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Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Aspern-Essling

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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In case the archduke opposed the crossing, it was vital for the French to establish bridgeheads in the two villages on the farther bank. Both had good defensive features, being encircled by earth embankments to keep out floods, and they were connected to each other by a trench. Most of their houses were built of stone. The one, Aspern, had several streets and a cemetery surrounded by a stout wall. The other, Essling, had only one street, but its granary was a three-story structure of brick, 36 meters by 10, proof against cannon shots up to the first story and big enough to house 400 men.

On the evening of May 13, Napoleon told Massena to organize the Ebersdorf bridging operation in liaison with his corps artillery commander, General Pernetti, and the army's chief engineer, General Henri-Gatien Bertrand. Massena was an old hand at crossing rivers–10 years earlier, in a blizzard, he had crossed the Upper Rhine when it was in flood by building a bridge of local timber, personally supervising his sappers as they worked in ice-cold water up to their necks.

The first stage of the operation would be to lay a bridge of boats over the first arm of the Danube to Lobau. As soon as this was done, the advance guard and Lasalle's light cavalry would pass over into Lobau, together with the material needed to bridge the Stadlau arm to the left bank. The bridging system the French had chosen entailed anchoring a line of flat-bottomed, sheer-sided boats at well-defined intervals and covering them with wooden planks. If the anchoring and spacing were properly done, such a bridge would support the weight of mounted regiments, artillery field pieces and closedup infantry columns marching in fours, at an average rate of passage of 6,000 or 7,000 men per hour.

To throw such a bridge across the Danube at Vienna called for many hours of backbreaking work, but the French pontonniers were used to that; in Napoleon's army the basic bridging unit, the bateau gribeauval, was more than 36 feet long by more than 4 feet high and weighed more than 4,000 pounds.

As the length of bridge covered by each boat was 32 feet, 80 boats would be needed for the section between the Vienna bank and Lobau. Bertrand already had 48 boats in good repair, and another 32 which he thought could be made ready by the following night; the work would require a great deal of material, including 3,000 beams, 400 joists and 5,000 to 6,000 fathoms of rope. The second arm of the river, the Stadlau Branch, would be bridged by three trestles and by 15 pontoons captured from the Austrians at Landshut.

By the 17th, 91 boats had been assembled, 70 of which had rigging, oars and accessories. Twelve proved to be too heavy; 38 were suitable for floating supports and 20 more could be made so while the bridging was still in progress.

Since he was committing his army to the passage of a great river on a line of hastily assembled boats, rafts, trestles and pontoons, Napoleon was taking a tremendous risk by providing neither cruising vessels nor a boom to protect against enemy fireships. But there was an even greater danger, one which Napoleon may have failed to understand at all.

When the French army had crossed the Danube in 1805, it had been late autumn. The bridges at Vienna were intact. There had been no need to take account of the effect that melting snows might have on the river. In 1809, according to the artillery general, Baston, Comte de Lariboisiere, there was even less cause for concern since the weather was good and there-was no sign of a storm.

But it was precisely the fair weather that made Napoleon's plan so hazardous. It was no use basing plans or theories on the behavior of the Rhine, which melting snows raised no more than a foot or so. The Danube was very different. Of its 400 tributaries, many came from the Swiss or Tyrolese uplands and the Bavarian Alps. In May and June, the melting snows from these regions could raise the Danube at Vienna by as much as 15 feet- already that spring of 1809, the level had varied from 4 feet above an extreme low-water mark to 13 feet below flood level. When the river reached its maximum height, each of its arms became a miniature sea in which islets and sandbanks disappeared and trees torn from the river banks would sweep downstream on the torrent.

Nevertheless the die was cast. By the third week in May the mass of materials assembled at Ebersdorf included timber, planks, beams, posts, piles, pickets, rails, anchors, chains, ropes, small boats, wherries, pontoons, forges, engines and workmen's tools. The French now also had the use of an immense chain, captured from the Turks during the Siege of Vienna and preserved ever since in the city's arsenal, which was long enough to span the river from bank to bank. In the dockyard, screened from Austrian eyes by a small copse, boats were being floated onto a deep, narrow creek that served as a dock, while hundreds of officers and thousands of artisans worked on preparing and cutting up wood.

At night, pontoon detachments and Guard Marines patrolled the river bank, testing the depth of the water and spying out the best anchorage spots. Since only 38 pontoon anchors and grapnels were available, massive cannon from Vienna's arsenal and open chests full of cannon balls were kept ready to be submerged in the water to hold the mooring cables.

