by Christoph Bathelt Published on: 9th November 2004

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The Bosniac Muslims played a crucial role integrated in the Austro-Hungarian empire and Muslims and Islam continues to have great recognition in Austria.

Every day, TV and newspapers show us in a dramatic way, how the Western world and Islamic world seem to be far apart from each other in many ways. Also within Western societies, discussions go on about planned or failed measures for integrating Muslim fellow-citizens.

This integration of Muslim fellow citizens happened without difficulties and was almost totally accepted when Austria-Hungary solved this problem 90 years ago: With the Islam act of 1912 -which is valid until today-,”adherents of Islam according to the Hanafite rite” was defined as a religious community and equal to the Christian churches. They “shall…enjoy the same legal protection as is granted to other legally recognized religious communities. The doctrines of Islam, its institutions and customs shall enjoy the same protection too, unless they are in contradiction to state law.”[1]

Worship was allowed in public and not, as before, only in domestic areas and a big mosque was planned in Vienna with support of Emperor Franz Joseph I. Already before, Muslim members of the military were provided with someone to look after them. The monarchy, which had occupied the former Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina after the Congress of Berlin in 1878, wanted to bind both closer to the empire after they annexed it on October 7th, 1908 and gained a new territory of about 51,000 km².

The backward and underdeveloped regions, which lacked of any infrastructure such as hospitals, schools, even paved roads or a railway, became a great example of an advanced administration [2]. And many ambitious officers regarded it as a personal challenge, to have been sent there. So the creation of new transport systems, which brought also a remarkable economic upturn, was mainly the work of the “Genie-” (pioneer) troops from all parts of the Empire. The responsibility of the “Reichsland”, commonly administrated by Austria and Hungary, belonged to the k.u.k. [3]. In 1910, the military administration was replaced by a state government, a parliament (Landtag) and a state governor – in this case Feldzeugmeister Oskar Potiorek. All were based on a new constitution.

For security and executive reasons, volunteer forces where set up as constabulary forces, consisting of Austrian and Hungarian constables, but also Bosnians and Herzegovinians. A special unit of them gained a great reputation by fighting against gangs and insurgents. These “strafunis” were the first ones dressed in grey camouflage battle-dresses. Almost invisible among the grey rocks of the Karst Mountains, they were called the “Grey Hawks”. With the introduction of the compulsory military service, these volunteer forces where changed into regular military units [4].

Thus, during the decades between 1882 and 1894, four infantry regiments were set up and stationed at Sarajevo, Banjaluka, Budapest, Mostar, Trieste, Graz and Vienna. In 1903, a battalion of riflemen (Feldjäger) was added, also located at Vienna, so the structure was as follows:

Battle of Lemberg

· k. k. Bosnian-Herzegovinian Infantry Regiment No.1 (Sarajevo): 94% Bosnians (Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims) and 6% various

· k. k. Bosnian-Herzegovinian Infantry Regiment No. 2 (Banjaluka): 93% Bosnians (Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims) and 7% various

· k. k. Bosnian-Herzegovinian Infantry Regiment No. 3 (Tuzla): 94% Bosnians (Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims) and 6%various

· k. k. Bosnian-Herzegovinian Infantry Regiment No. 4 (Mostar): 95% Bosnians (Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims) and 5% various

· k. k. Bosnian-Herzegovinian “Feldjägerbataillon” (Vienna): 96% Bosnians (Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims) and 4% various (during the war, seven further battalions were formed)

In 1914, Muslims made up about 30-40% of the total population of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the majority of them lived in the Sarajevo and Tuzla areas i.e. Central Bosnia. Knowing this we may assume or calculate that the largest percentage of Muslims was most probably serving in the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Infantry Regiment No.1 and Bosnian-Herzegovinian Infantry Regiment No. 3, closely followed by other two regiments. The stationing of troops at the capitals of Budapest and Vienna was caused by domestic politics due to the ever-increasing number of riots by workers and German, Hungarian or Czech nationalists.

