The Battle of Aspern/Essling

Author(s) : HICKS Peter
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Why did Austria go to war?

Ever since the battle of Austerlitz, Austria had been trying rebuild its army (despite promises and agreements made to the contrary). In the two years leading up to the campaign of 1809, reforms of were made, conscription was brought in, the infantry was strengthened, the artillery was reorganised, medical services were modernised, and a national militia, the Landwehr, of 150 battalions was created (edicts being passed on 12 May and 9 June, 1808). One thing specifically however was to add critical mass to the desire to get revenge for 1805 so vocally proposed by the war party at Vienna, namely, Napoleon’s difficulties in Spain (notably the capitulation at Baylen). This coincided with a rise in Austrian nationalism, a sense of bitterness related to being excluded from Italy and Germany, Franco/Bavarian presence in the Tyrol, Saxon presence in Warsaw and a promise on the part of Russia not to get involved in the forthcoming conflict. War, as Metternich put it, was “inevitable”.1

The Austrian government made the official decision to go to war with France on 8 February, 1809. After having incited Hofer’s uprising in the Tyrol, they then sent their troops into Bavaria across the Inn between Braunau and Schaerding. An “Appeal to the German Nation”, written by Frederick Schlegel was distributed as 125,000 Austrian troops entered the kingdom. It noted that “We are fighting to bring back to Germany her independence and her honour”. This declaration combined with the uprising in the Tyrol led to a rather favourable reception for Austrian troops as they proceeded westwards. There was no popular opposition and French troops retreated before the Archduke Karl.

The Landshut manoeuvre and Ebersberg

In addition to the initial French retreat, the situation was further complicated by communication difficulties. At this beginning of the campaign Napoleon was directing his troops from Paris. Because of poor atmospheric conditions, hindering telegraph transmissions, and the crossing of couriers, contradicting orders were given to Berthier creating much confusion and disorganisation in the actions of the French “Armée d’Allemagne”. The emperor’s arrival on the scene on 17 April, 1809, brought an end to the dithering. Over the following five days (19-23 April) Napoleon was to perform the successful “Landshut manoeuvre” with victories at Tengen, Abensberg, Landshut, Eckmühl, Neumarkt and Ratisbon (Regensburg). The archduke’s troops were forced into a retreat and to race back towards Vienna down the northern bank of the Danube, with French forces keeping pace on the opposite side of the river. The presence and control of bridgeheads was to dictate much of the strategy over the following weeks. One important prize, the last surviving Danube bridge, stood at Linz and another important crossing point stood over the Traun (a Danube tributary) at Ebersberg. Here an extraordinarily bloody battle for control of the bridge took place on 3 May. Eight thousand French troops under Masséna fought for eight hours against 35,000 Austrians under Hiller. At the end of the fighting there were more than 5,000 casualties (dead or wounded), and the village itself became a terrifying monument to the brutality of war. Soldiers passing through the town shuddered at the site of the burnt out buildings and charred corpses scattered throughout.

The victory however opened the route to Vienna (Hiller was to continue his retreat, dismantling bridges at Enns and Mauthausen and crossing the Danube at Krems on 8 May). French troops entered the Austrian capital on 12 May. Unlike in 1805, the attitude of the city of Vienna in 1809 was bellicose and aggressive. The archduke Maximilian had attempted to raise a militia in an attempt to prevent the French entering the city. Indeed resistance was such that some parts of the city were to be subjected to bombardment. However after a brief show of force, the city administrators capitulated, bitterly handing over the keys to the city to the invading French and the occupation took place just as it had done three years earlier, kept under tight control by administrators Andréossy and Savary.

Bridges too far

The archduke Karl did not give up the fight however. He concentrated his forces on the northern side of the Danube opposite Vienna, waiting to see what Napoleon would do. The French emperor for his part realised that the longer the campaign lasted the harder it would be for him to control the situation. He thus hurried on the campaign, scouting the south bank of the Danube seeking a suitable place in which to build the bridges that would play such an important role in the outcome of the battle at Aspern/Essling. In the end the French emperor chose to make his crossing from Kaiser-Ebersdorf (just east of Vienna) onto the island of Lobau via two smaller islands, the Schneidergrund and the Lobgrund. The first stretch needed a large bridge and the second a smaller one, but both had to be built across the powerful Danube. Indeed engineers had to work minor miracles just to keep the bridges intact. Construction began on 19 May and was supervised by Napoleon himself; all ranks (officers included) were ordered to help with the construction work. The waters however were much swollen by melted snow and still rising and on 20th May a large ship and other debris smashed into the smaller Schneidergrund/Lobgrund bridge and slightly later the large bridge from Ebersdorf snapped causing a delay of 10 hours in the preparatory operations.2 It required permanent attention to keep them able to bear the thousands of soldiers and huge amounts of logistical materiel needed for the forthcoming battles.

