War of the Fifth Coalition
21-22 May 1809
French under Napoleon, 24,938 with 54 guns rising to approx. 75,000 and 150 guns by 2nd day
Austrians under Archduke Charles, 109,000 with 258 guns
Weather: Hot, clear. River fog in the morning. Blowing dust about midday of the 21st.
(calculated for the location and date from U.S. Naval Observatory )
In my inadvertent sub-theme of studying Napoleonic river-crossing battles (Arcola, Gunzburg, Elchingen), I submit my own analysis of what has been described as Napoleon's first personal defeat, Aspern-Essling, the first attempted bridge-crossing of the Danube in the 1809 campaign. Though over-shadowed by the gargantuan Battle of Wagram on the same ground a couple of months later, Aspern-Essling was no skirmish. In terms of numbers of combatants engaged, it was bigger than Gettysburg, costing roughly the same number of human casualties (about 46,000), and lasting two days. As battles go, Aspern-Essling was a six hundred pound gorilla.
It was also a study in how both weather and unconventional warfare can play such a critical role in the outcome of a battle. Aspern-Essling was a messy battle, in which neither side could get a grip on the rapidly evolving situation. In that and many ways, rather than Gettysburg, it could be compared to another Civil War battle, Antietam.
- Author's Caveat: Of course, as has been pointed out on some of my other articles about specific battles, Aspern-Essling is not exactly "obscure" (at least to the wargaming community, though the average person wouldn't know it from Waterloo). To be honest, when I registered the name "Obscure Battles" I wasn't thinking I'd limit myself only to battles no one else had heard of. But what I was thinking of was to give my own obscure take on each battle, to be as iconoclastic as possible. So it is with this one. My interpretations of what was really going on at Aspern-Essling are mine. They are based on some degree of comparative research, as well as the fact that I've wargamed this battle a number of times over the years. So, take that for what you want. And just enjoy. Or get mad. Either reaction is entertaining, isn't it?
A little context is always nice.As with all battles, obscure or not, there is some background. In the case of the War of the Fifth Coalition (like who's keeping count?) this happened largely because of political, but also economic reasons. Austria had been humiliated in the War of the Third Coalition (the 1805 campaign) by again having to cede much territory, treasure, and national pride to the bully Napoleon. After Austerlitz, Emperor Francis II, for instance, could no longer count himself as Holy Roman Emperor but had to settle for the title of Emperor of Austria; he even lost one of his Roman numerals and was demoted to Francis I instead of II. Plus there was the increasingly onerous economic burden that Napoleon's Continental System, in which all signatories (including Austria) had to cut off trade with Great Britain, who, thanks to the Royal Navy, had a virtual monopoly on world markets. Austria's economy was groaning under the burden of Napoleon's feud with what he called "the British shopkeepers."
The new Austrian Empire had sat out the previous Coalition War (Number Four, 1806-07), but as Napoleon found himself increasingly bogged down in Spain (an endless war which he started in 1808 to get Spain to stop its own trade with Britain), the Austrians, itching for revenge, as well as egged on and subsidized by Britain, saw this as their opportunity to act. Under the Emperor's brother, Archduke Charles, they had been aggressively reforming and building up their army to some 200,000, of a size and caliber they felt equal to the heretofore invincible French. They had also taken several lessons from the new French military practice, including a levee-en-masse conscription system, reorganization of the army into integrated corps, and the new impulse, column tactics (Battalionmasse as they called it). With Napoleon bogged down in Spain at the beginning of 1809, they decided the time was right to strike.
So the Austrians mobilized and started marching west into Bavaria and south into Northern Italy.
|Marshal Berthier, Napoleon's Chief of Staff|
Napoleon (probably sighing, "Do I have to do everything myself?"), left Spain in the hands of his up-to-now trusty Marshal Soult, gathered his Guard--and whatever other troops he thought Soult could spare--and force-marched them northeast across the Pyrenees and France to Berthier's aid. It was quite a hike. Once on the scene in Bavaria he was able to stabilize the crisis and after two subsequent battles, Ratisbon and Eckmuhl , as well as a lot of little clashes, made a sweep down the right bank of the Danube to Vienna, repeating the blitzkrieg he had performed four years earlier.
On the outskirts of the Austrian capital there was an unfortunate incident in which some unruly Hungarian hussars hacked to death a French delegation sent forward under a flag of truce to negotiate the surrender of the city. Incensed at this war crime, Napoleon, in true Genghis Khan style, ordered an immediate bombardment of the city and sent a message (presumably by an Austrian prisoner this time) that he would burn the whole town to the ground and spare no one if it were not immediately surrendered. After the misunderstanding was cleared up and the Habsburg regime agreed to declare Vienna an open city, Napoleon marched into the capital without further incident. The retreating garrison, however, did think to destroy all the bridges across the Danube after them. This was something they had neglected to do in 1805. Didn't want to make that mistake again.
Napoleon realized that merely capturing an enemy's capital city in no way gave him the upper hand in any war of national resistance. It had not in 1805, the first time he'd taken Vienna. Nor had it in 1806 when he took Berlin. Or in 1808 when he marched into Madrid. Parading through an enemy capital city may have served as good propaganda imagery back home (like the pulling down of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad did for the Bush administration in 2003), but the war was hardly over until the main enemy army had been beaten and their government agreed to terms.
Moreover, Napoleon strategically now found himself between a rock and a hard place. He couldn't just enjoy the opera in Vienna and wait out Charles, who might attempt to recross to the south bank of the Danube at another place westward to cut across the French lines of communications. Already Napoleon had had to spread out his corps under Bernadotte, Davout, Vandamme, and Lefebvre to guard the upper Danube and Tyrol. He knew he had to cross to the north bank of the river as quickly as possible if he was to defeat Charles' main army of over 100,000 and force a peace. But to do this he only had in the immediate vicinity the two corps of Massena and Lannes (IV and II), plus elements of the Guard and the Cavalry Reserve under Bessières, at most 82,000. He had ordered Davout to hurry eastward to join him, but he felt he had to seize a bridgehead as soon as possible.
Napoleon's ConundrumBut May was a bad time of year to try a pontoon-bridge crossing of the Danube. Melting Alpine snows and spring rains had swollen the river to a torrent, its level and current varying hourly, and it was churning with huge logs and other high-velocity debris. It would be almost a century before Austrian engineers would contain the river. In 1809 it was a risky project even without enemy opposition on the far bank. Still, Napoleon felt time was critical.
Without any intelligence to back it up, Napoleon decided to leap to the best case scenario; he assumed that Charles had taken his army north into Moravia to Brünn (modern Brno in the Czech Republic) as Kutuzov had done in 1805. Napoleon would cross the Danube as he had before, march up to Brünn and defeat the Austrians at a second Austerlitz, this time without their Russian allies. It was getting all so tedious. When would these people learn?
Of course, the Austrians had learned. Charles hadn't retreated into Moravia at all but had nestled into position just north of Vienna, about six miles across the Marchfeld (see situation map below), camping behind the hills bordering the north of that plain to hide their campfires. Charles had set up corps of observation guarding the main crossing points up and down river from Vienna, which not only prevented the French engineers from repairing the destroyed bridges, but had also shielded his own position from any French cavalry probes. Napoleon was unaware of how close the main Austrian army was. Operating under his best-case scenario mode, he just assumed that an campfires that were reported, and any Austrian cavalry activity was still just a rear guard.
He might have been right; Charles had been getting a lot of push-back from his own staff and generals to...well...push back to the safety of Moravia. But like Napoleon, the Archduke wanted to end this quickly. Both were worried about logistics and, more important, about sustaining the morale of their troops.
Actual positions of the contending armies on the evening before Aspern-Essling. Unknown to Napoleon, the Austrian army was not 70 miles north in Moravia, but lying in wait just north of the Marchfeld.
The French first tried throwing a bridge across the Danube at Nussdorf, upstream of Vienna, the work beginning on 13 May. But Austrian artillery and Grenzer troops positioned on an intervening island in the Danube frustrated this, costing some 700 French casualties in the process. Likewise, the main peacetime crossing from Vienna at Florisdorf was blocked, the existing bridges having been burned by the retreating Austrian garrison and by strong opposition in the fortified bridgehead on the far bank. Napoleon's chief engineer, Bertrand, said that this route was entirely impractical. And the Emperor must have been on his neck for it.
