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AUSTRIAN OFFICERS AND THEIR WORDLINESS

The happiness of an officer in the imperial service is a theme widely covered in memoirs at least as much as it is present in the collective imagination. In fact, there is a widespread belief that the condition of the officers was a guarantee of economic serenity, stability and consequent happiness, at least for the majority of cases. In reality, by analyzing vast samples of stories and memories, the scenario is much more heterogeneous even if it is possible to construct schemes that summarize recurring themes.


First of all, the first trait that affected the state of well-being of the officers was the place where they served. Until 1859, before the cession of Lombardy to the Kingdom of Sardinia and the full understanding of the inevitability of an almost total retreat from Italy in a few years -as it actually was-, the bulk of the Habsburg troops was stationed in Lombardy-Venetia and in the states vassals of the central Italian monarchy.



The Bel Paese was a hot front: the continuous acts of war and tensions could mean opportunities to distinguish oneself, therefore to be promoted under the insignia of the semi-eternal Field Marshal, Count Radetzky. The figure of the elderly commander was much more than well liked and serving under him was considered an honor and a privilege.

The negative aspect of service in Italy was social isolation: the nobility and the upper classes boycotted the Austrian military, partly also due to the threats and pressure they received from the growing irredentists and Italian patriots. For this reason the officers visited only a few specific cafés and were confined within the garrison walls. Another factor not to be overlooked was the heat: until 1855, when the summer cloth suit was introduced, the officers always had to wear the wool cloth uniform, which was almost unbearable under the torrid Italian summer sun.


After the loss of Veneto in 1866, South Tyrol became the main defensive line against the Kingdom of Italy and this region became one of the most sought-after destinations for the officers of the monarchy to serve: in addition to the milder temperatures, the population was cordial and considered extremely clean and civil -both the Welsch (Italian) and German component-.



Obviously the most coveted destination was always Vienna. It was not unusual for military school graduates to choose which departments to join by trying to guess what would be sent for the 5-year garrison in the capital - as cyclically happened to each regiment -. Vienna had the exceptional condition of offering officers a special ticket and a sector dedicated to the Opera and the Burgtheater. This treatment was a gratification of the Emperor, as patron of the two great theatres, who, however, imposed the wearing of parade clothes in perfect condition and the obligation to remain standing during the shows.


Vienna also offered all officers, regardless of rank, free participation in the most coveted event of the Empire, the Hofball, the court ball, where one could hope to glimpse the Emperor, the highest dignitaries and , especially to dance with some countess or baroness (although the practice was that officers were ordered to dance with older women). The privilege of the Hofball had been granted by Maria Theresa and was regarded as the sacred right to request an audience with the Kaiser himself: both inalienable and distinctive honors of the officer corps.


However, regardless of the province in which they served, those who were in urban contexts alternated the complaint with the boast about the obligation to take part in the main dance parties to the point that some officers called themselves "Tanzmaschinen" -dance automatons-.

The case of a young officer who in twenty-eight days took part in thirty-two dance parties remains memorable, a truly remarkable undertaking if we take into account that the dances generally lasted until dawn and that at seven in the morning, each officer had to present himself in service. It is also true that an officer's service occupied a decidedly small part of the day, from 7 to 11 and from 14 to 17.


Among the dances, the most demanding - which were defined by some as "real orgies" - were those of the artillery riding school, the so-called pink ballets.


Participation in the dances, in addition to the playful aspect, allowed the officers to escape from the monotony of the garrison service and above all to be able to hope to lasso a fiancée wealthy enough to be able to pay the marriage bail.


Other diversions were the theater - especially the variety theater - and the cafés, where one could stay all night drinking, playing cards and listening to the anecdotes of the senior officers (it was considered an unforgivable fault to leave before the "Old Men"). Gambling, in inevitable combination with drinking, was practically an obligation and for many it was a vice and a ruin. Smoking, on the other hand, was immanent in the male population and, mainly, was not considered an exclusive luxury. If, for example, in theory smoking was forbidden on the street (in Milan there was a law of 1821 which however was rarely applied and quickly forgotten), in cafés cigars and pipes were ubiquitous and indeed promoted as the revenues for the state from the monopolistic control of the smoke were huge.

