giving up ground

Schwechat was a military defeat but a political victory for Kossuth, as the imminent Austrian attack allowed him to frame his bid for total independence from Austria as defending the newly won Hungarian autonomy. He ordered Görgey to maintain a static defensive position along the Leitha, hoping that keeping the Austrians off Hungarian territory long enough would provoke enough international support to force the Emperor to the negotiating table.

Görgey, however, having seen the Hungarian insurrectionist infantry run from battle knew that holding off the enemy on the level ground of Western Hungary was an impossibility. When Windisch-Grätz finally attacked on December 14, Görgey went against Kossuth's wishes and withdrew towards the Vértes-hills. By doing so he started a rivalry that would define every subsequent analysis of the war and would last throughout their lifetimes. Having spent most of his life in Prague and Vienna, he knew little about Hungary’s geographic conditions, so when Kossuth – still insisting on armed resistance – passionately assured him that the passes of the Vértes had been adequately fortified against the Austrians, he prepared to make his stand there. However, upon inspection, he found no traces of any defensive work – the precious few palisades that had been planted by volunteers were chopped up by his oblivious troops who mistook it for prepared firewood. He was also surprised to meet the total lack of the mountain passes that Kossuth spoke volumes of, as Vértes is actually a range barely 200m taller than the Little Hungarian Plain with a notable lack of any steep slopes, or natural chokepoints to speak of. The retreat continued, with the Austrians slowly closing in on the twin capitals of Pest-Buda.

Hungary’s terrain and soldiers provided major difficulties for Görgey, but they were dwarfed by the challenge his fellow officers presented him. General Perczel, his former superior and rival, who commanded what was supposed to be his reinforcements, ignored Görgey’s orders at Kossuth’s encouragement to engage the Austrians. Perczel’s troops were crushed at the Battle of Mór, losing over one-third of their strength of 6500, and retreating to the east, while their leader fled to the opposite direction. In addition to suffering the worst defeat of the war so far and essentially forcing Görgey to personally chase down his routing troops and get them back in line, Perczel – when he finally showed up in Görgey’s camp, days after the battle – had the capacity in him to call his blunder a great victory, stating “It will be a long time before the enemy recovers from the blow I dealt him”.

The enemy army continued its advance without any delay, with 55000 troops to Görgey’s 28000. In such conditions and after much arguing he convinced Kossuth to abandon the capitals and establish a new base beyond the Tisza river, around the city of Debrecen. With the government safely tucked away in the east and Kossuth busy with recruiting for the army, Görgey, for the first time, was free to devise his plans without much interference.

Above is a map of the main movements and major battles of Hungarian (red) and Austrian (blue) forces between September 11, 1848, and February 27, 1849. Red dots denote the capital cities of Vienna (Bécs), Pest-Buda (today's Budapest), and Debrecen. Shaded areas indicate the operational areas of Slovak, Serbian, and Romanian insurrectionists.

January 5-February 5: Across the Carpathians

Instead of retreating east as well, on January 5th he struck out north from Pest-Buda with 16000 men, across the Carpathians and deep into Upper Hungary. This move achieved four things at once: 1) it immobilized Windisch-Grätz’s army in Pest-Buda as he could only follow him by giving up the capitals and could attack Debrecen only by exposing Pressburg and Vienna 2) it gave Görgey the option to harass and delay the Austrian forces besieging Leopoldstadt and Komárom, 3) it prevented two Austrian army corps, attacking from Moravia and Galicia, respectively, from joining the main forces of Windisch-Grätz at Pest-Buda, and 4) it prevented the loss of the rich mining towns of Upper Hungary.

Needless to say, this strategy involved the considerable risk of losing the entire army. Not only did Görgey have to maneuver his way around three Austrian armies, he had to do so with an undersupplied, inexperienced, and demoralized force, and he had to do it in the harsh winter conditions of the Tatras. The enemy, also slowed by the snow, and confused by Görgey’s maneuvering didn’t press the issue, and therefore, with a healthy dose of luck, the Army of the Upper Danube avoided encirclement. Görgey forayed west to relieve Leopoldstadt but was turned back by the left flank of the main Austrian army under General Simunich. Leopoldstadt held out until February, pinning down Simunich’s forces for over a month and allowing Görgey to reach the mining towns of Selmec, Beszterce, and Körmöc (today’s Štiavnica, Bystrica, and Kremnica) in the middle of January.

