Syldavia began the 17th century in possession of only a fraction of its historical territory and was fortunate to have even that. Borduria held the rest on behalf of the Ottomans and all of the country would have been entirely occupied if not for the long intervention of the Venetians. Even in the lands that remained in its possession in the 1600’s, Syldavia’s sovereignty was open to question, as their kings had been vassals of the Venetian Republic since shortly before the arrival of the Ottomans in the north-western Balkans. While the Venetians exercised their power in Syldavia principally to their own advantage, their interest in using the western Balkans as a front to contain the Ottomans did have the effect of propping up Syldavia and the Almazout dynasty during their period of utmost weakness.
By the reign of King Karel II in the mid 17th century, Venetian dominance in Syldavia began to chafe, most notably due to the trade monopoly and demands for taxes and ongoing troop contributions for the reinforcement of the besieged Venetian army in Crete. Few of those soldiers ever returned home. Karel II’s intention was of course to continue to push back the Bordurian frontier but the Venetians’ attentions had, by then, been turned toward their Mediterranean empire. The troops Karel lost to the struggle over Crete greatly weakened his efforts to recover more territory. Karel did manage to retake the strategic town of Djordjevaro, key to the upper Wladir river valley, but could not hold it in the long run. When the last treaty of vassalage expired in 1658, Venice was terribly weakened by the expensive war still going on in Crete and was not in a position to coerce a renewed pact. Karel and then Ottokar VIII managed to forestall the question of vassalage for years by signing trade deals favourable to Venice and consenting to a mutual local defence treaty. Syldavia had regained its sovereignty.
|King Ottokar VIII. Note purported Mace of King Muskar at right.|
Ragusia (the territory of the city of Dbrnouk) had also defected in the same manner a generation earlier and had guaranteed its security by building impressive fortifications around its port, through the growing importance of its trade which brought wealth rendered it too important for most neighbours to attack outright) and by new strategic alliances. The governing republican Council of Dbrnouk extended preferential trade rules to the Ottomans who then used Dbrnouk as a preferred (if secondary) port in the Mediterranean trade. This was a matter of some importance as trade goods originating in or passing through the Ottoman Empire were prized throughout Europe and by supporting a separate market in Dbrnouk, the Ottomans cut into the trade of their adversary in Venice. Dbrnouk’s significance as a centre of Balkan trade was still limited however, as its access to the continental interior was limited by poor roads and by the eternal hostilities on the Bordurian frontier.
|Ragusian Irregular Infantryman, 17th century|
With the diminished authority of Venice, Karel II, Ottokar VIII and their successors strove to culture closer relations with the Imperium. The Habsburgs had played, since the time of Alexander I, more or less the role of a friendly uncle to Syldavia. They were certainly interested in expanding their influence in the Balkans and in working with enemies of the Ottomans. Better yet, Syldavia was too far from the Imperium’s real borders to permit substantial gestures of aid and real diplomatic entanglements. By the latter 17th century, many young Syldavian nobles passed time in Austria, as students or wastrels. As well, Syldavian mercenaries found their way into Imperial service and some of these proved quite successful, at least at la petite guerre. The experience of these men led some of the sons of Syldavia’s privileged families to venture to Vienna (Wyenow in the Syldavian tongue) and to undertake military careers there. Upon their return to Syldavia these men commonly found their way into positions of political and military leadership, resulting tin a general sympathy for the Imperioum in Syldavian government. With the battle against Borduria going nowhere, Ottokar VIII turned to Imperial examples to modernise his forces.
|Syldavian Irregular Light Infantry and Cavalry of the mid to late 17th Century (image actually from the fabulous Vinkhuijzen Collection|
Until the late 17th century, the Syldavian Army was for the most part an improvised force built of varied and indifferently organised bands of troops raised by individual commanders who were, in turn, held commissions from the Crown or forces raised and organised through ancient clan kinship systems. While pike-armed troops were a necessity of the times, an important part of the army comprised light infantry and cavalry well suited to the rough landscape of Syldavia’s interior. The soldiers themselves were of rather good quality, raised locally of hardy men whose former lives as shepherds, farmhands, woodsmen and the like were no less demanding of endurance and determination than the occupation of soldiering. Like those of many other regions of the Balkans, Syldavians often found their way into the forces of the Imperium and of various Italian states, where they enjoyed a hard-won reputation as wily and redoubtable fighters particularly adept at skirmishing and raids.
