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  • James Houser

May 21, 1809 - Battle of Aspern-Essling

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

May 21, 1809. On the banks of the Danube at Aspern and Essling, Napoleon’s French army suffers its first major battlefield defeat at the hands of the Austrian Empire. After nearly two decades of unbroken victories, Napoleon – for the first time – looks vulnerable. For years he has been taking the armies of Europe to school, and for the first time, one of his foes demonstrates that they have learned something.

In 1807, Napoleon was at the peak of his power. He had humiliated the Austrians and dissolved the Holy Roman Empire, the ancient structure that bound Germany to Austria. He had crushed and ruined the Prussian Army and turned Prussia into a second-rate power. He had beaten the Russians twice and signed a pact with the Tsar dividing Europe between them. Only one foe was left: Britain. Aside from them, the Emperor of the French was master of Europe.

As brilliant and ruthless as Napoleon was, he stretched a step too far in 1808. In that year, he tried to remove the King of Spain and replace him with his brother, Joseph Bonaparte. This led the Spanish people to revolt and throw out the French armies. In response, Napoleon himself led a counter-invasion of Spain with most of his army. The Spanish uprising and subsequent guerrilla war tied down large numbers of French troops, and this provided an opportunity for old French enemies to come back out of the woodwork.

The Austrian Empire had been Napoleon’s whipping boy for a long time. In 1797, 1800, and 1805, they had been routinely outmaneuvered and beaten like a drum whenever they ran into Bonaparte and his generals. After the humiliation of 1805, the Emperor made his brother Archduke Charles the commander-in-chief of Austrian armies. Charles had been one of Austria’s only successful generals in previous wars.

Charles, Archduke of Teschen, would prove to be one of Napoleon’s most dangerous opponents. Even though he was an epileptic – those Habsburg genes never left someone unscathed – he was an inspirational leader and a diehard reformer. He had fought the French for years, and began implementing their command structure, tactics and strategies into the Austrian forces. Soon the Austrian army showed a great improvement in quality and strength, but Charles didn’t feel that it was ready for war against Napoleon.

Nevertheless, when Napoleon got bogged down in Spain the Austrian court decided now was the time to strike and regain their lost honor – especially since the British were promising large subsidies to get someone, anyone, to draw Napoleon’s attention away from them. Even though Charles protested that his reforms were not complete, the Emperor committed to war.

In April 1809, the Austrians struck, invading French-occupied southern Germany with a large, well-coordinated army. Even though the French had substantial forces in the region under excellent generals, Napoleon had left his Chief of Staff, Louis-Alexandre Berthier, in charge of the armies in Germany. Berthier was an excellent interpreter of Napoleon’s commands, but he was helpless in actual command, and French fortunes looked dim until Napoleon himself rushed from the Spanish border to take command.

With Napoleon in charge, the French war machine suddenly switched back on. In a masterful series of maneuvers and small battles, culminating in a big fight at Eckmuhl, Napoleon delivered Charles’ Austrian armies a series of body blows. Not only was Napoleon himself in top form, but he had working for him some of the best generals of the age – the icy Louis-Nicolas Davout, the rogue and former smuggler Andre Massena, and the fiery little Jean Lannes. Lannes was not only one of Napoleon’s fiercest fighters, but also a close personal friend and companion. With these skilled men at hand, Napoleon showed that he still had it. Within weeks, he had driven Charles into retreat and seized Vienna, the Austrian capital.

Vienna lies on the Danube River, one of Europe’s great watercourses that flows from its source in the Black Forest of Germany down through Austria, Hungary and Romania into the Black Sea. Napoleon’s movements came to a halt after he had taken Vienna; Charles had burned all the bridges behind him, and this meant Napoleon would have to make a river crossing to get at his enemy and force the destructive battle he needed to finish the war. The longer the war dragged on, the more chance Russia or Prussia would decide to take their chances by throwing in with Austria.

Already, Napoleon was worried; the Austrians had fought alarmingly well in the last few battles, far better than they had only a few years ago. He might have outmaneuvered and beaten Charles, but he hadn’t destroyed his opponent’s army like he had in previous years. Charles and the new, improved Austrian Army was still out there. Napoleon had to bring them to heel. On the south side of the river, Napoleon glowered over at the north.

An opposed river crossing is one of the most difficult and dangerous operations in land warfare, and requires expert skill and coordination to pull off successfully. Even in the modern era, operations like the Allied Rhine Crossing of 1945 and the Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal in 1973 were considered strokes of genius because of the inherent difficulty of the move. Napoleon was going to attempt a river crossing without adequate preparation, with a hastily assembled bridging column and without knowing where exactly his enemy was.

Napoleon chose a site near Lobau, one of the several islands that divided the Danube into more easily fordable branches. On May 19-20, his engineers constructed several bridges over to Lobau and to the east side of the river. Napoleon sent Marshal Massena across as quickly as possible with a decent force. Massena drove off the Austrian scouts and fortified the two towns that sat next to the crossing site: Aspern to the west and Essling to the east. He had not encountered major Austrian resistance, and Napoleon concluded that Archduke Charles was several days’ march away. He was in the clear, and could wait to cross most of his force until tomorrow.