The daily life of the officers outside the garrison or from the quarters was defined by a rigid etiquette described in numerous rigorously applied manuals: when it was appropriate to visit a family, how to thank for an invitation to lunch (a specific reflection will follow on the lunches in an article next), on the importance of the business card to leave, on where to leave the saber and hat, on what to say and what not to say in a conversation, to keep the cutlery, on how long to stop, etc. To each rule correspond its violations: they are all true stories of officers who practiced target shooting with gas lamps, who bathed naked in the fountains under the gaze of the escorts of the occasion, who broke the furniture of some elegant café or who lay down in the manger of the crib in the town square in place of the Child Jesus after a solemn hangover. They could have been both rich cavalry officers and penniless militia bored: excesses were systematically covered up and then exemplarily punished in the Regiments, even with incarceration.


Happiness depended above all on economic capacity. Despite the salaries, very few were the non-aristocratic officers who could really enjoy themselves and the pleasures of worldliness, as rare and to be managed with caution, were precious and coveted assets that no officer deprived himself of at the cost of going into debt.


The Habsburg officers were among the worst paid on the continent - an in-depth analysis of the spending capacity of the military will follow - but this was not due to the low consideration they had but due to the nature with which the military system was born: although in fact they were salaried employees of the State, the officers in fact considered the service as part of a noble duty and a privilege and admitted to being state employees with the same reluctance with which the State paid them.

If the pay, at the time of Maria Theresa had been recalculated and well commensurate with the lifestyle worthy of an officer, only for very short periods of time was it adequate. Excluding 1809 (the time of the greatest military glory of Archduke Charles' officers) and 1815 (when the pay was doubled to allow the corps to have a dignified appearance in the presence of the dignitaries of the Congress of Vienna), the pay and the Inflation never kept pace, and by the mid-1950s, a lieutenant's pay was equal to, if not less than, that of a skilled worker or UNskilled craftsman. It was therefore always difficult to find the compromise between the lifestyle expected of an imperial officer and his actual economic capacity with often disastrous consequences.


The officers were endemically plagued by debt: chroniclers do not skimp on these narratives. What amazes today, however, is the unity and solidarity demonstrated by the corps as a whole: if the people of the people did not distinguish between one officer and another for wrongdoings, the corps itself claimed that this did not happen because it did not admit that of its members were isolated. Even the poorest second lieutenant who found it difficult to maintain a dignified and elegant appearance was ready to draw his saber in defense of the honor and dignity of another officer, perhaps much more economically stable. The envies, while certainly present, did not come to compromise the sense of honour.

It was this unity of the corps that led to the exhaustion of the least skilled at maneuvering, as no officer was willing to bear the dishonor of tarnishing the image of others. Those who had common sense and few resources led a retired and basically idle life, while the others had to, regardless of the money available in their purses, keep up their honor and body image: an officer could not dine in popular restaurants, up until the 1960s they could travel on hire cars or omnibuses, they could not use third class trains or even carry packages (as long as it was not obvious that they were chocolates or bonbons).




Each officer was expected to contribute to maintaining the regimental band and to stocking the regimental library and clubhouse. If the already meager pay wasn't enough, the poorest came to sell the wood and coal that was paid to them by the army or gave up meals in restaurants or expensive military canteens in favor of long, dignified walks. The essential uniform was provided by the army but was deducted from the salary up to the balance (quarter pay per month). It could also happen that the assembly of officers of a Regiment took on the debt of one of their own to save everyone's image. In short, there was no shortage of expenses and if one could have the illusion of good pay, in the end there was very little left in the pocket, above all for junior officers.


In conclusion: the relationship between the officer corps and the world of high society was in black and white, some lived it fully, others shunned it so as not to be overwhelmed by it.


To give weight and vivid concreteness to what was previously written, I transcribe a chapter of the booklet published in 1819 "THE SOLDIER OR THE MORAL DUTIES OF A SOLDIER" in which a father writes various thematic chapters in which he puts together his own experiences lived in the army with the conclusions he reached.


The chapter in question is the one dedicated to the duties of the soldier in the garrison, but since the author is an officer, he describes in a rather effective way most of the general considerations reported above.


Enjoy the reading!


