Small Wars Journal

“In the Service of Humanity and Civilization”? The Austro-Hungarian Occupation of Bosnia and Hercegovina (1878)

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Abstract: At the Congress of Berlin in 1878, Austria-Hungary was given responsibility to “occupy and administer” the Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Hercegovina. From July 29, 1878, on, about 70, 000 troops were deployed to the occupation territory – Habsburg officials did not foresee the resistance that was to be put up against this move by Muslim and Orthodox fighters. This article aims at giving readers an impression of the manifold nature of combat operations taking place between August and the end of October 1878 that ranged from irregular (ambushes. etc.) to linear (trench) warfare and also mirrored the ambivalent attitude of Austro-Hungarian soldiers towards the local population.

During the second half of the 19th century, stability in southeastern Europe was challenged by newly emerging nation-states as well as the decay of the Ottoman Empire. After the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78), Russia dictated the Peace of San Stefano that would have served “as the basis for its domination in the Balkans”[1]. Because other European powers could not accept the results of San Stefano, an international congress was summoned to Berlin. It led to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy receiving permission to “occupy and administer” the Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Hercegovina.[2] These regions had for years been controlled by conservative families (mostly converts) who saw themselves as “stronghold of righteousness, guardians of the old order and a special position within the Ottoman Empire”[3]. Their values stood in contrast to the developments in Constantinople, where progressives were in power and tried to modernize the Ottoman state by, for example, putting an end to traditional Muslim privileges.[4] Especially during the 1830s and 1850s, there had been widespread riots, but the risings were put down by loyal Ottoman forces in the most brutal manner.[5] One explanation for unrest in the region may be found in the specific history of this area: After Ottoman territorial losses, the frontier regions were always “hovering” between peace and war, resulting in the formation of a unique warrior mentality.[6]

Although the ‘special case of Bosnia’ (Sonderfall Bosnien) was well-known to the Austro-Hungarian leadership, the Department of State under Count Andrássy planned for a peaceful takeover in agreement with the Treaty of Berlin.[7] By using as few forces as possible, the government wanted to avoid any aggressive appearance. During his discussions with Emperor Francis Joseph, Count Andrássy also argued that the number of troops as well as the date for the beginning of military operations depended on whether Constantinople would officially agree to the Austro-Hungarian occupation of the two provinces; in case no agreement could be reached, the troops were to begin their campaign even before completing their mobilization process – quick action was meant to make up for lower troop strength. While in the beginning the political leadership believed that two Infanterie-Truppendivisionen (infantry divisions) with about 35,000 troops would be sufficient, high-ranking army officers in June convinced Emperor Francis Joseph to eventually deploy four divisions.[8] On July 2, 1878, the Commanding General in Prague, Feldzeugmeister (General) Joseph Philippovich von Philippsberg, was named Commanding General of the XIII Army Corps and commander-in-chief of all occupation forces.[9]

Austro-Hungarian forces assembled for the campaign in July 1878 consisted of XIII Corps (6th, 7th, 20th Division) tasked with crossing the Sava River and occupying Bosnia, and the independent 18th Infantry Division that was to take control of the Hercegovina. Total force strength was around 72,000 troops with 13,000 horses and 112 artillery pieces.[10] Regular Ottoman forces in Bosnia and Hercegovina in June 1878 were organized into 41 battalions – eight of them were part of the active army (nizâmîye), while redîf and mustahfız militia battalions had been recruited locally or regionally.[11] Ottoman troops in the occupation territory seem to have numbered about 40,000 soldiers[12], but there where enormous differences in quality, strength and equipment. The number of irregular fighters has never been known because units concentrated and disbanded without written orders. The Austro-Hungarian General Staff’s official history of the occupation campaign later estimated the number of insurgents at about 79,200.[13]

In the beginning, the strategic situation was quite favorable to a well-organized resistance movement. Observations made by Colonel John Adye in Afghanistan a decade earlier[14] also applied to the situation in Bosnia and Hercegovina: the most important positions were controlled by an indigenous population well-adapted to the climate and trained in the warrior tradition of their homeland. Nonetheless, one has to keep in mind that many inhabitants only joined the resistance movement when their immediate home seemed to be threatened; they did not participate in military operations outside their home region and most of them arranged themselves with the new rulers quite quickly.

