Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Wertingen 1805

  War of the Third Coalition

8 October 1805

French under Marshals Joachim Murat: and Jean Lannes: approx. 12,000

Austrians under FML Franz Auffenberg: approx 5,500

First Light:  05:56   Sunrise:  06:28   Sunset:  17:44   End of Twilight: 18:15
(calculated from U.S. Naval Observatory from location and date)

One of the opening battles of the 1805 Ulm envelopment, the strategic coup that virtually eliminated the Austrian field army at the beginning of the war and the first act of the Austerlitz campaign. Wertingen was a relatively small engagement but notable as the first test between the newly trained and re-organized Grande Armee of Napoleon and the veteran but also recently re-organized army of the Hapsburgs.Though most military historians classify this as an "action" or a "combat" rather than a "battle", it involved several thousand troops and resulted in the deaths of hundreds (who were probably not concerned with the finer points of historical classification). I've decided to add this battle/combat/action/skirmish to my collection because of its interesting features. In the same way, just because Pluto is no longer regarded as a full-fledged planet doesn't make it less interesting as an object of study.

The Strategic Situation

The Austrians under Karl Mack von Lieberich had moved their forces to the southwest, invading the French ally Bavaria. Mack's intent was to seize and concentrate around the major city, Ulm, but his forces were widely scattered and communications sporadic.

After enjoying a successful career as primarily a quartermaster officer, Mack owed his appointment to the de-facto command of the Austrian field army mostly to political string-pulling. But his authority was from the start ill defined. He was vigorously criticized by the General Staff and his subordinate commanders as having stuck his neck out too far in moving the army so far west. He was also guilty of believing what he wanted to believe and ignoring tangible and increasingly alarming intelligence reports of the actual French movements to the north and east of him. He was also prone to firing off impulsive, confusing, and contradictory orders to his corps commanders, not helping the situation.

But Mack was an aggressive and overconfident personality and meant to meet the French early, rather than wait for them to invade the motherland of Austria. Unfortunately, the French did not come at him as expected, due east through Strasburg through the Black Forest, but were swinging around and behind the over-extended Austrians from the north and east, cutting them off from their line of communications with Vienna.

Mack Sends Auffenberg up to Wertingen to Reconnoiter

Mack heard unsubstantiated reports that there was French movement across the Danube at Donauworth to the northeast. So he sent FML Franz Auffenberg's division as a reconnaissance in force with nine infantry battalions and four cavalry squadrons to find out. After force-marching his grenadiers all night without encountering any French, Auffenberg settled in to bivouac around the town of Wertingen on the morning of the 8th. The town was on high ground just five miles south of the Danube where, 101 years before, another battle between the Austrians and French took place, Blenheim.

No sooner had Auffenberg's sleepless troops dropped packs, lit fires, and tried to get some rest, when reports started coming in from pickets that French cavalry was spotted in force coming down from Donauworth. After much denial on the part of Auffenberg’s staff, who argued that the reports had not come from officers of the right pedigree of aristocratic credentials (I'm serious; this was the reason), the Austrian general finally realized that he was being descended on by at least a full corps of French cavalry. He started to pull his infantry out of Wertingen about 10:00, marching them up onto a defensible hill to the northwest of the town and put them in squares. 

Meanwhile, chef d'escadron Remi Joseph Isidore Exelmans of Murat's staff arrived and, invested with the cavalry marshal's full authority, took tactical command of Beaumont's 3rd Dragoon Division, which was the first unit on the scene: 18 squadrons of dragoons, six of hussars (from Fauconet's V Corps cavalry division), and six horse guns, but no infantry. The young officer had two squadrons of the 8th and 5th Dragoons dismount and attack some 200 Tyrolean Jagers, outposted in the village of Hohenreichen to the east of Wertingen. The house-to-house fighting was savage and, after committing eventually six dragoon squadrons, all on foot, and fighting for the rest of the morning, Exelmans managed to overwhelm the Austrians and take the village.

At the same time, Beaumont unlimbered both his and Fauconnet's horse artillery on a hill just east of Wertingen and commenced to harry the Austrian infantry out of town. 

Having secured this strong point on his flank, Exelmans then moved four of Beaumont's dragoon regiments forward to the foot of the hill on which the enemy had deployed his squares. By about midday he also moved the six horse guns to another, higher hill to the northwest of Auffenberg's position and commenced to methodically and slowly bombard the dense Austrian formations, ideal targets for roundshot. From this position, presumably on the military crest, they dominated the Austrian six-pounders, which could not effectively reach up on to the hill at that range, thereby nullifying Auffenberg's superiority in artillery.