It was during these days of interlude at Vienna that two small but ominous incidents occurred. The first happened on May 13, the evening after Napoleon had entered Vienna. Unpacking at his old favorite place to stay while in Vienna, the Schönbrunn Palace, Napoleon decided he'd like to enjoy a twilight ride with his old friend, Marshal Lannes. While riding through the Vienna Woods, his horse suddenly became spooked and threw the Emperor heavily to the ground, bruising his hip. His pride more hurt than his body, Napoleon insisted on continuing the ride (with another horse, of course). But everyone in the escort was forbidden to speak of the incident.
Later, while he and Lannes inspecting the progress on the upper pontoon bridge at Nussdorf, the marshal stumbled and fell into the churning river. Forgetting his exalted position as Emperor, Napoleon instinctively jumped in to rescue his friend (returning the favor Lannes had done in rescuing him from drowning at Arcola eleven years before). Aides frantically fished the soggy two out of the water. There was probably a lot of joking and teasing. This incident charmed me because it showed, that in spite of Napoleon's callous attitude toward spending the lives of hundreds of thousands to achieve his quest for power, when it came to an immediate emergency, he risked his own life to save that of a cherished friend. That was such a human and noble thing. At least to me.
But Napoleon was a deeply superstitious man, who counted as his most important virtue his own luck. He felt that he had a lucky star and, when inquiring about the merits of promoting some general would always ask, "But is he lucky?" One has to wonder whether these two incidents, the bucking b, coming in quick succession as they did, gave him pause. When we go on to look at the events of 21-22 May, if you were Napoleon, what would be going on in the back of your mind? Did they foreshadow the fiasco he experienced on those days? Did he start to doubt his luck?
Murphy's Law rears its ugly head.Murphy's Law, which states that if something can go wrong it will go wrong, had not been discovered in 1809. But it would have still applied to Napoleon's belief that his own good luck would trump any lack of diligent engineering or operational planning. As we'll see, way too much was to go wrong with the lucky monarch.
|Gen. Henri Bertrand|
Napoleon's Chief Engineer,
who probably said "Merde!"
a lot during this battle, owing to
the number of times his bridges
Napoleon didn't have time for any of that. He scoffed at Bertrand's fastidiousness, ordered him to dispense with all the preliminaries, and just get on with building the bridges themselves. He needed to get as many men, guns, and supplies over the Danube as fast as possible. Surprise would be their security.
But you can't surprise Mother Nature. It works the other way around. At this time of the year the Danube was in spate, which meant that at any time rains and melting snow upstream could cause the river to rise as much as six feet in an hour. And the famously blue river (which was probably brown then) was churning with huge, uprooted trees, each one several tons and traveling at ramming speed. Even without the Austrians floating fireboats down against the bridge, the river itself posed a mortal threat to the lifeline.
But Bertrand and his engineers did as they were told, and starting the work on the 18th.
As a diversion, Napoleon also ordered that work on the first bridge up at Nussdorf be started again. This probably irritated Bertrand who was already short of boats for the main pontoon bridge to Lobau. But the Emperor was one of those leaders we've all probably worked for who doesn't know the meaning of the world "impossble." Besides, he told Bertrand, he could use the boats he would have otherwise used to patrol the river upstream to lay the fake bridge across.
Of course, the French fooled nobody with their diversion up at Nussdorf. The Austrians, watching the preparations on the southern crossing at Kaiser-Ebersdorf from their outposts on Lobau, could tell where the main crossing would happen. Voltigeurs, crossing in boats to Lobau on the 18th, cleared away any pickets they found. Massena then set up a battery of six guns on the north side of Lobau island to cover the final crossing point over the Stadler Arm. The Austrians weren't fooled any more than Mother Nature.
That night of the 18th, Charles ordered his army to start moving closer to the Danube but still out of sight of the French. He had them bivouac behind the hills surrounding the Marchfeld, concealing their numbers. He told his commanders to let part of Napoleon's force over, and then try to break the bridge, after which he would defeat the isolated French in detail, with their backs to the river.
Saturday night, the 20th, Lobau Island was secure. French volitgeurs rowed across the last obstacle to the north bank to a wooded area called the Muhlau and chased away any Austrian pickets. They then made their way up to the village of Aspern and secured that as the left flank of the bridgehead. Bertrand now threw two pontoon bridges across the 125 meter-wide Stadler Arm and Massena ordered his 3rd Division, under Molitor and his 4th, under Boudet, to run across it and fan out to Aspern and Essling. These were followed by Lasalle's light cavalry division who took up linking positions between the two villages and on the right flank. He was next supported by IV's Corps' cavalry division under Marulaz, who fanned out his light cavalry regiments between the gap between Aspern and Essling and the approach to the southwest of Aspern on an island called Gemende Au (see detailed map below). Massena's remaining two other infantry divisions, Legrand's and St. Cyr's were still crossing from Kaiser-Ebersdorf to Lobau, along with the Guard, Bessières' heavy cavalry divisions, and Lannes' II Corps, taking up the rear along the road from Vienna. A lot to keep track of, but suffice it to say that there was a lot of furious hustling that morning.
About 17:00 on the late afternoon of the 20th, Murphy's Law applied itself for the first time (and not the last over these next two days). A heavy barge launched by the Austrians upstream crashed into the fragile, single span of the bridge between Kaiser-Ebersdorf and Lobau Island, taking away part of it and halting the deployment. While the French engineers worked frantically at repair, Bertrand told Napoleon that the breach was so great it was going to take all night to fix.
Meanwhile, Massena's half corps and Lassalle's light cavalry in Aspern and Essling (including Napoleon himself, who had joined Massena) would be cut off in the darkness. By the time of this first bridge-breaking, Napoleon had just 12,106 infantry, 5,375 light cavalry, and 18 guns over on the north bank, a total of only about 17,000 holding a semicircular, unprepared perimeter about three kilometers across and two deep. Unknown to any of them, they were about to face over six times their number coming at them from all directions. I imagine it must have felt like those unhappy spelunkers in horror movies when the cave entrance behind them collapses, leaving them alone in the darkness with who-knows-what terror.
As night fell at 20:00, the French could see some campfires several miles to the northwest on the Bissamberg (these would have been from Reuss's V Corps and Hiller's VI Corps) but none, apparently, along the northern and northeastern hills. These reports confirmed Napoleon's assumption that it was just a rear guard he faced. The French continued to believe that the main Austrian army was 70 miles (113 km) to the north at Brünn. Though Lasalle sent out some patrols to find out for sure, the Austrian hussar screen was so efficient that they were unable to penetrate it.
There must have been some suspicious souls in the French army that night who had a bad feeling about this. Massena was one. But Napoleon, Lannes, Bessières, and everybody else on the staff snorted at his Chicken Littlism.
A few words about the lovely battlefieldIt's always good to imagine the ground a battle is about to be fought on.
Though the two villages, Aspern and Essling, were composed mostly of masonry buildings and fairly solid, For some reason, neither Massena nor his infantry division commanders, nor his brigadiers, nor anybody, thought to order the men to fortify them. No loopholes were banged out in the buildings or the walls. No barricades were erected in the streets. There was a low dyke that linked the two villages, but it was not improved either. Perhaps they all thought there wasn't a need since they'd all be moving out in the morning as the rest of the army came over. And nobody noticed any enemy activity across the dark Marchfeld.
At the western end of Aspern was a stone church, surrounded by a high wall. The village itself was surrounded by ditches and sunken roads which proved to be useful for defense in the early stages. To the immediate south of Aspern was a boggy, woodsy island called the Gemende Au, which would serve to absorb any outflanking movement the Austrians might make. And as the battle unfolded, Massena's infantry and some of his light cavalry made use of its natural, obstructive qualities. It proved to be a good defensive anchor for the left of the line.
The ground around the area between Aspern and Essling was cramped--only about 3 km wide and 2 deep--and not ideal for defense. Confined as it was, and prone to inundation, it crammed the French into a killing zone that could and would eventually be exploited by superior Austrian artillery in crossfire.
By contrast, the Austrians had ample and open ground to maneuver on the wide Marchfeld, which, though relatively flat, had enough rolling swales and ridges to provide dead ground for troops to hide in. Coming at the French from a 9 mile (14 km) west-to-east arc (see map above), Charles could execute a concentric attack. Napoleon occupied the central position as he would be able to rush reinforcements from one sector to another. But his tenuous lifeline to reinforcements and supply on the south bank, meant he had only limited resources to shuttle around. And, as the first breaking of the bridge behind him the night of the 20th showed, this would become critical as the battle developed.