Most insurgents were recruited from the largest religious group, the Muslims, but many Orthodox Serbs – who had hoped for a union with the principality of Serbia – also fought against the Habsburg troops.[15] R. G. Plaschka defined four levels of motivation for taking part in the resistance against Austro-Hungarian forces[16]:

  1. the desire of influential Muslims to restore a conservative system,
  2. the discontent of specific social groups paired with a large number of discharges from the Ottoman army,
  3. the desire to repel foreign invaders and to protect the ‘House of Islam’ (dār al-islām) from the infidels, and
  4. the perception of rebels as heroes that was quite typical for the Balkans.

A fifth motive was mentioned by Clemens Ruthner: the feeling of having been sold out by the central government in Constantinople.[17] Of course it is not sufficient to explain the resistance movement only through xenophobia and religious zeal – the fanaticism shown by many Muslim fighters should not be seen as the reason, but as a symptom of deep-rooted social problems. Also, the Muslim population remained divided over the question whether the acceptance of a new non-Islamic ruler (without putting up resistance) was allowed by the Qur’an or not.[18] Activities of Orthodox Serbs were much more motivated by political ideas than by the Slavs’ supposed “lust for murder and fight”[19] often mentioned by the Austro-Hungarian press. The small Jewish community did officially join the so called Volkskommissionen (people’s commissions) after the Ottoman governing system had been overthrown in July 1878, but remained neutral during the fighting.[20] In contrast, most Catholics were sympathetic of Austria-Hungary; for example, a Franciscan priest formed a volunteer combat unit in the Hercegovina and placed it at the disposal of the 18th Infantry Division’s commander.[21]

When the XIII Corps’ vanguard crossed the Sava River on July 29, it did not meet armed resistance.[22] On August 3, however, a squadron of hussars, leading the way for the main column in the Bosna Valley, was ambushed near the town of Maglaj and lost 42 dead and missing. In reaction to this incident, General Philippovich ordered the implementation of martial law in the entire occupation territory.[23] Austro-Hungarian forces received orders to take only nizâm and redîf soldiers prisoner, but to “eradicate”[24] members of mustahfız militia units. At Maglaj, Bosnian fighters for the first time employed methods of irregular warfare, like the attack of mobile groups into back and flanks of a less agile enemy, the specific use of the terrain, and the deployment of superior force only at the point of contact. “Civilized” observers decried this kind of warfare as underhanded and treacherous[25], atrocities committed against fallen soldiers[26] led to a de-humanization of the Muslim population, for which many soldiers had shown sympathies at the beginning of the campaign.[27] Ten days later, a company of the 32nd Infantry Regiment was hit by a surprise attack at Ravnice (Hercegovina), which resulted in the death of more than 70 soldiers.[28] Quite early into the occupation campaign, the events of Maglaj and Ravnice showed that the insurgents were able to inflict a defeat on the Austro-Hungarian forces – at least on a tactical level. Surprisingly, the methods employed on these occasions were rarely ever used again. On the contrary: on August 7, a strong insurgent force had tried to fight an infantry division in open battle near the old royal city of Jajce and had been defeated with the loss of more than 600 men.[29] The attempt to recapture the northern city of Banja Luka on August 14 as well as the fighting that raged for weeks in the area of Doboj in Northeastern Bosnia more closely resembled the specifics of conventional rather than irregular warfare. At Doboj, occupation troops even resorted to constructing trenches[30], for destroying the enemy seemed impossible because of the terrain and the limited strength of friendly forces.[31]

When Austro-Hungarian troops attacked the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo on August 19, 1878, they were met by a largely irregular enemy that – again – employed primarily conventional tactics. Defenders had occupied the hills surrounding the city as well as obvious strong points like mosques, used artillery, and ignored the possibility to wage an urban guerrilla fight. The occupation army took Bosnia’s largest city within three hours – only 57 soldiers were killed.[32] During the fight for Bihać, the most important town in Northwestern Bosnia, the insurgents, supported by strong regular Ottoman contingents, repelled an Austrian attack on September 7, causing more than 550 casualties.[33] Insurgent groups did then employ methods of irregular warfare by crossing the border into Croatia, raiding, pillaging, and terrorizing the population. Bihać finally fell on September 18, but the Austro-Hungarian troops’ unimaginative methods allowed most of the insurgents to escape.[34] Military operations ended on October 20, 1878, when the insurgent stronghold of Velika Kladuša near the border with Croatia was taken by Austro-Hungarian forces.

