Philipp Freiherr von Vukassovich, 1755-1809

Philipp Freiherr von Vukassovich (1755-1809) was an Austrian general of Croat birth who rose to high rank as a result of his performance during the campaigns in Italy in 1796-7 and 1799. He fell from grace in 1805 but was recalled in 1809 and died leading his brigade at the battle of Wagram.

Vukassovich's father was an officer of 1. Licca Grenz (Military Frontier) Regiment, and after graduating from the Wiener Neustadt academy in 1771 he joined the same regiment as an Fähnrich (ensign). His early military experience came against the Turks. In 1780 he served in Montenegro, while between January and September 1788 (during the last Austro-Turkish War) he was involved in an unsuccessful attempt to convince the Pasha of Scutari to rebel against the Turks. Despite the failure of this effort he was promoted to major and awarded the Maria Theresa Order.

After the Austro-Turkish War Vukassovich was given the task of raising a new unit, the Gyulai Freikorps, from the inhabitants of the Adriatic coast. This unit consisted of twelve infantry companies and four hussar squadrons, and for some time Vukassovich was commander of the unit, with the rank of Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant-Colonel).

In 1794 Vukassovich was promoted to Oberst (Colonel Commanding). During the War of the First Coalition he served on the Italian front. He played a prominent part in the battle of Loana (23-25 November 1795), where he commanded the Karlstadt District battalion. This unit defended La Certosa monastery against a French attack for nine hours before it was forced to surrender.

At the start of Napoleon's campaign in Italy in 1796 the Austrians reacted to a French feint towards Genoa. Vukassovich was part of the force that moved to Voltri, on the Italian Riviera, to block a non-existent threat to the city. When the Austrians realised that Napoleon was actually crossing the Apennines somewhere to the west, Vukassovich was ordered to move west to Dego, a key position in the Bormida valley. The order arrived too late for him to arrive in take part in the first day of the battle of Dego (14-15 April 1796), and a French under Masséna captured the position. Vukassovich, at the head of 3,000 men, arrived on the night of 14-15 April and launched a counterattack that swept the French out of Dego. On the following day Napoleon rushed reinforcements to Dego, and Vukassovich was forced to retreat.

Vukassovich was in Mantua for the first part of the siege, but by September he had escaped from the city. He was promoted to Generalmajor and given command of a brigade in the Austrian army in the Tyrol.

During the September 1796 attempt to raise the siege of Mantua Vukassovich was given the task of defending Ala and Serravalle, the two southernmost Austrian positions in the Adige Valley, while the main Austrian army would move east along the Sugana valley and attempt to reach Mantua from the north east. Unfortunately for the Austrians at the start of September Napoleon began to advance up the Adige Valley, in the first stage of a planned advance into Germany. On 3 September, the day before the battle of Rovereto, Vukassovich was forced out of his positions by Napoleon's central column (Masséna) and pulled back to Calliano. On 5 September Masséna attacked this position, and Vukassovich was once again forced to retreat, first to Trento and then further north up the Adige Valley. When the French reached Trento they learnt of the Austrian plan, and gave chase down the Sugana valley, catching and defeating the Austrians at Bassano (8 September 1796)

The final attempt to raise the siege of Mantua involved two Austrian armies operating independently. Vukassovich accompanied the main army under Feldzeugmeister Joseph Alvinczy Freiherr von Berberek. Alvinczy advanced down the Adige valley, eventually running into a French force under General Joubert at Rivoli. The battle of Rivoli (14 January 1797) was Napoleon's most comprehensive victory during his first campaign in Italy. Alvinczy split his army into six columns in an attempt to envelop Joubert, but this left him vulnerable when Napoleon arrived with reinforcements, and the Austrian army was beaten in detail. Vukassovich's column played a very minor part in the battle. Having been sent down the eastern bank of the Adige all he was able to do was provide some artillery support across the river before he was forced to retreat by French success on the west bank. 

In 1799 Vukassovich was appointed Inhaber (Honorary Colonel) of the newly formed Infanterie Regiment 48. He played a part in the victorious Allied advance across northern Italy, most notably at the battle of Cassano (27 April 1799) which led to the fall of Milan. On the day before the battle Vukassovich successfully crossed the Adda at Brivio and sent scouting parties towards Milan. His forces didn't play a major part in the main battle, but on 28 April he surrounded General Sérurier's isolated division at Verderio and forced it to surrender. Vukassovich then commanded a column that was sent into north west Piedmont, where during May he captured a number of fortresses.

Early in 1800 Vukassovich was promoted to Feldmarschalleutnant (Lieutenant General), and was given the task of defending the northern approaches to Milan. In mid May Napoleon entered the Great St. Bernard Pass at the start of his second invasion of Italy. When he reached the Italian plains he discovered that Milan was weakly defended, and so instead of heading directly south to Turin and Genoa, where Masséna was under siege, Napoleon turned east. Vukassovich was badly outnumbered and was forced to evacuate Milan. The French entered the city on 2 June. Vukassovich managed to escape with his corps largely intact, and retreated to Mantua. He thus missed the decisive battle of Marengo (14 June 1800). This effectively ended the fighting in Italy, but Vukassovich was given command of a corps in the Tyrol towards the end of the year.

In 1805, at the start of the War of the Third Coalition, Vukassovich was given command of the advance guard of the Archduke Charles's army in northern Italy. He didn't perform well in early fighting around Verona, and was dismissed from command.

In 1809, at the start of the War of the Fifth Coalition, Vukassovich was recalled and given command of the advance-guard of III Korps. Vukassovich was killed leading his division during the battle of Wagram (5-6 July 1809).

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (6 February 2009), Philipp Freiherr von Vukassovich, 1755-1809 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_vukassovich.html

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