Richard Bassett begins this book by ruefully quoting Talleyrand’s quip that ‘Austria has the tiresome habit of always being beaten’, which brings to mind that other unkind saying – that the Italian army only existed in order to provide the Austrians with someone to defeat. He then sets out ‘to explore whether the Habsburgs’ army’s reputation for inefficiency, incompetence, general unreliability, and even cruelty, is at all justified’. Calling to his aid an impressively broad array of sources, he demonstrates with engaging verve that it is not.
On 5 June 1619 the fervently Catholic Archduke Ferdinand was rescued from the Hofburg in Vienna, which had been surrounded by the forces of the Protestant Bohemian nobility, whom he had defied, by a few hundred cuirassiers of the Dampierre regiment of the Imperial Austrian Army. Bassett sees this as a defining moment in Habsburg history, at which a very particular bond was tied between the army and the monarchy, quite unlike the relationship between rulers and their armies elsewhere in Europe.