Friday, 3 January 2014

Review: Radetzky: Imperial Victor and Military Genius

Radetzky: Imperial Victor and Military Genius
Radetzky: Imperial Victor and Military Genius by Alan Sked

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book fails for trying too hard. Sked is so busy insisting on Radetzky’s genius without always providing sufficient proof that the reader becomes suspicious. Sked always takes the Austrian side, and among Austrians always that of Radetzky.

There is no doubt that Radetzky was a very brave and capable officer, and his early career provides numerous examples in various theatres and roles. In the wake of the defeat at Wagram, the 42 year old general was appointed as chief of the general staff. In the following years he would be instrumental in rebuilding the Austrian army from scarce means and leading it to victory and the occupation of Paris in 1814.

He would remain active as a commander, thinker and organiser in the following 35 years. But his finest hour would be his victory at old age in 1848 and 1849 against Italian revolutionaries and nationalist led by the king of Sardinia-Piedmont. Clearly, Sked is most at home in the crisis of revolutionary Italy in 1848-9 (on which he has published before). This is where he uses primary sources at great length to support his narrative.

But his account of the Napoleonic Wars is based on secondary sources. Surprisingly, Radetzky sometimes doesn’t actively contribute for several pages, as if he’s not the driving force that Sked maintains he is. I would have been curious to know how Schwarzenberg, commander of the allied army, and Radetzky interacted: was Schwarzenberg the guy who sold Radetzky’s plans to the monarchs or did he add his own ideas? When Schwarzenberg is said to have made a decision, was it really his? Radetzky’s strategic principles are set out clearly, but what was his day to day role in the army? This lack of added detail means that his description of the 1813 and 1814 campaign adds very little to other accounts.

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