Despite being made of good raw material, the Syldavian army was hampered by its lack of formal training and organisation (outside of the clans) and by its commanders’ variable technical (in)expertise. Commanders preferred skirmish engagements (where their knowledge of the land, personal leadership and courage were enough to give the Syldavians parity with their opponents) and avoided massed battles. The efficient use of masses of troops was largely beyond them. As a result, Syldavia’s military forces were typically unable to break the long-standing stalemate with their Bordurian foes who enjoyed the advantages of numbers and strong defensive positions.
|Musketeer and Pikeman of King Ottokar VIII's army, circa 1660 (image actually from the fabulous Vinkhuijzen Collection|
The first initiatives for modernising Syldavia’s army came under King Ottokar VIII who in the midst of his reign (1652-1669), instituted moves to formally train modern modern Continental-style musketeers and artillerymen and improve the casting of cannon. With these improved troops he managed to push Bordurians out of the strategic town of Djordjevaro once and for all. After the premature death of Ottokar VIII, his sister, Beneficia (1669-1677), assumed the throne and continued to push the improvement of training and drill and instituted a formal bureaucratic office (the Könikstzrwa Zyldav krag ministarstvo or Royal Syldavian War Ministry) charged with overseeing supply, the artillery and fortresses. The campaigns of her reign saw both advances and reverses and the pushing the Syldavian frontier several miles further up the Wladir River. The most important military reforms were made under the leadership of King Ivan (1677-1712), the son of Queen Beneficia. Ivan was nicknamed “Iron Head” because of his infamous temper and bloody single-mindedness.
In their youths, Crown Prince Ivan and his cousin Count Nikola Mikolic gained personal experience with modern methods of warfare as cadets and then as officers in the Habsburg Imperial Army. Ivan returned to Syldavia upon ascending to the throne in 1677 while Nikola remained to work as a staff officer of the newly appointed Field Marshall Duke Charles of Lorraine. Ivan dreamed of reclaiming the Syldavian territory still held by the Bordurians by breaking the impasse of border skirmishes through a decisive offensive campaign. A more fully modernised army was essential to his goal and, from the start of his reign, Ivan worked to introduce a system of formal and permanent regiments. He brought with him from the Imperium a cadre of experienced officers looking for advancement (both Syldavian and émigré professional soldiers) and, as a rich Imperial gift to the new king, a body of Syldavian émigré troops who had been in Imperial service as musketeers and as troopers of a dragoon regiment. Both bodies of troops had in reality dubious reputations. These soldiers were reconstituted into Syldavia’s first formally organised modern regiments comprising the simply named King’s Musketeers and the Dragoon Regiment who, with the old Royal Guards (now a formal regiment as well), formed the basis of a professional army.
Living under the watchful eyes of the King, church and kinsmen, and patiently drilled into discipline by the King and his officers, these miscreants eventually were shaped into dependable and disciplined soldiers. Once he was satisfied with his results, King Ivan split up his regiments to serve as training cadres around which whole new regiments were built. By 1681, Ivan was training men for four regular regiments of musketeers, one of heavy horse and one of dragoons. As well, a formal provincial militia was instituted in an attempt to circumscribe the power of the clans in the countryside. From local militias, chosen men were selected to form a small light infantry force comprising a couple of companies. With these troops, King Ivan was equipped to face the challenges and opportunities that were about to be presented, unexpectedly to him and to Syldavia.