Sunday, 30 September 2012

The last 100 years of the Venetian Army

Venice in 1730, by Caneleto

After a period of relative obscurity Venice entered the eighteenth century on a high. Alliance with Austria in the Great Turkish War of the 1680s had given Venice control of much of the Greek mainland, the Morea, and the small island of Aigina. It wasn´t to last. In 1714 the Ottomans attacked Greece taking advantage of Austria´s involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession. The Venetians relied on their fortifications, but it wasn´t enough.

The citadel at Acrocorith, which controlled the Ismuth of Corinth surrendered, only for most of the garrison to be massacred or sold into slavery by the Turkish Janissaries. The Ottoman army then laid siege to the Venetian headquarters at Nafplio, but the garrison of 2,000 only lasted 9 days and the rest of Greece fell shortly after. Following this the Turkish navy rolled up most of the Venetian held islands in the Ionian sea, the only bright spot being the defence of Corfu by 8,000 men under Count Johann Matthias von der Schulenburg, a German mercenary, against 33,000 Ottoman invaders. A further Ottoman army of 40,000 then moved against the Venetin lands on the Dalmatian coast, but this was a mistake. Nervous of Turkish moves in their direction the Austrians declared war, and forced the Turks back, even allowing a Venetian offensive to take Prevesa on the north Greek coast. Nonetheless the resulting Treaty of Passarowitz confirmed the earlier losses in Greece and Crete.

 Venetian infantry in 1717

During the Greek campaign in 1714 the Venetians had relied on 8,000 mercenaries (against reportedly, 72,000 Turks), mainly Germans and three Swiss Regiments, the Reggimentos Salis, Muller, and Stockar (who joined the Spanish army after the war). This had worked well in the 1680s when many Hanoverian and Saxon regiments had been employed, but this time the Germans in particular had suffered from the climate, and had been decimated by disease. And there were simply not enough of them. Actually Venice had hoped to recruit a Greek militia, but Venetian highhandedness and bureaucracy had alienated the locals. Plainly this system was inadequate

In 1729 the Venetian Senate approved a reform of the army proposed by Marshal Count Schulenburg, who was in effect Venice's most successful commander (he later retired to the city and became a noted art collector). Under this reform, the peacetime army was composed of 20,460 men, as follows:

Infantry (18,500 men)
12 Regiments of Italian Infantry (named Veneto Real and II to XII) 9,600 men
4 Regiments "presidiali" Italian Infantry (di Padova, di Verona, di Brescia, di Rovigo)   4,000 men
3 Companies of "Veterani Benemeriti" ("metitorius veterens)  360 men
3 Companies of "Presidio alla piazza" Italian Infantry of the fortress at Palma Nova  240 men
5 companies of " presidiali di fanteria greca per le piazze" of Prevesa, Vonizza & Butrinto  300 men. These were the three towns Venice owned in Epirus, Greece.

Cavalry (1,600 men)
1 Regiment of Cuirassiers  300 men
1 Regiment of Dragoons   300 men
2 regiments of Croatian cavalry 600 men
1 regiment of Cimariotti cavalry 400 men The Stradioti, irregular cavalry hired from Albania, Dalmatia and northern Greece, had a long history in the Venetian army, and were one of the characteristics that separated it from other Italian armies.

Artillery (200 men)
2 companies of artillery

Engineers (160 men)
2 Companies of miners (80 men)
2 Companies of engineers (80 men)

In case of war the militia would be called up, producing, in theory, a total of 48,000 men. In addition there were the eleven Regiments of Marines in the Navy, the Oltremarini (also called Schiavoni) with a further 8,800 men. One problem had traditionally been that the best and brightest had traditionally entered business, or at least the Navy, so that army officers were under educated, or foreign mercenaries. An attempt to address this was made with the formation of  a military college in Verona in 1759. The army itself was strenghtened with the purchase of 32,000 Austrian rifles in 1776, a new Veneto Artillery Regiment in 1780 and two more Regiments of Italian Infantry (XIII, XIV) in 1790.

The uniform was based on white and blue after 1744, rather than the earlier red, and more and more closely resembled the Austrian.
A Venetian officer in 1785

The Fall

Despite commercial competition from Ancona in the Papal States, and Trieste, established as a Free Port by Austria on it´s newly conquered coastline, Venice managed to stay prosperous, and a major cultural centre. It´s foreign policy was neutrality, avoiding the Wars of the Polish and Austrian Succession, not to mention the Seven Years War, and this was taken as justification for running down the armed forces. In fact it left Venice with a weak army, and no allies.

The next big test came in 1796, when the French Revolutionary War against Austria spilled into northern Italy. Instead of allying with Austria, as had proven successful in the past, Venice remained neutral, even supplying the French forces. It didn´t help. French agents stirred up revolution in the Venetian provinces, to which the Doge first responded too weakly, allowing them to spread, then too harshly, giving an excuse for French Intervention. Fort after fort fell easily to the French forces until Venice itself was threatened. Even then the situation was not untenable, Venice had faced worse in her history. All the approaches to the city were covered by powerful batteries, and the islands of the city itself could not be reached by cannon shot from the shore. There were 8,000 seamen and 14,000 regular troops to man the fortifications, and 8 months of supplies to keep them fed. What was lacking was the political will. For years the Venetian fleet had been allowed to run down, so that now the only ships in a fit state to fight were 4 galleys and 7 galliots (a type of gun boat) so there was no answer to the French fleet, the Doge was weak, and French agents had worked on the morale of the populace, as they had in the countryside. On top of this the commander of the army was of doubtful loyalty, as he was later to propser under French rule. On May 16th 1797 French troops entered Venice.

French troops entering Venice

Presumably feeling little loyalty to Venice after it´s lack of support for them, the Austrians cut a deal with France. Venice itself and the Dalmatian territories became Austrian, much of the Italian territories became French. Venice itself, as a state, no longer existed.

Further reading 

In Italian

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