Behind the arc of the French line, near the end of the bridge from Lobau to Muhlau, work parties directed by the artillery, began to erect fieldworks for battery positions to guard the bridgehead. These would prove invaluable in the ending stages of the battle as the French collapsed their perimeter in retreat (oops, I should have given a spoiler alert!).
Who are all these people coming to visit?Finally, sometime after sunrise on Sunday, the 21st, the main bridge was repaired and open for business again. Troops once again began tramping across. The small but growing force had a high proportion of cavalry since Napoleon expected his initial moves would be to fan out, find, and pursue Charles. This was also probably why nobody thought to fortify the villages of Aspern and Essling; they didn't expect to be there for long.
The morning hours saw the landscape near the river shrouded in mist. Late in the morning outlying French pickets reported hearing and feeling rumbling in the ground. No one was sure from which direction--possibly because it was coming from all directions, and they may also have thought they were sensing the movement of their own troops coming up behind them. David Chandler, in his landmark work, The Campaigns of Napoleon, mentions a dust storm rising up about midday from the north. This could have been a result of thousands of tramping feet and hooves, but it also seemed to conceal any movement on the part of the Austrians. At any rate, it must have been hair raising as hell.
|The jury-rigged bridge from Kaiser-Ebersdorf (n the distance) |
breaking...for not the first time. Print by Felician Myrbach
But at 13:00, the long bridge from Kaiser-Ebersdorf had broken again and the flow of reinforcements and supply stopped once more.
It was also at this time that the isolated French first began to see the whole horizon from west to east covered by white-clad troops and hundreds of yellow, Austrian flags, all coming right at them. Charles's army, 100,000 strong, was converging on the small French enclave between Aspern and Essling.
Situation at the beginning of the battle on the first day about 14:45. Note about the maps: It has been always frustrating for me to see battle maps where troop formations are represented as out-sized square blocks, far wider and deeper than the actual ground covered. As with all of my maps in this series, I have endeavored to represent the actual footprint sizes and formations of the troops engaged (both depth and frontage). Austrian facing colors are coded in the numbers for each regiment. For details about the regiments, see Orders of Battle at the end of the article.
The battle startsAt 14:30 the first Austrians to hit the French position were the 2,000 Grenzers and Vienna Freiwilliger troops under Nordmann's Avantgarde (see Austrian Order of Battle below for details). These had made their way down the right bank of the Danube and attacked up toward Aspern from the southwest, across a woody island called Gemende Au. They were checked by a regiment of Marulaz's chasseurs-a-cheval who held them up in the broken landscape. About fifteen minutes later, the first battalions of Hiller's VI Corps (led by the IR# 60 Gyulai) started to attack the walled church property on the western edge of Aspern village. This position was initially held by the detached voltigeur companies from Massena's corps, who fended off Hiller's first attacks from behind the cemetery walls and the sunken roads around the village. The Austrians, suffering pretty stiff casualties, fell back a little, but renewed their assault with fresh battalions.
Meanwhile, Massena threw in both regiments of Viviez's brigade (three battalions each of the 37th and 67th) to reinforce the voltigeurs. The fighting raged--as they say--for a couple of hours, with both sides suffering horrific casualties and the village soon turned into an inferno as fires spread.
Napoleon, seeing that Charles' entire army seemed to be coming for him over the Marchfeld, ordered that all available artillery (46 guns, not including the 8 Guard guns covering the right from Lobau) be massed in the center to hold off the enemy. Ever the gunner, he believed that nothing could withstand a massed battery. These moved up onto the dyke, unlimbered and began bombarding the oncoming columns in crossfire.
While this was going on, Bessières was ordered to take all of his available cavalry--which, at this stage, amounted only to d'Espagne's single curiassier division, and parts of Marulaz's and Lassalle's light cavalry divisions--and make a charge against Hohenzollern's II Korps and Leichtenstein's Kavalleriekorps. This they did, dispersing Leichtenstein's squadrons and riding right up to the packed battalionsmasse of Hohenzollern's infanty. A French cuirassier officer was sent forward under a white flag to demand the surrender of the Austrian squares, only to be answered by an insolent volley (When were the French going to learn that white flags don't work?). That did it! D'Espagne's cuirassiers made charge after charge on the squares, to no effect. I can't help but think of a similar scene six years later when French cavalry also made a series of unsupported cavalry charges on the Anglo-Dutch squares at Waterloo, only to be slaughtered. Finally, Liechtenstein's squadrons rallied and he had called back several more that had been ordered detached uselessly to the various corps. With these he launched a counter-attack on the disordered French cavalry swirling impotently around the packed Austrian columns. These went galloping back. When they did, they unmasked their own guns again, who were, in turn, able to unleash hell on the pursuing Austrian cavalry.
- Dimensions and layout of the new Battalionmasse formation in the Austrian army. The flexibility of this formation allowed it to open up to move rapidly like a French column, but to close up quickly into a solid phalanx when threatened by cavalry, very much like the old Spanish tercio of the 15th century. The right and left three files would turn outward and the 1 meter space of each company's serrefile would be plugged by the NCOs racing out to the edges. The two main advantages of this formation were that it was much quicker to form than the traditional hollow square and that it was also easier for lesser trained troops to execute. The two main disadvantages were that firepower was reduced by as much as 60% since the inner companies were unable to bear their weapons and the formation was even more vulnerable to artillery fire.
Romantic painting (by B.B. Kraft) dramatizing the
moment when Charles seized a flag and led his infantry
into Aspern one more time on the 21st. The burning church
can be seen in the background.
At about this time, too, the French engineers managed to complete repairs on the broken bridge once again and the flow of reinforcements continued. Massena had fed both Molitor's and Legrand's divisions into flaming Aspern to throw out the Austrians. But these two had suffered almost 50% casualties by this stage. Now Massena's last division, St. Cyr's 2nd, ran across the bridges and were put in as fresh troops into Aspern, allowing Molitor and Legrand to pull out their exhausted men and rest them. St Cyr led the 4th and 46th Ligne, 4,765 men, into the town and evicted the latest incursion of Austrians. His 24th Legere and von Nagel's Hesse Darmstadt Brigade (4,883 men), Massena put over onto the Gemende Au south of Aspern to plug up any attempts by the Austrians to work their way around the French left flank through those woods.
After St Cyr's division went over to the north bank, Bessières' remaining cavalry, composed of St. Sulpice and Nansouty's Divisions, started to follow. In spite of the urgency, they didn't gallop over the rocking spans (actually underwater in some places) but dismounted and gingerly lead their horses over. Then, at 18:30 the bridge broke again, for the third time, either from a huge submerged log or a another floating ram sent by the Austrians. When it broke it took with it several cuirassiers of Doumerc's brigade (Nansouty's Division). Once more, the flow of reinforcements stopped.
I'm sure General Bertrand, the bridge builder, turned the muddy Danube blue with his swearing.
But about 18:00 there were enough French cavalry in the center to begin to attack and try to crumble Liechtenstein's cavalry corps. Lannes, in spite of the fact that none of his own II Corps were yet over the river, had been given operational command of the French center and right by Napoleon. This put him in direct command of Boudet's infantry division in Essling (formally part of Massena's IV Corps) and fellow-Marshal Bessières' entire Cavalry Corps. Apparently Bessières wasn't informed of this arrangement by Napoleon personally (or chose to willfully misunderstand it) and had had a personal feud with Lannes for years, which stemmed from Bessières interfering with Lannes' courtship of Napoleon's sister, Caroline. So when Lannes sent an aide over to Bessières to order him to put all his divisions in and charge home the Austrian center, Bessières took it as a "suggestion" rather than an order. The first aide had apparently tried to be as diplomatic as possible with Bessières and the marshal snubbed him. According to Marbot (one of Lannes' aides) it took three messengers to get Bessières to move off of his butt; the last (Marbot himself) ordered to directly quote Lannes' insulting language to Bessières, word-for-word. Bessières wanted to have Marbot court-martialed for speaking to a Marshal of France that way, and to challenge Lannes to a duel.
|French cuirassiers at Aspern-Essling. |
That poor horse looks pretty tired.
|Bessières and Lannes|
How they hated each other. Something Napoleon evidently delighted in
when he mischievously told Lannes he was in charge of Bessières
but didn't inform the latter in person.
