Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Aspern-Essling 1809

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.

Location: 48°12′47″N 16°30′09″E   
6 miles (9.66 km) due east of downtown metropolitan Vienna, on the north side of the Danube.

First Light:  03:30  Sunrise: 04:09   Sunset: 19:35  End of Twilight: 20:13
Moon Phase:  Waxing Crescent  Moonrise: 10:34 Moonset: 00:22
(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, irritated by his untrustworthy former enemies (if you can't trust a bullied enemy, who can you trust?) called for an accelerated conscription of the class of 1810 (teenagers) to fill out his stretched Grande Armée and instructed his chief of staff, Berthier, to take over command of the troops back in France to deal with the upstart Austrians. He also called upon his new allies in the recently created Confederation of the Rhine, as well as the perennial French ally Bavaria, to mobilize and join the cause. Berthier, an extremely competent staff officer, was not so great as an independent field commander and immediately felt overwhelmed by his new promotion. With the forces assigned him, he had not only been unable to surround and defeat the advancing Austrians as his boss had done in 1805, he was not even able to slow their advance. He cried out for help.
     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 Conundrum

      But 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.
      The next most likely crossing point that Napoleon's chief engineer, Henri Bertrand, recommended was a little over four miles (6 km) below Vienna at Kaiser-Ebersdorf. The first leg of the bridge would have to span across two channels, the first span, 450 meters long, went to a little island called the Schneidergrund; the second crossed a 225 meter channel to another low island called Lobgrund, separated itself from the big, wooded island of Lobau by a narrow stream. Lobau was ideally positioned not only to shield the French engineers from any Austrian artillery and sniper fire from the north bank of the Danube, but it was a vast-enough staging area to establish a base for Napoleon's whole army. This big island itself was separated from the left bank by a deep, 125 meter branch of the river called the Stadler Arm, over which the third and last bridge would be floated when both banks were secured by French voltigeurs.
Gen. Henri Bertrand
Napoleon's Chief Engineer,
who probably said "Merde!"
a lot during this battle, owing to

the number of times his bridges
were broken.
      Normally it would have taken a week to establish these three pontoon bridges properly. Piles would have had to be driven into the riverbed upstream to stop bridge-smashing debris carried down by the flood. Then a flotilla of patrol boats would have to be organized to sweep the river of enemy activity before the main pontoon spans would be launched, lashed together, and anchored.
      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 battlefield

      It'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
      By noon d'Espagne's cuirassier division of Bessières' Corps had dismounted and carefully led their horses across the rickety bridges--which were actually partly underwater--and taken up position between the villages. Legrand's 1st Division of Massena's IV Corps had also made it across the Stadler Arm and was on its way up to reinforce Molitor around Aspern. Lannes' IV Corps was still on the far side of the Danube, marching from Vienna, but Lannes himself was now on the scene and Napoleon assigned him to take personal charge of the Boudet's division defending Essling, as well as the whole right wing of the enclave. On the north side of the Danube there were, by this time, 16,666 French infantry and 8,272 cavalry (24,938 total) and 54 guns (including the 8 guns of the Guard covering the right flank from the northeastern shore of Lobau--see map below).
     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 starts

      At 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.
      Over on the French left, three of Charles' Corps (Hiller's, Bellegarde's, and Hohenzollern's), 66,000 men, had been making concentric attack after attack on Aspern village, taking it and losing it several times. Massena's two divisions (Molitor's and Legrand's), outnumbered 1:6, held on all afternoon and into the evening, throwing back the uncoordinated attacks of the Austrians, who seemed to get in each others' way in the confined, smoke-choked village. At 17:00, sensing his offensive was losing momentum, Charles himself seized a battalion flag and led a charge into the town. It was amazing that he wasn't killed. But his personal bravery seemed to reinspire his men, who ejected the French one more time.
      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.

