The battle of Wagram
July 5-6, 1809
On 9 April 1809, armies under the overall command of Archduke Charles invaded Bavaria and northern Italy. There was no declaration of war. A simple message from Charles was conveyed to the outlying outposts of the French army – “I have orders to advance with my forces and to treat as enemies any who oppose me” – and hours later the Austrian army attacked. Although Napoleon was aware that an Austrian attack was likely, it came sooner than he expected, and he was still in Paris when the Archduke Charles advanced. Though slow-moving, the Austrian attack was initially successful, capturing Munich and almost splitting the French army in Bavaria in two. When Napoleon arrived with the Imperial Guard, however, he counter-attacked vigorously and defeated various Austrian columns at Abensberg, Landshut, Eckmühl and Ratisbon. Charles retreated along the north bank of the Danube with Napoleon in pursuit. On 12 May the French captured Vienna, on the Danube’s south bank. The Austrians did not capitulate or ask for terms despite the loss of their capital, and Charles’ main body, north-east of Vienna, was still undefeated. Napoleon’s bridging trains had not caught up with the main body, but on 21 May, he crossed the Danube east of Vienna, aiming to find and attack the Archduke’s army. Napoleon chose a crossing point where sandbars and islands broke the Danube up into several smaller, relatively manageable spans that could be bridged with the extemporised pontoons and trestles available. Archduke Charles, who had anticipated this move, waited until part of Napoleon’s army had occupied the Mühlau salient and the villages of Aspern and Essling, which flanked it, and then attacked the bridgehead. Napoleon’s attempts to reinforce the outnumbered defenders were thwarted by the Austrians’ successful ploy of sending heavy stone-laden barges – and even, at one point, an entire floating watermill – downstream to ram and break the flimsy French bridges. This prevented both reinforcements and ammunition from reaching the French defenders. After a fierce two-day battle in which Marshal Lannes, one of Napoleon’s abler subordinates, was mortally wounded, the Austrians took Aspern and forced Napoleon to abandon the bridgehead. He withdrew to the island of Lobau, a large island in the middle of the Danube that the French army was using as a staging post across the river.
Lobau, with its masses of densely-packed French troops, was a lucrative artillery target within easy range of the opposite shore, but Charles made no attempt to bombard it. Instead he left an observation force on the left bank and withdrew several miles. Napoleon recognised that a second attempt to cross the Danube would have to be made, and would require much more thorough preparation this time. On 1 June, French engineers and naval battalions began construction of several pontoon and trestle bridges across each span, built far more robustly than the previous efforts. The works were completed on June 21. Upstream of them, piles were driven into the river bed to form an 800-metre long double palisade to prevent a repeat of the previous ramming tactics. Boats were requisitioned, fitted with guns, and used to patrol the river to prevent attacks on the bridges. Lobau remained the main staging post, but became an armed camp filled with ammunition, supplies, and troops. In early July, the French army recrossed the Danube and created a decoy bridgehead in the Mühlau salient, directly north of Lobau. On the night of 4 to 5 July, all was ready and 150,000 French troops executed a masterly crossing of the river onto the opposite bank east of Lobau. There, pivoting on Gross-Enzersdorf, they began to fan out across the Marchfeld, a plain enclosed on the south by the river and on the other three sides by the Bisamberg, a crescent-shaped escarpment. It was regularly used in peacetime by the Austrian army for manoeuvres and was familiar ground to Archduke Charles, who had deployed his army in defensive positions along the Bisamberg.
The French army of the 1809 campaign was significantly different from that of earlier campaigns. Despite military success almost everywhere, Napoleon’s need for manpower had grown since 1805-7, partly because of casualties in those campaigns, partly to enforce the Continental System against Britain, and partly because of the continuing military commitment in Spain. His armies therefore included a substantial proportion of conscripts who had received much of their training on the march from their regimental depots in France. It also included significant foreign contingents, notably from the Confederation of the Rhine, of varying quality. Napoleon had also expanded the Imperial Guard by establishing the Young Guard, a formation comprising the best of the recruits from each year’s intake. These factors all tended to reduce the quality of the average line infantry formation available in 1809 compared to those with which the Emperor had defeated Austria in 1805, and at a number of points in the campaign, this lack of experience showed in diminished tactical and formational agility. The cavalry, particularly the heavy cavalry, was still excellent. The artillery was in the process of switching to a new system based on 6-pounder and 12-pounder pieces only. Previously the artillery had used 4- and 8-pounder pieces as well, and the net effect of the change was to reduce slightly the average weight of projectile in the army as a whole. Despite this, the artillery was always effectively handled and the standardisation of gun types was of great assistance logistically.
