Croatian Times - London, July/August 1998, Issue 25

By Branko Franolic, London


After defeating the combined Russian and Austrian amies at Austerlitz (Sadkov) in 1805, Napoleon promoted nations penalized under the ancien regime, especially the Poles, Italians and Croats.

Thus at the Peace of Pressburg (Bratislava) in December 1805, Austria lost territory to French client states, and Napoleon turned the Croat lands into the French provinces of Illyria (1805 1813), a new geopolitical construct.

Ruled by Marshal Marrnont from 1805-1810, who was promoted to the title of the Duke of Ragusa (Dubrovnik) in 1809, the Illyrian Republic enjoyed little autonomy but still benefited from exposure to modern western institutions, reforms and ideas.

Illyrianism: first taste of Croatian statehood

The Illyrian Republic collapsed with the defeat of Napoleon, and its territory was returned to Austria at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. However, the short-lived Illyrian Republic was the Croats' first experience of modern "statehood" and an inspiration for the Illyrianism of the 1830s, a Croatian intellectual movement which attempted to keep both Germanization and Magyarization at bay by promoting a cultural and national revival, and by stressing the solidarity of the South Slav peoples.

Moves to recruit Croatian soldiers for British service

It was after the "Battle of the Nations" at Leipzig in October 1813 that the Napoleonic Empire was beginning to disintegrate, and French rule in Croatia was draw ing to its end. The desertion of Croatian soldiers from the French Service had already started in March 1813, as reported by Lieutenant Colonel R.L.Robertson, Commander of the British military garrison on the Adriatic island of Vis, in two letters sent to Lord Bentinck, Commander in Chief of the British forces, who was based in Sicily.

The letters are dated 16th March 1813, and copies are held in the Public Record Office under the reference WOI/655. The first reads:

"My Lord, Eight Croatians in the French Service having deserted to us from Lessina (Hvar) I have ventured to enlist them into the Corsican Rangers, as they were very desirous to do so, and without any bounty.

They are uncommonly handsome young men, and were forced into the French Service - They are the first Croatians that have deserted to us, but believe more will speedily follow their example, may I request to know if Your Lordship will approve of my entering them into our Service."

Croatians 'robust and brave'

The second letter is a lengthier description of Lt.Col.Robertson's plans to raise a regiment on Vis, which was then known as Lissa:

"My Lord, In consequence of the state of Dalmatia and Croatia at this moment as well as the evident inclination of many of the inhabi tants of those countries / who are so remarkable as a robust and brave race of people / to enter into the service of GreatBritain I am induced to propose the raising of a Regt. in this island, which I make no doubt I can accomplish with the greatest facility from my own knowledge of the people and also from that of some Officers and others whom I should emply on this Service. This Regt. I conceive would not only be of infinite service to Great Britain as soldiers in the field but would also prove extremely beneficial in a practical point of view, in the present almost defenceless state of those Countries.

I shall not trouble your Lordship by enlarging out the utility of this measure, leaving it to your better judgement to be decided on, but shall give yourLordship a brief sketch of the terms I propose for your Consideration.

A Battn. of 8 Companies, each Company to consist of 1 Captain, 1 Lieut, I Ensign, 4 Sergeants, 4 Corporals, 2 Drummers and 70 Privates the total number of officers to be as follows: 1 Lieut, Co1, 2 Majors, 8 Captains, 8 Lieutenants, 8 ensigns, 1 Paymaster, 1 Adjutant, 1 Qr AMaster, 1 Surgeon, 1 asst. Surgeon, .One Lieut.Col, 1 Major, 4 Captains and 4 Lieuts, to be taken from Officers of the Line, the remaining Companies to be filled up by gentlemen of the same Countries as the men with temporary rank in the army.

The men to be enlisted for five years or during the War, to serve on the Coast and islands of the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas and to receive a bounty of fourteen Dollars per man and to be in every other respect on the same establishments as the Greek Light Infantry. I beg leave to observe that as I am provided with arms and accoutrements sufficient for the number which I propose to raise I have reason to think that the Corps would in a short time be ready for Service.

Should this proposal meet with your Lordship's approbation, and I should proceed in carrying it into execution I should feel highly grateful to your Lordship to recommend me to His Royal Highness the C in Chief to be LieuLCol.Commandant of the prosed Corps."

Vis: 'Gibraltar of the Adriatic'

Vis was considered by the British to be 'the Gibraltar of the Adriatic', and they made good use of it during the Napoleonic wars. The Royal Arms of George III may still be seen on the hills above Viska Luka at Fort Wellington and Fort George. There is also an obelisk commemorating Captain Hoste’s victory over the French Admiral Dubordieu in 1811, as well as British graveyard. The British held the island until 1815, when it was returned to Austria.

Lord Bentinck in praise of Croatian soldiers

Lord William Cavendish Ben-tiuck (1774-1839) went to Sicily in 1811 as Envoy to the Sicilian Court and Commander in Chief of the British forces on the island. Hc remained for three years, nominally as Envoy, but in practice as Governor of the island, to which he introduced constitutional government, modelled to some extent on the British Constitution.