The Bosnian “mountain people” from districts surrounding Sarajevo, Banjaluka, Dolnja Tuzla and Mostar, who partially signed their contracts only with their finger prints or three crosses, had no understanding for these activists and this was not merely due to difference of language. When members of the 2nd Bosnian-Herzegovinian Infantry Regiment were attacked during disturbances at Graz and their officers ordered to shoot, the right-wing politicians agitated against the “Black-Yellow Muslim Mercenaries” [5]. (Black-yellow were the old Imperial Austrian colours, coming from the old Holy Roman Empire of Germany.)

But basically, these new regiments -called later simply “the Bosniacs”- turned out later to be the most faithful, loyal and bravest army units of the k.u.k. army. They were easily recognizable with their Turkish knee-breeches and their exotic cap, the red (“krapprot”) fez with black tassel (“kièankas”) which had become rather popular due to a religious law that prescribed that peaked caps should not be worn. Their light-blue uniforms were contrasted by their “alizarin red” cuffs.

Officers were allowed to choose between fez and shako, and also wore long trousers. During World War I, it all changed to the “field grey egalisation” (uniform). The fez remained the official headgear of all other ranks, even though some were Serbian (Orthodox) or Croatian (Catholic) citizens of Bosnia or Herzegovina.

Bosniac Imam

Privates were armed with an 8 mm repeater rifle of the “Mannlicher” system 1888/90 [6] and a bayonet by Werndl. Officers were given sabres.

The wearing of the fez was also allowed for members of the navy, though not many Bosnians served in that part of the armed forces. Besides normal draftees who served with arms, “working groups” were also established for road, rescue and entrenchment works for the regiments and their supplies. These found deployment within various divisions and on all fronts, from Tyrol to Syria.

Conscription for military service was required for every man, who finished his 20th year of life; each conscript’s active service took three years and the following nine years he served in the reserves. Exceptions existed for teachers, pharmacists, doctors, priests and judges, although every man could name a substitute within three months [7].

An interesting story was recently told to the author by Dr. Ahmet Ayral of Istanbul, whose uncle moved from Bosnia to Edirne for work at the age of 18. When he did not appear on his 20th birthday at the drafting office, two Austrian officers came to Turkey to bring him back by force [8].

It was no problem for the k.u.k. army, which was always very liberal in religious matters, to take care for their soldiers’ religious needs. Each of the four regiments had its own military Imam. The spiritual leader of the Bosnian Muslims was the Reis-ul-Ulema of Sarajevo whose election was confirmed by the Emperor and the Sheik-ul-Islam at Istanbul.

The wording of the oath of allegiance was:

“I swear to God the Almighty that I will be faithful to His Majesty the Emperor and King Franz Joseph I., and to obey all orders of my superiors and higher staff, even in danger of my life.” [9]

The Emperor became the unifying person for all these new countrymen, so it is no wonder that Sarajevo had its own “Kaiser-Mosque”. The commanding language for the k.u.k. army was always German. For everyday use, most officers used the so-called “Army Slavonic”, a mixture of expressions from various Slavonic languages.

On almost all fronts, the Bosniacs proved their bravery, in particular at the Southern Front against Serbia and the unfaithful Italy, which left the Triple Alliance and joined the Western allies in 1915. The war in the mountains with its twelve battles on the Isonzo River was one of the bloodiest and fiercest of the whole World War I.

Bosniacs in 1896

This is not the place to mention all the operations and campaigns of the war, but some are particularly worth pointing out: The crossing of the river Drina in 1914 at the beginning of the campaign against Serbia, the battle on the Mount San Michele [10] and the storming of Mount Meletta on the Italian front on June 7th, 1916 by members of the k.u.k. Bosnian-Herzegovinian Infantry Regiment (No.2) under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Stevo Duiæ. Although the peak was strongly fortified and defended, the troops of the “Second Grazer” were successful in winning and holding that strategically important point with great tenacity in spite of heavy losses [11].

Many times, the success of the “Junaci” (heros, as they were often called or just “Momci”, “the boys”) was achieved by single individuals, coming from normal platoons, who stood up in obviously desperate situations and fought back against the enemy encouraging their weakened comrades of other regiments to join them. Just, like 14-year-old Elez Derviševic [12], who joined the Bosniacs as dispatch rider and scout, and was later promoted to the youngest corporal of the k.u.k. army due to his personal bravery. Or Private Serif Miljkovic, who captured an Italian machine-gun with just a dagger with the same cold-bloodedness as Corporal Kadric Ramo who beat back 50 Russians with only nine comrades.[13] Or Private Serif Miljkovic who captured an Italian machine-gun [14] on his own. Just by reading these names, one can see that these warriors were Muslims, and there are many more.