If we observe the conduct of both the occupation forces’ as well as the insurgents’ campaign, the tendency to operate according to conventional patterns becomes obvious. Both the Austro-Hungarian offensive operations and the insurgency followed the principles of linear warfare, which means that controlling specific geographic areas (hills, passes et al.) was much more important than in a typical irregular conflict.[35] Also, the short duration of the campaign stands in contrast to the nature of typical insurgencies. However, it would not be correct to define the occupation campaign as conflict comparable to the wars of 1859 or 1866. Although regular Ottoman troops made up between 15 and 20 percent of the insurgent forces[36], fighters were primarily recruited from the civilian population. The lack of standardized uniforms especially in the case of Muslim groups enabled the insurgents to disappear among the population – another characteristic of irregular warfare[37]. If one accepts the definition of local fighters (and Ottoman soldiers who fought without official orders) as irregulars, the occupation campaign – according to the assessment of M. W. Shervington – would have to be seen as irregular conflict because irregular forces were fighting on at least one side.[38]

Even if we take into consideration that there is a “historic normality of stories of atrocities in times of war”[39] and that many accounts were exaggerated, it is obvious that the insurgents’ behavior at many occasions was not consistent with the customs of modern warfare which, for example, banned the torture and mutilation of prisoners.[40] Austro-Hungarian units often also acted with enormous brutality and so we can observe a delimitation of violence in a reciprocal sense.[41] In a letter, the soldier Josef Neuner wrote: “Our platoon – that had been ordered to burn down all the cabins in the vicinity [of the village of Stolač] that were still intact – advanced on the right flank over the course of forenoon. During our advance no cabin was spared. Neither the crosses that had been put on top of the huts or painted onto the doors nor the women’s shrieks ‘Christians! Christians!’ could help.”[42] Another soldier noted: “I saw how the women moaned and begged on their knees, but there can be no mercy. We are fighting a war, in which you cannot hope for mercy; we do not give quarter and neither do we expect it.”[43] Even if we take this brutality into consideration, there still is an asymmetry in the fields of ethic and organization between the Austro-Hungarian troops and the insurgents that can be regarded as being characteristic for irregular conflicts.[44] The fact that insurgents were able to choose time and place of attacks is also a feature of irregular warfare, while in conventional conflict, the initiative usually lies with the party that is on the offensive and outnumbers the other.

The words General Philippovich chose in the instruction for his troops (July 27, 1878) did not really seem to aim at preparing the soldiers for war. He promised to treat the inhabitants of Bosnia and Hercegovina “as true friends, to safeguard the rights of each nationality and religion, and to respect existing customs, traditions, property, and the sanctity of the home” and also stated: “Not to a triumphal procession but to hard work I will lead you, performed in the service of humanity and civilization!”[45] Although defining the campaign as “humanitarian intervention” would be insufficient, it featured elements of what can be seen as “stability operations” – disarmament and demobilization, reforming the justice system, creating local security forces, and repatriating displaced persons.[46]

In the occupation campaign, Austro-Hungarian losses were 3,300 dead and 6,700 wounded.[47] How many insurgents, Ottoman soldiers, and civilians perished during the three months of fighting is still unknown, but without any doubts, there were thousands of victims as a result of combat operations; also, the occupation forces executed many – real or supposed – insurgents.[48] Obviously, in the immediate aftermath of the campaign, most commanders lacked the understanding to treat the Muslim and Orthodox populations in an appreciative way and were not able to diminish hostile feelings on both sides. On a military level, the occupation was completed successfully and quite rapidly – but the case of Bosnia and Hercegovina was to show in a dramatic fashion that a solution of social, economic, and religious problems can never be reached on the battlefield, since armed combat is only part of a larger conflict.[49] Especially wealthier Muslims arranged themselves with the new rulers and were able to retain most of their economic privileges.[50] Many Christians, however, were disappointed with the Habsburg Monarchy’s lack of will to realize a land reform. The fact, that in 1914 the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated in Sarajevo not by Bosnian Muslims, but by a pro-Serbian group shows that the occupation campaign had ended with military success, but also that political measures had not succeeded in winning the “hearts and minds”[51] of the population.

