Around 9PM on the evening of 4th July 1809 several hundred French infantrymen embarked in a flotilla of small boats and began to make their way across the broad river Danube. Rain was falling in torrents, but this was doubtless a great relief to the troops: together with the gathering dusk, the weather served to shield them, as they supposed, from the guns of a powerful army that had but weeks before inflicted a heavy defeat upon their standards.
However, the French need not have worried: their commander had just pulled off an extraordinary act of deception, and the tree-lined shore ahead was almost entirely free of enemy soldiers. By dawn the next morning, then, some 95,000 men were safely across the river. Emperor Napoleon, it seemed, had done it again.
One of the greatest feats of the Napoleonic Wars, the crossing of the Danube was the culmination of six weeks of preparation sparked off by the battle of Aspern-Essling (21-22 May 1809) – a clash that will go down in history as the first time that Napoleon ever met defeat. Napoleon had underestimated Archduke Charles of Austria. A most reluctant warrior in 1809, Charles’s chief ambition was simply to keep the Austrian army in a good enough condition for reasonable terms to be secured at the close of hostilities.
Yet Charles had not entirely lost his aggressive instincts. Catch Napoleon crossing the Danube, he reasoned, and he might do sufficient damage to persuade the French ruler to enter peace talks. Early in the morning of 21st May, then, the Austrians attacked the French at Aspern-Essling. The result was a bloodbath that swayed to and fro for two days before the badly outnumbered French finally retired to Lobau.
However, far from being forced to the peace table, Napoleon was soon planning a fresh assault. With the Austrians closely watching the original crossings, he now resolved to strike east and then, having got across the river, turn north so as ultimately to envelop the left flank of the Austrian line. Preparations for the crossing were kept a secret as possible, and when Napoleon visited the projected site, he did so all but alone and dressed as a sergeant. This time many different pontoon bridges were readied for the troops. Also available were numerous improvised gunboats and assault craft. And, finally, a variety of measures were employed to convince the Austrians that assault would again come at Aspern and Essling.
Bolstered by French forces from Italy, Napoleon had 134,000 infantry, 27,600 cavalry and 433 guns, while Charles, who had also received reinforcements, had some 121,000 infantry, 16,000 cavalry and 414 guns. As the battle was joined, however, only 14,000 Austrian troops were in the proximity of the French. These did what they could to stem the tide, but substantial French forces were soon fanning out across the Marchfeld plain under such commanders as Marshal André Masséna, Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte and Marshal Louis Nicolas Davout.
Though Austrian resistance gradually stiffened as more of their men reached the scene, by late afternoon Napoleon’s forces were well established in the Marchfeld. At this point, however, things went wrong for the French. Anxious to win the battle before the arrival of Austrian reinforcements that were known to be coming up from the east. Napoleon ordered frontal assault on the Austrian left wing. Yet these Austrian troops held a very strong position along a ridge that overlooked the Marchfeld between the villages of Wagram and Markgrafneusiedl. Protected as the enemy was by step slopes and a small river called the Russbach, the emperor might therefore have done better either to regroup his tired forces for an attack the next morning or to have pushed his right wing further and further round Charles’s left, the latter being completely unprotected.
At all events, the attack was a disaster. The orders issued to the assault forces were less than clear; the offensive was not co-ordinated properly; and the troops had been marching and fighting all day and were utterly exhausted. As a result, although fighting went on until past 10 o’clock at night, all along the line the French were checked with heavy casualties.
Worse was to come for the French. Located at the very spearhead of their salient, the key village of Aderklaa was mistakenly evacuated by Marshal Bernadotte, while in his headquarters in Wagram, Archduke Charles decided to attack. As dawn broke, then, napoleon found himself assailed at almost every point in his front. Yet, in large part thanks to orders that were both unclear and overcautious, the results were disappointing for the Austrians. On the French right the Austrians managed briefly to capture the town of Glinzendorf, only to be driven back by fierce counterattacks. In the centre, they occupied undefended Aderklaa but made no attempt to advance any further, while further south, Austrian forces did no more than engage in ineffectual skirmishing. And on the French left, while Austrian forces took Aspern and Essling with relative ease, they then halted rather than advancing into the French rear.
In contrast, Napoleon acted with characteristic speed and purpose. Covered by a series of cavalry charges and the deployment of a ‘grand battery’ of around 100 guns, fresh French forces commanded by Marshal Masséna fell on the Austrians around Aspern and Essling from the north and west, in a famous action that won his promotion to the rank of Marshal, the corps of General Jacques Macdonald struck due west a little further north and drove a deep wedge into the Austrian centre.
It was not these actions that won the day, however. Far to the east, the forces of Marshal Davout had rallied in the wake of the Austrian advance and made northwards across the Russbach to threaten Charles’s left flank, while at the same time closing in on the village of Markgrafneusiedl. While two French infantry divisions stormed the village, the other two wheeled ever more to their left, covered on their outer flank by a large mass of hussars, chasseurs and dragoons. Time and again oncoming French were attacked by Austrian cavalry, but each time the latter was driven off and by early afternoon the French were advancing westwards onto the plateau behind the Russbach and driving all before them.
With his reinforcements nowhere in sight, Charles now at last resolved on retreat, and very soon his battered army was pulling out to the north and west. Fortunately for him, the French were too exhausted to pursue, and he therefore got away more-or-less intact. Once again, Napoleon had triumphed: their morale completely broken, the Austrians quickly agreed to make peace and were forced to accept terms that were extremely punitive.
Yet at both Wagram and Aspern-Essling, it was clear that all was not as it had been. The Austrians had begun to organise their army into corps in the fashion of the French – and, as a result, were far more resilient than in previous campaigns. What’s more, Napoleon’s losses were probably only around 10,000 less than 37,000 Austrians who fell at Wagram. These figures contrast sharply with the battle of Austerlitz (one of Napoleon’s greatest victories, fought four years earlier in what is now the Czech Republic) were 27,000 Austrians and Russians fell for the loss of just 9,000 French.
But Napoleon was clearly losing his touch. The crossing of the Danube was a brilliant affair, certainly, but thereafter the emperor almost literally lost his way. Instead of adopting the obvious policy of massing his entire army on the open Austrian left flank, he rather fanned out across the Marchfeld and, in a style that foreshadowed the equally inelegant battles of Borodino (1812) and Waterloo (1815) – the one at best tactical victory; the other a resounding defeat – attacked the enemy head-on.
To purloin a later remark of the Duke of Wellington, the French ruler was turning into ‘a mere pounder’. Wagram was an empty victory in a diplomatic sense: Austria was temporarily neutralised, but Britain, Spain and Portugal all fought on undaunted, while Russia – since 1807 a notional ally of France – regarded Napoleon with ever more unfriendly eyes. In short, the French ruler could still win battles, but also he would have to keep fighting battles, and, with his powers clearly on the wane, one day there would inevitably come one battle too many.