(Horace Vernet)
      Nevertheless, Bessières sulkily ordered d'Espagne and St. Sulpice's divisions and the part of Nansouty's division that had made it across before the last bridge break, to charge. And they did so furiously. The troopers didn't want to get into the personal soap-opera spat between the petulant marshals; they were just itching to fight. The cuirassiers threw back Liechtenstein's first line of cavalry, then were checked by the Austrian artillery and infantry battalionsmasse as d'Espagne's troopers had been earlier. Liechtenstein now counter-charged with fresh squadrons, throwing the French cuirassiers back. Then Marulaz's and Pire's hussars and chasseurs rescued the cuirassiers, only to be chewed up by the Austrian guns and infantry themselves. The cavalry fight went back and forth like this for an hour or so, with charges, counter-charges, counter-counter-charges. General d'Espagne was sabered to death in one of the melees. The French cavalry finally retreated behind their own massed batteries on the dyke, which did the same thing to the pursuing Austrian cavalry that had been done to the French a few minutes before, poured canister into them.
Bessières and Lannes
How they hated each other. Something Napoleon evidently delighted in
when he mischievously told Lannes he was in charge of
but didn't inform the latter in person.
      The bloody cavalry battle had been a stalemate. But it did stop any further threat on the French center for the rest of that day.

18:00, Now Essling

      As 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.
      While Essling hadn't been prepared for defense any better than Aspern, it did have four strong points. On the north was a walled, municipal garden, called the "Great Garden," defended by the 96th Ligne. Next to it was the Granary, a massive structure three storeys tall with three-foot thick stone walls and narrow window casements; perfect as a fort. This was occupied by the nine detached grenadier and carabinier companies of Boudet's regiments (elite companies). On the east side of town was a walled cemetery that the 56th Ligne got ready in, which also occupied the walled gardens of the village. And on the south side was another walled wood, called the "Long Garden," that the 3rd Legere dug into. South of that Lassalle had posted half of his light cavalry ( Bruyere's brigade of 13th and 24th Chasseurs-a-Chevals and the Württemburg Chevaulegers) to guard the extreme right flank. These were themselves supported by two batteries of the Guard artillery (four 12-pdrs and four 6 pdrs) who swept the approaches in enfilade from an island in the Stadler Arm. Boudet and Lassalle then had only 6,911 men (infantry and cavalry) to defend the right flank.

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' Men

      For 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 century 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.
     The Aspern church fell again to renewed onslaught from the Hungarian regiments Splenyi #51 and Benjowsky #31, who retook the church. Bellegarde had his howitzers bombard the town with incendiary shells in advance of the Austrian infantry attack,  driving  back St. Cyr's exhausted men back almost to the eastern edge of town. Nordmann to the south of Aspern, rallied his Grenzers and Vienna militia to another assault on the wooded Gemende Au, held weakly by Molitor's spent troops (they had been fighting almost continuously since the day before).  Massena had only one body of fresh troops left, von Nagel's Hessians.

Aspern Church ablaze with yet other attack by an Austrian regiment. The one represented would have been a "German" regiment since it had white pants. Though Benjowsky #31 (a Hungarian, or rather, Transyvanian regiment) also had white pants, it had yellow facings, unlike the one depicted here. For you uniform nerds.
It may be that the engraver was mistaken.