18:00, Now EsslingAs the assault on Aspern on the French left escalated, Charles' envelopment of the French right, at Essling, was delayed. Rosenberg's IV Korps, as well as Klenau's Avantgarde, had the longest to march and didn't get to attacking the French right until about 18:00, while the cavalry battle in the center was happening. Rosenberg's command was split in two. One, composed of... (well, see map above) ...marched on Essling from the northeast. The other had to loop around to the southeast to Gross-Enzerdorf and didn't get in position to attack Essling from that direction until 20:00, after sunset.
Situation at the end of the first day. Intense fighting is happening at both ends of the French line in the two villages. And both side have massed their cavalry in the center.
Now Rosenberg and Klenau's 18,215 men started attacking the north side of Essling. Like Aspern, the initial assault as uncoordinated, launched by each regiment and brigade as they happened to come up. There was some initial success by the Austrians, with Klenau's troops capturing the cemetery and pushing the 56th Ligne back through the village. But no impression was made on the north walled garden or the Granary. Also like Aspern, Essling was turned into an inferno by the concentrated Austrian artillery raining into it. Since all of the available French artillery (but the eight guns of the Guard on Lobau) had been massed to cover the center, west of Essling, the grossly outnumbered French didn't have anything but their muskets to reply with. Lannes helped Boudet rally the defenders and they retook the village, with the exception of the cemetery.
This fighting went on in spurts for a couple of hours, tapering off about sunset.
But now, around 20:00, Rosenberg's detached column, the wide ranging divisions under Hohenlohe (about 12,000 infantry and cavalry), finally managed to array itself in front of Gross-Enzerdorf to the southeast of Essling and start a twilight attack toward the French backdoor. In the failing light, the distances were deceiving and these attacks were thrown back by charges from Lasalle's cavalry (he now had Pire's 1,200 hussars and chasseurs back from their action in the center earlier), and the musketry from the 3rd Legere behind the walls of the Long Garden. To support Hohenlohe, Rosenberg's northern column also renewed its attack on Essling. The 93rd and 56th Ligne and the grenadiers in the Granary stopped these latest attacks from the north, and though the 3rd Legere were temporarily pushed back from the eastern wall of the Long Garden on the south side of Essling, they rallied and retook this position, sending the Austrians back toward Gross-Ebersdorf.. Then another wave of Austrians would come on again, out of the dark.
This see-saw action went on until about 21:00 when the large, multi-battalion sized assaults from Rosenberg and Hohenlohe finally stopped. There was some isolated fighting by skirmishers off and on until about 23:00, but even that pretty much died down by midnight. The French defenders were probably jittery all night, though.
Likewise, fighting over in Aspern also dwindled down to small unit house-fighting as the troops on both sides collapsed in exhaustion in the smoldering ruins, sometimes just yards from each other. Occasionally men would pop up to take a pot shot or to let the enemy know they were still there. But both sides still occupied part of what was left of the village. They'd pick up where they left off they left off in the morning.
Napoleon had had a near run thing that day. But his 24,000 men (by the end of the day) had managed to hold off over four times their number after more than seven hours of heavy, almost non-stop fighting. Even though he now knew that he was facing all of Charles' army of 100,000, and even though the Austrians had fought more ferociously and tenaciously than he'd ever seen, he had been in tight spots before--at Arcola, at Marengo, at Austerlitz, at Eylau--where he had snatched victory from defeat. And at all of those battles he had also been outnumbered at first. If he could just get that damned bridge opened again and bring over the rest of his army...
Napoleon's luck seems to change.That night a little bit of Napoleon's luck came back as the single, tenuous bridge behind him managed to be repaired by 22:00 and stay open long enough for a significant number of reinforcements to cross. This allowed the rest of his cavalry, three divisions of Lanne's II Corps and his Guard to come over and take up position between Aspern and Essling, raising his force to about 75,000 (somewhat less, actually, owing to the horrific casualties sustained by Massena's Corps the day before--Molitor and Legrand's divisions had taken 50% casualties. He had also sent orders a few days before for Davout to bring two divisions of his corps over to reinforce the main thrust. In which case, if he could hold on, he'd be able to bring his force up to parity with Charles', and with fresher troops.
Napoleon was one of those freaks who can get by on almost no sleep. In fact, he had a gift of being able to instantly go to sleep at will at any time, do some REM for ten or twenty minutes, and pop up completely refreshed. It must have made working on his staff a grueling duty. Needless to say, he did that this night. With the arrival of his new troops, he decided to rearrange his deployment a bit.
He let Massena continue to take responsibility for holding Aspern and keeping the Austrians out of the Gemende Au on the left. The Duc de Rivoli was expected to do this with his three exhausted divisions, Molitor's, Legrand's and St. Cyr's (the former two down to almost half their original strength). On the right, still under Lannes' command, Boudet's division was still in charge of holding Essling. But they would be reinforced by the eight battalions of the Young Guard (Tirailleur Grenadiers, Tirailleur Chasseurs, Fusilier Grenadiers, and Fusilier Chasseurs) who guarded the southern approach to the village from Gross-Ebersdorf.
So far, this plan was pretty much what it had been the day before. But in the center, with the arrival of the whole Cavalry Corps (minus one of Nansouty's brigades) and three of Lannes' II Corps divisions (Tharreau's, Claparede's, and St. Hilaire's), a combined force of about 31,000, Napoleon intended to launch a major assault on the perceived weak junction between Hohenzollern's II Armeekorps and Liechtenstein's cavalry.
Napoleon's plan was that Davout's III Corps, now arrived in the vicinity of Kaiser-Ebersdorf on the far side of the Danube, would come over and supply the coup-de-grace on Charles' army once Lannes' II Corps and the cavalry had achieved the breakthrough.
As usual, the Emperor kept his Guard (except for the Young Guard division above mentioned) in reserve with him behind the eastern brick works (see deployment map for the morning of the 22nd below).
Once more during the night, the bridge was broken again by more flaming missiles sent down by the Austrians ("Of course, it was," was probably Napoleon's reaction), and the reinforcements once more stopped. This latest rupture caused the loss of several hundred men and horses on the sections that were swept away and for a few more hours held up the crossing of the rest of the cavalry and Lannes' last division, Demont's. It wasn't until after sunrise that the latest break was repaired. This made it four times in 24 hours.
But what is Charles thinking?On the other side, Charles was feeling pretty good about the first day's events. True, while he hadn't managed to secure either of the two endpoints of the French position at Aspern and Essling, his men had made a strong showing. And they retained partial control of both villages after nightfall. Making his way around the campfires of his tired troops that night, he sensed that they were pretty proud of themselves, as well, and were ready to have at it again in the morning. They had tasted French blood and they were thirsty for more. Their new training and battalionmasse tactics had not just resisted repeated attacks from the up-to-now irresistible French cavalry, they had, in skillful combined operations with their artillery and cavalry, mauled the French badly, forcing them to retreat behind the central dyke.
That night, too, Charles found out about how successful the ongoing sabotage of the bridges had been. During the day he figured he was fighting the entire French army, but now he realized that Napoleon had only been able to bring over part of his force, and that the lifeline was in constant danger, not just for reinforcement and resupply, but in the event of retreat. This conformed exactly with Charles' original plan to defeat Napoleon in detail, half-across the Danube. He had his nemesis right where he wanted him.
It was true that the Austrians had also suffered horrific casualties the previous day, as had the French, but their commands were all still intact (albeit many at reduced strength), their morale was high, and their ammunition boxes were refilled. Also Charles had yet to commit his own reserve, the two grenadier divisions, 11,299 of his elite infantry. These he brought forward to back up the center.
Everybody was positioned to strike at first light, from all sides at once.
The battle starts up again early.As the light started breaking a little before 04:00 on the 22nd, the fighting in the villages started up again, taking up where it had left off the evening before. Hiller ordered a bombardment of the east side of Aspern village with fire bombs from his howitzers to drive the French out entirely and support his renewed push to take the town. While horrific, the men of St Cyr's battalions just kept fighting amid the burning buildings.