Starting at about noon, and for the next few hours, Exelmans led charge after charge up the slope to attack the Austrian squares, each time being repulsed by the interlocking fire from the squares, their battalion guns, and the 400 cuirassiers and chevauxlegers  counter-charging the disordered dragoons. Each time the French squadrons would retreat and rally at the bottom of the hill to try again, while the French artillery would recommence lobbing roundshot and shell into the packed Austrians. On the Austrian side, they must have welcomed each fruitless charge of the French dragoons as a respite from the far more hurtful bombardment since the French guns would have had to let up while their cavalry swirled around the squares.

After four hours of this tedious action, the Austrian squares showed no signs of wavering. In spite of the pummeling his troops were taking from the distant French 8 pounders, Auffenberg felt confident that if he could hold on until dark (sunset at 17:40 hours this time of year in Bavaria), he could extricate his division with little loss. Exelmans, for his part, could achieve no dent in the Austrian position without infantry support. And his dragoons of Beaumont's division were getting tired of milling about on the hill just to get shot down.

Murat and Lannes Finally Show Up

By 16:00 Marshal Murat with Klein's 1st Dragoon Division, as well as Marshal Lannes with the leading division of his V Corps (Oudinot’s Grenadier Division), arrived on the scene. While watching with admiration the bravery of Excelmans in his fruitless but piecemeal attacks up the slope, both marshals conferred and agreed to a combined, all-out assault on the Austrian positions, with Oudinot turning their left flank from the old Roman Road at the foot of the wooded plateau to the northwest of Auffenberg's hill.  Murat had brought his 1st Dragoon Division under Klein, and with them another six guns to add to the six that had been lobbing shot and shell at the dense Austrian flanks all afternoon. As Oudinot's 2,000 fresh grenadiers circled around to charge up behind Auffenberg, Murat would lead his two dragoon divisions, almost 5,000 horsemen, in an all-out charge up the slope.

The casualties from the hours-long bombardment from the French 8 pounders and howitzers had taken their toll on the Austrian grenadiers. Auffenberg saw that his men were exhausted; they had been marching and fighting for nearly 24 hours with little rest. He also saw the French massing fresh cavalry in the valley and knew that he was facing Murat's entire corps bearing down on him. It is not known if he was aware of the outflanking maneuver coming from Oudinot's grenadiers (though he may prudently have deployed some scouts from the Latour Chevauxlegers to watch that road). With a couple of hours left of light, he decided that now was the time to start an orderly withdrawal. He rode personally from battalion to battalion to tell his men to begin to march away to the southwest, remaining in their square formations, he instructed his four cavalry squadrons to do what they could to hold off the French cavalry.

The tired Austrian infantry started to shuffle away, trying to keep their square formations intact. This formation is not the easiest to move, even on a smooth parade ground, much less rolling countryside.

At about 17:00 Oudinot's grenadier division had appeared to the southwest of Auffnberg's line of retreat and had climbed the plateau from the Roman Road at Binswagen. The busy Albert Cuirassiers, who had been heroically defending the Austrian infantry's flank all day, now tried to come to the rescue and charge the French grenadiers puffing up the hill. But these were also supported by Fauconet's hussars (9th and 10th) who swarmed through the gaps between the columns and overwhelmed the outnumbered and exhausted Austrian cavalry.

This sudden appearance of French infantry along their route unnerved the Austrian infantry. Under continuing pressure from attacks on their rear and flanks, and having not slept for more than 24 hours, the retreating squares fell apart one by one, and the orderly retreat became a general rout. The French fell on the fleeing Austrians and killed or wounded some 400 and captured about 2,900, as well as 6 guns and 6 flags. Sweet darkness allowed the rest to escape to Gunzberg, about 24 miles to the southwest. But Auffenberg had only been able to muster about 2,200 over the next two days. And these were spent and virtually useless as a fighting force.

The Assessment

Lord knows what Mack was thinking when he sent an infantry division some forty miles up the Danube to scout for the French. The hapless Auffenberg didn't have the mounted assets to move fast or reconnoiter much territory. And when he ran into the main French cavalry corps under Murat, and elements of Lannes' V Corps, he couldn't move fast enough out of the way. While he held his own against repeated cavalry attacks up on his hill for most of the day, once the French arrived with infantry and artillery, he was doomed. And Mack amazingly (and typically) blamed him for letting himself get caught.