I have traveled in the interior of various Kingdoms, I have been garrisoned in Fortresses which supported respectable Cities, and I have known by experience the gap which exists between the condition of a soldier in

time of war, and the condition of a soldier in time of peace.


Speaking of the latter, I will briefly tell you what happened to me. Your Father's mistakes will serve as an escort and light for your ways. In such circumstances, having become an officer, I had access due to my rank

at every place ; there was no brilliant conversation to which I did not carry myself, there was no Theater that I did not attend, there was no Entertainment of some account, in which I did not participate; appreciated and esteemed everywhere, it seemed to find me as if in a new world extremely different from the war fields.


My courage was weakening, I was pleased with a delicate life, and some loving affection surprised my heart from time to time.


In this state of affairs I contracted friendship with a certain veteran officer, who showed me a very comfortable quarter in his house, and I agreed with him to live at his table, paying my mesates. He was a man of good humour, and apart from some fits of anger, his conduct seemed to me irreproachable. They

he dealt with Geometry, Mathematics, Geography, he often drew fortifications, river cuts, water deviations, underground mines; he drew up plans of new fortresses, assigned them their places and delighted in believing them impregnable.

I laughed at so many of his occupations, and on the contrary he made fun of me and my pastimes; he often said to me smiling:

- Welcome back, I suppose, from the brilliant conversation of the Marchesa di A., tell me in confidence how many bows you made to the Marchesina Nuora? How did she kindly repay you? And Mrs T. their inseparable companion how many times has she embalmed her heart with her sweet and repeated sighs of hers? What were the entertainments of this joyful Assembly? Have you had the fate of playing with Count F. and Baroness di G.? Did they get upset by their usual seriousness in winning a few games, did they show bad humor by losing it? Was Count C's Damina with you? Have you forgotten your generosity, that is, have you had the barbarous heart to make your payments rigorously paid, not taking care of the tightness of your finances?

Other times she said to me:

- Let's season our common dinner a little with some useful and profitable news that you learned this day, have pity on me, poor solitary or hermit that I am; Give me the news of the great world; Have you been to the Caffé degli St. . . ? Have you read the gazettes? you will probably have understood that the Princess of C. gave birth to a third child, male or female, and therefore organized parties, multiplied visits, designated the Godfathers of Baptism, given refreshments, and lunches of thirty or forty covers ? Have you heard or read that upon the expected arrival of her Majesty the King of. . . In our capital will there be a grand gala at court, and will there be many promotions in the civil and military fields? ... if this is true, how did you fill yourselves with hopes? Tell me the truth, and lend me the means so that I too can form some castle in the air in my favor. But to tell you frankly, since I'm too rough, and you're too gallant, if you don't obtain for our mutual benefit the valuable protection of some Madame, I truly assure you that we'll both be left dry ...


Sometimes returning late at night to the neighborhood, he jokingly approached me and said:


- You already know that I am endowed with the gift of prophecy, I bet you come from the Theater of B. but that earlier you have been to the conversation of the Countess of T. where clothes are cut very well on people. Poor Signora di R. who had the misfortune of being the first to expose herself with the new bonnet for use in Paris, how well she was whipped! Isn't it true that it has been said of her in these or similar words that she wants to give law to the City on fashions? That she still doesn't count three degrees of nobility? that she is a bizarre head? what a husband of hers can count himself among the good men of the century who let their wives lead by the nose, and who therefore ruined his finances? ... and in the Theater? Oh yes, there are important things here! tell me a little: has the most famous singer M. G. lost nothing for these sirocco winds of her melodious voice? among the replicated cheers did you repeat the touching note Arietta? Tell me, have you seen a few tears of tenderness fall from the eyes of bystanders? And the too famous prima Ballerina how many hand claps did she receive? have the Poets sweated for her with some sudden Praise? Could you tell me which are the Magnates of the City who give themselves the high honor of courting it? You know nothing about certain Jealousies, which are spreading, and which could soon become serious?...


These frequent sermons in an ironic style made me return to myself from time to time, and he often went saying in the secret of my heart, by how many rubbish I find myself surrounded; Isn't it time to end it? But I felt so weakened of strength that it seemed to me that I could not shake myself from this spell of frivolity. Luckily, an unexpected accident gave me a strong push, and I roused myself.


