April and May of 1849 were miraculous for the Hungarian defence forces fighting against the invading armies of the Habsburgs. One year earlier, there was no Hungarian army, while Vienna commanded one of the most powerful in Europe, which once defeated even Napoleon. The leaders of the March 15 revolution, however, not only managed to organize a modern, civic state but also created an army capable of defeating the Habsburgs. Franz Joseph needed help.
April was the month of consecutive Hungarian military victories over the Habsburg forces. By end-April, Vienna’s troops were retreating from Hungary on every front. Leaders of the Hungarian Defence Forces debated whether to attack the capital of the Habsburg Empire or retake the nation’s capital, Buda. Finally, they decided to do the latter and laid siege in early May.
Interestingly, Artúr Görgei, the leader of the Hungarian army, asked the Habsburg commander of Buda not to shell the Classicist palaces of Pest. But the general refused and destroyed almost all of them. The Hungarian army retook Buda Castle after a short siege on May 21. Therefore, it is now the Day of the Hungarian Military.
However, Emperor Franz Joseph (1848-1916) agreed with Russian tsar Nicholas I (1825-1855) on May 1 to crush the Hungarian revolution and freedom fight together. Interestingly, the tsar sent a mighty army instead of an expeditionary force to aid the Habsburgs. Moscow’s invasion brought 200 thousand soldiers to Hungary.
The first Russian troops arrived on the battlefields in June. Görgei wanted to fight with the returning Habsburg forces and the Russians separately. However, he was not supported by Lajos Kossuth and the government. They decided to continue the fighting the Southern regions of the country and designated the area around Temesvár and Arad to rally all forces.
Görgei obeyed and managed to escape from Habsburg and Russian forces. However, by the time he arrived near Arad, Haynau had defeated the main Hungarian army led by Transylvania’s hero, the Polish general Jozef Bem near Temesvár. Historians agree that, following this defeat, military resistance became futile.
News of the defeat did not reach Görgei, Kossuth and the government right away. On August 10, the Hungarian government decided to offer the Holy Crown to a member of the tsar’s family. They formulated two conditions: first was the acceptance of the 1848 April laws, which created a modern, civic Hungary and destroyed feudalism. The second was Hungary’s status within the empire which they wanted to be similar to the Congress Poland between 1815-1830.
The government even added that they would recognize Emperor Franz Joseph as a king if he accepted the April laws. If the Russians and the Habsburgs refused to accept these terms and the Hungarian army suffered a crushing defeat on the battlefield, the government suggested surrender.
The news about Bem’s defeat near Temesvár came at night, and the next day Kossuth and members of the government resigned. Furthermore, Kossuth gave absolute power to Görgei and left the country. Since the Russians accepted only unconditional surrender, but they were the only chance to avoid a cruel Habsburg retribution, Görgei decided to put down arms in front of the Russian troops on August 13.
However, Nicholas I’s intervention could save only Görgei’s life (he died in 1916, reaching the age of 98). After the Hungarian troops’ surrender, Haynau started a reprisal making Austrian politicians persona non grata everywhere in Europe. Between 1849 and 1850, 130 people were executed, hundreds were imprisoned, and 40-50 thousand Hungarian soldiers were conscripted into the Habsburg army.
Source: DNH, Rubicon