As the Austrian bombardment lifted and their infantry began to move through the burning streets, the Hessians charged in furiously and threw them back to the "fort" that the churchyard had become. Then Charles threw even more Austrian infantry in, supported by more howitzers, which pushed the Hessians back. The see-saw fighting went on until about 11:00 when the French and Hessians, now out of ammunition, were reduced to throwing bricks and hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets and teeth. By 13:00, the numerical superiority of the Austrians finally told and the last of the French defenders had been ejected from the town. Massena's men were spent. The village was finally lost.
      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)
      After Boudet's divison had been ejected from Essling, Napoleon ordered his staff officer, General Mouton, to take five of the eight battalions from the Young Guard Division and retake Essling. The Austrian grenadiers, having spent so much blood to own the town, were not about to give it up again so easily. So the elites of the two armies spent another hour in intense house-to-house fighting. The Austrian artillery, trying to help, began bombarding the village again. But they only succeeded in causing a lot of friendly fire casualties on their own men. Finally, Charles, not wanting to waste any more of his men's lives, ordered the survivors out of Essling. The Austrian grenadiers suffered terribly. One battalion, Kirchenbetter's Hungarians, which went in with 613 men, came out with only 46 (93% casualties).
      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).
      Meanwhile, hearing of his old friend's wounding, Napoleon came galloping up and, leaping down from his horse, knelt by Lannes to comfort and assure him that he would have the best care, and that he was sure he would recover. The Emperor too, in spite of all of the carnage he had not only witnessed but been responsible for, was visibly shaken by Lannes' wounding. He had come to depend on Lannes not only as one of his best commanders, but as a cherished friend. It hadn't been a week before that Napoleon had jumped into the raging Danube to save him from drowning. The two were close.
    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.
      Shaken by the loss of his best friend, Lannes, and the repeated bridge collapse behind him, he now concentrated on getting what was left of his force back to safety on Lobau. The Austrian bombardment of the close space in which his army huddled continued, and he didn't think his troops (particularly the immature 4th battalions) would hold themselves together another night under the relentless crossfire. So, as the Austrians seemed to be numbed themselves, the French army conducted a well-organized withdrawal, collapsing into an every dwindling perimeter. It was well that Napoleon had had the foresight to have constructed fieldworks around the bridgehead from Lobau. At about 01:00 that night, seeing that everything seemed to be well in hand, he took a boat back to the south bank of the Danube, giving a lift to a wounded Austrian officer. He wasn't a complete monster.
      Unable to repair the bridge that night, Bertrand could not provide a resupply of the French as they sank down to sleep on Lobau. The only food the troops had was butchered horseflesh (there was plenty of that),
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.
(Felician Myrbach)
      Following Aspern-Essing, Napoleon soberly decided to listen to the advice of his chief engineer, Bertrand, and build a proper bridge next time, one that wouldn't get knocked over with every passing clump of yard debris. He took two weeks to do it, supervising every detail. The new bridge (or bridges) involved three parallel spans, plus several from the eastern side of Lobau to Gross-Enzerdorf, covered by lots of emplacements and artillery. The new crossing also included strong piers sunk into the riverbed upstream to catch debris and any more flaming houses.
      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 himself.

      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 advantage

      Napoleon, 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, it's better to stack the cards in your favor;  and 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.

Another 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 undoubtedly 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 casualties

      Aspern-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 Considerations

      Aspern-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 Cuts

Let'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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 Efficiency

      When 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 Square

      The 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 Combat

      As 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 at jeff@peoplesbranding.com

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 at jeff@peoplesbranding.com


Orders of Battle

     For 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.


I 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

Online References:

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.

For details on the Austrian army, this site is informative and detailed: http://napolun.com/mirror/web2.airmail.net/napoleon/Austrian_infantry.htm

© Copyright 2016, Jeffery P. Berry Trust, all rights reserved. No part of this post, except those illustrations which are already in the public domain, may be used for re-publication or re-posting without documented permission from the Jeffery P. Berry Trust, which may be obtained by e-mailing jeffery.p.berry@comast.net. However, feel free to link to this site as a resource from related sites.


  1. Thanks for another excellent article. I've only speed read it so far but look forward to a proper read through later.

  2. What a wonderful informative post. This is a favourite period of mind so thanks for so much excellent information.

  3. Yes a wonderful resource, thank you!

  4. Although I wouldn't necessarily classify A-E as an obscure battle, I certainly enjoyed reading your take on it. A complex two-day scenario with all sorts of ishaps large and small made clear--too clear, in a few instances. Nevertheless, history greatly benefits from a slightly irreverent re-telling in the vernacular.

    Not that anyone gives a hoot in hell, but the alleged feud between Lannes and Bessieres has too often been mischaracterized. True about the incident wwith Caroline, and another one concerning the Consuar Guard, but that same year, and adter these little dust-ups, Bessieres was a witness at Lannes's secobd wedding in September 1800, and they were often drinking buddies after that. Only on the battlefield did the intense competition--and sometimes silly king of the hill behavior--emerge.

    1. Thank you, Margaret. It is gratifying that people with education are reading and enjoying my blog.

      I wish we could be a fly on the wall back then and see what really went on. The discord between Bessieres and Lannes (not to mention Murat and nearly everybody) was certainly well-documented. I took this account from Marbot's memoires (who was a partisan of Lannes'). And they probably let up on each other when the stress of battle was off of them. Hell, I myself can be perfectly convivial with professional colleagues who hate me, and vice versa. Look how well Obama and John Boehner have been getting along lately.