Auffenberg was sacked after Wertingen (unfairly as he had performed competently in defending his division), sentenced to death, and even though the sentence was commuted, lived out the rest of his life in disgrace. Mack himself was also disgraced, sacked, and court-martialed after he surrendered at Ulm 11 days later. He was not condemned to death but did spend two years in prison, with all of his rank and honors rescinded.

Wertingen is not only notable as the first contest between the two reorganized armies of France and Austria in the 1805 campaign, it is also a textbook case of a few principles of battle tactics of this era:

Cavalry vs Infantry Squares

Because Exelmans was unable to make a dent in the Austrian infantry squares for hours, even with artillery support, Wertingen clearly demonstates the success of this form of defense against cavalry. A few times during the afternoon the French dragoons made temporary breaks in the wall of bayonets, but the discipline of the Austrian infantry quickly patched up the holes. Most of the 319 casualties suffered by the French were during this stage of the battle as the controlled, close-range, interlocking volley fire of the squares took its toll on the disordered dragoons.

The biggest three vulnerabilities of the hollow square formation are 1) that it reduces its firepower to 25% on a side against an infantry line, 2) it is much less maneuverable than column or even line, and 3) it suffers from artillery fire.

The square's advantages include the fact that it presents a virtual fortress of people with sharp, pokey sticks, something no self-respecting horse will (if conscious) fling himself against. And there is a tremendous psychological bonus as the men in a square feel their backs are covered; they cannot be flanked and if wounded they will be pulled to safety behind their comrades. Squares also allow officers and NCOs to more tightly control their troops from the central position.  Finally unless the attacking cavalry troopers are armed with long lances, their swords cannot reach anyone in a square as long as its members are formed up close and have bayonets fixed.

Combined Arms Tactics

It was only when the French supported their cavalry with the infantry from Oudinot's division that the Austrian squares were finally defeated. The laboratory of this battle demonstrated that once the French had all three arms operating in coordination (something that failed to happen 10 years later at Waterloo), the collapse of the Austrian squares, though solid throughout the day, was assured. Some war game systems give an artificial bonus to integrated attacks with the three arms (foot/horse/guns). But if the game system is elegant and simple, you should see this bonus take effect naturally.

The Principle of Elevation and Position in Artillery Tactics

Though for most of the day the French artillery was outnumbered threefold by the Austrian guns, it enjoyed an advantage in both position, range, and weight. The Austrian 6 pounder guns had an effective range of about 1,000 yards, but they could not reach the French guns on the higher hill. We presume that the French followed professional, contemporary practice and positioned their pieces on the military crest (just below the summit) to minimize the effect of any uphill firing from the enemy batteries. But this superior elevation, as well as the 1,250 yard effective range of the heavier 8 pounders meant the French could outreach their Austrian counterparts. Yet they do not seem to have wasted any ammunition trying to knock out the Austrian guns (which were still able to use devastating canister on the dragoons), but concentrated instead on the densely packed infantry squares.

Dragoons Fighting Dismounted

Another of the notable features of this battle was that in the morning the French dragoons were fighting dismounted, as dragoons had originally been intended to fight since the first units were created almost two centuries before. Mounted cavalry would not have been able to eject the Tyrolean Jagers defending the outpost at Hohenreichen; only foot troops could do that. So the dragoons demonstrated their flexibility by being able to jump down from their horses with their muskets and root out the dug-in jagers. This was vital to the need of the French to clear their own flank in order to assault on the main Austrian force beyond Wertingen.

This tactical flexibility on the part of the French dragoons was a renaissance of that arm, which had, for most of the previous century devolved into just another species of cavalry. As the Napoleonic wars unfolded, French dragoons settled back into their traditional, 18th century role as medium cavalry, rarely fighting dismounted in main battles. The next time we were to see dragoon cavalry operate as true dragoons (dismounting to fight) was half a century later in the American Civil War, where virtually all cavalry at the time fought as dragoons; maneuvering mounted and fighting on foot. 

