The unfavorable developments of the war, in particular Austria’s defeats at Ulm and Austerlitz, eventually led to the Peace Treaty of Pressburg (today’s Bratislava), which not only stipulated substantial war reparations to be paid to France but also went hand in hand with enormous territorial losses for Austria. The “Holy Roman Empire”, the main power factor in Central Europe, was dissolved, due to the fact that, until 1808, all German states, with the exception of Austria, Prussia, Holstein and Pomerania, had joined Napoleon’s Confederation of the Rhine. Emperor Francis I of Austria was forced to abduct as Roman-German Emperor Francis II, under Napoleon’s pressure.1
The State Chancellor and former Envoy to Petersburg, Johann Philipp Graf Stadion-Warthausen, who had taken office in December 1805, was to decisively shape the foreign as well as inner-political course of the Monarchy. He was most certainly one of those representatives at the Austrian Imperial Court who did not believe in the possibility of a peaceful coexistence with a Napoleonic France, as the political changes since 1805 could clearly be interpreted as Napoleon’s claim of universal hegemony over Europe.2 This view seemed to be confirmed by reports of the Austrian Envoy to Paris, Clemens Wenzel Lothar Graf Metternich who had received his appointment in March 1806 and who, even contrary to his general conviction, did not think that a durable peace with France would be possible from the perspective of a strong and powerful Empire, mainly due to the happenings in Spain. Eventually, this mood strengthened the existing anti-French attitude at the Imperial Court and also made the Emperor embark on a war course. Even Archduke Carl who, still under the impression of the defeat of 1805, was rather skeptical about another war against France, seemed to consider it necessary and unavoidable to take up arms against Napoleon. What certainly motivated that was that Archduke Carl resumed his function as President of the Imperial War Council in 1806 and was working on re-establishing and reconstructing the Imperial Army since then. The Austrian forces now, for the first time, had a new additional military institution as support – the Landwehr. The idea of establishing such Militia training battalions came from the Tyrolian rifle units, still recalling the battles of 1805, and was rigorously pushed forward by Archduke Johann, the youngest brother of the Emperor.3 In the beginning this national Militia viewed the Emperor and Archduke Carl with skepticism, as they feared that it would lead to materiel and personnel weakening of the standing forces. At the end of the day, however, financial considerations led to systemizing the Austrian Landwehr.4
By including the Landwehr and other units of volunteers, the Austrian Army had reached a considerable strength by 1809, comprising something like 60,000 horses and 725,000 men, 390,000 of which would also be ready to operate outside the Empire’s borders.5
The decision to risk another war against Napoleon was already taken in 1808 and the best time to start the campaign was determined to be the spring of 1809, since the difficult financial situation of Austria also had to be taken into consideration.
Austria planned the campaign of 1809 to take place in four theaters. The main bulk of the Army, under the command of Archduke Carl, was to operate in South-Germany, while Archduke Johann was to conduct his campaign in Italy against Viceroy Eugene Beauharnais. With a smaller contingent Archduke Ferdinand III of Austria-Este was to secure the Empire against the Duchy of Warsaw. Finally, also the Tyrolian Uprising called for further troop contingents. According to the original battle plan of Archduke Carl the main bulk of the Army (six corps) was to be gathered in Bohemia. Two corps would attack Bavaria, operating out of Upper Austria, two more corps were to be assembled in the area of Klagenfurt and Ljubljana to confront Italy, and one corps was to be deployed at Cracow to confront Warsaw, plus the Tyrolian Uprising was to be supported with a detachment.6
Of course, Napoleon was aware of Austria’s ambitions. Around the year’s turn he had approximately 145,000 men east of the Rhine River and in upper Italy, or in Dalmatia, respectively, who, as of New Year 1809, were continually reinforced. In addition he received considerable force augmentations from the Confederation of the Rhine, which was to ready approximately 120,000 men, plus approximately 17,000 troops from the Italian Kingdom as well as roughly 17,500 from the Polish Army to be contributed by the Duchy of Warsaw.
