Book Review: The Alps

Stephen O’Shea’s book, The Alps, is a quirky and charming account of the author’s trips through the namesake mountain range. Labelled as a “human history”, I figured I would give it a read after reading the inside cover to discover mentions of Hannibal Barca, Caporetto, Napoleon, and Adolph Hitler. The promises of military history were certainly there for the taking and considering O’Shea’s goof reviews from the press, it seemed like a good read. The book covers the author’s trip spanning Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Slovenia along arguably the world’s most iconic mountain ranges. Stopping at Mont Blanc, Matterhorn, and other legendary sights, O’Shea’s down-to-earth writing style makes this book one for every historian’s list.

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Praise:

O’Shea is one of those writers who takes you with him. When he goes someplace, you go too. Linguists will certainly enjoy  The Alps for its wide use of language. The varying dialects of the Alps are conveyed beautifully by the author throughout the book. He does point out some very intriguing historical sights such as the Isonzo Front museum in Slovenia or Hitler’s Eagles Nest. His remarks on the collective nouns for groups of bikers (a goulash of Hungarian bikers, a pilsner of Czech bikers, etc.) are something to chuckle about too.

Criticism:

Dutchmen beware. O’Shea is custom to cracking jokes about the Dutch throughout the book as they appear to be the brunt of many jokes made by him or any Swiss or French he encounters. The most disappointing thing for me was the lack of military history in the book. I was enticed by promises of Caporetto, Napoleon’s Italy campaign, and more but was rewarded with maybe two or three pages entirely on each. This was certainly a disappointment; after all, this is a military history blog. The book was placed in the history section of my library, but, it would be much more properly placed in travel. It is more of a travel-history rather than history. He visits places, discusses the history, and describes his experience vividly. It just seems to lack a lot of military history, and focuses more on general history.

For any Hapsburg, language, Sound of Music, mountaineering, or travel enthusiast; this is a spectacular book. For military historians? No. I certainly enjoyed reading Stephen O’Shea and I am by no account saying “do not read his book.” This is just not what somebody interested in the battles of the Isonzo would want to pick up. Luckily for me, I am a Hapsburg and language junkie so this was perfectly fine for me. Notably, O’Shea has also written a book on travelling the battlefields of the Western Front in World War I. I am certainly intrigued and hope for a more military-centred book.

Rating: 3/5

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Uniforms of the Ages: Hungarians in Austrian Service

The heavily multicultural Austrian Empire divided its army into two main nationalities: Germans and Hungarians. While the majority of these units were not actually of those nations, the Hungarian troops were some of the more elaborately dressed.

Throughout Austria’s history, the Hungarians have retained the same core elements of their uniform, changing only when the uniform style did. The first appearance of specific “Hungarian” troops was around the reign of Maria Theresa and the War of Austrian Succession. There were Hungarian troops prior to this war, but the special uniforms were not adopted until then. Hungary had only been part of the Habsburg Empire since 1541. A large partition had separated it from Bohemia and placed it under the influence of Austria.

Gyulay Regiment  in the 7 Years War

The most notable part of the Hungarian uniform was the gold braiding on the front of the pants in a knotted style. This “Hungarian knot” was a braided lace design that was notably used by Confederate officers in the US Civil War. For the Hungarians, this pattern was on both pant legs in a golden lace. Unlike “German” troops, the pants of these soldiers were a light blue while Germans wore white or gray.

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Confederate General Braxton Bragg with a Hungarian knot

The uniforms changed over time with style of warfare. Tricorne hats and long coats were soon replaced by helmets and higher pants during the Napoleonic Wars. The helmets were extremely cumbersome, and provided little protection to a soldier when he wore them. In 1809, Austrian troops swapped their helmets for the shako, which was used by almost all of the major world powers at that time. The Hungarian pattern, however, remained on the uniform. By the Napoleonic Wars, the trousers of Hungarian troops had been added to as well; a black and gold stripe ran down the side of the pants. 

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Hungarian Grenadiers

Post-Napoleon, Hungarian troops played an even larger role in the Austrian Army. The ratio of German units to Hungarian units was almost even as the population increased. By the next reforms, Hungarian troops wore the new shorter shako and their coats were given gold lace around the facings. These uniforms would carry them through the Italian Wars of Independence and the Austro-Prussian War.

The Hungarians achieved a dual monarchy in 1867, establishing the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Uniforms remained the same until 1908 when a new, modern uniform was introduced. The hechtgrau (pike-gray) uniform was more subtle than the white and light blue the Hungarians previously wore, but their knotted pattern still stayed on their pants. By 1918, the Empire fell after their defeat in the First World War, and the Hungarian uniform disappeared with it.

Hungary used a drab coloured uniform after the fall of the Dual Monarchy, and discontinued any of the previous gold lace on their pants or coats. By the Second World War, the old uniform style was completely gone, and just as the Austrian Empire changed with age, the Royal Hungarian Army changed too.