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The Austrian Volunteer Corps in Mexico

Mexican Adventure: Crisp Pages: Austrian Volunteer Corps in Mexico

When Archduke Maximilian of Austria accepted the offer of the Mexican traditionalists to become Emperor of Mexico his older brother, Kaiser Franz Josef, was very much against the move.

Nonetheless, as far as international protocol would allow he was not willing to abandon his brother defenseless in the notoriously chaotic and violence-ridden political landscape of Mexico.

To help defend the new Mexican Emperor he authorized the formation of the Austrian Volunteer Corps. In command was General Franz Graf Thun-Hohenstein, a native of Bohemia and esteemed veteran of the 1848 rebellions, the war with France and a former aid to the legendary Field Marshal Radetsky.

Graf von Thun took over the unit after being chosen by Archduke Maximilian following a formative period during which the corps was guided by Baron von Herdern, Ritter von Uieyski and General La Vigne since April 1, 1864. Once the corps was formed the Austrian Kaiser Franz Josef released Graf von Thun to join the Imperial Mexican Army on August 20.

The Austrian Volunteer Corps must have been quite a sight at their arrival in Mexico and contributed a great deal to the extreme colorfulness of the Imperial Mexican Army.

The force fighting for or on behalf of Emperor Maximilian included troops as diverse as Mexican militiamen, French Foreign Legionnaires, Belgian grenadiers, American volunteers, Austrian riflemen and Hungarian hussars.

The Austrian Volunteer Corps was almost like a miniature army itself, consisting of pioneer, artillery, cavalry and light infantry troops.

Once on the scene in Mexico Graf von Thun set up shop in Puebla and during the course of his duties displayed an independent streak that won him no favors with Marshal Bazaine, commander of the French forces, nor Emperor Maximilian himself whose idealism envisioned an army without national units. The determination of Graf von Thun to maintain the Austrian corps as a separate and independent fighting force did not endear him to his commanders and he was never as highly praised or decorated as was Baron Van der Smissen, commander of the Belgian legion.

Of the time the Austrian Volunteer Corps spent in Mexico, 1865 was the only full year they were able to serve in the ongoing campaign against the republican armies of Benito Juarez. Though not without their troubles, on the whole they performed admirably with skill and tenacity.

On May 6, 1866 the United States formally protested to Francis Joseph about the presence of Austrian troops in Mexico; a violation, the US claimed, of the Monroe Doctrine which declared Latin America off-limits to non-American powers.

The same month, also under pressure from the United States, Napoleon III ordered the withdrawal of all French troops from Mexico.

On July 8, 1866 a crushing defeat was inflicted on the Mexican Imperial Army by republican troops under General Mariano Escobedo at Santa Gertrudis in Nuevo Leon.

Graf von Thun
The imperial forces, led by General Rafael Olvera, included 290 Austrian troops who acquitted themselves quite bravely in the vanguard of the imperial army and who, when surrounded and outnumbered, chose to fix bayonets and charge to their deaths while many of their Mexican compatriots surrendered or even defected to the republican side

Throughout the rest of the year the situation worsened for the Mexican monarchy with city after city falling into republican hands. By December, Emperor Maximilian officially dissolved the Austrian and Belgian foreign contingents but hoped they would stay on as part of the regular Imperial Mexican Army.

Some did, but the vast majority, seeing that the game was up, returned home as did their commander Graf von Thun. Kaiser Franz Josef decorated him for his service in defense of his brother who was soon to be executed by Benito Juarez.

In 1867 Graf von Thun rejoined the Imperial Royal Army of Austria-Hungary as a major general and was eventually made a marshal and given command of the Tyrol region; second in his heart only to his native Bohemia. He married and continued to serve honorably until ill health forced him out of service in 1883. He officially retired in 1887 and died the following year


Occasionally updated by Tim Peterson