      But it makes an otherwise dry narrative more juicy to highlight the personal catfights.

    2. Well, there is a hilarious story about a week in August 1808 when The Daring Duo, Jean and Jachim, spent a rowdy weekend at a spa in the Pyrenees and then hidden away in one of Jean's conveniently secluded country houses, where the wine, women, and Armagnac were on full tap.

      And no, that's not a Marbot story; my research was deeper annd broader than the tales Marcellin provided. I've been tempted to abandon the uptight/upright academic appproach for the historical fiction version where the imagination does not have to be tamped down.

    3. I myself am a big fan of Sarah Vowell's histories ("Lafayette and the Somewhat United States", "Unfamiliar Fishes", "Assassination Vacation","Wordy Shipmates"). She has a hilarious and personal style, and yet manages to convey a lot of hard history. I like to think I have my own voice, but I do use her as inspiration, giving me permission to be irreverent.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Glad the comment was deleted, although I was getting ready to remind this person--I know who it was, incidentally!--that the purpose here is to inform, entertain, and encourage folks to learn more aboout a particular battle or military era, or dress their 25mm troops properly.

    Very little annoys me as much as a faux-histoian carping about source material in order to make himself seem learned. Had the comment remained, yu would hve seem me match his two books and raise him three boxes of archival documents from Vincennes and two from the Kriegsarchiv. And you know I could do it...

    1. It's okay, Margaret. Thanks for your support. Actually, I deleted "Unknown's" comment not because of the quibble (I get a lot of those, and they're fine) but because I've started a policy of not allowing comments on any of my blogs from Unknown or Anonymous sources. I've been getting some of those that turn out to be spam. It wasn't personal or that I was offended. And I don't want him or her to be offended.

      You're are right about the faux-historian thing. I'm a proud faux-historian myself. And, as you've recognized, this is not supposed to be an academic journal or published paper, but is just an entertainment for like-minded hobbyists in history and wargaming. Of course, hobbyists can be intense sometimes, especially in the Napoleonic era.

      And the subject of Napoleon himself can be contentious. I used to own an ad agency called Elvis & Bonaparte, and we had a startup client who had a French investor who believed that Napoleon was one of the great villains of history. He pointedly asked the CEO in front of us, "Why are we doing business with a company named after that genocidal monster?" To which my partner unhelpfully replied, "I really don't think you could call Elvis a monster." He didn't think that was funny and demanded that they fire us. Oops. We just thought the name was funny when we incorporated it. Some people have no sense of humor.

  7. I wrote the deleted comment. My browser told me that the comment will be published under my Google account name but it appeared as unknown.
    I don't think that Mrs. Chrisawn knows me but who knows. I'm a Hungarian professional historian focusing on the French Wars Era.
    First of all: I didn't want to be offend anyone and I apoligize if it seemed to do so.
    My only goal was to point out that using onaly narrow spectrum of sources holds a wide range of dangers to be seriuosly inaccurate. Especially when only one language sources are used. That's not the matter of a faux-historian (I like the amateur historians so much as I have dozens of friends and connections). Scholars do so frequently. Just a little stroy on a Hungarian case. Liitle more than one century ago a prefessional soldier was called up to write the history of the battle of Raab in 1809. He used only a few sources and his book becone a failure but nobody recognised it because nobody knew the sources. All of the later books was based on that one. Some 30 years ago another even worse book was published. Quite all Hungarian paper based on that two books so far. For example the 32.000 French soldiers and app. 52 guns were enlarged to 56.000 men and 144 guns.
    I'd like to point out to use wider sources and not to carry on the bad data of careless authors.

    1. I was delighted to get your comment, Istvan. I had hoped that you would repost. And it is so gratifying (albeit a little intimidating) to learn that professional historians are also reading my blog. Also, no worries about offending. It's never offensive if someone challenges your ideas for their own merits.

      I agree that relying on a narrow spectrum of resources holds a wide danger of inaccuracy. And, being an amateur historian doing this in my spare time from my own, limited library (I have only a few hundred volumes on this subject), I will be the first to confess that my editorial conclusions are probably, undoubtedly, most certainly wrong.