In view of the enemy’s troop concentration in Bavaria, Archduke Carl decided to pull off four corps from Bohemia and position them south of the Danube River. Despite the delay, caused by that redeployment, Archduke Carl started his campaign on 10 April with three columns crossing the Inn River, while General Bellegarde was to join the attack against Bavaria with two corps which were still stationed in Bohemia.7 The Archduke’s plan intended to engage one of the still isolated French corps – that of Marshall Davout – and defeat it. That seemed to be executable, because of the somewhat unclear order circumstances in the beginning, caused by Napoleon’s direct instructions on the one hand and the plans of the Chief of General Staff Berthier on the other, so that the corps received conflicting orders concerning their positions.8 It took until 17 April and Napoleon’s personal arrival in Donauwörth to establish unity of command. Until 19 April the French forces were largely united, so that the tables started to turn against the Austrians who, because of the different marching speeds of the columns, had severe loopholes in their disposition. Lost battles at Abensberg, Kirchdorf, Siegenburg und Pfeffenhausen, on 20 April, finally prevented a stronger concentration of the main body of troops. Nonetheless, Archduke Carl decided to attack Davout’s corps at Regensburg/Eggmühl, on 22 April, but, despite initial successes, was defeated (at Eggmühl), as Napoleon had managed to push the Austrian Hiller corps (left flank) beyond Landshut and with a traverse of his main come to Davout’s rescue. The Austrian main was forced to withdraw to Regensburg which had to be cleared by 23 April.9 This unfortunate outcome of the battle at Regensburg/Eggmühl and the losses that had reduced the main body to roughly 93,000 made the Archduke advise Emperor Francis I to go for a political settlement with Napoleon. Meanwhile, however, positive reports from the other battlefields had come in. Aside from the successful development of the Tyrolian Uprising, Archduke Johann had defeated the Italian Viceroy at Pordenone (15 April) and Sacile (16 April).10 Archduke Ferdinand III of Austria-Este succeeded to take and occupy Warsaw, as part of his “securing campaign” operations. Emperor Francis I, therefore, did not accept Archduke Carl’s advice, who was withdrawing his main across Bohemia in south-easterly direction, north of the Danube River. Napoleon, on the other hand, decided to march south of the Danube River against Vienna, since he was aware of the poor strength of the troops still stationed there. These troop contingents under Hiller’s command (parts of the 5th, 6th and 2nd Reserve Corps) redeployed, crossing the Inn River. Being aware of the enemy’s strength, Hiller decided to clear out of Linz, destroy the bridge there, and withdraw to the line of the Traun River, since he expected to have more effective delay possibilities at Ebelsberg and Asten. On 03 May Marshall Masséna’s troops launched an attack against Ebelsberg, in order to take the bridge across the Traun River there. The first phase of that engagement went very bad for the Austrians, as the rear guard positions were taken back so fast that the pursuing French forces managed to cross the Traun bridge and enter Ebelsberg. In the early afternoon, Hiller decided to disengage and withdraw his corps to Enns, dropping the idea of putting up decisive resistance at Ebelsberg.11 On 08 May, Hiller finally crossed over to the northern shore of the Danube River at Mautern, merely leaving one unit (Lieutenant General Dedovich) at the southern shore of the river, which was ordered to continue to withdraw to Vienna. With that Vienna was more or less vulnerable. On May the 10th the French spearheads already stood in front of Vienna and occupied the Prater (a park area) on 11 May. Under Archduke Maximilian’s command, the city was able to put up resistance until 12 May but had to be surrendered after that. The French gained large amounts of war materiel, artillery pieces, and the Viennese war treasury, all of which had not been transported off in time.12
On 16 May, Archduke Carl reached Korneuburg and Bisamberg and concentrated his forces at Stammersdorf und Hagenbrunn, having left some security troops at Krems, Stockerau, Korneuburg, Lang-Enzersdorf and Pressburg, in order to prevent Napoleon from crossing over to the northern shore of the Danube River. Napoleon had already ordered two expedient bridges to be built, one at Nussdorf and the other one south of Vienna at Kaiser-Ebersdorf. At Nussdorf Marshall Lannes managed to set his troops over to the “Schwarzlacken” island in order to secure the bridge construction but, due to fast Austrian reaction, the Austrians were able to overthrow and eventually capture them. There was no other crossing attempt at this site. At Kaiser-Ebersdorf, however, setting over to the Island of Lobau succeeded, on 20 May, and in the evening the same day the rest of the Danube arm was bridged and the first troops started to set over immediately. It was not until then, that the Austrian headquarters realized that there would be a battle north of the Danube River. In the evening of 20 May respective orders were issued to the subordinated corps, according to which position was to be taken along the line of Strebersdorf-Stammersdorf-Deutsch-Wagram (approximately 15 km), by 21 May. “Robust reconnaissance” was to be conducted south of this line in the area of Aspern und Essling.13 The French, still in the process of setting over, selected a securing position between those two communities. When the French artillery was ordered to march against Gross-Enzersdorf and their troop movements were recognized by the Austrians, the Austrians decided to attack. The existing corps and divisions were to advance towards the south in five columns to prevent an expected French attack against Hirschstetten. At this point of time, only some 27,000 French infantry troops and a 9000-strong cavalry had set over the Danube River, while the Austrian Army was comprised of almost 115,000 men, including 14,000 cavalry. When Napoleon noticed the Austrians approaching, he first decided to withdraw, also because the expedient bridge with the heavily used flat-iron plates was partly damaged and unusable at times. But as by 1300hrs battle noise could already be heard, the French decided to stay and defend themselves, relying on the communities of Aspern und Essling. Particularly at Aspern, on the right Austrian flank, very tough battles evolved but also