[1] Zoran Grijak, Croatian-British Views of the Eastern Question: The Correspondence of William Ewart Gladstone and Josip Juraj Strossmajer (1876-1882). In: Review of Croatian History 1 (2009), pp. 47-84, p. 64.

[2] Lothar Classen, Der völkerrechtliche Status von Bosnien-Herzegowina nach dem Berliner Vertrag vom 13.7.1878, Lang Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2004, p. 35.

[3] Valeria Heuberger, Unter dem Doppeladler: Die Nationalitäten der Habsburger Monarchie 1848-1918, Brandstätter Verlag, Vienna/Munich, 1997, p. 96.

[4] Sabine Riedel, Die Erfindung der Balkanvölker: Identitätspolitik zwischen Konflikt und Integration, Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden, 2005, p. 53.

[5] Josef Matuz, Das Osmanische Reich: Grundzüge seiner Geschichte, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, 1985, p. 232 f.

[6] Robin Okey, Taming Balkan Nationalism: The Habsburg “Civilizing Mission” in Bosnia 1878-1914, Oxford UP, Oxford/New York, 2007, p. 5.

[7] Hubert Zeinar, Geschichte des österreichischen Generalstabes, Böhlau Verlag, Vienna/Cologne/Weimar, 2006, p. 402.

[8] Franz-Josef Kos, Die Politik Österreich-Ungarns während der Orientkrise 1874/75-1879: Zum Verhältnis von politischer und militärischer Führung, Böhlau Verlag, Cologne/Vienna 1984, p. 145.

[9] Karl Gabriel, Bosnien-Herzegowina 1878: Der Aufbau der Verwaltung unter FZM Herzog Wilhelm v. Württemberg und dessen Biographie, Lang Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2004, p. 36.

[10] Feldmarschall Conrad [= Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf], Mein Anfang: Kriegserinnerungen aus der Jugendzeit 1878-1882, Verlag für Kulturpolitik, Berlin, 1925, p. 4.

[11] Austro-Hungarian General Staff, Department of War History (ed.), Die Occupation Bosniens und der Hercegowina durch k. k. Truppen im Jahre 1878, Seidel Verlag, Vienna, 1879, p. 54.

[12] Richard G. Plaschka, Avantgarde des Widerstands: Modellfälle militärischer Auflehnung im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, Böhlau Verlag, Vienna/Cologne/Graz, 2000, vol. 1, p. 89; Conrad, Anfang, p. 5.

[13] General Staff, Occupation, p. 884.

[14] John Adye, Sitana: A Mountain Campaign on the Borders of Afghanistan in 1863, Bentley Publ., London, 1867, p. 34.

[15] Aydın Babuna, Die nationale Entwicklung der bosnischen Muslime: Mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der österreichisch-ungarischen Periode, Lang Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1996 , p. 44; Robert J. Donia, Islam under the Double Eagle: The Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina 1878-1914, Columbia UP, New York, 1981, p. 31.

[16] Plaschka, Avantgarde, p. 95f.

[17] Clemens Ruthner, Habsburg’s Little Orient: A Post/Colonial Reading of Austrian and German Cultural Narratives on Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1878-1918’. In: Kakanien revisited [[ .pdf]] (2008, accessed October 29, 2012).

[18] Dusko Doder, Reflections on a schizophrenic Peace. In: Robert L. Rothstein (ed.), After the Peace: Resistance and Reconciliation, Rienner Publ., Boulder, CO/London, 1999, pp. 167-189, p. 178.

[19] Prager Tagblatt 262 (September 21, 1878), p. 2.

[20] Josef Koetschet, Aus Bosniens letzter Türkenzeit: Hinterlassene Aufzeichnungen von Med. Univ. Dr. Josef Koetschet, Hartleben Verlag, Vienna/Leipzig, 1905, p. 100; Babuna, Entwicklung, p. 44.

[21] Laszlo Bencze, The Occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1878, Social Science Monographs, Boulder, CO, 2005, p. 103; Das Vaterland 225 (August 18, 1878), p. 2.

[22] General Staff, Occupation, p. 114.