The Austrian army was a polyglot force comprising “Hungarian” regiments, recruited from the federated Kingdom of Hungary and “German” regiments, recruited from elsewhere in the empire whether ethnically German or not. Unique to the Austrian army, there also existed Grenz infantry regiments, recruited from the Military Frontier with the Ottoman Empire. These troops were less well adapted to traditional line infantry tactics, but were among the best marksmen in the army and were excellent skirmishers. Despite Charles’ attempts at reform, the army was still slow-moving and tactically inflexible, had never really mastered the corps d’armée system used by the French, and tended to fill senior positions with members of the aristocracy of uncertain military ability. For the 1809 campaign the regular army was augmented by Landwehr (militia) infantry battalions. In theory 170 such were raised, but only 70 ever actually mustered, most poorly equipped. Seventeen served at Wagram where, brigaded with regular units, they fought unexpectedly well. There were also insurrectio troops – raised under an ancient power of emergency levy – whose performance was patchy. The cavalry lacked the French cavalry’s ability to operate tactically en masse, in brigade, division and even corps-sized manoeuvres. Austrian cavalry instead mostly fought in squadron- or regiment-sized “penny packets” to support infantry, rather than as a decisive force in itself. Austrian cuirassiers wore a breastplate, which put them at a disadvantage in combat against French cuirassiers who had backplates too, but gave them the edge over France’s élite carabinier heavy cavalry, who wore no armour at all. The Austrian light cavalry were far more successful, with the Austrian uhlans proving so effective that several French dragoon regiments were subsequently converted to the use of the lance. The Austrians also had regiments of hussars, all recruited from Hungary. Most armies in 1809 had such units, but they were largely conventional light cavalry re-uniformed in flamboyant hussar style for recruiting purposes. Austria’s hussars were the authentic “Hungarian article”, however, and proved to be their best raiding troops throughout the Napoleonic Wars. Unlike the French army, Austria had no élite units comparable to the Imperial Guard. The artillery had made great strides in doctrine and practice since 1805 and instead of dispersing guns ineffectually all along the line had started to use them en masse, in grand batteries, like the French.
Battle of Wagram
By the day of the battle, Lobau Island was a massive warehouse and Napoleon was ready to move out. His plan was to create a diversion to the north of Lobau, in the same area as the battle of Aspern-Essling had been fought, that would pin the Austrians in place. Crossing the Danube east of that point, he hoped to swinging his army around the Austrian flank in a right hook that would encircle it against the Danube. Charles, for his part, recognised that Napoleon would have to cross the river in much the same place as previously. Rather than defend at the river bank or on the Marchfeld itself – whose broken terrain he thought would offer too much advantage to the French light troops – he pulled most of his army back behind the Russbach and formed a V-shaped line nearly twelve miles long, anchored in the west on Süssenbrunn, at the apex on Wagram and Aderklaa, and in the east on Markgrafneusiedl.
Using a fortified bridgehead, Napoleon started a full-scale crossing of the island with his 190,000 men on the night of 5th-6th July. His army was composed mainly of 4th Corps under Massena, the Saxon 9th Corps under Bernadotte, Oudinot’s 3rd Corps and Davout’s 3rd Corps. Additionally present were the Imperial Guard and the reserve cavalry, with Eugene and MacDonald each commanding an Italian corps, and General Wrede’s Bavarian contingent, which marched 120 miles in 6 days to arrive on the second day. On the other side of the Marchfeld, Archduke Charles had neglected to concentrate every man available. One-third of Kollowrat’s Corps was not recalled, VII Corps was left to the north-west as a reserve upon which to rally, the Archduke John’s 15,000 men were allowed to loiter at Pressburg and other formations were left doing little useful in Galicia and Bohemia. Had all these troops been recalled, Charles would have faced Napoleon with over 60,000 more troops than he actually did. The force he did have was composed of Nordman’s advanced guard corps, Bellegarde’s 1st Corps, Hechingen’s 2nd Corps, Kollowrat’s 3rd Corps, 4th Corps under Orsini-Rosenberg, Klenau’s 6th Corps (Klenau took over command of this formation from Hiller on the eve of the battle), Liechtenstein’s reserve corps and reserve forces of cavalry. Marshal Berthier, Napoleon’s chief of staff, when giving orders to the various corps, accidentally assigned the same bridge to two of them. Although a very long delay ensued, Davout, Massena and Oudinot and their corps were across. Bernadotte and his Saxons joined them, and on the 5th of July, Napoleon began his deployment near Aspern and Essling.