On 20th April 1813, Lord Bentinck forwarded Robertson's letters from Palermo with his own covering letter to Sir Henry Torrens (1779-1828), Aide-de-Camp to the Prince Regent and Colonel in the army. The covering letter (also PRO reference WOI/655) reads as follows:

"I have the honour to enclose two letters from Lieut.Colonel Robertson Commanding at Lissa; in the first he announces the desertion of some Croatians to Lissa and in the second proposes a levy of Corps of the Natives of that Country, of which he begs to be the Commandant.

I consider the Croatians to have infinitely the advantage of the Greeks, because in the latter years of the Austrian War, the Croatians had been formed into regular Regiments, and made as good soldiers as any in the World. The same plan has been pursued by France, to whom these provnces are now subject. I have taken upon myself to authorize Lieut.Col.Robertson to begin by raising one Company upon the same System as the Italian Levy; and if the recruiting should be successful I would propose that such Companies as might be raised should form an additional Battalion or Regt. to the Italian Levy.

If the command of such a Conps were given to an English Officer, a braver or better Officer than Lieut.Col.Robertson could not be selected; but as far as my observation goes the efficiency of these foreign Corps is never so effectually secured as when an Esprit de Nation is established, when the natives of the same Country are united together under the Command of their own Natonal Officers wtih the least possible mixture of other men or officers. I would therefore alway wish by preference, if a good Croatian Officer for example could be found, whose character had been established in the AustrianService that the Command should be given to him, than to one of our own Countrymen; who, whatever his personal merits, must possess the draw-back of not understanding the language or habits of the soldiers he is to command; and cannot accept with time, possess the same share of their regard, as a fellow Countryman. His feelings will vary very much with Circumstances; whether the national Character is high or low, whether the national Officers have or have not a Military reputation; as they had not either in Portugal or India but have in the Austrian states, and in many instances in Italy recruited into the Austrian Service.

Major General Tugent named to me some most distinguished Croatians but I have hitherto refrained from making them any offers, thro the desire of not compromising the Individuals before the Season of action might appear more advanced."

In fact much of the British success in recruiting Croatian soldiers to fight the French was owed to the valiant Irishman Lavall Nugent, who had a fascinating role in the tempestuous events of the early and middle 19th century.

Count Lavall Nugent

British born of Irish descent, Count Nugent (1777-1862) was adopted by an uncle, Oliver, a colonel in the Austrian army, like other members of the Nugent family.

In 1789 Lavall Nugent went to Austria. In 1793, he was appointed a cadet in the Austrian Engineer Corps. By 1805 he was a lieutenant-colonel, and in 1809 he was appointed to the Austrian General Staff. When Austria was allied to France after Napoleon occupied Vienna, Nugent refused to sign the peace conditions and resigned.

Nugen helping British

In 1811, Nugent visited England. The then Secretary of State for War, Earl Bathurst, believed that while in England, Nugent was promised the rank of Major-General in the British service by the Prince-Regent and the then Foreign Secret the Marquis Wellesley. Nugent came to London again in 1812, sent from Sicily by Lord William Bentinck. He retumed to Sicily early in 1813 before going to Spain to pay his respects to the Duke of Wellington, and discuss the possibility of invading Italy to counter Napoleon's power in Europe.

In 1812, after Napoleon's retreat from Russia, Austria rejoined the coalition of states against France. Lavall Nugent appears to have been the first to moot the idea of bringing Croat soldiers into the field and fighting along the Adriatic with the aid of British cruisers, lie raised Croatian units around the inland town of Karlovac, and fought with outstanding success against the French.

Rewards for valour

Nugent was appointed lieutenant-general as a reward for valour, and the British created him a Knight Commander of the Bath. He was made a Prince of the Holy Reman Empire in 1816. The Austrians rewarded him with the castle at Trsat which remained the property of the Nugent family until Nugent's great-grand-daughter died at the age of 82 at the end of the Second World War, The castle subsequently became a tourist restaurant, and all traces of the Nugent family, even the inscriptions on the gravestones, were removed.

Support for Croatian rights

In 1848, Nugent supported Count Jelacic, Governor of Croatia, who was demanding safeguards for Croatian rights from the Hungarian Lajos Kossuth. Nugent’s son Albert distinguished himself as an Austrian staff-officer under the command of General Josip Jelacic, and he was also a close collaborator of Ljudevit Gaj (1809-1872), the first effective spokesman for the 'Illyrian Movement'. Albert eventually left Croatia and died in London on 31st December 1896.

The Nugents fought well against the Hungarians in Croatia, although final defeat was secured by Russian intervention at Austria's request.

Nugent remembered in recent times

In November 1849 Nugent became a Field-Marshal. After a brilliant military career, he retired to his property at Bosiljevo, near Karlovac in central Croatia, where he died on 21st August 1862. Following Croatia's more recent independene, Nugent's career has been movingly described by the Irish writer J.P. Powell (personal communication, article awating publication) in tribute to the contribution of this brave Irishman to Croatian freedom.

Croatian Times was a monthly newsletter published in London, England. It ceased publication in 1998.


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