Here the army was allowed a few days respite that Görgey used to replenish and resupply his forces which now included a considerable number of Slovaks. An Austrian detachment under Götz entered the fray from Moravia but was repulsed. This victory was offset when another Austrian force, arriving from the south and led by General Csorich stumbled into Görgey’s rearguard on January 21. Once again, the Hungarians and Slovaks routed, with Görgey narrowly escaping with his life as he fruitlessly attempted to restore order and defend an abandoned artillery piece by himself. Refusing to run away, he had to be carried away from battle by his hussars. After the battle Görgey threatened to decimate his men, and although he backed down from this idea upon seeing the sorry state of his troops, this was the point where he developed his reputation as a ruthless and unrelenting leader. His men loved him, but feared him more than they feared their enemies. As an officer who served with him in the Tatras wrote “I was afraid of him more than from a whole Austrian army, when he rode towards me, looking at me through his glasses”. Never again would Görgey’s men run away from battle.

After the defeat at the mining towns Görgey’s forces retreated east. The speed of the retreat put some distance between them and Csorich, but the Hungarians were now stuck between the ranges of the High Tatras, and the only exit available for them was blocked by a Galician detachment under Deym. On February 4th, the army’s luck seemed to have run out. The Austrians held the high ground at the Branyiszkó-pass, and with every passing hour Csorich’s men from the west, and a Galician army corps under General Schlick were getting closer to finally bottle up the tired Hungarians. Görgey dispatched two of his most inexperienced battalions, the Hungarian 13th and 33th who have distinguished themselves mainly being the first ones to run from the mining towns, as well as a rookie Slovak battalion. The detachment was led by Richárd Guyon, who led his troops into battle with the immortalized words: “Vorwärts dupla lénung, rückwärts kartács schiessen”. This sentence, spoken in broken Hungaro-German, and meaning “forward, double wages, backward, canister fire”, should very well be the motto of the newly formed Hungarian army.

The first charge was unsuccessful, and Guyon made good on his word, restoring discipline by turning his cannons on his retreating men. Pushed to their limits, the 13th, 33th, and the Slovaks broke through in the second charge, routing the Austrians. The Hungarians lost 150 men, the Austrians, 800. The way towards Debrecen, and towards the rest of the Hungarian armies, was clear.

While Branyiszkó was one of the minor battles of the war, it was a turning point in many ways. With the way to the east open, Görgey’s forces escaped encirclement. Occupying Branyiszkó allowed them to bottle up Csorich and Götz who quickly turned back the way they came. Moreover, the tables were also turned for General Schlick, who found himself pinned between Görgey’s Army of the Upper Danube, and General Klapka’s Army of the Tisza. Even more importantly, Branyiszkó finally ended two months of shameful retreats and narrow escapes, forging what was to be the backbone of the Revolutionary Army of Hungary. The time won by Görgey’s winter maneuver also allowed the government to recruit, and soon, the whole eastern part of the country was up in arms. Once Görgey arrived into the Great Hungarian Plain with his loot brought in from the mining towns and his 16000 troops, Hungary had roughly 50000 men, Hungarians, Slovaks, Poles, and Italians between Kassa (Kosice) and Debrecen. Everything was set for the successful capture of Schlick’s surrounded army corps and the counterattack against Windisch-Grätz’s main army.

Above is a detailed map of the Winter Campaign detailing the events between Windisch-Grätz's offensive on December 14, 1848, and the Battle of Kápolna on February 26-27, 1849. In my essay, Pozsony and Lipótvár are referred to by their German names, Pressburg, and Leopoldstadt.

February 5-March 3: Kápolna, mutiny, and the permanent interregnum of Görgey

Kossuth, on the other hand, had different ideas. His achievements in recruiting and outfitting the new revolutionary army notwithstanding, his continued meddling with the army’s goals and leadership led to further setbacks. He named Henryk Dembiński, a hero of the Polish-Russian war of 1830-31 living in exile, as commander in chief of the main Hungarian army amassed along the Tisza river. Some Hungarian officers protested, but Görgey ordered them to fall in line and follow orders.