While Bertrand's men toiled at their tasks, the French infantry took its ease. There was a regular ration issue and plenty of wine, sometimes a liter per man, never less than a demiliter. Much of the wine came from the enormous cellars of the convent at Kloster-Neuburg, carried to the banks of the Danube in convoys of wagons. Life was even more pleasant for the officers quartered in Vienna, where the cafes provided not only music and refreshments but the chance of a romantic encounter as well.

For the senior officers, nothing occasioned greater pleasure than an invitation to dine with General 0. Mouton, hero of the charge across the burning timbers of the Ebelsberg bridge. Mouton was billetted in the mansion lately vacated by Prince Trautmansdorff, grand marshal to the Austrian court, who had generously left his butler and chef behind to look after the new occupant.

There was still no sign of the corps of 25,000 Russians that the czar was supposed to be putting at Napoleon's disposal. 'An officer from the Czar arrived every week at our headquarters,' General AJ. Savary tells us, 'and a very active correspondence was kept up between Russia and ourselves, but we didn't want correspondence, we wanted battalions.'

One of the more familiar sights at Ebersdorf in the third week of May was the slight and elegant figure of Colonel de Sainte Croix, Massena's senior aide de camp. Sainte Croix was an extremely brave and intelligent officer, but with his lack of height, delicate features and hands like a girl's, he was not the type that Napoleon expected to find serving on the staff of a French marshal. Napoleon had in fact brought pressure on Mass6na to replace him, but without result.

Determined, no doubt, to justify Massena's faith in him, Sainte Croix had made a dashing start to the campaign; after capturing an Austrian standard he had been promoted to colonel at the age of 27.

In case the archduke opposed the crossing, it was vital for the French to establish bridgeheads in the two villages on the farther bank. Both had good defensive features, being encircled by earth embankments to keep out floods, and they were connected to each other by a trench. Most of their houses were built of stone. The one, Aspern, had several streets and a cemetery surrounded by a stout wall. The other, Essling, had only one street, but its granary was a three-story structure of brick, 36 meters by 10, proof against cannon shots up to the first story and big enough to house 400 men.

On the evening of May 13, Napoleon told Massena to organize the Ebersdorf bridging operation in liaison with his corps artillery commander, General Pernetti, and the army's chief engineer, General Henri-Gatien Bertrand. Massena was an old hand at crossing rivers–10 years earlier, in a blizzard, he had crossed the Upper Rhine when it was in flood by building a bridge of local timber, personally supervising his sappers as they worked in ice-cold water up to their necks.

The first stage of the operation would be to lay a bridge of boats over the first arm of the Danube to Lobau. As soon as this was done, the advance guard and Lasalle's light cavalry would pass over into Lobau, together with the material needed to bridge the Stadlau arm to the left bank. The bridging system the French had chosen entailed anchoring a line of flat-bottomed, sheer-sided boats at well-defined intervals and covering them with wooden planks. If the anchoring and spacing were properly done, such a bridge would support the weight of mounted regiments, artillery field pieces and closedup infantry columns marching in fours, at an average rate of passage of 6,000 or 7,000 men per hour.

To throw such a bridge across the Danube at Vienna called for many hours of backbreaking work, but the French pontonniers were used to that; in Napoleon's army the basic bridging unit, the bateau gribeauval, was more than 36 feet long by more than 4 feet high and weighed more than 4,000 pounds.

As the length of bridge covered by each boat was 32 feet, 80 boats would be needed for the section between the Vienna bank and Lobau. Bertrand already had 48 boats in good repair, and another 32 which he thought could be made ready by the following night; the work would require a great deal of material, including 3,000 beams, 400 joists and 5,000 to 6,000 fathoms of rope. The second arm of the river, the Stadlau Branch, would be bridged by three trestles and by 15 pontoons captured from the Austrians at Landshut.

By the 17th, 91 boats had been assembled, 70 of which had rigging, oars and accessories. Twelve proved to be too heavy; 38 were suitable for floating supports and 20 more could be made so while the bridging was still in progress.

Since he was committing his army to the passage of a great river on a line of hastily assembled boats, rafts, trestles and pontoons, Napoleon was taking a tremendous risk by providing neither cruising vessels nor a boom to protect against enemy fireships. But there was an even greater danger, one which Napoleon may have failed to understand at all.