Around 08:00, after an initial but short bombardment by the massed French artillery batteries arrayed long the dyke, Lannes' three divisions (left-to-right Tharreau's, Claparede's, and St. Hilaire's) clambered over the berm in echelon and swung left toward Bellegarde's and Hohenzollern's corps. These were supported by the five cavalry divisions of Marulaz, Lasalle, Arrighi (assigned to command the dead d'Espagne's cuirassier division), St. Sulpice, and Nansouty. As the 20,000 French infantry marched forward in column-of-attack formation, some of the Austrian battalions showed signs of wavering. Charles rode along the line rallying them and the light cavalry fanned out behind to act as "battle police" and shore up the line.
As the huge French attack came slowly forward, the massed Austrian batteries opened up on them, tearing several holes through the ranks. While the French divisions had taken some of their direct-support artillery with them, they were now completely outgunned by Austrians. The massed French batteries on the dyke behind them were now masked by their own troops and couldn't reply to the Austrian cannonade. The French infantry, two-thirds of them young recruits in depot battalions, started to waiver.
At this point Lannes ordered Bessières to take his five cavalry divisions and take care of the enemy guns. Eleven thousand horsemen filtered through the gaps in the infantry columns and charged the Austrian batteries. On the left, the light divisions of Marulaz and Lasalle managed to overrun the Austrian guns and infiltrate the double line of Hohenzollern's and Bellegarde's infantry columns. But the battalionmasse formation once again proved its worth and the swirling French chasseurs and hussars could not break them. Rather, Austrian light cavalry swept in itself from the rear and drove the French off.
On the right, Bessières' cuirassiers managed to make more headway against Liechtenstein's cavalry, temporarily driving them back. Their thundering big horses also managed to scare some Austrian infantry enough that they broke and ran. It was at this point, however, that Charles was supposed to have seized another flag of a wavering battalion (Zach #15) and rallied it (as he had done the day before). He had also ordered up his reserve corps of grenadiers who shot down the cuirassiers and held up the crumbling line. The French cuirassiers were now disordered and taking heavy fire from the Austrian infantry. At this point, too, the several squadrons of Liechtenstein's cavalry had rallied and come back to chase away the milling French cuirassiers.
Lannes' attack was faltering. While the veteran regiments of St Hilaire's division (including the undaunted "Terrible" 57th) were still moving forward, his left-hand divisions--composed of the 4th depot battalions of parent regiments serving in Spain--had stopped and would go no further. Lannes sent back to Napoleon for reinforcements. Now was the time for Davout's veterans to come to sustain the attack, and strike the killing blow.
Now's the time.Unfortunately now was also the time for--yes, you knew it was coming--that damn bridge to break again. The fifth time. For the past two days some enterprising Austrians had been preparing an abandoned, floating mill on one of the islands upstream, slathering it with pitch to turn it into, in effect, a huge fireship. They unmoored it early in the morning and guided it down along the southern channel of the Danube. When in sight of the long-suffering bridge, they tossed on torches and let it go. The horrified French engineers, seeing this mountain of fire heading right for them, frantically sent men upstream in boats to try and pole it to the shore. Many of these courageous men were burned alive in their attempt. But the burning house just kept coming until it blasted right through the middle of the southern span, this time taking a whole lot of Bertrand's heroic engineers with it. Davout's III Corps was not going to be able to come across. At least not that day. Bertrand reported to Napoleon that the section of the bridge taken out this time was so great that it would take two days to replace it.
Meanwhile, the arrival of Charles' the two, fresh, grenadier divisions (d'Aspre's and Prochaszka's) in the Austrian center helped shore up that impending breach caused by Lannes' attack and stabilized Hohenzollern's men. This and the last bridge break was probably the moment that Napoleon lost the battle. Lannes' call for reinforcements and ammunition evidenty convinced the Emperor that his plan had failed. The cascade of bad news was too much, even for his vaunted belief in his own luck. He sent a message for Lannes to pull back.
The advancing Austrian grenadiers gradually followed the slowly retreating French back toward the dyke. And as news of the latest broken bridge percolated through the ranks,, the stalled movement threatened at any second to turn into a rout. More and more troops, especially in the teenaged battalions of Tharreau's and Claparede's divisons, started volunteering to help escort their wounded comrades back to the rear. It was reported that as many as a dozen perfectly healthy soldiers were selflessly helping one wounded one.
Just as these trickling pebbles were about to start an avalanche, Francois Fririon, an enterprising brigadier under Boudet in Essling, took it upon himself to lead forward his two battalions of the 3rd Legere out of the village onto the Marchfeld and pour a few controlled volleys into the flanks of the oncoming Austrian grenadiers. This nasty surprise caused the Austrians to retreat themselves and gave Lannes' men a chance to manage a controlled withdrawal back behind the protection of the dyke. Even St Hilaire's veterans had been on the verge of rout when their beloved general had his foot ripped off by a roundshot (he died two weeks later of gangrene after his leg had been amputated). Lannes himself took control of this last division, the last off the field, to lead it to safety. Once the troops were over the bump of the dyke, the unmasked French guns on top of it opened up with a vengeance on the pursuing Austrians (who still outnumbered the French) and made them fall back out of range.
It's going to be a long day.Disaster was barely averted. But Napoleon's army was now cut off from reinforcement, resupply, and retreat. And his plan of a strategic victory washed down the river with the bridge. He was not going to be able to wrest victory from the jaws of defeat as he had at Marengo and Eylau. Unlike those battles, nobody was going to show up at the last minute to save his bacon.
It was also only 09:00 and the day had just begun. The Austrians were far from spent and, because they had miraculously seemed to cause the French to retreat, could smell victory. The French, unable to withdraw back over to the safety of Lobau island in daylight, were going to have to hold on all day until they could start to recross the Stadler Arm. At least those bridges were intact.
Charles ordered renewed attacks on the two villages, this time with his sixteen grenadier battalions on Essling. He also ordered the bulk of his artillery into one, gigantic mega-battery in the center (about 200 guns) to overwhelm the French batteries on the dyke and the packed troops behind them.
The French batteries themselves, perched on top of the dyke, were, curiously, in the best position to be able to return fire and not take casualties themselves...at least from Austrian guns. With the crude aiming capabilities of the day, it would have taken a lucky shot to exactly hit the top of that dyke. Rather, most of the cannonballs and shell fired by the Austrians sailed over the heads of the French gunners, plunging randomly (but unfortunately) into the packed ranks of cavalry and infantry behind the dyke. I assume that many of the infantry got down and clung to the far slope of the dyke, but those farther behind and the cavalry, would have suffered from hundreds of random shots.The French guns, on the other hand, were able to keep the Austrian guns at long range...at least too far for the use of canister.
In order to buck up the morale of his troops, Napoleon ordered General Dorsenne to deploy the Old Guard infantry into line and march them forward for the men to rally behind. These grognards started taking casualties from the plunging Austrian roundshot, but they just closed up ranks and stood silent, like a rock. The line formation would have minimized casualties, but they still took some during the long day.
Charles, seeking to press home the advantage after having watched the mass French withdrawal from the center, started Liechtenstein's and Hohenzollern's Korps, as well as the reserve grenadiers, forward again. Lannes, seeing this new threat coming toward them, passed the word along the line for the Guard and the artillery to hold their fire until the enemy were within close musket range. When the first Austrian squadrons got to with a hundred yards Lannes gave the order for the closest battery to him to open fire, and then each battery followed in a ripple all the way up the line. The shock tore huge holes in the enemy horse, which halted and then, upon controlled volleys from the Guard infantry, broke and ran to the rear. Charles called off his attack to rally his center.
Street Fightin' MenFor the time being, Napoleon's center was stable. His plan of destroying Charles' army was put on hold, but at least he had avoided a collapse. Now he just needed to hold on to his narrow perimeter until night, when he could conduct an orderly retreat back over to Lobau Island.
But now there was a renewed threat to his flanks as Charles, not wanting to risk a frontal attack on the strong French center, turned his attention again to the villages of Aspern and Essling. For a time, both had been completely cleared by St. Cyr and Boudet. But Charles ordered renewed, even stronger attacks against both at once. Napoleon had to hold these anchors at all costs.
An instructive illustration by Myrbach (a hundred years later) of an 1809 Austrian battalion charging the village of Aspern in battalionmasse formation. Though the new infantry uniform regulations introduced the double-peaked shako in 1806, many regiments continued to wear the old helmet through 1809.
