Book review: 1809-Thunder on the Danube, Napoleon’s Defeat of the Habsburgs, Vol. III, Wagram and Znaim

Author(s) : ZAKHARIS Thomas
Share it

In the third volume of his trilogy on the 1809 war between France and Austria, John H. Gill describes step by step the gigantic confrontation at Wagram, which Auguste de Marmont described years later as “the greatest battle of modern times in numbers of men united on the same ground in the view of an observer… one may imagine the beauty and the majesty of that spectacle.” Another observer, Marie-Henri Beyle – the future novelist Stendhal – wrote in his autobiography: “During the cannonade some bushes nearby our artillery took fire. Then a major who talked too much called loudly, 'It's the battle between titans'… the sense of magnificence lost to me the rest of the day.” Though the great author was disappointed, the word magnificent best describes the battle in every respect, between the artillery preparations, the cavalry charges and the infantry attacks.
Austrian Archduke Charles made a grave mistake in not occupying Lobau after his victory at Aspern-Essling – a strategic failure that would have been unforgivable to a general like Napoleon. Lobau would be the base from which the French Grande Armée would retake the offensive and take its revenge. The author describes the great preparations that made the island a stronghold capable of supporting the future bridgehead, including the building of a small flotilla. Finally, after a terrible artillery barrage on the night 4/5 July, Napoleon succeeded in transferring more than 150,000 soldiers to the opposite bank of the river. 
Gill sheds new light on well-known stages in the battle of Wagram, such as the attack of “MacDonald's Square”. The strength of the offensive square was approximately 11,000 men – not 8,000 as others have previously written – and one reason for the problems it faced was that the French cavalry delayed in protecting it from the Austrian crossfire. Grand squares, grand batteries for artillery preparation, suggest that Napoleon may have been influenced by the grand columns and grand batteries used by the Ottoman armies at the height of their military glory. The author also explains the attitude of perpetual retreat taken by Archduke Johann as logical for someone commanding 10,000 – 11,000 men – an inadequate force with which to confront Marmont's Army of Dalmatia, the Old Guard and the rest of the Army of Italy. Gill gives special attention to the two-day fighting retreat over July 10 and 11 that was the Battle of Znaim, where Marmont, positioning himself to cut off the Austrian army's retreat, suddenly found himself facing all of it.
On the one hand, the author shares the opinion of past historians that Archduke Charles was always looking backwards and consequently always left the initiative to Napoleon. On the other hand, he shares the Austrian commander's terror of the war's consequences: “Of all the decisions a monarch is in the position to take, that of war is the one that demands the most consideration; as the misfortunes for humankind and the state are arisen therefrom, even in the most fortunate successes, are certain – the result is always uncertain.”
The results of Austria's defeat in 1809 included the replacement of Johann Philipp Carl Josef Stadion, Graf von Warthausen-Stadion, as minister of state by Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, and the shadow it cast over Franco-Russian relations. Tsar Alexander was forced to help General Józef Antoni Poniatowski's Poles against Archduke Ferdinand, but he did so with a heavy heart that did not go unnoticed by Napoleon. Gill describes the maneuvers of Poniatowski's army against Ferdinand in a campaign that only proved that the occupation of a capital (Warsaw in this case) does not always bring victory. Gill describes as well as he can all the campaigns in Styria and Dalamtia and also the famous victory of Prince Eugene in Raab against the armies of Archdukes Johann and Josef. He also turns his focus on the concurrent revolutions in Germany as well as the failure of British operations in Walchern. In short, he has covered more than just an epochal battle in a magnificent book that will satisfy the most avid enthusiasts of Napoleonic-era military history.

Share it