The Battle of Vukovar was the only major battle of the Balkan War involving the Austrian Empire. Fought over three days from 19 to 21 July 1852, the battle began as part of an Austrian counteroffensive, led by Field Marshal Ferenc Gyulay, to oust the invading Ottoman army under Field Marshal Omar Pasha. A series of maneuver battles, culminating in a final four-hour fight just outside the city itself, resulted in the capitulation of a large portion of the Austrian army. With the Ottoman army thus poised to invade Austria almost unopposed – the Empire had been given a quota of only about 110,000 men as part of the Allied agreement, and thus more had not been mobilized – the Austrian Empire sued for peace in the subsequent Treaty of Vukovar, forcing them out of the war just one year into the conflict. It is regarded as Omar Pasha's greatest tactical victory, and close comparisons have since been drawn by historians to the Ulm Campaign of 1805.
The Ottoman Army at the beginning of the Balkan War was no laughing matter, and a far cry from what it had been just twenty years earlier. The proclamation of the Great Reform by Mahmud II, and the resounding success of its military reform provisions, greatly increased the effectiveness of the Ottoman military. With the Janissaries eliminated in the Auspicious Incident of 1827, the Sultan was allowed the room he needed to cut down on the government's bloated military bureaucracy, consolidating the Army into about 60,000 men during peacetime. Basing their knowledge off acquired French training manuals, the army was instilled with a great discipline of training, and the overall quality of the soldiers themselves drastically improved. With industrialization spreading throughout the Ottoman Balkans and Anatolia (it would take on slower in the Middle Eastern provinces), war industries were able to mass produce the weapons and ammunition required of the army in the event of mobilization. Modern weapons were issued to army regiments, and railroads began to be built (primarily in the Balkans), thereby providing the army with the means to transport troops far distances on land in short periods of time.
By 1852, the Empire was fully mobilized for the large coalition they were facing, and the army and navy had already fought several battles against the enemy. Omar Pasha, whose job it had been to organize Ottoman troops in the until-then quiet Balkans, moved into Imperial Croatia in early July to goad the Austrians into attacking him. At his disposal were approximately 89,000 men – only about 10,000 of whom were regular soldiers – and over 140 guns of various types. Armed with the relatively new Kartal 07 – the first mass-produced Ottoman rifle, designed in 1848 – Ottoman troops were given parity with their similarly-armed opponents in regards to effective firing range, accuracy, and overall quality.
While most of the Ottoman guns that were used in the battle were 12-pounder field guns of various make and model, Pasha also brought with him several 4-inch mortars, heavy howitzers, and 6-inch light horse artillery guns. The latter he used most effectively on the first and second days, shifting his horse artillery rapidly to points that were under pressure from the Austrian attacks. His siege artillery proved extremely useful during the final day of the battle.
By 1851 the Ottoman Army was widely considered by most European observers and officers as an equal to its European counterparts – the first time in over a century. Omar Pasha had at his disposal three large corps of almost 30,000 men apiece. This required less micromanagement on the part of Pasha and his staff during the battle, which historians regard as having a critical effect on the outcome.
The Austrian Army in 1852 was not entirely dissimilar from how it was organized at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. It was deemed a match for the Ottoman and Russian armies, but, as with all other European armed forces, it could not, in a prolonged engagement, last against the French.
The Austrian Army's reputation had not improved much since the Battle of Fürth. Though regulars were often disciplined enough and obeyed orders from superior officers, militia and conscripts were much worse than their other European counterparts. Though the standard infantryman's training regimen was of adequate quality, including most of the newest maneuvers and tactical drills, the training of many junior officers in the military was all-around poor. Many officers that fought at Vukovar operated under the assumption that the Ottomans were still armed with smoothbore muskets, and thus were shocked when their men came under accurate fire from some 200 yards away. Many artillery officers – most of whom, granted, had not formally been trained at an artillery school – were unaware of the maximum effective range of their guns, and therefore never utilized them to their greatest extent.
That is not to say, however, that the Austrian Army and its commanders were inept. Several high-ranking officers in the army were widely regarded as some of the most able and talented in their kind in all of Europe; namely Field Marshals Ferenc Gyulay, Ludwig von Welden, Josip Jelačić, Julius Jacob von Haynau, and Prince Alfred of Windisch-Grätz. Many regiments and their junior officers would also distinguish themselves for great bravery and skill at Vukovar.
Austrian equipment during the war composed mainly of firearms and artillery designed in the 1830s and early 1840s. They were all for the most part more reliable and required less maintenance than the newer and untested Ottoman weapons (particularly the Kartal 07, which despite its effectiveness was not trusted by the officers of the men that wielded it, fearing it would perform poorly in battle).
Gyulay brought with him in his expedition to oust the Ottoman army 120 guns, the large majority of which were 12-pounder field guns. He also brought with him two batteries of howitzers and one battery of experimental rifled cannon, which was entirely untested in battle to this point. They would play a critical role in the fighting on the second day.