When the French army had crossed the Danube in 1805, it had been late autumn. The bridges at Vienna were intact. There had been no need to take account of the effect that melting snows might have on the river. In 1809, according to the artillery general, Baston, Comte de Lariboisiere, there was even less cause for concern since the weather was good and there-was no sign of a storm.

But it was precisely the fair weather that made Napoleon's plan so hazardous. It was no use basing plans or theories on the behavior of the Rhine, which melting snows raised no more than a foot or so. The Danube was very different. Of its 400 tributaries, many came from the Swiss or Tyrolese uplands and the Bavarian Alps. In May and June, the melting snows from these regions could raise the Danube at Vienna by as much as 15 feet- already that spring of 1809, the level had varied from 4 feet above an extreme low-water mark to 13 feet below flood level. When the river reached its maximum height, each of its arms became a miniature sea in which islets and sandbanks disappeared and trees torn from the river banks would sweep downstream on the torrent.

Nevertheless the die was cast. By the third week in May the mass of materials assembled at Ebersdorf included timber, planks, beams, posts, piles, pickets, rails, anchors, chains, ropes, small boats, wherries, pontoons, forges, engines and workmen's tools. The French now also had the use of an immense chain, captured from the Turks during the Siege of Vienna and preserved ever since in the city's arsenal, which was long enough to span the river from bank to bank. In the dockyard, screened from Austrian eyes by a small copse, boats were being floated onto a deep, narrow creek that served as a dock, while hundreds of officers and thousands of artisans worked on preparing and cutting up wood.

At night, pontoon detachments and Guard Marines patrolled the river bank, testing the depth of the water and spying out the best anchorage spots. Since only 38 pontoon anchors and grapnels were available, massive cannon from Vienna's arsenal and open chests full of cannon balls were kept ready to be submerged in the water to hold the mooring cables.

While Bertrand's men toiled at their tasks, the French infantry took its ease. There was a regular ration issue and plenty of wine, sometimes a liter per man, never less than a demiliter. Much of the wine came from the enormous cellars of the convent at Kloster-Neuburg, carried to the banks of the Danube in convoys of wagons. Life was even more pleasant for the officers quartered in Vienna, where the cafes provided not only music and refreshments but the chance of a romantic encounter as well.

For the senior officers, nothing occasioned greater pleasure than an invitation to dine with General 0. Mouton, hero of the charge across the burning timbers of the Ebelsberg bridge. Mouton was billetted in the mansion lately vacated by Prince Trautmansdorff, grand marshal to the Austrian court, who had generously left his butler and chef behind to look after the new occupant.

There was still no sign of the corps of 25,000 Russians that the czar was supposed to be putting at Napoleon's disposal. 'An officer from the Czar arrived every week at our headquarters,' General AJ. Savary tells us, 'and a very active correspondence was kept up between Russia and ourselves, but we didn't want correspondence, we wanted battalions.'

One of the more familiar sights at Ebersdorf in the third week of May was the slight and elegant figure of Colonel de Sainte Croix, Massena's senior aide de camp. Sainte Croix was an extremely brave and intelligent officer, but with his lack of height, delicate features and hands like a girl's, he was not the type that Napoleon expected to find serving on the staff of a French marshal. Napoleon had in fact brought pressure on Mass6na to replace him, but without result.

Determined, no doubt, to justify Massena's faith in him, Sainte Croix had made a dashing start to the campaign; after capturing an Austrian standard he had been promoted to colonel at the age of 27.

On the evening of May 18, having been picked by Massena to lead the advance party to Lobau, Sainte Croix took command of a detachment of infantry, which then crossed over to the island in barques. According to Savary, Napoleon personally supervised the embarkation, arranging to have early barques contain the maximum number of men.

Unlike the force he sent into Schwarze-Laken, the advance party established itself without loss. By next morning more than 80 boats were ready to be put into place on the Vienna bank, together with rafts, baulks and abutments. Boats were being prepared to send Sainte Croix's party over the Stadlau arm to the left bank; several more boats had been tied together to form flying bridges in which workmen would pass to and fro. By 6 p.m. on the 19th, the first arm of the river had been bridged, and the Austrian pontoons for bridging the Stadlau arm were taken in carts to Lobau.