in the area between the two communities, on the left flank, battles waged back and forth. The numerical superiority of the Austrians did not really come to bear, because of the partly uncoordinated advances of the columns. Conversely, Napoleon partly succeeded to operate between the two communities within sort of an “inner line” and thereby was able to provide his vulnerable parts with instant reinforcements. The battles waged late into the evening. The Austrians had failed to overrun Napoleon’s positions. During the night, the French were able to bring in another 37,000 infantry men, 70 artillery pieces, and approximately 900 cavalry, despite two bridge-crossing interruptions that were caused by launched Austrian ships and burning wreckages. Napoleon’s battle plan intended to attack the Austrian center of gravity during morning hours, while pushing the right Austrian flank at Aspern up the Danube River and the left flank into Hungary. But the plan could only work if Aspern was taken, which Marschall Masséna was ordered to do. In the morning of 22 May, the French launched their attack, which at first was successful at Aspern as well as at Essling.14 Also in the area between those communities, the realization of the attack plan seemed promising, as reinforcements kept coming in. After battles with changing success, the Austrian line was interrupted and the expected success of the French seemed to be immediately at hand. At that moment, the famous episode took place: Archduke Carl himself, together with a flag bearer of the “Zach” regiment, grabbed the flag and spurred on straight into the line of fire, reestablishing the morale of his already weary troops. This way, the situation could be saved, preventing a penetration of the line. In the early afternoon, the tables started to turn against Napoleon. Aspern, which by the way had changed owners eight times during the battles, was in Austrian hands and also Essling could be retrieved, except for the legendary Schüttkasten (the grain depot). This unfortunate development, might have given Napoleon second thoughts about the engagement. In the meantime, however, the French troops that were confined in the Schüttkasten in Essling, while the other buildings were occupied by the Austrians, kept on firing their way through and thus triggered a spontaneous French counter attack, which took the Austrians by complete surprise and caused an overreaction on their part, leading to the complete withdrawal of the Austrian left flank. Therefore the Archduke decided to also take the center back and, if Hiller too would have withdrawn at Aspern, the battle would sure have been lost for the Austrians. Obviously, also Napoleon, was surprised by this turn of the situation and did not take advantage of the Austrian plight, particularly since he had already ordered the withdrawal of his troops into the Lobau. He left the battlefield – he had suffered his first military defeat. However, the Austrians also did not take advantage of their victory, since Archduke Carl thought that now Napoleon would be ready to negotiate and, therefore, abstained from pursuit. This way, Napoleon was able to save the bulk of his army.
After the battle, both sides used the time to get reinforcements. Archduke Carl intended to face Napoleon again in Marchfeld Valley. However, in order to enhance his operability, Napoleon had several bridges laid over the Danube River during the month of June. In the meantime, Archduke Johann, who was positioned south-east and had incorporated Hungarian insurrection troops, in order to connect on to the main force, was defeated at Györ and pushed back to Komárom. After that, he marched to Bratislava and relieved the garrison there, which was to join the main body.15
In the beginning of July, Napoleon thought it time to resume combat. During the night to 05 July, he finally crossed the Danube River with some 170,000 troops. Because of a heavy thunderstorm and deterring maneuvers at other Danube River sites, his advance was detected too late by the Austrians who failed to prevent him from crossing the river. At that time, Archduke Carl had only 120,000 troops left. Archduke Johann, stationed at Bratislava, had already received orders on July the 4th to immediately move to Marchegg, in order to reinforce the left flank of the main body. On the 5th of July, Napoleon advanced against the Austrians, who were already in a defensive position from Deutsch-Wagram to Markgrafneusiedl. He regrouped his forces until the evening of that day and attacked relatively forcefully and somewhat uncoordinatedly but was repelled by the Austrians. This won the Austrians the first day of the battle. Encouraged by this success, on July the 6th, Archduke Carl planned to attack with his right flank, while the left flank was also to engage the enemy in order to fix him. In addition, Carl counted on the soon arrival of Archduke Johann who was in the process of approaching from Bratislava. Because of delayed order issuance, however, the individual corps did not hit upon the enemy together but time-wise removed. Despite initial successes of the Austrians on the right flank, crisis emerged in the center at Aderklaa, which called for the employment of reserves.16 Thinking, that Archduke Johann would now join the battle, the French’s right flank received orders to take Markgrafneusiedel, in order to protect the flank, which worked out well. And even though Baumersdorf was seized after that, a robust thrust against Aderklaa did not lead to penetrating the Austrian center, but the Austrian right flank had to be withdrawn. Since Archduke Johann had not arrived in the theater yet – he was supposed to get there in the evening – and since both flanks were battling at disadvantage, Archduke Carl decided around 1300 hours to cease combat and withdraw.17
It was an orderly withdrawal, with rear guard skirmishes at Korneuburg, Stockerau and Hollabrunn, which delayed the French pursuit. Carl crossed the Thaya River at Znojmo but was confronted with the fact that his train had not gotten on the way yet. In order to protect it, he took up a shelter position, on 11 July, and tried to negotiate a ceasefire with Napoleon, as his forces had already shrunk to 50,000 men, which went into effect shortly after 1700 hrs. Emperor Francis I at first approved Archdukes Carl’s decision, as he hoped to sustain resistance with his Hungarian troops. At the end of the day, however, he had to accept the military facts. On 29 July, Archduke Carl surrendered his post as Commander in Chief.