      In researching the battle of Waterloo, for instance, I was aghast to learn a few years back that the majority of narratives and "histories" on that event stem to a single, flawed account that was written by a single, British author back in the 1830s--who wasn't at the battle, but knew somebody who knew somebody who's cousin was married to somebody who was. And yet so much of what has been written since about it is based on that.

      In reading up on Aspern-Essling, I also kept noticing a lot of tells in much of the work (especially about the orders of battle) had the same DNA, and that most of it wasn't even cited as to origin. At least, in my defense, I did rationalize my reliance on Bowden/Tarbox's OOBs because they actually cited their sources in French and Austrian official archives. Doesn't mean they're right either, but, that's my justification.

      I plan to keep writing this blog, blurting out my ill-informed opinions. That's the fun of the Internet; everybody with an opinion can publish it.

      But I also hope you keep reading and criticizing it.

      Which reminds me to ask a favor: If you have any digitized (PDF, Word doc, etc) copies of those alternative orders of battle of Aspern-Essling or Raab (or even Eggmuhl) you were referring to, I'd be most grateful if you would forward them to me so I could amend my posted OOB. Thank you so much in advance.

    2. The problem with B&T is that they did not think about their material - the OB for Aspern was before many of the 3rd battalions were marched off for training in Moravia. That has exaggerated Austrian numbers.

      Aside from Castle, if you wish to go deeper, use Gill: Thunder on the Danube Vol2 and Ferdi Wober: Schlacht bei Aspern (now in its second edition, but an English translation of the first is kicking around).

      Just two points: 1) an Austrian company divided into 2 half-companies (Halb-kompagnie), each of which then divided into 2 platoons (Zug). So a Zug is a quarter-company.

      Many accounts do miss two key strategic issues: The attempted crossing at Schwarze Lacken-au was important in making the Austrian command uncertain as to whether the French would try to cross where the bridges had been burned and hence whether the Lobau was another feint. Secondly, Charles' battleplan was based on the three columns coming in towards Aspern actually meeting the French around Hirchstetten. They expected the French to advance that way to secure the area around Nussdorf to rebuild the bridges there. This is why the three columns become too densely packed by the time they approach Aspern itself and why the cavalry is spread across the centre with Rosenberg being expected to tackle the French rear as opposed to its defenders of Essling. the whole Austrian attack is off balance.

    3. Thank you, David, for the further recommendations of titles. It's always good to read as much as possible. I've ordered Gill (Vol II anyway, though I wince at the cheesy title, "Thunder on the Danube". Really? That's the best he could come up with?) Though I've been reading about Napoleon and the history of that era for about fifty years now (the first book I ever read on it was Chandler's "Campaigns of Napoleon" in the mid sixties when I was in junior high), I'm a sucker for new titles. My daughter has been encouraging me to unload some of the hundreds of volumes I've accumulated (she says "hoarded"). It's hard, though. And since I started this blog I can look her in the eye and say, "No, I might need them."

    4. "Defiance on the Danube" might sound less cheesy :-) Terrific maps and write-ups. Please keep them coming. In the spirit of obscurity, how about Wavre or one of the early Revolutionary battles such as Fleurus?

  8. Jeff,

    Thank you again for another incredibly interesting account of the battle. I have many a time wargamed the scenario. It is a lot easier if the French are allowed free reign on their reinforcements!!
    One interesting additional rule I have wargamed with in the past, and is mentioned in your description, but not in the considerations. Is the ammunition of the French in the villages. We used a tile system to show the slightly detached nature of some of the strong points. These had to have a direct, uncontested line to the nearest supply wagon, which was taken to hold a certain number of turns worth of ammo. It created some interesting peculiarities. Including the out of ammo grenadiers charging out of the granary to chase off the Austrian Inf sitting on it's supply line. Then retreating back inside once they'd replenished to hold out for the rest of the game.
    Thanks again! I look forward to the next installment!!

  9. Thank you, Edward. I appreciate your compliments.
    Your thoughts and ideas about ammunition in a wargame are well-taken. That is something that I, too, in my own simulations have tried various techniques to account for. I used to use stacked pennies to keep track of ammo with each unit, but then, they sort of mucked up the look of the table. Then I started printing out spreadsheets of OOBs, with each unit having a tab of ammo, fatigue, casualties, etc. which I could tick off with an erasable pencil.

