Joseph Alvinczy, Freiherr von Berberek (1735-1810) was a successful Austrian commander who is rather unfairly best known for his two failures to lift the siege of Mantua in 1796-97. He was born at Alvincz, in Transylvania (close the Hungarian/ Romanian border) and spent his childhood in the household of Graf Franz Gyulai before joining the army as a Fähnrich (ensign) at the age of 14.
In 1753 Alvinczy was promoted to Hauptmann (captain) and given command of a Grenadier company. During the Seven Years War he led this company at Torgau (3 November 1760) and Teplitz (now Teplice in the Czech Republic, this battle appears in biographies of Alvinczy but nowhere else!) and was promoted to zweiter major (second major) for his courage at Teplitz. After the Seven Years War Alvinczy spent some time implementing Field Marshal Franz Moritz Graf Lacy's 1769 uniform and drill regulations,
In 1774 he was promoted to Oberst (colonel commanding) and given command of Infanterie Regiment No.19. He led this regiment during the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778-79), capturing both the 'Bohemian Gate' in 1779 and Prince Hessen-Phillipsthal, commander of the Prussian force. He was rewarded for this success with a promotion to Generalmajor and the Knight's Cross of the Order of Marie Theresa. It also earned him a position as a military tutor to the further Emperor Francis II, and the post of Inhaber (honorary colonel) of Infanterie Regiment 19.
During the Austro-Turkish War of 1788-1791 Alvinczy served under Field Marshal Laudon, with orders to capture Belgrade, but he was unable to achieve this objective. While the war with Turkey was still in progress the Austrian Netherlands rose in rebellion. Alvinczy was promoted to Feldmarschallleutnant (lieutenant general) and sent north to suppress the revolt, but he was injured in a fall from his horse and forced to retire.
War of the First Coalition
Alvinczy returned to the army in 1792, at the start of the War of the First Coalition. He commanded a division during the battle of Neerwinden (18 March 1793) and was awarded the Commander Cross of the Maria Theresa Order for rallying his division at a key point in the battle and then capturing the village of Neerwinden.
The victory at Neerwinden forced the French to pull out of the Austrian Netherlands, but the Allies missed a good chance to advance on Paris and instead began a series of long sieges that gave the French time to recover. This went on into 1794, when the Allies settled down to besiege Landrecies (17-30 April 1794). Alvinczy was given command of the left wing of the covering force during this siege, and was wounded twice during the battle of Landrecies or Beaumont-en-Cambresis (26 April 1794), a French attack on the entire covering force.
After recovering from his wounds Alvinczy was promoted to Feldzeugmiester (General) and served as an advisor to the Prince of Orange, who was in command on the Allied left around Charleroi. In mid June Alvinczy was partly responsible for the Allied attack which ended the short second French siege of Charleroi (12-16 June 1794). Alvinczy had two horses shot from under him, and was rewarded with the Grand Cross of the Maria Theresa Order. This allied success was short lived. The French soon advanced again, and Charleroi surrendered on 25 June. On the following day an Allied relief attempt was defeated at Fleurus (26 June 1794).
After the defeat at Fleurus the Allied position in Belgium collapsed. The Austrians began to retreat to the east, forcing the British and Dutch to retreat into Holland. In November the British were on the Waal, while Alvinczy had command of 30,000 Austrian troops covering their left, defending a line that ran from the Pannarden Canal to Wesel. In the next month the Waal froze, and the French broke into the Netherlands. Alvinczy's covering force was no longer needed, and he was appointed commander of the Army of the Upper Rhine, before later in 1795 being summoned back to Vienna to serve on the Hofkriegsrat (Army Council).
In the spring of 1796 Napoleon began his successful invasion of Italy. Alvinczy was appointed to organise a militia in the Tyrol, which was soon 10,000 strong. While Alvinczy was in the Tyrol Napoleon won a series of victories that brought him to the gates of Mantua. General Würmser made two unsuccessful attempts to lift the siege, before being trapping in Mantua himself. In the aftermath of this disaster Alvinczy was given command of the Austrian forces in Italy, and was ordered to make a third attempt to raise the siege.
His first attempt came in November 1797. The Austrians had one army in the Tyrol and a second at Friuli, to the north east of Venice. Alvinczy decided to advance with both of these armies. He hoped to unite his forces at Verona and then turn south towards Mantua. At first all went well. The French forces east of Verona were forced back towards the city, while General Davidovich pushed down the Adige Valley from the Tyrol. On 12 November Alvinczy repulsed a French attack at Caldiero, and the two Austrian armies were within a few miles of each other. Napoleon was temporarily discouraged, but decided to risk an attack on Alvinczy's left and rear. As the Austrians advanced west towards Verona they were funnelled between the Adige River and the Alps. Napoleon attacked across the Adige at Ronco, threatening Alvinczy's line of retreat to the east (battle of Arcola, 15-17 November 1797). On the first day a small Croat unit managed to hold the bridge at Arcole, and Alvinczy was able to escape with most of his army intact.
His second relief attempt did not end so well. This time Alvinczy decided to advance down the Adige Valley, while a second army under General Provera made for Mantua from the north east. On 13 January 1797 Alvinczy ran into General Joubert's division and pushed it down the valley to Rivoli. That night the Austrians prepared a typically elaborate plan involving six columns that may well have resulted in the capture of Joubert's 10,000 men, but overnight Napoleon arrived at Rivoli, while Masséna was close behind. Instead of surrounding an isolated French division the Austrian plan gave Napoleon the chance to defeat each Austrian column in turn (battle of Rivoli, 14 January 1797). At the end of the day Alvinczy was forced to retreat, having already lost around 10,000 men. By the time the French pursuit ended the Austrians had lost 15,000 men.
After this final defeat Alvinczy was bedridden with swollen feet. He was replaced by the Archduke Charles, who proved to be no more able to stop Napoleon. Alvinczy's defeats did not end his career although it was his last active service. He was appointed Military Governor of Hungary, served as an Imperial Adviser, and in 1808 was promoted to Field Marshal. Alvinczy had been a brave, popular and able commander, but by the time he arrived in Italy he was over sixty, ill and not as physically active as he needed to be.