On 14 October, after the military defeat and the ceasefire, the Peace Treaty of Schönbrunn was signed. Austria lost close to 2000 square miles of territory and 3.5 million citizens – Salzburg, the Innviertel, Tyrol and Vorarlberg to Bavaria; Gorizia, Monfalcone, Trieste, Kranj und Villach to Italy; West Galicia, Cracow and the Zamość area to the Duchy of Warsaw; and parts of East Galicia to Russia. The force strength was limited with 150,000 men and the war reparation payments were set at 85 million francs.18
The political go-it-alone tour and the military defeat had not only cost Austria large territorial losses but also massively affected the state budget, not least because of the reparation payments, and led to state bankruptcy, in 1811.
Only four years later – in 1813 – Austria would take up arms against France again and, together with other coalition powers, put an end to Napoleon’s hegemonic claims in the so-called Liberation Wars.
2 Rumpler Helmut, Österreichische Geschichte 1804-1914. Eine Chance für Mitteleuropa. Bürgerliche Emanzipation und Staatsverfall in der Habsburgermonarchie, Wien 1997, S. 75
3 Theiss Viktor, Leben und Wirken Erzherzog Johanns. Forschungen zur geschichtlichen Landeskunde der Steiermark Bd. 17, Bd. 1, Graz, S. 207
4 Zehetbauer Ernst, Landwehr gegen Napoleon. Österreichs erste Miliz und der Nationalkrieg von 1809. Schriften des Heeresgeschichtlichen Museums, Bd. 12, Wien 1999, S. 33
5 Horsetzky Adolf von, Kriegsgeschichtliche Übersicht der wichtigsten Feldzüge seit 1792, Wien 19137, S. 11
6 Horsetzky Adolf von, Kriegsgeschichtliche Übersicht der wichtigsten Feldzüge seit 1792, Wien 19137, S. 178 f.
8 Leitfaden der Allgemeinen Kriegsgeschichte. Zum gebrauche an den k.u.k. Militär-Akademien und für das Selbststudium, Wien 1896, S. 383
9 Horsetzky Adolf von, Kriegsgeschichtliche Übersicht der wichtigsten Feldzüge seit 1792, Wien 19137, S. 184 f.
10 Anger Gilbert (Hrsg.), Illustrirte (sic) Geschichte der k.k. Armee. Dargestellt in allgemeiner und specieller culturhistorischer Bedeutung von der Begründung und Entwicklung an bis heute, 3 Bde., Wien 1887, Bd.2/3, S.1185 f.
11 Litschel Rudolf Walter, Das Gefecht bei Ebelsberg am 3. Mai 1809. Militärhistorische Schriftenreihe Heft 9, Wien 1983, S. 11 f.
12 Horsetzky Adolf von, Kriegsgeschichtliche Übersicht der wichtigsten Feldzüge seit 1792, Wien 19137, S. 186 f.
13 Strobl Adolf, Aspern und Wagram. Kurze Darstellung der Ereignisse in den Schlachten von Aspern am 21. und 22. Mai und Wagram am 5. und 6. Juli 1809, Wien 1897, S. 15 f.
14 Horsetzky Adolf von, Kriegsgeschichtliche Übersicht der wichtigsten Feldzüge seit 1792, Wien 19137, S. 23
16 Horsetzky Adolf von, Kriegsgeschichtliche Übersicht der wichtigsten Feldzüge seit 1792, Wien 19137, S. 198 f.
18 Rumpler Helmut, Österreichische Geschichte 1804-1914. Eine Chance für Mitteleuropa. Bürgerliche Emanzipation und Staatsverfall in der Habsburgermonarchie, Wien 1997, S. 102