Orders had now gone out for the light cavalry brigades of Pire, Bruyere, Colbert and Marulaz to be at the Ebersdorf bridgehead at 5 o'clock the next morning. Lannes' corps was to arrive at 9 a.m., followed by the cuirassier divisions of Nansouty, Saint Sulpice and Espagne. These three divisions comprised 14 heavy cavalry regiments with a strength of more than 9,000 men; General L.B.J. d'Espagne had 109 officers and 2,670 cuirassiers in four regiments (the 4th, 6th, 7th and 8th).

On the 20th the French troops began to mass in Lobau, complete with artillery trains. The only building on the island was a hunting lodge used by the Austrian royal family, and of the three things essential to the French soldier's morale, all that Lobau could provide was wood for the bivouac fires; dry straw to sleep on was not to be had, and neither was food. 'My second brigade, which passed over first, has had no rations for two days,' General Gabriel J.J. Molitor informed Massena on the 20th. 'There is absolutely nothing in this island; these men are really up against it!'

At 3 p.m. on the 20th, Sainte Croix crossed to the left bank with 200 of Molitor's 'Voltigeurs:' They had two tasks: to protect the 'Pontonniers' bridging the second arm of the river and to make fast to the left bank a cable which would support the final section of the bridge.

The Stadlau arm of the river was deep and swollen, and the captured Austrian pontoons and trestles just failed to stretch from Lobau to the left bank. Consequently, the final section of the bridge had to be made of tree trunks covered with joists. As soon as this was finished, Molitor's division and Lasalle's four light cavalry regiments passed over it to the Marchfeld. Driving off the Austrian outposts on the left bank, Molitor occupied Aspern with companies of the 67th while Lasalle's horsemen fanned out into the plain. Two more of Massena's divisions, led by General J. Boudet and Claude J.A. Legrand, were ready to follow from Lobau.

By now the river had begun to rise and was moving so fast that regiments making the crossing found themselves moving over 'rickety planks washed and shaken by the rushing waters:' The cavalrymen went on foot leading their horses, the infantry three abreast, while Guard Marines and Pontonniers patrolling the river in boats manfully staved off the tree trunks and other debris that were now being swept downstream. At 5 p.m., a vessel launched by the enemy upstream smashed into the Vienna section of the bridge, causing such damage that the passage of troops onto Lobau was halted-it was clear that repairs would take several hours. At this time Lannes' corps was still on the right bank of the river; so were two of the cuirassier divisions, the artillery parks and Davout's corps, which was marching for Ebersdorf via Vienna.

The light cavalry division that should have followed Lasalle's was now split into three parts. One squadron of the 3rd Chasseurs was already on the left bank, the rest of the regiment was in Lobau, and the other four regiments of the division were still on the Vienna bank.

This division was led by a general of brigade, Jacob-Francois Marulaz, one of the toughest sabreurs and finest tacticians in the French cavalry. Since Austria was the traditional enemy, the French army had for many years posted German-speaking troopers in the van of her light cavalry screen and, like many of his compatriots in French service, Marulaz had begun his career in a hussar regiment. A native of the Palatinate, this former colonel of the 8th Hussars still spoke ungrammatical French with a pronounced German accent despite 20 years of service, during which time he had had more than 20 horses killed under him and received 17 wounds, five of them in a single day. It was Marulaz who had captured the Austrian pontoons at Landshut, a useful addition to his service record, which also included the capture of 27 Russian guns at the Battle of Golymin.

According to General Lasalle, the Chasseurs a Cheval of the Guard was the most beautiful regiment in the world. Its troopers were dressed in hussar-style uniforms, the richest in the French army, and in addition to being extremely elegant they were extremely tough. Some of them carried ten or more wound scars under their dolmans; the senior NCO's were equal in experience to captains of the line. When the French Emperor was on campaign a troop of the regiment acted as his mounted escort; its horses were kept saddled and bridled throughout its 48-hour tour of duty, its commanding officer followed Napoleon wherever he went.

On the night of May 20, riding with drawn sabers in the moonlight, the troopers of the peloton d'escorte galloped behind Napoleon and Massena as they reconnoitered the legendary Marchfeld.

Since the bridging work had been carried out without serious opposition, Napoleon had decided that Charles' army was farther away than he had originally thought, and the reports of Lasalle's light cavalry patrols had done nothing to change his mind. There were no travelers or couriers to be intercepted on the Marchfeld, as there had always been in Prussia and Spain; consequently, Lasalle's officers had had nothing to go on but the evidence of their own eyes and ears.