Dembiński’s plan was to lure Windisch-Grätz out of his winter quarters at Pest-Buda by forcing him to relieve Schlick’s men, then concentrate all of his forces in a decisive battle between Eger and Mezőkövesd. Or at least this was Görgey’s optimistic reading of his actions and the events that led up to the Battle of Kápolna in hindsight. At the time, no one knew what was happening. Dembiński was a secretive, and vain leader, refusing to share his plans with any of his staff that created major distrust between him and his subordinates, and a general confusion in the army. He divided the main army into four corps, I., II., III., and VII. He did so without respecting the existing system, hence units that had been fighting together so far found themselves separated from each other. Görgey was selected for command of one of the army corps, as was Klapka who made a name for himself fighting Schlick.

Dembiński refused any initiative from Klapka and Görgey’s army corps against Schlick’s forces, as he needed time to set up his trap against the Austrian main army. At a crucial moment he threatened Klapka with court-martial if he refused to back down from moving on Schlick. A successful attack could have removed the best Austrian leader from the war, along with his 10000 Galician troops. Klapka acquiesced, and Schlick slipped away, making his way towards Windisch-Grätz who was already on his way to relieve him.

Schlick’s narrow escape forced Dembiński to advance his timetable and accept battle with the main Austrian army – which now included the experienced Galician corps. The Hungarian army was out of position, however, and therefore had no chance to win the ensuing Battle of Kápolna on February 26-27. While the battle was lost, the notoriously careful Windisch-Grätz failed to capitalize on his success, and Schlick’s own initiative to chase the retreating Hungarians was beaten back by Görgey’s fresh VII. corps – which was positioned too far away to participate at Kápolna – at Mezőkövesd on February 28.

Defeat at Kápolna, a lack of trust in Dembiński, as well as a lack of proper supplies led to mutiny by the Hungarian officers. When confronted by his subordinates, Dembiński flew into a rage, then into a hissy-fit, demanding from Kossuth to arrive to the scene and restore order. The following few days saw Görgey arresting Dembiński and declared supreme commander by the main army’s generals, then Kossuth arresting Görgey before promptly releasing him upon realizing how popular he has become with both the officers and the soldiers.

Kossuth, as everyone else at this point, Hungarian or Austrian, feared Görgey and he did not wish to see him as supreme commander, but ultimately, compromised, sacking Dembiński. Görgey was put in charge temporarily, until a replacement could be found. This replacement turned out to be General Vetter, who could never assume his post due to his old age and illness, and Görgey wore the title of temporary commander in chief for the rest of the war.

It was time to, as Görgey puts it in his memoirs, “finally get to work”.

(To be continued in part 2)

December 10, 2017.

A number of caveats are in order:

  1. There are two spellings of Görgey’s name, the other one is Görgei. He was born as Görgey, but during the war he signed his letters as Görgei. Replacing y with i was one of the common ways for nobles to try to make their names seem “more Hungarian”. As a fellow Hungarian with a foreign-seeming name I prefer the Görgey spelling. In an earlier version of this post, I erroneously wrote that he changed his signature back to the y spelling, that was done by his biographers.
  2. During this time in the war, the Hungarians were not fighting for independence, but for more extensive autonomy under Habsburg rule. Most officers, including Görgey, didn’t want to create an independent Hungary. It's unclear whether even Kossuth himself really wanted to do so.
  3. For simplicity I refer to the opponents of the war as Hungarians and Austrians, but the armies were extremely diverse. It’s fair to say that the Habsburgs had friends and enemies in every nationality of the Empire. The rebel army mostly consisted of Hungarians, Poles, Italians, Slovaks, and Germans. The armies fighting for the Habsburgs mostly comprised Austrians, Czechs, and Croats, and were supported by Slovak, Serbian, and Romanian insurrectionist militias who did little fighting but lots of pillaging (the same was mostly true for Hungarian militias). Initially, the armies on both sides were instructed in German, and much of the correspondence between Hungarian officers (many of whom didn't even speak Hungarian) was also in German.

Sources and links (in Hungarian).

Comments should be addressed at peter.bayer7@gmail.com.