I attended the most brilliant conversation in the city where Madamigella G excelled for her spirit and for her attractions. This was passionately courted by three young officers of rank, who honored me with their friendship and confidence. Shrewd as she was, she gave each of them to understand in particular that her heart was for him alone, and that with regard to others she used only urbanity and courtesies appropriate to her birth, from which she could not dispense. Each of them, inexperienced and stupid, gave himself the certainty of believing that he possessed the heart of this woman of hers, and of finally obtaining her betrothal. Without either knowing about the other, they alternately confided in me the most secret of Mademoiselle's delicate expressions, her protests, and her oaths in her favour, they confided in me the love letters and notes in which I often read , to my surprise, almost the same words in each one. So yes, all my prudence was needed in order not to compromise both the Friends and this disloyal Zitella; in the depths of my heart alone, then when I too received some kind attention from her, she could not dispense with saying: how graceful you are in deportment, how attractive you are in face, just as treacherous at heart!


I went away, therefore, from these and similar places, and was introduced into a semi-public union of men who entertained themselves mostly in political discussions. The society of these Barbassori, although a little rough, began to please me for the military freedom with which they spoke of the laws, and of almost all the governments of Europe, without, however, insulting any of them in particular.



Not the same time, as I detached myself from the great world, he did not dispense me with sometimes taking me to some honored house, either led there by my friends or introduced there by myself, and it was then that I saw your Mother for the first time, I beheld this Daughter who lived under the care of a rigid Aunt, and I was pleased to look at her entirely intent on her feminine work which did not, however, prevent her from a certain restrained affability; she often observed that she did not disdain to join the housemaids in trivial domestic chores, and that hilarious and modest, she showed in every occurrence a naivety of words and strokes very rare in the female sex.


My circumstances at the time required in a certain way that I commit myself to a marriage; therefore I wrote, as was my duty, to your good ancestor and my dear father, from whom I obtained his consent. You well know how the most joyful peace in our family has constantly been kept for her; you do not ignore the wisdom of her education, which she has given you, her attentions, her domestic vigilance, her respectful and tender, firm and condescending demeanor depending on the occasion; pity for her is not childish, but solid, not affected, but sincere, and always equal to herself in every event.


You therefore do not want to imitate my past mistakes, but rather the prudent discernment of this last choice of mine. Not among the gay and famous conversations, not in the Theaters, not among the dances you must seek your bride; she looks for the one that doesn't look for you, don't let yourself be dazzled by charms and events, but let the qualities of the heart fall in love with you, especially modesty, ingenuity, love of retirement and domestic occupations.

I have always hated marriages commonly referred to as political, I have made serious reflections on the frequent disastrous successes of the majority of marriages, and I am convinced that I have found the reasons for it, that is, in the fact that these conjugal unions are neither natural nor Christian, not natural, because deprived of the sympathy of the heart, of the conformity of thought, of the convenience of habits; non-Christian, because they are often preceded by long and perilous flirtations, by inconvenient freedoms, and by more than brutal ends.

Often we still see, and more often among the Greats of the century, two young spouses who never or almost never saw and loved each other, approach the Altar tying themselves with an indissoluble knot, unhappy victims immolated to the avarice and prejudices. Unfortunately, almost immediately, many dissensions, many conflicts, many infidelities, many scandalous separations for the common people, and harmful to filial upbringing, which often end with the total ruin of morals and property, arise from here.

I do not mean by this that equality of conditions in marriages, and a commensurate dowry are not valueable and desirable, but I mean only to insinuate that these qualities are of lesser weight, and deserve the least of your looks. However, warn in any case that a showy and large dowry brings with it large expenses and often the greatest pretensions, and that in a bride the excellence of moral qualities and the firm maxim of limiting one's desires to the circumstances form a great addition to the paternal substances of the husband, even if these were a little below mediocrity.


I consider myself rich and great, because content with my present condition, I desire nothing more than what I possess: sincere and mutual love, unalterable peace, the practice of the domestic and Christian virtues which reign in my house, with the addition of those few comforts that I owe to my Ancestors form me that kind of happiness that I can claim in this Earth.


L. Danieli


Infos: acrimperi@gmail.com



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