[23] Vinzenz von Haardt, Die Occupation Bosniens und der Herzegovina: Nach verlässlichen Quellen geschildert von Vinzenz v. Haardt, Hölzel Verlag, Vienna, 1878, p. 36.

[24] Plaschka, Avantgarde, p. 94 f.

[25] Paul Myrdacz, Sanitätsgeschichte und Statistik der Occupation Bosniens und der Hercegovina im Jahre 1878, Verlag Urban & Schwarzenberg, Vienna, 1882, p. 22; Eduard von Wertheimer, Graf Julius Andrássy, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart, 1913, vol. III, p. 151; Neue Freie Presse 5007 (August 6, 1878), p. 1.

[26] Hans Hegenbarth, Furchtlos und treu: 300 Jahre Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 27, Moser Verlag, Graz, 1982, p. 173 f.

[27] See, for example, the comments of Croatian writer Eugen Kumičić who participated in the campaign as a young soldier; Ante Kadić, The Occupation of Bosnia (1878) as depicted in Literature. In: East European Quarterly 28, 3 (1994), pp. 281-296.

[28] General Staff, Occupation, Attachment 12.

[29] General Staff, Occupation, p. 205; Haardt, Occupation, p. 45.

[30] Bencze, Occupation, p. 181.

[31] Only one reinforced brigade of the 20th Division operated in the Doboj area, while the other was used to guard the lines of communication for the XIII Corps main column.

[32] Myrdacz, Sanitätsgeschichte, p. 44.

[33] General Staff, Occupation, Attachment 12.

[34] These forces were finally destroyed in a battle near Peči in the northwest corner of Bosnia on October 6 and 7, 1878.

[35] Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars, Stanford UP, Stanford, CA, 2001, p. 14; Jeffrey Record, Why the Strong lose. In: Parameters. U.S. Army War College Quarterly 35, 4 (2005), pp. 16-31, p. 20.

[36] General Staff, Occupation, p. 884.

[37] Stathis N. Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War, Cambridge UP, Cambridge, 2008, p. 89 ff.

[38] M. W. Shervington, Small Wars and Counter-Insurgency Warfare: Lessons from Iraq, PhD Thesis, Cranfield University, Cranfield (UK), 2005, p. 9.

[39] Klaus Topitsch, Die Greuelpropaganda in der Karikatur. In: Raoul Zühlke (ed.), Bildpropaganda im Ersten Weltkrieg, Kämpfer Verlag, Hamburg, 2000, pp. 49-91, p. 53.

[40] Herfried Münkler, Die neuen Kriege, Rowohlt Verlag, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 2004, p. 115.

[41] Daniel Hohrath / Sönke Neitzel, Entfesselter Kampf oder gezähmte Kriegführung? Gedanken zur regelwidrigen Gewalt im Krieg. In: Sönke Neitzel / Daniel Hohrath (eds.), Kriegsgreuel: Die Entgrenzung der Gewalt in kriegerischen Konflikten vom Mittelalter bis ins 20. Jahrhundert, Schöningh Verlag, Paderborn, 2008, pp. 9-37, p. 14 f.

[42] Christoph Vallaster, Augenzeugenberichte Josef Neuners vom Okkupationsfeldzug 1878. In: Montfort 30, 2 (1978), pp. 96-99, p. 99.

[43] Innsbrucker Nachrichten 204 (September 6, 1878), p. 5.

[44] Steven Metz, Small Wars: From Low Intensity Conflict to Irregular Challenges. In: Anthony D. McIvor (ed.), Rethinking the Principles of War, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 2005, pp. 279-298, p. 280.

[45] "Army Corps Order No. 1“. Prager Tagblatt 208 (July 29, 1878), p. 2.

[46] See for example: Department of the Army (ed.), Field Manual 3-07 Stability Operations, GPO, Washington, DC, 2008, Chapter 3.

[47] István Deák, Der k.(u.)k. Offizier 1848-1918, Böhlau Verlag, Vienna, 1995, p. 81.

[48] See for example the reports on executions following the capture of Sarajevo in: Die Presse 255 (September 17, 1878), p. 2, Neue Freie Presse 5053 (September 21, 1878), p. 2, and Prager Tagblatt 244 (September 3, 1878), p. 2.