Unlike Napoleon, Marshal Massena believed that the Austrian army was already within striking distance and that it would attack in a few hours. The man who had saved France by keeping his nerve in front of Zurich was not given to imaginary fears, but there was nothing to be seen that night except the flicker of an advance guard's fire well off to the northeast-the only sounds were the jingle of French harnesses and the croak of frogs.

Still not convinced that Napoleon was right, still not knowing how long it would take to repair the bridge, Massena returned to Aspern and roused Lasalle from a deep sleep. The advance guard specialist could tell him nothing new.

Seven miles away, Austria's general-in-chief was in his headquarters on the Bisamberg hill. The Marchfeld was a place of special significance to an Austrian archduke, for it was there that Rudolf had founded the power of the German Hapsburgs in 1278; for Charles, the battle he planned to fight there would be the culmination of the long struggle against the archenemy of what he called 'Our House,' the struggle of Hapsburg against Valois, Hapsburg against Bourbon, finally against the revolutionary upheaval out of France that had shaken Europe's monarchies to their foundations and was now embodied in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte. He had already issued his Order of the Day:

'Soldiers, we shall fight a battle here tomorrow. On it will depend the existence of the Austrian monarchy, the throne of our good Kaiser Franz, the fate of each one of you. The Fatherland, the Monarchy, your parents and your friends all have their eyes upon you, sure of your courage and your strength!'

There were very few things worth knowing about the Imperial Austrian Army that Andre Massena had failed to learn in his long years of service. He knew that the Marchfeld was Austria's equivalent to the Champ de Mars, the one place in Europe where Austrian generals could maneuver, if necessary, with their eyes shut; and it was on the Marchfeld, his instinct told him, that Charles meant to fight the greatest battle of his career.

Shortly after midnight a vast circle of tiny pinpoints of light appeared on the darkened horizon northwest of Aspern, and the clouds in the direction of Bohemia were suffused by a dull red glow. Marshal Massena saw these phenomena from the belfry of Aspern church, and he knew that they came from the campfires of the Austrian army.

At 3 a.m. on the 21st, repairs to the Vienna bridge were completed and the passage of the army onto Lobau was resumed. By daybreak great masses of men, guns and wagons had assembled on the island.

The three French infantry divisions on the Marchfeld, all belonging to Massena's corps, were led by three of Napoleon's toughest divisionnaires. Boudet and Gabriel Molitor were both veterans of Massena's Zurich campaign, in which Molitor had routed the Russian Alexander Suvorov's advance guard 'With three weak battalions of the 84th Demibrigade. Boudet, famous for his division's march to Marengo with Louis Desaix, had joined a dragoon regiment under the monarchy, and was probably the only Napoleonic infantry general who could claim to have been punished by 50 strokes with the flat of a cavalry blade. Both of them were 40 years old. General Claude Legrand, a tall, impressive-looking man with a stentorian voice, had been a soldier for more than 30 years, having joined the army as a 15-year-old orphan in 1777.

Most of Molitor's division was posted around the tile works south of Aspern, with a holding force forward in the village; Boudet was in Essling, forming the French right, with Legrand in reserve on Molitor's left rear and acting as bridge guard. Massena's fourth division, led by Cara St. Cyr, had not yet crossed.

The left was under Massena's command. To Marshal Lannes, Napoleon had entrusted the right and center, the latter formed by Espagne's four regiments of cuirassiers and Lasalle's four regiments of light cavalry, drawn up in the space between the villages and all under the immediate orders of Marshal Jean Baptiste Bessieres. Marulaz with his light cavalry was on the extreme left, covering the space between Aspern and the Danube.

Mounted since 4 a.m., Napoleon had summoned his senior officers to a conference held on horseback and canvassed their opinions. Lannes believed that there was nothing in front of the French positions except a rear guard of 600 to 800 men, while Bessieres said there was nothing for several miles. Berthier, as expected, agreed with Napoleon; only Mouton believed that Massena was right and that the Austrian army would soon attack. It was, in fact, forming in two lines on rising ground behind Gerasdorf, between the Bisamberg hill and the Russbach stream. At 9 a.m. the archduke ordered arms to be piled, and the men ate breakfast. At noon, with the sun blazing from a cloudless sky, the advance began.