Aspern and Essling

Thus on the first day of the battle, Whitsunday 21 May, Napoleon was on the island of Lobau, cut off from the south bank of the Danube with about 24,000 men and 60 cannon facing the full might of the Austrian Hauptarmee (circa 95,000 men with 200 cannon). Masséna’s 4th corps occupied a position around the larger village of Aspern facing the Austrian right, Molitor’s division lodged in Aspern itself, Lasalle, Espagne, Nansouty from Bessières’ Cavalry division were set in the centre and Boudet with St-Hilaire and Lannes‘ 2nd corps was ranged in and around the smaller village of Essling. As for the Austrian position on that morning, the main army was stationed slightly to the west of Wagram. They received orders early in the morning of 21 to make an attack in five columns. The first, second and third columns were to march down the north bank of the Danube on Aspern. The fourth column was to head for Essling, and the fifth east of Essling for Gross-Enzersdorff. Plans were also laid to sabotage the French bridges by launching boats, floating mills and other debris upstream.

Napoleon’s position was however relatively weak. He had few troops, no infantry but only cavalry to cover the central part of his line between Aspern and Essling, and although large numbers of troops were milling on the southern bank of the Danube waiting to cross over to Lobau the bridges were down and repairs were slow and difficult. To compound this problem, Napoleon was not entirely sure where the main body of the Austrian army stood. His decision to offer battle on the Sunday morning was somewhat bold. Indeed his initial thoughts were to refuse the fight. However the sound of cannon at Aspern and the news that the bridges had been repaired convinced him that he should stand his ground.3 And so on the Sunday afternoon, Hiller launched a forceful attack against Masséna at Aspern. The marshal held in a desperate struggle against the slightly disordered Austrian attack. The Duc de Rivoli performed miracles, appearing everywhere with his gun in hand, guiding and encouraging his men. When his generals complained that their conscripts were terrified by the carnage, he bellowed at them (with his heavy Niçois accent): “get them drunk and show them the flag!” As for Lannes, he was keeping the Austrians at bay at Essling, whilst Bessières’ cavalry held the zone between the two villages and attracting a great deal of cannon fire from all sides – the fields were said to be zigzagged by trails of cannon fire from all sides. By nightfall the French forces had not crumbled and with the bridges once again repaired the number of troops and cannon rose to 31,500 and 90 respectively.

The second day was to be different story. The rest of the 2nd corps of the French army, under Général de Division Oudinot, the Guard and its cavalry crossed the bridges at 3am thus doubling Napoleon’s available forces. A dawn attack brought Aspern once again under French control and an Austrian attempt to seize Essling was halted at 5am. Despite the fact that the French army was still not up to strength (Davout’s 3rd corps still stood on the southern bank of the Danube), Napoleon decided launch an attack on Austrian centre. Oudinot’s two divisions led by Lannes and supported by cavalry would have broken the enemy line had it not been for timely action on the part of the Austrian generalissimus Karl who in the thick of the action lifted the standard and prevented a certain rout. Napoleon was similarly to be seen in the heat of the battle directing cannon and providing an important psychological lift simply by his presence. At this crisis point in the struggle, however, news reached the French emperor that the bridges were once again down, definitively preventing the long-awaited arrival of Davout and his troops. Significantly short of ammunition, Napoleon ordered Lannes to pull back and the Austrians then retook most of Essling and threatened the French right flank. By 1-30pm the French position had become untenable and at 2pm the emperor gave the order to fall back onto the island of Lobau. The retreat, which was facilitated by the Young Guard retaking Essling, went on for the rest of the day, with the bridge linking Lobau to the northern bank of the Danube finally being dismantled at 3-30am on 23 May.

The outcome

The two-day battle was exceedingly fierce and bloody. French and Austrians losses were huge (21,000 and 23,000 respectively). Both Karl and Napoleon had frequently risked their live in the thick of the fighting. Artillery played a significant role, being the source of the most of the casualties, most notably amongst the officers on both sides. The Austrian army lost thirteen generals, both Liechtenstein and Hohenzollern receiving injuries. The French army on the other hand suffered the irreplaceable loss of Maréchal Lannes not to mention that of the exceedingly able generals Espagne and St-Hilaire. As Jacques Garnier has noted, the French failure was due in large part to poor evaluation of the risk of crossing the Danube and insufficient reconnaissance before the battle. However it was a field of glory for Masséna who was later to be decorated Prince d’Essling for the extraordinary feats he performed that day. For the Austrians it was the Achtungserfolg or symbolic victory which the archduke had sought. An army commanded by Napoleon in person had been driven back. The French emperor’s aura of invincibility had been significantly tarnished, and unlike Eylau the whole of Europe was soon to learn of it. But the French army was not significantly weakened. And the setback only made Napoleon all the more determined to get it right at the forthcoming battle which would decide the campaign…

Mémoires, documents et écrits divers laissés par le prince de Metternich, t. I, p. 65. See Thierry Lentz, Nouvelle histoire du Premier Empire, Paris: Fayard, vol. I, p. 440-441.
2 See John H. Gill, 1809: Thunder on the Danube. Napoleon's defeat of the Habsburgs. Volume 2: The fall of Vienna and the Battle of Aspern, London: Frontline Books, 2008, p. 147-148. 
3 John H. Gill, op. cit., p. 159-160.

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