Artillery smashed up the area around the two towns whilst the French army deployed. A few outpost divisions under generals Nordmann and Klenau were sent reeling back, Nordmann’s troops suffering 50% losses but remaining cohesive and effective. By noon all of the area around Aspern and Essling was in the hands of the French. By late afternoon, the French army formed a semicircle with Masséna on the extreme left, Bernadotte, Eugène and Oudinot in the centre, and Davout on the right flank, with two extra brigades of cavalry to cover his own right against the anticipated arrival of the Archduke John. At around 6 o’clock, in an attempt to decide the battle in a single day and to prevent the Austrian reserves under Archduke John coming up, Napoleon ordered an attack on the Austrian centre along the line of the Russbach. This extemporised attack was poorly co-ordinated and went in piecemeal. Although it initially carried the high ground beyond Wagram, the attack faltered under the heavy Austrian fire and was bloodily repulsed. Austrian counterattacks then retook all the lost ground. In a foretaste of the following day’s fighting, the encounters in the streets and hedgerows of Aderklaa were fierce and characterised by friendly-fire incidents, as French troops followed Saxons into action and mistook their white uniforms for those of the Austrians.
Reflecting on the tactical position, Charles determined that the shorter front of the French position and their greater depth would enable Napoleon to attack and break his line almost anywhere he chose. To forestall this, he issued orders for a dawn general attack on both French flanks and the centre. One attack, against the right, was a feint to draw French reserves away. The real attack was aimed at the French left around the village of Aderklaa. Had this plan succeeded, it would have resulted in a veritable Cannae as the French were encircled with a river at their backs. The length of the Austrian front, poor staffwork, and Archduke John’s non-arrival prevented any such success. At 4am the following day, the Austrians first attacks went in against the French right flank. Poorly co-ordinated, this attack was stopped by Davout’s men. On the left, however, two Austrian corps succeeded in throwing back Bernadotte’s 9th Corps. Bernadotte had abandoned Aderklaa without orders and this key village fell to the Austrians without a shot. Advancing past the village, the Austrians broke the Saxons, who fled the field with Bernadotte galloping in front of them trying to rally them. Napoleon met Bernadotte as he was doing this and dismissed him from command of his corps on the spot. To stem the Austrian attack, Napoleon created a Grand Battery of 112 cannon which poured shot into the advancing Austrian formations. Masséna’s Corps then wheeled south and executed a five-mile march south, within gunshot of the Austrian positions, to fall upon Klenau’s left flank as he fought his way into Napoleon’s left rear. This stabilised the French left. Meanwhile, on the French right flank, things were going better, with Oudinot and Davout advancing towards the village of Markgrafsneusiedl. A large conflict erupted around the village and Davout’s Corps forced back the troops under Orsini-Rosenberg and eventually took the village around 3pm, turning the Austrian left.
A major attack was now launched against the Austrian advancing centre by General MacDonald, for which he was granted a Marshal’s baton on the field of battle. MacDonald formed 27 battalions into a hollow column about 8,000 strong and launched this formation at the Austrian centre. The Austrians responded with intense artillery fire and local charges by their light cavalry. Hussar general Lasalle rode to Macdonald’s support with French light cavalry, but was killed doing so. After ferocious fighting at bayonet point, Macdonald’s attack ground to a halt without breaking through the Austrian centre. He succeeded, however, in preventing Charles from reinforcing his left flank, and the Austrians now began to evacuate the position, falling back in an orderly fashion towards Znaim to the north-west.
Exhausted by forty hours of marching and fighting, the French army followed rather than pursued Charles.
Wagram was the first battle in which Napoleon failed to score an uncontested victory with relatively few casualties. The French forces suffered 34,000 casualties, a number compounded by the 20,000 suffered only weeks earlier at Aspern-Essling. This would be indicative of the gradual decline in quality of Napoleon’s troops and the increasing experience and competence of his opponents, who were learning from previous errors. The heavy losses suffered, which included many seasoned troops as well as over thirty generals of varying rank, was something that the French would not be able to recover from with ease. Bernadotte’s dismissal from the Grande Armée for his failure would have severe consequences for Napoleon in later years. Being unexpectedly elected heir to the throne of Sweden the following year, the former Marshal would eventually prove an asset to the Allies.