[49] Eliot Cohen, et al., Principles, Imperatives, and Paradoxes of Counterinsurgency. In: Military Review. The Professional Journal of the U.S. Army (March/April 2006), pp. 49-53, p.49; Christopher M. Ford, Speak no Evil: Targeting a Population’s Neutrality to defeat an Insurgency. In: Parameters. U.S. Army War College Quarterly 35, 2 (2005), pp. 51-66, p. 53.

[50] Ernest Bauer, Zwischen Halbmond und Doppeladler: 40 Jahre österreichische Verwaltung in Bosnien-Herzegowina, Herold Verlag, Vienna/Munich, 1971, p. 46.

[51] See A. J. Cernicky, Moral and Power and a Hearts-and-Minds Strategy in post-conflict Operations. In: Williamson Murray (ed.), Strategic Challenges for Counterinsurgency and the Global War on Terrorism, Strategic Studies Institute, Carlisle, PA, 2006, pp. 43-76.


About the Author(s)

Martin Gabriel was born in Klagenfurt (Austria) in 1983, studied history at the University of Klagenfurt (2002-2007), and wrote his Master Thesis on the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. His publications include works on 19th century European political history, military history of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy (especially the Balkans), and counterinsurgency warfare. He is currently employed at the University of Klagenfurt’s Department for Information and Documentation in the Field of History / Austrian Historical Bibliography, and as lecturer with a focus on the history of imperialism and military history.



Fri, 02/22/2013 - 12:56pm

Just a few suplementary notes on a fascinating subject:

1. Fortunately I have been discovering interesting articles and re-reads of this 'small war'...but in Serbian, Croatian and a few in Slovenian. Although family ties make speak a tad of Croatian, I cannot really judge the full extent of academic new findings, but summaries provided indicate some fascinating insights, in particular about the attitudes of Croats in the Herzegovina region towards the A-H troops.
2. Also from touring BiH I discover a wealth of personal letters, old photos,documents, transmitted from generation to generation, that give a more clear picture of how complex the situation was in 1878, in particular around the true motivations and role of Imam Hadji Loja, one of the first to organize mass riots against soon departing Ottoman troops. He was instrumental, for example, in removing from the Turkish HQ military commander Veli Pasha, in early July.
3.The books by Laszlo Bencze and Frank Schubert, The Ocupation of BiH (Columbia 2006) and S. Lackey, The Rebirth of the Hagsburg Army (Greenwood 1995), seem to me still very relevant and useful, as partly indicated by Martin Gabriel (who did a very difficult concise job).
4. On figures: as most remarked, casualties from the Bosnian side are difficult to obtain, although there are precise descriptions of prisoners of war in particular places. Journals like (MA) Militaria Austriaca 12 (1993) indicate - only for the initial campaign, not the whole of occupation - 983 dead and 3.984 wounded for the A-H regular army, with other sources (like the books quoted) mentioning 945 k, 3980 w and 272 MIA.
As for deployment, MA indicates a peak of 280.000 A-H troops and 93.000 "insurgents" (as they were referred to in official reports and press), including at least 55.000 Muslims, 6000 Orthodox and volunteers from Albania and Turkey, and possibly Bulgaria.
5. Occupation was a serious, arduous and full of ups and downs exercise. It combined "enlightened" measures, like the creation of the first printer in Sarajevo (an hungarian from Vojvodina), shcolarships for Bosnians to study in Vienna, cooptation and consultation with Muslim and local secular and religious authorities in new organs formed by A-H, "modernization" of infrastructures, privileges in trade, but also police and military measures, including the forced recruitment that was one of the causes of the first revolt after A-H installed its administration.
N. Rogeiro


Fri, 02/22/2013 - 8:14am

Yesterday I had a chance to read John Schindler's article in the Jnl Strategic Studies and it is well worth the effortv to read:

There were many parallels with contemporary 'small wars': the value of mountain artillery - almost equivalent to Apache attack helicopters; the need for larger forces - 278k in 11.5 divisions (at war strength, including called up reservists); the need for specialist light infantry - twenty nine infantry brigades of which ten were mountain infantry.