Napoleon was wrong. Charles was not several days’ march away, but several hours. He had not resisted Napoleon’s crossing because he wanted the Emperor to cross. Charles planned to catch Napoleon’s army divided and destroy a large part of it before reinforcements could cross the river to help. Charles also knew that recent storms had swelled the Danube, and its stronger current would threaten to destroy the bridges; if this happened, the French forces on the north bank would be completely cut off and forced to surrender.

On May 21, the Austrians came on in force. Charles had put together 95,000 men, and the white-coated Austrians marched onto the field with their white uniforms, muskets glittering, cavalry helmets shining and cannon preparing to fire. Massena only had 27,000 men on the north side of the river, but he quickly garrisoned the villages of Aspern and Essling and told the troops there to hold to the last man. The critical area, though, was between the villages. If the Austrians drove a wedge between them, they could capture the bridges, and then the French were doomed.

Napoleon quickly realized the situation and began rushing troops across the river, even as the Austrians sent columns of infantry rushing into the villages. Street fighting erupted as French and Austrian troops threw bombs and locked bayonets. The old smuggler Massena rode through the streets on horseback, waving his sword and directing reinforcements. Across the bridges came Lannes, his short dark hair askew with sweat and gunpowder, swearing and urging his men on. Napoleon himself came across to assume control, directing Lannes to take over Essling as Massena held Aspern.

As more and more infantry were sucked into the fighting in the villages, the French center grew critically weak. Charles began to mass his Austrian artillery to blast the French center apart and split the French force. Napoleon, realizing the danger, ordered his cavalry to charge and scatter the guns. This was an age when massed cavalry with swords and lances still had a major role in the battle; the cavalry charge bought Napoleon time, and as the sun set the French still held their position.

As night fell on May 21, Napoleon was determined to keep to his positions and fight the next day. The wiser choice may have been to withdraw back across the river, but instead Napoleon brought more forces across. This was a dangerous move; if the French had to retreat the next day, it would be much more difficult for a larger force to escape and could result in disaster. As the French and Austrian troops in Aspern tried to sleep within yards of each other, both knew the battle would be decided next day.

At first light on May 22, the battle began once again. Archduke Charles launched further attacks on the two battle-scarred towns. Massena’s troops in Aspern were driven out by superior numbers, even as Lannes fought a desperate battle to hold Essling. It looked like the French were about to be squeezed from both sides. On this day at Aspern-Essling, the Austrians were fighting better and harder than they had in decades.

Napoleon, though, had massed his reinforcements between the two villages and delivered a massive attack into the Austrian center. He achieved a breakthrough, and squadrons of French cavalry poured into the gap. Charles poured in his last reserve. For Austrian royalty, he behaved with enormous bravery, leading his troops back into the town of Essling on foot, a banner in his hands. Even as the French attack began to sputter out, Charles knew he was on the verge of victory, because he had an ace up his sleeve.

As Napoleon surveyed the battlefield, he received two terrible pieces of news. First was that the bridges were out. Farther up the Danube, the Austrians had built heavy barges loaded with stones and sent them cascading down the surging river, where they had shattered the supports of the pontoon bridges. Unless Napoleon turned his attention to rebuilding his escape route, his entire army was in danger of destruction. Second was that Jean Lannes, his closest friend and one of his best generals, had been gravely wounded but was still leading his troops.

Napoleon called off the attack. He could no longer worry about winning the battle; survival had become the new priority. He began to pull back his center. Aspern had been lost, and Essling teetered on the edge of falling. With one last effort, Lannes was able to drive the Austrians back out of the eastern town, even as Napoleon’s engineers worked like madmen to repair the bridges and the French army fell back. Though the Austrians tried their best, they could not crack through the French line before night fell. Once they were covered by darkness, the French withdrew back across the river to Lobau.

It was a bitter day for Napoleon. He had lost 23,000 men in the Battle of Aspern-Essling, one of whom – Lannes – was irreplaceable, both as a soldier and as a friend. Lannes succumbed to his wounds on the 31st of May with Napoleon by his side. The Austrians had suffered similar losses, and Charles was so surprised by his victory that he failed to follow up, but it was clearly an Austrian victory. They had thrown the French back across the Danube, but had failed to destroy Napoleon’s army.

Napoleon would spend the next two months building up his forces, and in July made another crossing, this one much better prepared and with many more men. This time, he would make no mistakes like he had at Aspern-Essling. At the Battle of Wagram, an enormous and chaotic slaughter, Napoleon would deliver a Bonaparte Special of the usual caliber, and Charles would be utterly defeated. After Wagram, the Austrians would sue for peace, and Napoleon was once again Master of Europe.

Aspern-Essling, though, was a sign. For years after the 1809 war, whenever a French official insulted Austrian courage or fighting ability, Napoleon would say coldly, “Clearly you were not at Wagram.” The May battle on the Danube was Napoleon’s first real battlefield defeat, and definitely impressed him. The Austrians had given Napoleon his first real test, and there was more to come.

No matter how brilliant and how much of a genius he was, eventually Napoleon’s enemies would start learning his tricks. Eventually, they would learn something from him, and come at him with the same skill, speed, and strength. No one can stay the best forever – not even Napoleon Bonaparte.

Four years later, at another battle against the Prussians, Napoleon won a hard victory against tough resistance. As they retreated, he muttered darkly, “These animals have learned something.” So they had, and the first time his enemies showed what they had learned was at Aspern-Essling.

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