Ebersdorf, 23 May 1809
Opposite Ebersdorf the Danube divides into three branches separated by two islands. The distance from the right bank to the first islands is 240 toises: this island has a circumference of about 1,000 toises. From this island to the greatest island is 120 toises, and here the stream runs with the greatest force. The larger of the two islands is called In-Der-Lobau, with a circumference of 7,000 toises, and the water that separates it from the main land is 70 toises broad. The first villages that appear after crossing are Gross-Aspern, Essling and Enzersdorf. The crossing of such a river as the Danube, in the presence of an enemy well acquainted with all the local circumstances, and who has the inhabitants on his side, is one of the greatest military enterprises that can be imagined.
The bridge over the arm of the river which separates the right bank from the first island, and the bridge from this island to that of In-Der-Lobau, were erected on the 19th. Molitor's division had been conveyed to the great island on the 18th by rowing boats.
On the 20th, the Emperor crossed this island and caused a bridge to be thrown over the last arm of the Danube, between Gross-Aspern and Essling. This arm being not quite 70 toises broad, only 15 pontoons were required for the operation, which were fixed within three hours by Colonel Aubry, of the artillery.
Colonel Saint-Croix, aide-de-camp of Marshal Duke of Rivoli arrived first on the left bank, in an open boat.
General Lasalle's division of the light cavalry, with Molitor and Boudet's divisions, crossed during the night.
On the 21st, the Emperor, accompanied by the Prince of Neufchâtel [Berthier, ed.] and the Marshal Dukes of Rivoli [Masséna, ed.] and Montebello [Lannes, ed.], examined the position of the left bank and determined the field of battle, posting the right on the village of Essling and the left on the village of Gross-Aspern. Both villages were immediately occupied.
On the 21st, at four in the afternoon, the enemy's army showed itself and appeared to have for its object to defeat our advance guard and to drive it into the river. Vain enterprise! Marshal Duke of Rivoli was the first attacked at Aspern, by the corps of General Bellegarde. He manoeuvred with the divisions of Molitor and Legrand, and threw in total confusion all the attacks that the enemy made that evening. The Duke of Montebello defended the village of Essling, and Marshal Duke of Istria [Bessières, ed.] covered the plain with the light cavalry and Espagne's division of cuirassiers, protecting at the same time Enzersdorf; the contest was lively, the enemy having two hundred cannon and 90,000 men collected from the remains of all the Austrian corps.
Espagne's division of cuirassiers, which made several fine charges, scattered two squares and took 14 pieces of artillery, but a ball killed General Espagne while fighting gloriously at the head of this troops. He was a brave officer, and in every respect eminent and praiseworthy. General of Brigade Fourlers was likewise killed in a charge.
General Nansouty arrived in the evening on the battlefield, with the single brigade commanded by General Saint-Germain, and distinguished himself by several brilliant charges. At eight o'clock the action terminated, and we remained masters of the field.
During the night, General Oudinot's corps, Saint-Hilaire's division, two brigades of light cavalry and the train of artillery, crossed the three bridges.
On the 22nd the Duke of Rivoli was the first engaged at four in the morning. The enemy made several successive attacks, in order to re-take the village. At last the Duke of Rivoli, tired of acting on the defensive, attacked the enemy in his turn, and overthrew it. General of Division Legrand distinguished himself by the coolness and intrepidity that characterise him.
General of Division Boudet was stationed at the village of Essling, and had orders to defend that important position.
Observing that the enemy occupied a very wide space between his right and left wing, it was resolved to penetrate by his centre. The Duke of Montebello led the attack. General Oudinot was on the left, Saint-Hilaire's division was in the centre, and Boudet's division was on the right wing. The enemy's centre would not withstand the sight of our troops. In a moment everything was borne down before them. The Duke of Istria made several brilliant and successful charges. Three columns of enemy infantry were charged and cut down by the cuirassiers. The Austrian army was on the point of being destroyed, when at seven in the morning an aide-de-camp of the Emperor came to inform him that the sudden rise of the Danube had set afloat a great number of trees, which were cut down and left on the river bank during the recent events at Vienna, and rafts which had been left on the bank; and that the bridges which formed the communication between the right bank and the little island, and between the little island and that of In-Der-Lobau, had thereby been carried away. The rapid swell, which usually does not take place until the middle of June on the melting of the snow, has been accelerated by the premature heat that has for some days prevailed. All the reserve parks of artillery which were advancing, were by the loss of the bridges detained on the right bank, as was also a part of our heavy cavalry, and all of the Duke of Auerstädt's [Davout's, ed.] corps. This dreadful mishap induced the Emperor to put a stop to the movements forward. He ordered the Duke of Montebello to keep the battlefield that he had won, and then to take his position, with the left wing resting on a curtain-work, which covered the Duke of Rivoli, and his right wing at Essling. The artillery and infantry carriages that were in our reserve park could not now be brought across the river.
