In my article yesterday I looked at the Battle of Aspern Essling on 21st and 22nd May 1809. Having defeated the Austrians in Bavaria and gone on to capture Vienna, Napoleon was trying to cross the Danube from Vienna to engage the Austrian army under Arch Duke Charles in an attempt to finish the war. There in the confined space between the villages of Aspern and Essling a ferocious battle ensued but he was unable to break out of his bridghead and suffered his first ever defeat. He was obliged to retreat back over the river leaving 25,000 French dead or wounded on the far bank: one man in three!
6 Weeks later in early July he was ready to try again. What would occur in the next 48 hours would be the greatest battle in history at that point with 300,000 men under the eagles of France and Austria fighting a climatic struggle that neither could afford to lose.
Day one 5th July
Mindful of the failures of the earlier crossing attempt Napoleon personally overseed much of the plans for the new crossing. On the night of the 4th July operations began. The French made use of pre built bridges that were swung into place and also landing craft and boats.
Quickly and in an organised manner three Corps were across the river and soon pushing out through Essling and Gross Enzersdorf and beyound on to the vast featureless plain called the Marchfeld. Initially Austrian resistance was light and the two Corps they met fell back in good order. Eventually the French located the main Austrian army positioned on a elevated plateau 20m above the surrounding flat plain and in three villages ( Deutch-Wagram, Baumersdorf and Markgrafneusiedl) built in front of the ridge and behind a wooded stream called the Russbach. This high ground was called the Wagram.
Napoleon now had 160,000 men on the Marchfeld whislt Charles had 140,000 on the Wagram and to the west near the Bisamberg.
It was 6pm of the 5th July and the Austrians assumed the battle would occur the next day. Napoleon had other ideas and ordered an assault on the Wagram. This attack went in between about 7pm and 10pm all along the front but the Austrians fought well and repelled all assaults although near Deutch-Wagram the attack almost broke through were it not for Arch Duke Charles personally leading a counter attack. Additional confusion threw Napoleon’s troops into chaos around Deutch Wagram being caused by the white uniformed Saxons (French allies under Bernadotte) between mistaken for the white uniformed Austrians and fired upon by the French!
It was now full dark and the assaults were called off whilst Napoleon considered his plans for the 6th.
Napoleon’s plan was to hold the Austrians along the left of the Wagram and on his left wing whilst Davout’s veteran Corps swung around the right wing captured Markgrafneusiedl and the tower on the Wagram above it and rolled up the flank.
It was not only the French who made plans that night. Charles knew he was out numbered but he had two Corps in his pocket. II and VI corps were to the west and could march to come around through Aspern and Essling and surround the French. If he could pull this of he could annilhilate the French invader.
The Second Day
It was Charles who got his plans moving earlier and around 4am that day Napoleon looked with horror to the west as two Austrian columns marched towards his lines of supply. Meanwhile Austrian I Corps under Bellegarde (supported by cavalry under Lichtenstein )attacked from Deutch Wagram and captured Aderkla which was at the hinge between the north facing French facing the Wagram and the west facing corps.
If Austrian VI Corps had just kept marching it would be an utter defeat for Napoleon. BUT the Austrian command structure had a fatal flaw. They obeyed orders to the letter but had no capacity for innovation and initiative. Klenau (VI Corps) orders were to reach Aspern and wait for more orders. Ahead of him was empty space and the French supply lines. But he did not attack and the moment passed.
Napoleon had to put his plans on hold and react to Charles plan. He sent Massenna south and west to try and block the Austrian III and VI corps . To mask that move and hold off the pressure from Bellegarde and Lichtenstein he resorted to desperate measures. His cavalry reserve including his precious guard troops were flung into near sucical frontal charges against dense masses of Austrians. A French Corps under Macdonald formed a huge square and pushed west suffering 2/3rds casualties. Finally 150+ guns were assembled into a grand battery and rolled along on Macdonald’s flank to blast the Austrians. This was attritional warfare at its most horrific and the death toll on both sides near Aderkla and Deutch-Wagram was monumental.
Nevertheless it worked. Massenna was able to maneuver in front of the Austrian attack. The French left wing held and now,finally, around noon Davout’s veterans delivered the right hook. Charles rushed over to lead reserves in an attempt to block the attack but Markgrafneusiedl and the tower fell. It was clear his plan had failed and so in order to save lives he ordred a general retreat around 2.3opm. Napoleon pursued but Charles made good use of cavalry to let the infantry march away.
Casualties at this battle were around 35,000 on each side, perhaps 1 in 4 men engaged being killed, wounded or missing. It was a bloody battle and Napoleon felt it had not been decisive as the Austrian army survived.
Never the less the victory went to the French and following another engagement (much smaller) a week later Charles made peace. He had not consulted the Austrian Emperor and he was forced to retire but his actions saved many lives.
The Battlefield Today
Apart from the southern part near Aspern and Essling which is within Vienna the bulk of this battlefield was and is a vast open plain dotted with villages with the most interesting terrain being around the Wagram.
The Marchfeld is incredibly flat and featureless for the most part:
The Russbach stream, still wooded, open space to the north and the modest elevation of the Wagram is easy to find:
The Wagram is really little more than a slight elevation over the surrounding plain:
There is a Memorial at Aderklaa
The village itself is peaceful today but was the heart of the battle on the 6th:
The fields to the south of Aderklaa where Macdonald’s square and the Grandbattery attacked from left to right (we are looking south):
If I get back I will revisit Wagram as armed with a book and map you can locate the spots that the actions occured at. It is easy to see how the losses were so high as in many spaces there is just no cover at all.