On the other side of the battlefield the village of Essling was also being fought over with renewed fury. Charles sent back in Rosenberg's IV Korps from both the north and the east again, and added four grenadier battalions from the Reservekorps. Boudet's tired division (93rd and 53rd Ligne and 3rd Legere), having fought off attacks since the day before, held on for a couple of hours, until they too were out of ammunition and reduced to throwing bricks and clawing eyes. By 15:00 the fresher Austrian and Hungarian grenadiers threw all of them out of town, except for Boudet himself and some grenadier companies wedged into the strong granary building on the north side of Essling. The Austrian grenadiers tried again and again to break into the buildling, with its extra-thick stone walls and iron-reinforced doors, but were mowed down relentlessly by the French defenders. The building proved to be impregnable, even to artillery.
|An Austrian (German) grenadier battalion storming the |
granary without success. (Myrbach)
While the fighting over the two villages was going on, it seemed as though Charles was massing for another assault on the center. To forestall this, Napoleon ordered Bessières in for another cavalry charge. Though the horses were themselves foaming and could not get up to much more than a slow trot, the tired cuirassiers of St Sulpice's and Nansouty's divisions went over the dyke and once more charged the battalionmasses of the Austrian infantry. They successed in drivng off the equally tired Austrian cavalry, but were unable to shake the solid Austrian infantry columns. For their efforts they did manage to intimidate Charles enough to put off his own attack, but they suffered terribly from the combined fire from the infantry and artillery.
It was a long, long afternoon. And it never seemed to end.
At one point during the combat, Marshal Lannes was near the front supervising the defense of the center. Marbot reports that Lannes was talking to his old friend and mentor, General Pouzet, who, years before, had taken Lannes under his wing when he was a young sergeant in the Royal Army. They had stayed close for two decades, having been through much together. Though now his boss, Lannes always went back to Pouzet for advice and counsel. Suddenly, in mid-conversation, the old friend had his head pulverized by a bounding cannonball, spattering Lannes with his blood and brains. Lannes, physically and mentally near his own breaking point after 48 hours without sleep and in constant duress, was traumatized. In spite of all of the carnage and loss of friends he had witnessed, this one seemed to have gotten to him more than all the others...or it was the last straw. At any rate, Lannes, shaken to the core, got down off of his horse to say goodbye to his friend's headless body and the walked a hundred yards to the rear to compose himself. He sat heavily down on the edge of a ditch, his head in his hands. This proved to be dangerous as cannon shot started landing close to him. So he moved a ways off to another ditch and sat down again, crossing his legs and looking up at the sky. Marbot, his young aide who reported all of this in his memoires, had followed him from a distance to be there for him.
|Wounding of Lannes behind the lines. Notice the Grenadiers of the Guard in line in the background |
(Fernand Cormon, 1893)
Then another cannonball, seemingly spent, bounced by and happened to smack into both of Lannes' knees right where they crossed. At first, because the shot hadn't seemed to have had much energy left, Lannes said it was nothing and asked Marbot to help him stand up. But as the aide tried to lift him, Lannes collapsed and the young man could see that one of Lannes' knees was completely crushed. Some soldiers happened to be shuffling by with a covered dead body on a stretcher and Marbot ordered them instead to drop the dead man and put the wounded marshal on the stretcher. But when they rolled the body off the stretcher, Lannes recognized the headless corpse of his friend, Pouzet, and freaked, wailing that he was being haunted. He refused the stretcher and the soldiers went on their way with Pouzet's remains while Marbot organized another group who tied together a travois of branches to lay Lannes on and drag him to the rear.
When they got him back to the main field hospital near the bridgehead, the surgeons (including Napoleon's chief physician, Dominque Larrey) all had an argument about whether to ampuate both, one, or neither of his legs. Lannes, who was probably in shock, must have been so comforted by this professional debate going on over him. Finally, Larrey pulled rank and announced a compromise: one leg must go (hopefully the most wounded one). So that's what he did. Though Larrey was one of the leading battlefield surgeons of the age, and a master of efficient field amputations, the experience for Lannes was undoubtedly extremely painful in an age before general anesthetic. There was laudanum, an opium-based analgesic, which was used only in rare cases (as it was rare and expensive). It may have been used for Lannes, a patient of some importance. But most common amputations depended on brandy for the patient and on quickness to get the pain over with as soon as possible. It is also likely that Larrey wanted to take advantage of the natural anesthetic from the shock Lannes was experiencing to do the deed as fast as possible.
|Napoleon comforts Lannes at the field hospital, post amputation. |
Though a touching painting, the actual scene was more likely not in a
stone courtyard but under a canvas. (Painted by Paul Boutigny in 1890).
Unfortunately, Lannes did not recover. While at first he seemed to be getting along nicely, and had even sent for a famed Viennese artificial limb craftsman, after a few days he began to get delirious and feverish. After nine days he was dead (31 May, the very date on which I'm writing this, in fact). Doctors claimed it was the heat and--probably glaring at Larrey--and reiterated that the amputation should never have been done during hot weather (ah, pre-modern medical wisdom!). They also should have applied mustard plasters and bled him more. But undoubtedly Lannes died of sepsis. In an age before antiseptic practice (which wouldn't come until after Ignaz Semmelweis' discovery in mid-century), this was the fate of the overwhelming majority of battlefield wounded, privates or generals, simple blood infection.
Where was I?Oh, yes. The battle. By 16:00 the actual fighting had died down to a dull roar. Aspern was in Austrian hands and the French hadn't the strength to take it back. Massena's troops, though, did have enough left in them to keep the Austrians from coming out. Essling, while still French, was a ruin but was not to be attacked again by Charles that day. The battle had settled down to an artillery duel in the center. Though still numerically superior, the Austrian army was also pretty well spent itself. And Charles thought he should probably rest and resupply it to attack the next day, should Napoleon still be on this side of the Danube. He pulled all of his infantry and cavalry out of artillery range, where they collapsed on the ground to sleep and cook. Charles wanted them rested and fed in case there was a third day.
But there wasn't going to be a third day. Napoleon had recognized that the battle was lost. He had lost battles before, but had always been able to cover them over with propaganda. The scale of the disaster of Aspern-Essling, however, was such that it couldn't be concealed. He'd have time to recover politically. And in six weeks he'd be able to cover over this "minor" loss with a big victory at Wagram. But that was to come.
|Napoleon takes one of the water taxis back across the Danube, |
graciously giving a ride to a wounded Austrian officer.
I think the sailor in the front is asking him to please sit down...
you know, for his own safety.
cooked in cuirasses and seasoned with gunpowder--at least according to Marbot's memoire (though seasoning something with gunpowder over an open flame sounds a little unsafe to me). To add insult to injury, it decided to rain that night, all night. Napoleon did manage, however, to organize a boat ferry to take the wounded back to Kaiser-Ebersdorf and Vienna. And some supplies came back that way too. Massena's men, the last to withdraw, were left to guard the bridgehead on the Muhlau.
What happened next?Nothing happened for six weeks really.
Charles, not obtaining the strategic victory he had hoped for, pulled back up to Wagram to regroup and receive reinforcements. His incompetent brother, John, was supposed to have brought his own army up from Italy to join him, but only managed to get himself hammered again and again by Marmont and Eugene, losing most of his army in the process. At the battle of Wagram, at the beginning of July, John had not been able to join his brother but Eugene and Marmont, chasing him, had managed to join Napoleon. Not a lot of love lost within the Habsburg family that summer.
|NOW Napoleon is interested how to do it right.|
By the beginning of July, Napoleon had called in the bulk of his army and staged them on Lobau Island, which had become a huge, pre-invasion base. On the 5th of July, as he began his final assault, he had 188,965 men and 617 guns to face Charles with 137,063 and 452 guns. The victory of Wagram, the largest land battle fought to date on the European continent, would not only wipe out the embarrassment of Aspern-Essling, it would end the war (at least the 5th Coalition one), force Austria to be an ally (for a four years anyway), and obtain Napoleon a nubile, young, Habsburg wife (so he could divorce the past-her-childbearing-years Josephine). It would also be one of the most unimaginative victories Napoleon had up to then achieved, signalling what many historians have called the decline of his genius. A bloody, frontal attack slug-fest. But that's another post.
