Hungary 1848: Europe’s Biggest Unknown War

By Chris Pringle

1848 is known as the year of revolution. Yet the Hungarian War of Independence (“the ‘48”), the largest and most violent revolution of that turbulent year, is almost unknown outside its home country. This conflict involved over half a million men and lasted a whole year. It encompassed a dozen major battles, many smaller actions, and some epic sieges, but is largely ignored.

The major focus of my own interest is on European wars of the nineteenth century, and particularly the large battles of the period from the point of view of strategy, generalship and grand tactics. In attempting to learn about the Hungarian battles of 1848­-1849 it became apparent that sources in English were almost non-existent, and those that did exist were limited or flawed. Given the scale of the war, this is a huge and unfortunate gap.

Since 2015 I have been collaborating with Professor Nicholas Murray of the US Naval War College on a series of English editions of previously untranslated military histories by that giant of military theory, Carl von Clausewitz. Consequently, my German translation skills are quite well honed. In addition, for other personal projects over the years, I have learned enough rudimentary Hungarian to use sources in that language as well. In order to learn about the 1848-1849 battles in Hungary, I became very familiar with some of the main Hungarian histories as well as the Austrian ones. Having established myself as a translator by publishing Clausewitz’s history of 1796, it seemed a natural progression to build on that and on my growing knowledge of the ’48 by publishing Hungary 1848: The Winter Campaign – an English edition of the Austrian (semi-)official history of the first half of the war – to fill this void in the English-language literature. Helion was kind enough to oblige.

I was first attracted to the ’48 through a general interest in Eastern Europe and particularly in that period of warfare. I’ve always found it appealing to explore obscure and esoteric corners of history, and this one is certainly well-hidden. Once the quest was begun, it turned out to be incredibly rewarding because the campaigns are so richly complex and varied, there is a colourful cast of characters, and it offers all the fascinating episodes and drama you would expect from a war of this extent and duration. Furthermore, the battles provide some great tabletop challenges for the wargamer.

I was struck by some signal feats of generalship. On the Hungarian side, General Artúr Görgei performed astonishing feats to bamboozle and out-manoeuvre his opponents, both in attack and defence; among the mountains of Transylvania, the veteran Polish revolutionary Józef ‘Papa’ Bem conducted a campaign of lightning manoeuvre and aggressive attacks worthy of the Bonaparte of 1796. For the Austrian monarchy, Field Marshal Windisch-Grätz’s ‘McClellanesque’ caution in the Winter Campaign contrasts strongly with Haynau’s ruthlessly determined and ultimately victorious Summer Campaign.

If the original narrative history of the events of the war is not fascinating enough, I hope my editorial annotations have enhanced it further. I have added a lot of commentary on and analysis of the operations, both tactical and strategic, which I hope will help readers reflect on the commanders’ decisions and reach their own conclusions.

Biographical notes reveal which Hungarian generals then went on to fight for the Ottoman Empire in the Crimean War, or who found the Hungarian crown jewels at the end of the war, or who got beaten up by angry brewery workers when he visited England. Footnotes include little nuggets like the importance of floating ship-mills on the major rivers, or the Hapsburg salt monopoly.

I am particularly proud of the large set of maps I created for the book. Each of these includes a text panel that summarises the action they portray. The idea is that, simply by reading through the maps and following the action, the reader can get a clear picture of the shape of what was a very complex war on several fronts.

Like any major war, the Hungarian War of Independence has other dimensions than the purely military. There is international great power politics in play; there is also the intense factionalism in the Hungarian camp between the radical revolutionaries and their more conservative, constitutionally minded rivals. The tensions and personality clashes in the Hungarian hierarchy are matched among the Austrian commanders by the entertaining sight of Windisch-Grätz trying to control his subordinates, the excessively aggressive Schlik and the erratic Jellacic. At the socio-economic level, there is the friction among the different ethnic groups in the Kingdom of Hungary, showing itself at its most bitter in the Serb and Vlach (Romanian) insurrections in southern Hungary (now northern Serbia) and Transylvania. For modern military professionals, there is contemporary resonance in the asymmetric nature of the campaign as an exercise in counterinsurgency.

I therefore hope that publishing this book will help the Hungarian War of Independence to be recognised as the epic struggle it was.

Miracles in 6mm! The Hungarian army of 1848-1949 in 1/300 scale.

Figures by Baccus (mostly adapted from Baccus’s American Civil War and Risorgimento ranges); flags by Maverick Models; painting by Richard Morrill. Photos by kind permission of Richard Morrill.

Jägers, Polish Legion, scythe-armed militia, grenadiers, German Legion, Tyrolean Jägers
Assorted honvéds, including the famous 9th battalion in their red kepis.
Colourful national guards flanking former imperial line infantry in their old white tunics.
Various hussar regiments escorting the artillery, including a rocket launch stand and crew.
The high command: Görgei, Bem, Klapka, et al.

***

Hungary 1848: The Winter Campaign will soon be followed by its natural sequel, Hungary 1849: The Summer Campaign (also from Helion). Together these will provide a complete history of the war. At the time of writing this blog post, the translation is finished and the editorial annotations almost complete. The maps will be a substantial task, but the work will be delivered to Helion later this year for publication in 2022.

I am also preparing a Bloody Big BATTLES! campaign volume on the Hungarian War of Independence for publication in 2022. This will include 15 wargame scenarios for the most important battles of the war.

***

Chris Pringle’s previous three books are all Clausewitz translations:

Napoleon’s 1796 Italian Campaign

Napoleon Absent, Coalition Ascendant: The 1799 Campaign in Italy and Switzerland, Volume 1

The Coalition Crumbles, Napoleon Returns: The 1799 Campaign in Italy and Switzerland, Volume 2

He is also responsible for a popular wargames ruleset, Bloody Big BATTLES!, for refighting nineteenth-century battles.

He lives in Oxford, UK, and is an academic publisher. His time as a junior officer in the Territorial Army left him with an abiding interest in the challenge of making soldiers do things they don’t particularly want to do. A lifelong wargamer, his focus is on recreating large historical battles. He maintains the Bloody Big BATTLES Blog to report his exploits in that domain.

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