Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Maximillian's Austrians - Puebla

The mid 1860s saw several powers intervening in the chaos that was Mexico, France, Spain, the United States and Britain, but perhaps one of the most unlikely was Austria-Hungary. The simple reason was that the French candidate for the throne was an Austrian duke, Maximillian, brother of the Emperor. To back him up 6,400 troops were sent with him. These were volunteers, attracted by high pay, and in the case of officers, a rank one above whatever they were in the Austrian army.

Notwithstanding the fact that an army from a cold central European country was campaigning in the tropics, it was actually quite a well balanced and well thought out force, composed of experienced troops and officers with many years experience fighting Italians, and the French. 3 Jager (rifle) battalions, each of 6 companies, Hussar and Uhlan (lancer) regiments (each of 5 squadrons) and 3 mountains artillery batteries armed with 3 pdr guns. This was the Austrian Legion, well suited for counter insurgency work.

The volunteers mustered in Ljubljana and marched to Trieste from where they sailed across the Atlantic. From the French controlled port of Vera Cruz they marched 250 miles inland, their first experiance of Mexican conditions. They were heading to Puebla, to be brigaded with various Mexican units, under the command of the Austrian Major General Thun.

Puebla conquered by the French, 1863

The importance of Puebla was that it lay on the road from Veracruz, traditional site for invading Mexico, to the capital Mexico City. Consequently when the French made clear their desire to annex Mexico it was heavily fortified. On the 5th of May 1862 the French attacked, expecting an easy victory, 6,500 advancing with artillery support against 4,500, but the Republican Mexican troops held out against 3 assault's, and then counter attacked with cavalry earning a crushing victory. May 5th is a holiday in Mexico to this day. Unfortunately, next year almost to the day, the French attacked again with 30,000 men and stormed the city. What was left was given over to the Austrians to garrison.

Calle Pitimini, Puebla, 1863

General Thun had been wounded fighting the French at Solferino just a few years earlier, so it is perhaps not surprising that he resisted coming under French control at Puebla, even indirectly as part of the Imperial army. The Austrian legion was strongly independent. The commander of the artillery, Anton Weinhara, built a self sufficient arsenal in Puebla, with even a carriage workshop and tannery.

In October 1867 a visiting Austrian lady described the barracks in Puebla as very dirty, but the countryside as "charming" with "green maize fields, and between them gigantic cactuses in the full splendour of their gorgeous blossoms and other exotic flowers. all around were high mountains, and amongst them the highest peaks of all America, viz, Popocatepetl, the Sierra Nevada and the peak of Orizaba, all of them of course covered in snow".

Puebla 1866, with mountains behind

Arms & uniforms

Without any tropical experience, the Austrians made it up as they went along. Most cultivated a "wild" appearance, with large shaggy beards and all foot troops wore a simple dark blue loose shirt. Vests and baggy trousers were dark red, and hats were either light grey felt (with grey plumes for the jagers), simple red caps, or even sometimes sombreros. The cavalry were slightly more ornate, the Hussars with dark green attilas with white braid over the ubiquitous blue shirt, small grey felt hats and tight red trousers. The Uhlans wore dark green jackets and baggy trousers, and again sometimes sombreros on campaign. Arms were of Austrian Lorenz make, either short rifles for the Jagers or pistols for the cavalry, who of course also had swords or lances, and officers usually supplied their own side arms. The one weakness was that the cavalry were trained for European warfare, they were good at scouting but very few had carbines and their pistols were single shot. Any fighting, at least initially, was done with the blade. They also had to find horses. Local Mexican horses were good quality, but smaller than those they were used to in Europe.

A lancer captain in campaign dress, 1866

This was the Austrian legion, good professional troops, but about to enter a very bitter civil war. As we shall see, they saw plenty of action.

Further reading

Osprey have a book thats a good source for uniforms, The Mexican Adventure 1861-7
The Austro Hungarian army site has an interesting series of officer biographies (
There is another good site (in German) at

There are also several books in Google Books that give the Austrian point of view, with some contempory reports. These are often in German, but can be easily translated into English on the web...
Mexiko oder Republik und Kaiserreich
Patriotism, Politics, and Popular Liberalism in Nineteenth Century Mexico
My diary in Mexico in 1867 including the last days of the Emperor

1 comment:

  1. May I suggest "Maximillian's Lieutenant" A Personal History of the Mexican Campaign, 1864-67 by Ernst Pitner. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the Austrians. I found it agreta read into the life of an Austrian in Mexico.