    Now I do all of that automatically on a spreadsheet on my computer which is adjusted by my algorithm. With each unit's action, the program I've written automatically deducts ammunition, adjusts fatigue, morale, order, and casualties for each unit. It also keeps track of time for each unit so you don't have to remember if you moved or fired it that turn. Saves paper and time. Let's make robots our slaves (oh, wait, that's what "robot" means, doesn't it?)

  10. Also, in regard to ammunition, that turned out to be critical at Gettysburg when the 20th Maine rain out of ammunition on Little Round Top and ended up charging downhill, overthrowing the Confederates massing for another assault. But the same thing happened to my GG Grandfather, Fetcher Hill, at Chickamauga when his own regiment (89th Ohio) ran out of ammunition in their defense of Snodgrass Hill and were led down the hill in a bayonet charge. Unfortunately, the Confederate division they did this to happened to have been part of Longstreet's Corps, which had been on the receiving end of the same thing months before at Gettysburg. After Longstreet's men recovered, they looked at each other and said, hm, those Yankees must be out of ammunition. They swept up the hill and overran my GG Grandfather's brigade. He lived but was taken prisoner and sent to Libby Prison in Richmond, where he later escaped.

  11. I've read several of your posts and I don't comment on them just b/c it would be tedious for you to read. But wow, that was such a fun write-up! The lively language adds so much colour, and the maps are a never-ending source of Joy.

    I'm currently working my way through Napoleon: Total War, and these posts really add a lot of context (and even tips on battle deployment) to what would otherwise be just a silly game loosely based on Napoleon.

    Thanks a lot for all your research and hard work!

    1. Well, thank you, Eric, for the compliments and for being a fan. Though I would probably do these anyway to please myself, it makes them that much more enjoyable to know that knowledgeable people like you are getting so much out of them.

  12. Jeff, as an amateur historian myself, I greatly appreciate your blog and your beautiful maps, which really give one an excellent feel for a battle. Someday, I'd like to do what you are doing for the battles of the War of the Tripple Alliance. Too many of my students just have no feel for what happened on the field of battle and this sort of thing is pure gold for teaching purposs.

    Of course, professional historians can quibble, but....

    Here is one thing I got from this account of the battle. I have bee hearing about battalionmassfr ages and, of course, generally knew what it was. But I have never seen such a clear and didactic presentation of it as here. Especially the part about the NCOs running to the sides to fill the gaps. It seems obvious in retrospect, but I'd never considered that before.

    Please keep up the great work. Your blog is pure gold!

    1. That was so kind of you to take the time to write such an encouraging note. Thank you. I love hearing how other amateur historians have valued my work.

      I too had long wondered about the reasons behind the battalionsmasse. It seemed like an anachronism at the time (going back to the Spanish tercio, or even the Macedonian phalanx), especially in an age of more efficient artillery.

      But looking into more, I found that it had some very good reasons behind its development. It was ideal for a quickly mobilized army that was short on training. It could move more troops around the battlefield more quickly (fast maneuver itself a defense against artillery). And using the rapid file marching technique (all of the troops facing left or right and running out to the flanks), it could deploy into a line much more quickly than the old, processional, platoon wheel. Indeed, it wasn't that much different than the attack column formations used by the French. So it made perfect sense in an age of fast maneuver warfare.

  13. This is a fantastic piece of work! Especially the map work. Berthier would be proud!

    1. Thank you, Chuck. I do appreciate the digital fist bump.

  14. My GGG Grandfather John Snelling served in the English 40th foot 1806 - 1826 including 7 years in the Peninsular, 12 battle honours, and Waterloo. Recently I have realised how little I know of the rest of the Napoleonic battles. I found out that Napoleon could have probably been stopped at this battle if the Austrians had been more organised on the south bank, hence finding your excellent battle description .

    Thank you, I shall explore the rest of your obscurebattles website, and fill up what is left of my memory.

  15. Very nice, thanks! I live very close to Aspern and Essling and I've enjoyed looking at your maps of how the villages were laid out and comparing it to the modern day Urban Areas.