Less clear was the intelligence picture, which appears to have drawn upon non-hostile observers i.e. other Western powers observers. Schindler observes that there was no intelligence failure as the information provided was rejected by staff officers. Given the role of external support it was interesting to learn that covert Ottoman (Turkish) support continued.

Staying with intelligence: 'The major failing of pre-war assessment was a basic unwillingness to believe most Bosnians ...did not want to be subject to the Habsburgs and moreover, many of them would actively resist'.

He spends more time on the 1882 revolt against Habsburg rule and could almost be writing about Afghanistan: '..local bandit traditions, and xenophobia could combine with religious fervour to explosive political effect'.

Nor was resistance just by Muslims, in the original intervention and the later revolt.

What intrigues me is how the Habsburgs were able to administer Bosnia-H in such a way that in WW1 Bosnian-based military units were amongst the most loyal and effective. Their civil-miltary doctrine and practice is worth reading alone.


Mon, 02/11/2013 - 7:22am

Dear colleagues,
a short reply regarding your comments: the casualties mentioned in the article are based on the work of Istvan Deak, one of the leading European experts on Austro-Hungarian history, as well as on official statistics published in a "Medical History" of the campaign (Vienna, 1882). Of course, numbers can be confusing, for example, there were about 110,000 cases of illness among the occupation troops, however, this doesn't mean that 110,000 soldiers fell ill (some were treated four or five times). Also, my article focused on 1878, not on later conflicts. In fact, the 1882 rebellion did not have much in common with the resistance of 1878 (it resulted from plans to draft the population as it was the case in other "crown lands" of Austria-Hungary). Regarding "hearts and minds" - since Orthodox Serbs made up about 1/3 of the population and were alienated by governmental policies after 1878 (I mentioned land reform), a very large part of the populace became quite hostile towards Austria-Hungary. I also know J. Schindler's article, but L. Bencze's book on 1878 is much more detailed (he also relies on documents from the War Archives etc in Vienna), and since there are many fine publications in German, I chose to use them - also as an input for people able to work with German publications (which is central for a deeper understanding of this enormous topic). Thanks for your interest and kind regards, M.G.


Sun, 02/10/2013 - 7:25am

There is another angle that may be interesting and relevant.
During the countdown to NATO-led operations in Kosovo, ample discussion started on the legality of western nations military engagement against "mini-Yugoslavia" (reduced to Serbia, its 'autonomous' province of Voivodina, Montenegro and what some Serbs would call Kosmet, aka Kosmet-Metohija).

As we all know, the action was shaky from a point of view of Public International Law: no UN resolution, so no written specific legitimate mandate, but a sort of pre-Iraqi 'coalition of the willing'.

Many legal theorists started to reason in other ways: some arguing that there was a sort of "international state of urgency" requiring limited but expedite measures (in order to stop possible genocide against Kosovar Albanians), others stating that, outside of written law, there existed an ample historical body of "humanitarian intervention", that could found a non-written, customary norm, legitimizing NATO strikes and the following ground campaign.

So legal historians began compiling the "tradition" of humanitary intervention "avant la lettre", discovering it in the arguments of many countries operating against "brutal", "genocidal", "minority opressing" states. Many of these "humanitary interventions" took place in the Balkans and Central Europe. The case developped in this article was one, with others, for example, being Russian campaigns claiming also to protect minorities against Ottoman excesses,in Bulgaria and BiH (vg 1876 and 1878) and many post-1945 armed actions under the same argument, with Tillema/Van Wingen counting 71 instances of such military interventions, from 1946 to 1982 alone: 37 done by the UK, 17 by France, 10 by the US, 7 by the USSR.
Of course legal theorists knew that there were remote elements of the "humanitarian intervention" argument during the Crusades (see, for instance, the writings of Bernard de Clairvaux, aka St. Bernard), but the big century for these wars under another name started in 1800.

Humanitarian intervention was argued when the British,French and Russian coalition intervened in Greece, 1827-1830, when it threatened intervention in Crete or when it really acted there (also with Prussia, Italy and Austria, and without the UK), from 1866 to 1868.
France did the same in Syria, to protect Coptic Christians, 1860-1861, and Austria, Britain, Italy and France intervened in Macedonia, 1903-1908, and then again 1912-1913.
The Great European Powers also threatened to intervene in Morocco, to stop cruel treatment of prisoners, from 1905 to 1914, and both Italy and the Reich based their campaigns in Abyssinia and Bohemia and Moravia with the need to free slaves, protect ethnic minorities, etc.
Also as we know, US intervention in Cuba and the Phillipines, against Spain(1898) has an element of "humanitarianism", for example when the Congress passed a resolution, April 20, justifying military action on the grounds of "ignominious conditions (...)so near our borders (...)that shocked the moral sentiment of the people of the USA".