Aspern-Essling: A Debrief
There is some debate--at least as far as I'm concerned--as to whether this was Napoleon's first defeat (see my previous post on Arcola). It was certainly an object lesson in strategic overreach and operational blundering. But here are the things my ex-intelligence officer's brain thinks are important for a command debrief:
Napoleon's impetuosity lays a trap for him.Napoleon's first mistake, it seems to me, was his unsubstantiated feeling that he had to get across the river as soon as possible to take Charles out. Rather than use his up-to-then highy efficient intelligence services, or his cavalry reconnaissance to find out where Charles was and what he was doing, Napoleon just leapt to the conclusion that he was skulking up north at Brünn (like Kutusov had done in the 1805 campaign) and that he should jump over the Danube and rush up there to snuff him out before Charles had time to outflank him and recross the Danube upstream. This impatience also compelled him to ignore operational prudence in A) getting his forces in hand and B) taking time to build a solid bridge. This led to another mistake:
This was the wrong time of year for a river crossing.It was clearly a bad time of year to attempt a hasty crossing of the Danube. It was late spring and the river was in spate, rising as much as six feet above normal from all the melting snows from the Alps. As every river does every spring--at least the ones that flow through woodsy country--it also carried with it tons of lethal debris in the form of logs and clumbs of uprooted vegetation. That's just what rivers do. To ignore this natural state of the river, and the prudent advice of his engineers, was crazy.
Relying on luck as a strategic advantageNapoleon, as I've pointed out, believed in his own lucky star. He may have been clever, a brilliant strategist, an astute tactician, but all of this was overshadowed by his greatest weakness, his quaint superstition. He believed that the real reason he had won the battles and wars he had thus far was primarily due to his own destiny. Fate had chosen him. So when presented with practical impediments like...oh...a flooded river, he thought that his guiding star would trump those. But anybody who has ever had a winning streak in dice, for instance, knows (or should know) that sooner or later your streak ends. Murphy's law hadn't been stated yet, but common sense should have told Napoleon (as it evidently did Bertrand the Bridge-Builder) that while audacity has its rewards, stack the cards in your favor; plan for the worst.
Charles was at his best today.Throughout the battle Archduke Charles had never been a more magnificent leader. He tirelessly galloped all over the field, directing attacks, moving reinforcements, and rallying troops. He even personally risked his life leading faltering battalions back into the volcano. Part of the reason, I think, his army did so well, was his charismatic presence. While Napoleon held back, wisely but cooly directing the battle, or trusting his subordinates like Massena and Lannes from a central, but rearward headquarters, Charles' headquarters was in the saddle. It was in this battle that the Austrian commander showed his true mettle. He was never intimidated by Napoleon, and Napoleon, for the first time (once the bridges started breaking), seemed to have lost his confidence.
Irregular warfare makes a difference.The Austrians certainly took advantage of the flooding Danube. Not just relying on nature's log jams to break up the French bridge, the men of Reuss' V Korps upstream sent lots of fireboats and extra logs downstream to crash into the single span. This culminated in their greatest project, the firebomb of the floating mill, which had spectacular success. There certainly must have been great cheering from them. Of course, to the French, it probably felt underhanded and like dirty warfare--irregular war always does. But from the Austrian persepctive this activity, while underhanded, was also the most effective tactic and the cheapest in terms of blood and treasure (that is, if you don't count the loss to the family who owned the floating mill--I certainly hoped they were recompensed by the state for their sacrifice).
This was like modern, urban warfare.Another distinctive feature of Aspern-Essling was how much the parts of it resembed modern, urban combat. As contrasted with the linear, shoulder-to-shoulder tactics of horse-and-musket warfare of the period, the fighting in the burning little towns on the two wings of the battlefield were hand-to-hand; vicious, and personal, involving small units and going on for hours at a time without advantage going either way. Small groups would have to break into each house and usually kill the defenders up close, taking terrible casualties themselves. So in those ends of the battle, the battle resembled World War II in Europe or even Falluja in Iraq.
A Myrbach illustration of the Young Guard infantry fighting in the streets of Essling. Though imagined almost a century after the event, Myrbach has probably captured the gritty nature of street fighting accurately. While the two villages had not been prepared for defense, the troops on both sides used the ruined, burned-out buildings as street-fighters of World War II would have. They would have also dragged out furniture to make barricades.
The Central Position has its limits.The doctrine of the Central Position states that, all things being equal, the side that occupies interior lines has a decided advantage over the side which surrounds him. This prinicple was certainly in play at Aspern-Essling in that Charles had trouble coordinating the timing of all of his concentric attacks on the French, in their central position.
But all things in this battle weren't equal. As we've seen, Napoleon may have enjoyed interior lines, but his lines were cut off frequently at the water's edge. Without reinforcements or resupply he was doomed. Also, when an enemy has overwhelming numerical superiority, as Charles did, the central positon can be overcome by sheer force.
That Napoleon, with his inferior force, was able to hold off the Austrian onslaught as long as he did, and was able to safely pull back his army intact (minus his horrendous casualties; see below), was probably due to his central position. But that didn't allow him to win the battle.
The Austrians were a different class of soldiers this time.Thanks to the previous four years of complete reorganization and rethinking of tactical doctrine in the Austrian army, the army that faced Napoleon in 1809 was not the same as he had faced in 1805, or 1800, or 1796. In terms of professionalism and even elan, it was on a par with the French. And the new reliance on columnar formations, including the flexible battalionmasse which could be turned into an effective square in seconds, meant the Austrian infantry was safe against the massed French cavalry charges. Ironically, these new tactics were a throwback to the Spanish tercio of two centuries before, or even to the Macadonian phalanx. But they worked.
Another thing that stood out in this battle was that the Austrian soldier was far more motivated than he ever had been before. While some of the older officers were holdouts to ancien regime culture, the French Revolution and the new spirit of nationalism it invoked had spread to France's enemies. They were fighting to throw out the invader, to defend their homeland, and not to preserve a despotic aristocracy.
It was probably this new spirit, combined with the training that had given the troops confidence, that most motivated the Austrians to fight as long and as hard as they did at Aspern-Essling. That and the fact that the quality of many of Napoleon's troops was not what it was.
Horrendous casualtiesAspern-Essling, as I said at the beginning of this article, was a huge battle. In terms of combatants, it was larger than Gettysburg or any other Civil War battle. It was as big as the biggest of the Napoleonic Wars thus far and in the same league as any of the big European land battle in the previous century. It was also one of the longest, lasting two days. It was not a skirmish.
It was also one of the bloodiest. The Austrians precisely calibrated their losses at 23,340. The French, whose figures were probably purposely left vague for propaganda reasons, were estimated to have suffered 23,000 casualties. This makes, for the Austrian side, a loss rate of 22% and for the French 31%. All told, some 46,000 people were killed or wounded (and since the rate of death from wounds was much higher than today, owing to the primitive nature of battlefied care, we can assume the majority of those died shortly thereafter). This ranks Aspern-Essling up there with Gettysburg and Antietam and Waterloo in terms of the scale of lethality.
As military historian Gwyn Dyer once put it about another battle, imagine a fully loaded jumbo jet crashing onto the same field every six minutes, one after another for straight 19 hours, and that should give you a feel for the scale of the human disaster that was a battle like Aspern-Essling.
Wargame ConsiderationsAspern-Essling has been wargamed a lot. Probably every Napoleonic wargame club has done it. And when you Google images for the battle, more than half are photos of wargames of it. That being said, there are some things I'd like to address as ideas in staging your own wargame. As usual on this blog, I don't recommend one game system over another. Pick the one you like the best. But these are considerations I'd like to suggest to adjust the the game as a realistic simulation.
The Bridge CutsLet's face it, the fact that the single, rickety, watersoaked bridge behind him kept breaking throughout the battle probably had more to do with Napoleon losing this one than any other factor. A wargame could easily account for this with three optional rules:
- Reinforcement appearances. Since the French player would start off with only three of Massena's divisions and three cavalry divisions (d'Espagne's, Lasalle's and Marulaz's), he should have a schedule on the game track for the arrival of reinforcements (see main narrative above for sequence of arrival). This could even be adjusted by making it depend on luck (rolling to see if a scheduled formation arrives over the bridge that turn, for instance), and adding to the nail-biting fun.