It resembled the outer edge of a huge fan, with Hiller and Heinrich von Bellegarde on the Austrian right, Hohenzollern in the center, Dedovich and Rosenberg on the left. Between Hohenzollern and Dedovich was the cavalry reserve, formed by more than 8,000 men in 72 squadrons. The total force of cavalry deployed comprised 54 squadrons of cuirassiers and dragoons and 93 squadrons of light cavalry and lancers, the infantry of 93 battalions, plus 17 battalions of grenadiers in their handsome peaked bearskins, with the ends of their moustaches waxed into horns. The artillery consisted of 18 batteries of brigade, 13 of position, and 11 of horsed, with a total of 288 guns.

The bands played Turkish music, and the men cheered and sang as they marched. Three of the five huge columns moved against Aspern; two more marched for Essling, supported by a mass of horse.

When General Molitor saw what was advancing on Aspern he immediately reinforced the garrison, which had previously consisted of a few companies of the 67th. His division of 12 battalions now braced itself to receive the 54 battalions and 43 squadrons of the Austrian right. At 3 p.m. the leading columns attacked-and the two days of carnage known as the Battle of Aspern-Essling began.

Meanwhile the Danube had continued to rise. An hour after the battle began, the Vienna bridge ruptured for the second time; thus Lannes' corps, Davout's corps, the Ist and 2nd heavy cavalry divisions and the artillery park were all unable to reach the left bank, where Massena and Lannes had only 27 battalions and 38 squadrons.

Austrian sources quote the strength of Charles' army as 75,000 men, but this figure implies a strength of 500 men per battalion and in earlier actions it had been at least double that. French historians prefer a total of 90,000 infantry and 12,000 to 15,000 horse, against which Massena and Lannes had barely 16,000 infantry and just over 6,000 cavalry at the beginning of the battle.

In the next four hours both Aspern and Essling were taken and retaken several times. Led by Bessieres, Espagne and Lasalle, the French cavalry charged repeatedly, now against the Austrian infantry, now against Prince John of Lichtenstein's cavalry, now against the enemy guns. In Aspern, said an Austrian account: 'The parties engaged each other in every street, every house and every barn; carts, ploughs and harrows had to be removed, during an interrupted fire, in order to get at the enemy; every wall was a hindrance to the attack, ers and a rampart for the defenders; the steeple, lofty trees, the garrets and the cellars had to be taken before either side could call itself master of the place, and yet the possession was ever of short duration, for no sooner had we taken a street or a house than the French gained another, forcing us to abandon the former. Many houses had been set on fire by the shells of both sides and lit up the whole country around:'

The Marchfeld was beginning to take on a hellish aspect. From the French side, Baron Louis-Francois Lejeune writes of thick black clouds of smoke through which the sun shone like a blood-red globe of fire, bathing the entire landscape in crimson. In Aspern the smoke was so dense that men almost suffocated in it, crossing bayonets with opponents they could not even see. By the time the Austrians had taken the churchyard, all Massena's horses had been killed. Sword in hand at the head of Molitor's grenadiers, Massena led them forward on foot and drove out the Austrians from the forward edge of the village, pursuing them for 12 or 14 yards beyond the houses, none of which had been loopholed.

Five times in three hours Massena took and retook the cemetery and church, still keeping Legrand's division in reserve. As the battle raged, Massena stood under the elms on a green opposite the church, heedless of the branches brought crashing down around him by the Austrian grapeshot.

To the left of the village, Marulaz charged repeatedly against the Austrians trying to work their way round behind it, and though he slowed down their advance he could not stop it. Southwest of the village lay a small plain which was the Achilles' heel of the French position, and surely the place where Charles should have committed the 17 battalions of grenadiers that he was keeping in reserve. Fortunately for Massena, the only Austrian force to attack in that quarter consisted of four battalions.

Meanwhile, Bessieres was leading Espagne's cuirassiers against the flank of Rosenberg's infantry east of Essling. On Bessieres' orders, Lasalle's four light cavalry regiments charged the Austrian infantry formed in squares, but volleys of musketry drove them back. Caught between the Riesch Dragoon and the Blankenstein Hussars, the 24th Chasseurs was badly mauled. In Espagne's division the 7th Cuirassiers alone lost 8 officers, 104 men and 168 horses on this first day of battle. Espagne himself was mortally wounded and three of his four colonels were killed.

By late afternoon the bridge had been repaired and, at 6 p.m., Cara St. Cyr's division reached the Marchfeld. Massena immediately sent orders for its leading regiment, the 46th Line, to halt just in front of the bridgehead in order to guard it, and called Legrand up to reinforce Molitor in Aspern. There were two things that the defenders of Aspern remembered for a long time after the battle-Massena telling them to step forward so as not to fight on the bodies of the dead, and the tall figure of Legrand, with his hat half shot away by grape and his aide de camp lying dead at his feet.