Furthermore, the Bosniacs fought bravely against an enemy who outnumbered them more often than not, and were seen as a kind of “fire brigade”. Courageously they advanced into the Karst Mountains, the Russian front, in the Carpathians of Transylvania (after Romania joined the Entente), and near the Rombon Mountains in the Julic Alps.

The “Junaci” had a great reputation for steadfastness and military power, as was shown in early October 1917 before the 12th battle of Isonzo, when some battalions were replaced. The new troops received fezes and the Muezzin called for the prayer, outsmarting the Italians by making them believe the Muslim soldiers were still present.[15]

Between 1916 and 1918, four more Bosnian-Herzegovinian regiments were built up, mostly coming from companies of the four other regiments, but they were either dismissed or sent to other units due to many losses.

Bosniacs at Tolmein

Even a specially trained “High Mountain Company” (No. 16) was created and contained members of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Infantry Regiment No.4, unfortunately no further details are reported. Other units of the Bosniacs were allocated to secure the naval port of Pola in Istria.

Due to their excellent knowledge of the mountains, an “Oriental Corps” was formed at the urgent request of the Turkish Minister of War, Generalissimo Enver Pasha, to support the Austro-Hungarian troops in Syria in their fights against the English [16]. The leader of that special unit was the well-proven Lieutenant Colonel Stephan Duiæ, who chose parts of the first three Bosnian-Herzegovian regiments for that task. Because of logistical problems, the Corps could not be brought to the Middle East -except the artillery and supply units-, but it was later formed into a complete unit in late 1917. It was transferred with the name “Oriental Corps” to the Army Group Boroeviæ in Italy. Thus, they took part in the Battle at the Piave River suffering tremendous losses of more than 50% that included crossing the Tagliamento River during high water in the course of the 12th Battle of Isonzo.[17]

Later, the Oriental Corps made a name as it proved its worth in Albania. Already in early 1916 the Central powers managed to gain greater parts of Northern and Middle Albania by pursuing the Serbian army, which was struggling against diseases and defeats. Very soon, the important cities of Skutari/ Shkodër, Durazzo/ Durrës and Tirana, the capital, were controlled by the k.u.k. army. In 1912, Austria, which favoured the creation of an independent state for Albania, began to build up an infrastructure like that in Bosnia, and the occupation forces were warmly welcomed by the Muslims there. Photos document that the Emperor’s birthday was celebrated three times in Tirana, the Albanian capital (August 18th of Franz Joseph I. and August 17th, Charles I.)

When the Italians and French started a campaign from Greece in July 1918, it was necessary to reinforce the front there. Hence, their own forces were severely weakened by malaria and a shortage of rationing and supplements. When Karl Freiherr von Pflanzer-Baltin was appointed as new commander of the Army Group Albania (k.u.k. XIX. Corps), one of the most successful and most popular military leaders of the monarchy appeared on the theatre of battle. His offensive was the last victory of the Central Powers, starting on August 21st, 1918, with support of German and Austrian airplanes and finishing with the conquest of the South Albanian cities of Fjeri, Berat and Narta. The French staged a diversionary assault, but Pflanzer-Baltin was not distracted and he repulsed the main Italian blow. Several hundred prisoners were taken and much-needed foodstuffs were also looted from the Italians. Von Pflanzer-Baltin’s Army Group Albania intended to settle in after this victory, but the Corps was not able to maintain its position permanently. There were more and more losses due to cases of Malaria (in July: 2,600, one month later they totalled 18,000 causalities), and by continuous skirmishes with Albanian gangs. Additionally, all the recently built infrastructure was once again destroyed during the course of events. After the defeat and surrender of Bulgaria in September, 29th 1918, the Army Group Albania sought refuge in the Albanian interior, where it lost contact with the outside world by the third week in October. They were not able to maintain their situation any further, and the march back was even more hard and difficult: The Oriental Corps was reduced to only 50 soldiers [18], the 47th Infantry Division (including three Bosnian-Herzegovinian riflemen battalions and one battalion of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Infantry Regiment No. 7), the 9th Cavalry Division and parts of the k.u.k. Infantry Regiment No. 88, all went to the Bay of Cattaro, the Austro-Hungarian naval port for submarines. At this place, they received the final order to retreat behind the River Save and were divided into “nationalities”.