- Bridge Down / Bridge Up. One could roll a 10-sided die or activate some other randomizing test for each game turn to see if the bridge was down, interrupting the arrival of new reinforcements. Another randomizing test could then be used for each subsequent turn to see if the bridge is repaired. French troops scheduled to arrive on the southern side of the board could not do so unless the bridge is open.
- Build a better bridge. For strategic level games, one could face Napoleon's dilemma and decide to take the time to build a stronger, proper bridge. Let's say that while a slapdash bridge takes only a day, a proper, secure bridge takes a week in game time. As Napoleon feared, the risk of taking this long would be that the Austrian player, though hidden movement, could cross the Danube at some western point and cut the French player's LOC, or even attack his outlying forces in detail. Both of these options should be available in a strategic game.
Relative Combat EfficiencyWhen setting the power ratings of various units, I'd give the average Austrian unit the Combat Efficiency equivalent of the average French unit. This would effect not just their combat power, but the speed at which they could change formations. When face-to-face, both sides in 1809 stood up to each other without much flinching, so I'd make them equal.
There are exceptions. Since the majority of the French troops filling out the divisions of Tharreau, Claparede, and Demont (in II Corps) were teenaged conscripts, called up a year early to fill the needs of the national emergency, I'd rate them somewhat lower in CE than the average French infantry. Likewise, I'd also rate the many Austrian militia regiments (e.g. the Vienna Freiwilliger and the Landwehr) as lower in CE than the average Austrian infantry.
Also during this battle we saw how the Austrian cavalry could give as well it could take against the French, so I'd make them equal in CE as well.
Battalionmasse: Not Quite a SquareThe new Austrian formation, the battalionmasse (illustrated above) proved its concept in this battle. The idea of it--to be able to maneuver the relatively big Austrian battalions quickly with little training--worked fine. And the speed with which it could be converted into a cavalry-resistant formation, with all sides facing out, saved many a regiment. However, it was not quite as strong as a formal, hollow square. For one thing, up to half of the personnel within the battalion were unable to face outward with their muskets because they were cooped up in the center. This meant that the facing firepower of a battalionmasse would have been roughly half that of a hollow square.
The other disadvantage of a closed up battalionmasse was that, without open space in the center, there was no safe place to pull the wounded into. Getting reinforcements and ammunition to a threatened side of the square was also more difficult without that open, internal area. And the officers would have difficulty moving from one side to the other to rally or direct fire. So confusion would reign. To simulate this in a wargame rule, I'd make it more difficult to rally a disordered battaionmasse than a traditional square.
Because crowds tend to give a sense of security, however, I'd give an morale bonus to any unit formed up in battalionmasse, just as they would have in column.
Of course, such formations would be even more vulnerable to artillery than a square would. A bounding roundshot hitting the face of a hollow square would only have twice the effect as hitting a single line (since the ball would hit the front face and then the rear face--a total of six files). But a ball bouncing through a battalionmasse would plow through as many as eighteen files perpendicular to the front and upwards of 50 or 60 files perpendicular to the flank. So battalionmasse should suffer the same as columns of companies when fired on by artillery.
Urban CombatAs a feature I mentioned above, one characteristic of Aspern-Essling was the intense, house-to-house, hand-to-hand fighting that took place in the two villages. As I pointed out, this tended to resemble modern urban combat (minus the flamethrowers, hand grenades, and machine guns). It might even be fun to stage company-level wargames around the details of each village to simulate this. So any rules that are designed for these types of squad-level, modern-era games would, with modification to take into account muskets and bayonets, be appropriate.
To that end, I've attached two detailed plans of both villages to model a game board around (or minature diorama). These are without troop deployments. They are based on a combination of tactical maps (as in Bowden/Tarbox and others) and interpolation of modern satellite photography from the presentday of Aspern and Essling (minus the car factories and other modern additions).
Plan of Aspern. Note that this image is protected by a Digimarc watermark and is under copyright of the Jeffery P. Berry Trust, so it is only available for personal reference, not licensed for reproduction either digitally or for print. If you would like to license it for commercial use or republication, please contact me.
Plan of Essling. Note that this image is protected by a Digimarc watermark and is under copyright of the Jeffery P. Berry Trust, so it is only available for personal reference, not licensed for reproduction either digitally or for print. If you would like to license it for commercial use or republication, please contact me.
Orders of BattleFor these OOBs I used the tables in Scott Bowden's and Charlie Tarbox's incomparable "Armies on the Danube 1809", which were sourced from official French and Austrian archives. They are based on roll call reports (parade states) made on 18 and 19 May. Ian Castle, in his otherwise excellent Osprey title (see my reference list at the end of the article), varies in detail in his OOB from Bowden/Tarbox but he does not cite his sources. So I defer to the scholars that do. Sorry, I may be in error, but that's my old intelligence officer prejudice; trust the sources with credentials.
Command organizations were flexible and changed during the course of this battle, with Corps regularly swapping, detaching, and acquiring units as Napoleon or Charles needed. But these lists are based on the state of command at the beginning of the two day battle.
ReferencesI used all of the following books and links in my research for this article. It is always instructive to read several sources on the same event as it illuminates how imprecise the reporting of history can be. You find yourself believing one source over another because of your experience with that author, or because they conform to your preconceived ideas. And I am no exception. I do tend to rely on Bowden and Chandler when it comes to things Napoleonic, though I look for corroboration in other sources, like Osprey Books, Digby Smith.
As a courtesy to the authors and retailers, I have linked each title to Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon (my local retailer of choice but with an online store), or, failing Powell's in-stock inventory, to Amazon. The ISBN number is also included should you like to support your own, local book seller or public library.
Bowden, Scott & Tarbox, Charles, "Armies on the Danube 1809", Empire Games Press, 1980, ISBN 978-0913037089
Castle, Ian, "Aspern & Wagram 1809", Osprey Campaign Series, 1994, ISBN 978-1-85532-366-7
Chandler, David, "The Campaigns of Napoleon", MacMillan, 1966, ISBN 0025236601
Chandler, David, "Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars", MacMillan, 1979, ISBN 0-02-523670-9
Elting, John & Esposito, Vincent, "A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars", Greenhill Books, 1999, ISBN 1-85367-346-3
Forty, Simon & Swift, Michael, "Historical Maps of the Napoleonic Wars", PRC, 2003, ISBN 1-85648-733-4
Haythornthwaite, Philip, "Austrian Army of the Napoleonic Wars (1): Infantry", Osprey 176, 1986, ISBN 0-85045-689-4
Haythornthwaite, Philip, "Austrian Army of the Napoleonic Wars (2): Cavalry", Osprey 181, 1986, ISBN 0-85045-726-2
Marbot, Jean-Baptiste de, "The Exploits of Baron de Marbot", Caroll & Graf, 2000, ISBN 0-7867-0801-8
This memoir is highly useful for understanding the relationship and personalities of the various leaders in the French army. And, though he may be self-serving, Marbot was actually present at Aspern-Essling as a junior staff officer, so his comments on the weather and the ground I take as primary testimony.
Nafziger, George, "Imperial Bayonets" , Greenhill Books, 1995, ISBN 1-85367-250-5
Nosworthy, Brent, "With Musket, Cannon and Sword: Battle Tactics of Napoleon and His Enemies", Sarpedon, 1996, ISBN 1-885119-27-5
Rambaud, Patrick, "The Battle", Grove Press, 1997, ISBN 0-8021-3810-1
Though a work of fiction, this historical novel is extremely well-researched and gives a useful feel for the battle. It may be the translation, but some terms in it are inaccurate, which is distracting to those familiar with things Napoleonic. And it sometimes feels exaggerated as the author is obsessed with grisly aspects like decapitations, disembowelings, amputations, necrophilia, and gore. But it is still worth reading for atmosphere.
Rothenburg, Gunther, "Napoleon's Great Adversaries: The Archduke Charles and the Austrian Army 1792-1814", Indiana University Press, 1982, ISBN: 0-253-33969-3
Schom, Alan, "Napoleon Bonaparte" Harper Collins, 1998, ISBN 0-06-092958-8
On the Erzherzog Karl Legion http://greatestbattles.iblogger.org/GB/Wagram/Archduke_Charles_Legion.htm?ckattempt=1
Acerbi, Enrico, "The Austrian Imperial-Royal Army (Kaiserliche-Königliche Heer) 1805 – 1809: The Infantry: The Elite Troops"--regarding the detailed composition of the grenadier battalions.
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