A lot could be written about this: we are not discussing here how well founded (in facts), how "moral", how "justified" were all these interventions, and the hundreds that followed, from all kinds of countries and regimes, until our days, but just want to stress that this "humanitarian" argument existed, much before discussions were raised in Iraq in 1991.
And the fact is that the Balkans, where "the sick man of Europe" (Turkey, defined in that quip by default at least also as an European power)was rapidly seeing fires disputing its security belts and imperial dreams (and also its "humanitarian intervention" counter-arguments), was the area by excellence where "small wars" occurred, under the banner of saving minorities.
Of course, as usual, the beauty of these minorities was on the eyes of the beholders.


Nuno Rogeiro
Lisbon, Portugal


Mon, 02/11/2013 - 7:28am

In reply to by davidbfpo

Clarification: At least, Malcolm's count of fatalities is correct as well. The difference between his book and my article is this: 946 soldiers were Killed in Action, but more than 2,000 died of illness, accidents etc. Kind regards, M.G.


Sun, 02/10/2013 - 10:59am

In reply to by davidbfpo

Thanks - I realize telling people to track down JSS in the library is old school in the online age!

Noel Malcolm has a lot of stuff quite profoundly wrong about the Balkans, not just the alleged Habsburg stroll through Bosnia in 1878.

Casualty count is contested because Habsburg records themselves conflicted. I've combed through campaign reports in the Vienna archives and even there it's not entirely clear. The higher figure is closer to the truth, and probably an understatement.


Sat, 02/09/2013 - 3:07pm

Good to see a detailed article on a long forgotten 'small war', in fact I would venture that few today even knew there was resistance to the Austro-Hungarian occupation decided by the Great Powers in Berlin.

In the two books I rely on for Bosnian history 'Eastern Approaches' by Fitzroy Maclean (Pub. 1949) there is no mention; although it is very good on describing the background to what we watched happen when Yugoslavia died. 'Bosnia: A Short History' by Noel Malcolm (Pub. 1994) has only one page for the 'small war'.

Oddly Malcolm refers to 946 dead and 3980 wounded; the author cites 3,300 dead and 6,700 wounded. Both authors refer to different sources, although each uses the same sources.

Malcolm's final passage is worth citing 'it is barely an exaggeration to say that the Austrian Army conquered Bosnia in the time it took to walk through the country'. No wonder this "walking tour" campaign is so little known.

Now if 20Committee could enable wider readership of his article that would be great!


Fri, 02/08/2013 - 3:46pm

Interesting article on a neglected "small war" - but there are problems.

In the first place, it fails to explain that pacification in Bosnia-Hercegovina (BiH) was far from complete in fall 1878; indeed. war termination was so imperfect that there was another major revolt in BiH (especially Hercegovina) in late 1881 which required a corps-level operation by the Austro-Hungarian Army to suppress it in early 1882, after which the country could actually be considered to be firmly under Habsburg rule.

Moreover it is a serious misstatement to say that Vienna failed to win "hearts and minds" in BiH. Actually they did a very good job at winning the H&M of Muslims and Catholics - as demonstrated by those groups's tenacious loyalty to Austria-Hungary down to 1918 (Bosnian Muslims had the highest loss rate in WWI of any ethnic group in the Dual Monarchy). Rather, the measures to win over Muslims and Catholics, namely favoritism and lack of land reform, fatally alienated the mostly peasant Serbs, with terrible consequences. See: Gavrilo Princip.

Like Iraq since 2003, the occupier can find ways to privilege some ethno-religious groups over others, which can produce short-term gains but in the long term some very serious pains.

I applaud the author for writing about an interesting but under-appreciated COIN topic, but he would have presented a more accurate picture had he bothered to cite the only scholarly article in English on the subject by John Schindler - an inexplicable omission since it is recent, in a major journal, and easy to find: