Though there is much confusion over the place and date, a majority of sources agree that Johann Freiherr von Hiller was born on 10 June, 1754 in Brody (Galicia). His father was a colonel in (and subsequently commander of) the garrison in Brody, later ennobled in 1772 in recompense for his 45-year military service. At the age of 15, Johann entered the No. 8 Sachsen Hildburghausen infantry regiment. In 1769 he became lieutenant in the No 38 “Karl Eugen Herzog von Württemberg” Dragoon regiment, and in 1774 he purchased a captainship in Warasdin frontier regiment No. 5, as part of which he fought in an operation against the Turks. He then became Major and Oberstlieutenant, and in 1788 Feldmarschall Loudon made him a knight of the Order of Maria Theresia for his bravery in the storming of Novi. After the siege of Gradiska 1789, Johann was made colonel, and in 1790 Loudon took him on as his General-Adjutant. On the death of Loudon, Hiller returned to his regiment becoming Generalmajor (1794) and then General-Kriegs-Commissär to the Lombard army in northern Italy (1795). From now on the Archduke Charles was to become Hiller’s principal supporter. After a period on sick leave, Hiller joined the forces fighting the French in Switzerland, taking part in the Battle of Zürich 1799, playing a key role. He was however to be wounded there in the knee, as a result of which he limped for the rest of his life. For his bravery and popularity with his men he was promoted to the rank of Feldmarechall-Lieutenant in the September and commandant of a Corps in the northern Tyrol. After the peace in 1801 he was sent briefly to Agram (Zagreb) only to be re-appointed as military commander Innsbruck. In 1803 he was appointed commanding general in the Tyrol and the Vorarlberg.
After the outbreak of war in 1805, Hiller was made commander of the South Tyrol corps (44 battalions and 6 squadrons, comprising about 19,000 men). With Mack’s defeat at Ulm, Hiller was caught up the strategic retreat performed by Archduke Charles’ Italian army. Following Pressburg, he became military commander in the newly created region of Salzburg and Upper Austria. In 1807 Hiller returned to the Karlstadt-Warasdin frontier, this time as commander.
When hostilities began in April 1809, Feldmarschall-Leutnant Freiherr von Hiller was given command of the VIth corps of the Austrian main army (20 batallions, 16 squadrons, 82 cannon, in other words about 22,400 men) under the general command of Archduke Karl, but this was to spread also over the Vth Armeeabtheilung and the IInd reserve corps. Of all the other Austrian commanders (Bellegarde, Kolowrat-Krakowsky, Liechtenstein, Rosenberg-Orsini, Hohenzollern-Hechingen, Archduke Louis von Habsburg and Freiherr von Kienmayer) Hiller was the only one not to have been nobly born. On 20 April, he was beaten by Napoleon at Landshut and forced to retreat. Shortly afterwards he overcame Bessières at Neumarkt (for which action he was decorated with the Cross of the commander of the Order of Maria Theresia). After the battle of Eckmühl, 22 April, 1809, Hiller was forced to retreat to Linz, offering fierce resistance on 3 May at Ebelsberg, but continuing his retreat on the north bank of the Danube until he reached the Archduke Charles near Vienna.
During the battle of Aspern-Essling (21-22 May, 1809), the highpoint in Hiller’s military career so far, Hiller commanded the far right of the Austrian battle line (10,500 infantrymen, 1,800 cavalry and 52 cannon). After the battle he was made Feldzeugmeister and given 50.000 Gulders. As a result of illness he was not to play a role at Wagram (5-6 July, 1809).
After the Peace of Schönbrunn (14 October, 1809), Hiller was appointed Commander General in Croatia and then Commander General in Slovenia in 1811.
After Austria’s declaration of war on France (11 August, 1813), Hiller received his last command, namely that of the army of “Inner Austria” (that is, the area in Austria around the river Inn), later to become the Army of Italy. He took command of the 35,000 men and 120 cannon the following day and then faced the viceroy of Italy, Eugéne de Beauharnais (51,400 men and 130 cannon). His mission was to take Illyria whilst remaining in a strong defensive position. Starting from Klagenfurt, he won several small victories rendering Eugène’s position in Codroipo untenable. He then drove the viceroy through Treviso and Vicenza towards Verona, but was unable to take either that or the city of Trent. Once again ill, Hiller handed over his command in mid November to Bellegarde.
In 1814 he was appointed first as commander general in Siebenbürgen (Transylvania) and then was sent to Galicia. He died in Lemburg (Lviv in the Ukraine on the border with Poland) on 3 June, 1819, after a long illness. He was the “Radetzky” of his time, much loved by his soldiers, coldblooded and bold in war. The inhabitants of Lemburg erected a monument to him after his death.
Wurzbach, Biographisches Lexicon des Kaiserthums Oesterreich
Ritter v. Rittersberg, Biographien österreichischer Feldherrn
Hirtenfeld, Oesterreichisches Militär-Conversations-Lexicon.
Ersch und Gruber, Allgemeine Encyclopädie