The enemy was in a most frightful state of rout at the moment when it learned that our bridges were broken down. The slackening of our fire, and the concentrating movement of our army, soon left it no doubt respecting this unforeseen event. All its cannon and artillery equipage, which were on the retreat, were again drawn out in line, and from nine in the morning to seven in the evening it made most astonishing exertions, supported by the fire of 200 pieces of artillery, to throw the French army into disorder; but all its efforts turned to his own disgrace. Three times it attacked the villages of Essling and Gross-Aspern, and three times it filled them with his dead. The fusiliers of the Guard, commanded by General Mouton, acquired great glory; they defeated the reserve, formed of all the grenadiers of the Austrian army, the only fresh troops that remained to the enemy. General Gros put to the sword 700 Hungarians who had succeeded in entrenching themselves in the graveyard of Essling. The skirmishers under the command of General Curial performed their first service this day, and proved that they possessed courage. General Dorsenne, Colonel Commandant of the Old Guard, posted his troops in the third line, forming a brazen wall, which was alone capable of withstanding all the efforts of the Austrian army. The enemy discharged 40,000 cannon shot against us, while we, deprived of our reserve parks, were under the necessity of sparing our ammunition, lest some other unforeseen events should occur.
In the evening, the enemy returned to its old position, which it had left previous to the commencement of the attack, and we remained masters of the field. Its loss is very great; it is being estimated by the most experienced officers that it left 12,000 dead on the field. According to the reports of the prisoners, the enemy have had 23 generals and 60 superior officers killed or wounded. Lieutenant Field Marshal Weber and 1,500 men and four flags have fallen into our hands.
Our loss has also been considerable. We have 1,100 killed and 3,000 wounded.
The Duke of Montebello was wounded by a cannonball in the thigh, at six o'clock in the evening of the 22nd; but an amputation has taken place and his life is out of danger. At first it was thought that he was killed, and being carried on a handbarrow to where the Emperor was, his adieu was most affecting. In the midst of all the anxieties of the day the Emperor gave himself up to the expression of that tender friendship which during so many years he has cherished for this brave companion in arms. Some tears rolled from his eyes, and turning to those who surrounded him, he said, ‘it had to be, that this day my heart should be hit by such a pang as this, that I could abandon myself with any other care than that of my army.' The Duke of Montebello was unconscious, but recovered himself in the presence of the Emperor: he embraced him and said, ‘Within an hour you will have lost him who dies with the glory and the conviction of having been and of being your best friend.'
General of Division Saint-Hilaire is also wounded; he is one of the finest generals of France.
General Durosnel, aide-de-camp to the Emperor, was also killed by a cannonball, while he was carrying an order.
The soldiers displayed all that coolness and intrepidity which is peculiar to only the French.
The water of the Danube still increasing, the bridges of the Danube could not be restored during the night; the Emperor, therefore, ordered the army, on the 23rd, to cross from the left bank across the little arm, and take a position in the island of In-Der-Lobau, protecting the bridgeheads.
The work for replacing the bridges continues. Nothing will be undertaken until they are secure, not only against the accidents of the water, but also against anything that may be attempted against them. The rise of the river and the rapidity of the stream require much labour and great caution.
On the 23rd, in the morning, when the army was informed that the Emperor had ordered it to retreat to the great island, nothing could exceed the astonishment of the brave troops; victorious on both days, they had supposed that the remainder of the army had joined them; but when they were told that the high water had carried away the bridges, and that its continued increase rendered the renewal of their ammunition and provisions impossible, and that any movement in advance would be absurd, it was with great difficulty they could be persuaded of the truth of the statement.
That bridges constructed of the largest boats of the Danube, secured by double anchors and cables, should be carried away, was a great and entirely unforeseen disaster; but it was extremely fortunate that the Emperor was not two hours later of being informed of it. The army in pursuing the enemy would have exhausted its ammunition, which it would have been impossible to replace.
On the 23rd a great quantity of rations was sent to the camp at In-Der-Lobau.
The battle of Essling, of which a circumstantial report shall be made, pointing out the brave men who distinguished themselves therein, will, in the eyes of posterity, be a new memorial of the glory and inflexible firmness of the French army.
Marshals the Dukes of Montebello and Rivoli on that day displayed all the powers of their military character.
The Emperor has given the command of the 2nd Corps to Count Oudinot, a general tried in 100 battles, in which he has always evinced the possession of equal courage and skill.
E.D.W. and P.H.