As I was staying in Vienna August 2012 I was able to visit the Battlefields of Aspern Essling and Wagram. These were the sites of the clashes between Napoleon and Arch Duke Charles. In the case of Wagram it would be the largest battle ever fought up to that moment. This blog is about the first battle – Napoleon’s first defeat.
In 1809 Napoleon had never been personally defeated. He had over 12 years fought campaigns in turn against Austria, Russia, Prussia and other states and had beaten them each. Austria had been heavily defeated in 1805 at Austerlitz, Prussia in 1806 and Russia in 1807. In 1809 Britain alone was fighting France in distant Spain and Portugal. The terms of the defeat in 1805 were harsh on Austria and so in 1809 Austria decided to invade Bavaria (a French ally) to strike back.
The Austria army in 1809 had been radically reformed after the defeat at Austerlitz in 1805 and at a tactical level could now compete with the French. Its shortcomings were at the strategic level and there were major faults with an over rigid command structure that did not allow for much initiative. This would hurt the Austrians in the long run.
Initially the Austrians made advances into Bavaria but Napoleon rushed from Paris to take command and ensured the Austrians were defeated in Bavaria. The French Army now took Vienna whilst the Austrian Army (still mostly intact) was reforming accross the Danube. Napoleon knew he had to cross the Danube to engage the Austrians and defeat them. The Austrians waited on the far side, watching the river and determined to make the crossing costly.
The Danube in 1809 near Vienna was a tangle of islands and channels. To cross the river Napoleon had to build many bridges whilst the Austrians were constantly floating trees and even boats down stream in an attempt to disrupt this effort but on May 20th the French began the crossing. The Austrian commander – the very able Arch Duke Charles ordered his Army to march to the crossing point and form up in a great arch awaiting the French.
The French were only able to get across 77000 men over the 2 days of the battle due the river crossings being severed on numerous occasions whilst Charles brought 99,000 to bear. The battle began on the 21st May at Aspern withe three Austrian columns assaulting the singe French Corps under Massenna. A single French division in Essling hung on their by its finger nails. To relieve the pressure Napoloeon flung his cavalry into a charge though the center which was repelled but helped maintain control of the villages as night fell.
On the second day the action grew more intense as more French were brought across and more Austrian’s arrived. Control of both villages changed hands several times with fighting focusing on the church at Aspen and a large granary at Essling. (the later being held by the French thoughout the battle.)
Napoleon attempted to break out by organising an assault through the centre and it seemed to work but at the critical moment Arch Duke Charles is reported as turning up, grabbing a regimental colour and peronally leading the counter attack.
In the end the Austrian simply had more men and the French gave way and eventually were forced to retreat accross the river. Napoleon had been defeated and in fact his friend Marshall Lannes who had been heavily involved in the fighting was mortally wounded but for Charles this was only a local victory. He had won the battle but NOT the war. He knew Napoleon would try again. Losses were heavy as a % of total numbers present with 20,000 to 30,000 on each side dead or wounded or missing.
The Battlefield Today.
Aspern and Essling today are suburbs of Vienna and finding any sign of the battle is hard (Wagram which I will cover in my next Blog is outside Vienna and much easier to track down. ) Never the less a visitor can locate the church at Aspern which is a rebuild on the spot of the one destroyed by fighting in 1809. There is a Memorial to the battle there and a small museum:
Between Aspern and Essling there is a huge car factory but you can find a field of two that would have witnessed the fight in the centre ground.
Finally at Essling the granary is still present. One can spot musket ball holes in the iron door. This too is a musuem but only open a couple of hours sunday am’s like the other one (I missed these two but in my next blog will mention the superb museum at Wagram.)
So that is Aspern Essling. Next time: Wagram 1809 – the Emperor Strikes Back!