At 7 p.m. a brigade of Nansouty's heavy cavalry division reached the field, enabling Bessieres to make a fresh charge against the Austrian guns. By now the sun was setting. At 8 p.m. the fighting began to die down, and the armies bivouacked on the ground a pistol shot apart. Lannes was still master of Essling, but half the buildings in Aspern had been lost.

Several times during the battle Lannes had infuriated Bessieres by sending an aide de camp to tell him to 'charge right home.' When the two marshals chanced to meet in camp that night, a bitter argument developed; only the intervention of Massena stopped them from drawing their swords.

At 3 o'clock the next morning the Austrian guns opened up a cannonade. An hour later their columns began to form for a new attack.

On the 22nd, the French buildup on the Marchfeld increased, but the unstable bridges still gave trouble and continuous passage was impossible. The cannon sunk in the Danube to act as anchors had settled on gravel and had not sunk deeply enough in it to resist the currents of the flooding river-or the impact of stone-filled barges launched by the Austrians upstream.

There were now so many troops crowded into the French bridgehead that General Boulart of the Guard artillery found it hard to give his guns a decent field of fire. The Austrian guns, presented with so many targets in so confined a space, caused terrible casualties; Lannes' aide, d'Albuquerque, was decapitated and so was a grenadier in the act of shortening Massena's stirrup. The Austrian gunners were using the same tactics employed by the French against the Russians at Friedland two years earlier-that is, moving right up to the enemy front lines and showering them with case. Witness Captain J. Coignet of the Guard: 'To the left of Essling the enemy planted 50 pieces of cannon in front of us, and two in front of the chasseurs [Et pied]. When the cannon balls fell on us they cut down three men at a time and knocked the bearskin caps twenty feet in the air. One ball struck a whole file and knocked them down head over heels on top of me!'

On the French left, where the Benkowski Regiment took Aspern churchyard, Field Marshal Hiller ordered the Austrian pioneers to pull down the cemetery walls and set the church and parsonage on fire. In other parts of the field, French soldiers desperate to quit the battle were bandaging their own arms and legs in order to pass as wounded. Some tried to escape to Lobau by carrying the genuinely wounded, and a stretcher borne by three or four men was a common sight.

Napoleon badly needed Davout's corps to cross the river, but this was prevented by a fresh rupture of the Vienna bridge. The Danube was under flood and whipped by a strong wind that tore from its banks trees, stacks of fodder, rafts and boats, all of which went swirling downstream. The bridges were almost gone. Here and there five or six boats held together, and in one place there were twelve, but there were wide intervening gaps with absolutely nothing to bridge them. The river had risen eight feet and was a third wider, rolling along full of floating objects–where the chains of the anchors had held, they were too short to save the boats. Large boats and rafts were coming downstream at the speed of a galloping horse, falling across-the few portions of the bridges still intact.

The Austrians had put a small observation force on one of the islets, and its commanding officer had noticed, in a backwater where the local peasants were sheltering their livestock, a huge water mill built on two boats, designed to operate while anchored in the middle of the river. This the Austrians now smothered in tar, filled with inflammable materials, set on fire and cut adrift on the current. Although it could have blown up at any moment, the French marines who were patrolling the river in small boats flung anchors, ropes and chains at it and managed to deflect it into an open space where a span of the bridge had already broken away.

Meanwhile, the Danube was now so high that parts of the Prater woods were flooded and it seemed quite possible that Lobau itself would soon be submerged. To support the hardpressed defenders of Aspern, St. Cyr's division was ordered to advance from the bridgehead. The 24th Light with the 4th and 46th Line attacked the church and drove the Austrians out, capturing 800 men, 11 officers, a general and six cannon. Molitor's division was now moved back in reserve to rest.

From Austrian prisoners brought to him in the tile works at Essling, Napoleon had learned that a portion of the Austrian center was formed by Landwehr units. This was the point at which he now ordered Marshal Lannes to attack.

For this great stroke Lannes was given the divisions of St. Hilaire, Tharreau and Claparede, which formed up in echelon with the right advanced. To his chief of staff, Lannes explained that he was going to split the Austrian center off from the left and push it over to the enemy right, so that it would come under fire from Massena. General Gauthier voiced fears for the. right flank in event of a counterattack, but Lannes replied, 'Davout will support me; anyway I'm leaving Boudet's division in Essling.'