Bosniacs Stamp

This was the beginning of the end of the k.u.k. army and the Bosniac regiments. One should also mention that the Bosnian-Herzegovian Infantry Regiment No.2 was the one, which gained the most Golden Bravery Medals of the entire monarchy. They received 42 of these medals as compared to the average of 8 to 14 medals for a regiment. The highest decoration, the Order of Maria Theresa, for personal, spontaneous bravery, was also awarded to a member of that regiment, Captain Gojkomir of Glogovac. As part of the award, he was granted the title of Knighthood.

To summarise, one can conclude that these regiments have been something special: Not only are they rightly famous for their military power and unlimited loyalty and dependability, but also due to the fact that during the 20 years of their existence, 200,000 men of different ethnic backgrounds and religions -Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox, privates and officers- became one unit.

They were referred to among others, when (probably) Colonel Anton Lehár, the composer’s brother, wrote the following public statement in late 1918, which ended with the words:

“Austria-Hungary’s former armed forces […] wait with proud sedateness and patience for the fair judgement of world history.”[19]

When the Austrian units left Sarajevo, people stood in the streets and had tears in their eyes. During the previous 40 years, they had felt well accepted, respected and established in this historically unique empire, unlike Czechs or the Romananis, who had been members of the same state for centuries.

Today, the “Bosniacs Lane” at Graz, the march “The Bosniacs are coming” by the Styrian composer Eduard Wagner, the “Posso del Bosniaco” – Alpine heights near Görz/ Gorizia, which were defended by the Bosniacs- , a monument at Flitsch/ Bovec (Slovenia) [20], near the Rombon mountains and the Muslim cemetary at Lebring, Styria, are reminders of a multicultural and multi-religious heritage, which ought to be continued, especially in these times.

In 1996, the newly independent Bosnian-Herzegovinian post remembered this honourable past and issued a stamp showing one of the “momci” with his fez.


Deák, István: Der k.(u.)k. Offizier 1848-1918. Wien 1995

Feigl, Erich: Kaiser Karl I. Wien 1990

Rauchensteiner, Manfred: Die Unseren. Zum Bild des österreichischen Soldaten während

der letzten 100 Jahre. In: Jahrestagung der Wissenschaftskommission, Wien 2002.

Schachinger, Werner: Die Bosniaken kommen! Elitetruppe in der k.u.k.Armee. Graz 1989

Trost. Ernst: Das blieb vom Doppeladler. München 1969.

[1] Imperial Gazette for the Kingdoms and crown-lands represented in the Imperial Council

Year 1912, item LXVI, published and dispatched on this 9th of August, 1912, No. 159.

[2] Deák, p.81, also Trost, p. 329.

[3] k.u.k. means: Kaiserlich und Königlich, the Imperial (Austrian) and Royal (Hungarian) part of the monarchy

[4] Deák, p. 81, cp. Schachinger, p.23 f.

[5] Deák, p.87, comp. Rauchensteiner, p.3.

[6] Schachinger, S.32.

[7] Rauchensteiner, p.2.

[8] Perhaps these both officers were members of the” Adjoint militaire d’Austriche-Hongrie”, a unit of volunteers to train the Imperial Ottoman gendamerie at Üsküb.

[9] ibid, p.26.

[10] ibid, p. 81 f.

[11] ibid, p. 106 f.

[12] ibid, p.286-297.

[13] ibid, p. 310.

[14] ibid, p. 117.

[15] ibid, p. 133.

[16] ibid, p.222.

[17] ibid, p. 190.

[18] ibid, p. 246.

[19] Cited in: Feigel, p. 212.

[20] Trost, p.347.

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