Wargame Considerations

Austrian Discipline and Fatigue

War games of this period often short-change the Austrians in terms of their combat-efficiency. But the Austrian infantry at Wertingen showed that, even in spite of the recent reorganization of the Hapsburg army, they were able to fight tenaciously. Until exhausted, outnumbered and outflanked, they held their own for most of the day. When the French cavalry made breaks in their squares, they quickly sealed up the breaches. So in setting the combat efficiency of Austrian troops in this (and probably subsequent battles), one would do well to rate them as disciplined and courageous as the French.

However, due to the previous night's forced march, the Austrians should start off the day more fatigued than the French (however your game system rates or accounts for this).

Dismounted Dragoons

If the war game rules you use do not provide for it, having dragoons dismount to fight as infantry should also account for 1/4 of their strength being held out of the combat to hold the horses (generally it took one trooper to manage four horses).

Victory Conditions for Auffenberg

The fate of the Austrians seems inevitable in this battle. Yet in running a game of it one could give the Austrian victory points if he could hold on until night (where, presumably he'd have a better chance of slipping away unmolested). Other victory points could go to the Austrian player who inflicts greater casualties on the French.

Victory Conditions for the French

Obviously the French achieve victory if the outcome of the game is the same as history; i.e. annihilation of the Austrian division. As it happened, Auffenberg did  manage to escape with half his force to Gunzberg, making the French victory incomplete. So a goal of the French player would be to bag the entire Austrian division (nine battalions and all 18 guns).

Orders of Battle

The following orders of battle for Wertingen were derived primarily from Scott Bowden's "Napoleon and Austerlitz" and partly from Digby Smith's "The Greenhill Napoleonic Wars Data Book"


Alombert & Colin, Le Campaign de 1805 en Allemagne, 1904, Librairie Militaire R. Chapelot

Bowden, Scott, Napoleon and Austerlitz, The Emperor's Press, 1997, ISBN 0962665576

Duffy, Christopher, Austerlitz 1805, Seeley Service, 1977, ISBN 085422128X

Esposito, Vincent & Elting, John, A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars, Greenhill Books, 1999, ISBN 1853673463

Hughes, B.P., Firepower, Weapons effectiveness on the field of battle, 1630-1850, Arms & Armour Press, 
 1974, ISBN 853682291

Pivka, Otto von, Armies of the Napoleonic Era, David & Charles, 1979, ISBN 0715377663

Smith, Digby, Napoleonic Wars Data Book, Greenhill Books, 1998, ISBN 1853672769

To see the battlefield on Google Maps' satellite version, search Wertingen, Germany

© Copyright 2016, Jeffery P. Berry Trust, all rights reserved. No part of this post may be used for republication or re-posting without documented permission of the Jeffery P. Berry Trust. However, feel free to link to this site as a resource from related sites.


  1. Another good post. Great reading. This type of information would be valuable to anyone planning on designing a game on this battle.

  2. "Some war game systems give an artificial bonus to integrated attacks with the three arms (foot/horse/guns). But if the game system is elegant and simple, you should see this bonus take effect naturally." excellent observation..J G Nazor

  3. Wow, this was beautiful! The maps were well done, and the description was clear and full of life. This is the kind of "historical battle writing" I've been looking for! I look forward to perusing the rest of your blog.

    1. Why, thank you, Eric. I'm really happy you enjoyed this post. Hope you get as much out of the others. They are all fun for me to put together, but it's always a bonus when others find them fun too.

  4. Jeff have enjoyed reading your Napoleonic and earlier era articles over and over again. The depth and penetration beyond the 'obvious' is like fresh air to the system and part of the 'thinking mans' research we all. know and love!
    I've recommended the site over and over myself to others and have, because of your analyses, modified the modelling 'plan' on which I have been building a French (!) gaming army of mostly Minifigs since the 1970s. A bit outdated now perhaps but I'm balancing this by utilising more modern 28mm 'enemy' for the much needed Allies enemy. Long may you publish Sir!
    dave, Auckland New Zealand.
    (Yes we allow US electrons into the country, just not nuclear ones!). Salut!

    1. Thank you, Dave. I so appreciate your fanship of my site. And it tickles me to be followed from New Zealand.

  5. This comprehensive and magnificently presented account is a great help to me as I take the side of the Austrians in the Wargame Designs Studio game of the battle. The maps are breathtaking! Thank you!

    1. And here I am a couple month's later trying to find info on the French side. Would love to do a PBEM at some point, but this is my first run through of a WDS game.