Gyulay's army was organized into four corps of roughly two divisions each (7,000–10,000 men). Each corps was assigned a smaller cavalry division of a few thousand men; there were no cavalry units attached to other parts of the divisions and corps.
First day: 19 July
Attack of Benedek's division
Benedek's 4th Division, a part of II Corps under Lieutenant General Friedrich Zobel, was the first Austrian unit to have eyes on the Ottoman forces camped along the western bank of the Danube at around 7 am. Having marched from Odžaci that morning, Benedek hoped to move his troops into position and, with the arrival of reinforcements from the remainder of II Corps later in the morning, to launch a highly aggressive attack on the Ottoman troops and force them out of the town disorganized. Unforunately for him, Ottoman scouts had been tracking the Austrian army since its departure from Odžaci, and were prepared for any attack Benedek was preparing to carry out. Benedek assumed local command over the recently-arrived 5th Division (as he carried seniority over that division's commander) and at 9:30 am moved quickly toward the town. He had temporary pontoon bridges constructed to the north of the town – where the width of the river was not as great as it was closer to the town. Ottoman skirmishers fired on the first Austrian infantry units to make it to the western bank of the river, at around 11 am, and only withdrew when Benedek brought up his artillery.
Pasha, in an attempt to destroy Bendek's two isolated divisions before more reinforcements could arrive, shifted the remainder of the First Corps (with detached elements of the Second Corps) to destroy Benedek in detail. At 30 minutes past noon, Benedek marching south toward the village of Borovo, which he expected to have been heavily fortified and reinforced. He was correct in his assumption, as already some 16,000 Ottomans were there and waiting, with thousands more just minutes away. A furious Austrian artillery barrage was ordered as infantry made concerted pushes toward the town, but were driven back twice. With hundreds dead and wounded already on the field – and with more Austrian reinforcements arriving – Pasha knew he could not get tied down in a fight such as this. He withdrew to the southwest – abandoning Vukovar altogether, though not before he ordered it torched – and consolidated his forces some ten miles to the west.
Benedek was relieved of local command at 4 pm with the arrival of Gyulay and the rest of II and III Corps. I Corps – composed of the most experienced men of the Austrian army – had not yet arrived, and only half a division of IV Corps was on the field. Gyulay established his headquarters at Borovo, where it would remain until the end of the day.
Cavalry battle at Vinkovci
With most of the Austrian army now on the field, Pasha had no time to waste. Pasha had established his headquarters about six miles north of Vinkovci, where he expected the next main Austrian advance to take place. Ottoman skirmishers, which continued to harass the Austrian troops in and around Borovo, reported large concentrations of cavalry crossing the river to the north and coming south through the town. Pasha mobilized his own cavalry reserves, under the command of Major General György Kmety (a Hungarian expatriate), some 4,600 in all, to deal with this threat. Kmety rode southeast toward the fields east of Vinkovci (which was already in the process of being fortified by men of the Third Corps) in an attempt to goad the Austrian cavalry into a melee. The commander of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Cavalry Divisions (all cavalry divisions in Gyulay's army), Major General Prince Alexander von Mensdorff-Pouilly, took the bait and rapidly rode west to meet Kmety.
Two batteries of artillery from the Ottoman Third Corps opened fire on Alexander's cavalry as they approached, and at 6:30 pm Kmety counter-charged the Austrians. A fierce melee ensued, involving over 11,000 cavalrymen on both sides, which lasted until almost sundown at a few minutes before 8 pm. Alexander was forced to withdraw, as Ottoman infantry were moving into a firing position from the north (threatening to cut him off from the rest of the Austrian army). Over 3,000 men were dead and wounded. The fighting around Vinkovci had effectively neutralized both army's cavalry from the battle, and they would not play a major part for the rest of the fight.
Occupation of Vukovar
During the cavalry battle at Vinkovci, Gyulay continued to move the rest of his army into position. IV Corps was entirely deployed by nightfall and I Corps would arrive a little before midnight. At around 7:30 pm he had ordered Vukovar taken, not yet aware that the town had been fully abandoned hours beforehand. Just an hour later it was declared secure, and Gyulay shifted his headquarters there, where it would remain until the end of the battle. Austrian and Ottoman skirmishers would exchange fire for most of the evening and even well into the night, mostly to the north and northwest of Vukovar. During the night, Pasha convened a council of war among his corps commanders and general staff, where they deliberated for some time before deciding on preparing for a potential Austrian attack the following day. Gyulay had given orders to prepare for such an attack, to begin at around 6:30 the next morning.
Second day: 20 July
Battle of Bogdanovci
The Austrian attack is beaten back
Ottoman assaults after sunset
Third day: 21 July
The Ottoman grand battery opens fire
Schwarzenberg's first break-out attempt
First Ottoman assault
Second Ottoman assault
Schwarzenberg's second attempt
Final Ottoman assault