  16. Thank you, Colburne. I have to say, my village layouts were not based on academic, archaelogical research, but on contemporary maps and Google Satellite View. If there was a gas station, I assumed it wasn't there in 1809. Or an airport (snicker, snicker).

  17. Dear Mr Berry,
    I would like your permission to use your Aspern/Essling maps in an article I am writing dealing with how battlefield sites look today.
    I have visited the Aspern/Essling and Wagram battlefields five time in the last 50 years and each time a little more of these memorable fields have been lost to development. Your fantastic maps will show how these villages and fields looked in 1809, and I can then overlay my own maps showing what can still be seen today, plus where to obtain information while walking the battlefild
    Full credit for your work will, of course, be given.
    Graham J.Morris MA BA (Hons) battlefieldanomaliies.com

    1. I am flattered, Graham, that you would see my maps as worthy of your research. Of course, you have my permission to use them in your article. And I appreciate the citation and link.

  18. I've enjoyed reading this and some others of your 'Obscure Battles'. I was intrigued to see that you wrote, "Though Benjowsky #31 (a Hungarian regiment) also had white pants, it had yellow facings." I'm intrigued to see this as I've never before seen a reference to a Hungarian regiment having white pants, or, during the Napoleonic era, any colour other than blue. Do you recall where you saw this?

    1. Yes, that surprised me when I saw it, which was on this site, which I'm sure you're already aware of. I should probably link to it under my references section.


      But Benjowsky was the only "Hungarian" regiment that did have other than blue pants during the Napoleonic Wars. It was categorized as having been recruited in Transylvania, which may be a distinction with only a difference in that part of the world at that time.

      And thanks for your reading my blog.

  19. Ah! Yes I have looked at that site many times and even after reading this I took a while to see the reference - in the facing colours table. Thanks for the quick follow up.

  20. This is just a brilliant piece of writing. Probably the best short concise piece I have ever read on the battle. Extremely useful for those of us that wargame. I find your writing style engaging and thought provoking. Thank you for spending so much time to produce these articles.

  21. I have a little question, which brigade did Pouzet command in st Hilaires division or which regiments because in the order of battle it is Marion who leads first brigade. I really liked the blog and would be happy to see more.

  22. It is likely that Pouzet commanded the 1st Brigade (including his previous regiment, the 10th Legere) until his head was obliterated by a cannonball on the second day, right in front of his friend, Lannes, who was subsequently mortally wounded by another roundshot.

    The source for my OOB is Bowden & Tarbox (see references above), who list Charles Stanislas Marion as brigade commander of the 1st brigade. This is reiterated by several other sources online, who may be just citing the same authority.

    Serving on St. Hilaire's staff, in is likely that Marion was given command of the 1st Brigade on Pouzet's death. His command of that brigade was formalized on 27 May, five days later.

    Among my searches for Marion's CV, here is one of the pages I found: https://www.frenchempire.net/biographies/marion/

    Thanks for your question and your compliments on the blog.

  23. BastiTW, you'll notice that, thanks to your diligence and my subsequent research, I've altered the French OOB to reflect Pouzet's incumbent status as brigade commander, and succession by Marion. So thanks again. I value my readers who help me proof my work. Keeps me honest.

  24. I have another little question, why are the cuirassier units of d'Espagnes division smaller than the others on thae maps? Their sizes are rather similar in the OOB. Thanks in advance.

    1. Hm. That is a good question. Usually I'm meticulous (or try to be) about representing the actual footprint of each unit, given its strength. To be honest, I posted this five years ago and had at first trouble remembering why I would have purposefully made d'Espagne's (later Arrighi's after d'Espagne was killed on the first day) division smaller than those of Sulpice and Nansouty.

      But rereading my narrative, I remembered that d'Espagne's (Arrighi's) division had been severely mauled on the first day, which greatly reduced its subsequent strength, and therefore its frontage. I seem to remember estimating its reduced frontage for the evening of the first and then the second day, reducing its effective strength by 30%.

      This is my lame excuse, anyway.

      But good eye. And thank you for keeping me honest and helping to proof my work. I do appreciate my readers acting as proof readers and editors, and it's nice to be able to correct an error or typo when someone discovers it. Something you can't do with a published, paper book.