Mounted on a fresh horse, wearing his full dress uniform and decorations, Lannes led his 25 battalions in attack column towards Breitenlee. Demont's division, made up largely of conscripts, was in reserve. The movement began well, and the French center went forward with the cavalry in support; as the Austrian line broke between Rosenberg's right and Hohenzollern's left, the French cavalry led by Bessieres poured through the intervals of Lannes' columns and into the gap. Bringing up his last reserve, the archduke seized an Austrian color and personally led its regiment to the charge. Lannes was checked, and in this crucial moment Napoleon learned that the Vienna bridge was now completely out of action. With his army cut off from Vienna and most of its ammunition gone, Napoleon decided on retreat. At 2 p.m. Massena was ordered to take charge of a retirement to Lobau.

As the French line receded, Archduke Charles ordered Baron Dedovich to make the final assault on Essling, which had been taken and lost seven times; Dedovich replied that the French must soon abandon it and that a further attack would cause heavy and needless casualties. 'For the eighth time:' Charles told him, 'you will attack with your division, or I will have you shot.' Dedovich put himself at the head of his regiments and stormed the village.

The curious phrasing with which French accounts describe Napoleon committing the Imperial Guard seem to invest the act with an almost sacramental quality: 'Sa Majeste voulut donner Sa Garde'; it was an act not lightly undertaken. Toward the Guard, Napoleon's attitude was that of a jealous proprietor toward his most valued asset, and for one of his aides de camp to amend Napoleon's orders for the Guard was unthinkable.

The perpetrator of this heresy, General Count Jean Rapp, had been ordered by Napoleon to reinforce Massena in Aspern with two battalions of Guard light infantry; at the same time, General Mouton was ordered to recapture Essling with three battalions of Young Guard fusiliers. At this juncture Bessieres' senior aide de camp, Cesar de Laville, had just returned from one of the French cavalry charges. just as Rapp was setting off for Aspern, Laville galloped up to him, pointed to the Austrian masses advancing from Essling, and told him urgently, 'If you don't support General Mouton, he's going to be crushed:' As he was drawing up in the rear of Mouton at Essling, Rapp claimed, the whole of Charles' reserve of grenadiers deployed on his front.

'Let's charge them with the bayonet,' Rapp suggested to Mouton. 'If it comes off, we'll both get the credit; if it doesn't, I'll take the blame.' Then, said Rapp later, 'Our five battalions moved forward, charged, repulsed and dispersed the enemy at bayonet point!' Mouton and General Gros were both wounded in the action. As the prisoners taken in the cemetery were too numerous for either Rapp or Mouton to guard, they were dispatched forthwith among the tombstones.

As the French withdrawal went on, the archduke concentrated on the flank of his enemy's center, now slowly retiring on the bridges. Only the steadiness of Lannes saved Napoleon from utter disaster at this stage of the battle.

Steadiness was needed, for as the retirement went on, the pontoon bridge to Lobau gave way. Baron Lejeune was sent to organize repairs. By means of ropes trestles, beams and planks laid crosswise: Lejeune managed to have the pontoons connected, keeping contact with Lobau a little longer. When he reported back after completing this mission, Napoleon sent him to find out how much longer Lannes could hold out.

Lannes' horses had all been killed. Lejeune found him crouching with his staff behind a slight rise in the ground, exposed to enemy fire from the waist up. He had 300 grenadiers left. Soon afterwards a shot struck Lannes as he was sitting cross-legged on a wall, smashing the kneecap of one leg and tearing the sinews of the other.

'Two or three officers, wounded themselves, with a few grenadiers and dismounted cuirassiers, carried him to a little wood where first aid was given:' wrote Lejeune later.

Soon afterwards Lannes was delivered into the hands of Surgeon General Dominique-Jean Larrey, who amputated one of the marshal's legs.

At 7 o'clock that evening Marshal Massena went back to Lobau for a conference at Napoleon's headquarters, then returned to the left bank to supervise the last stage of the withdrawal. At 11 p.m. General Pernetti told him that he only had 11 cannon shots left.

'Let them be fired:' the marshal replied. 'I'm not taking any back.'

The badly wounded had to be left behind; only walking wounded could be taken back into Lobau. Massena was almost the last to cross the pontoon bridge, which was then dismantled. The pontoons which had formed it were put on carts, together with the anchors, cordage, beams and planks. All these were then sent to the Vienna (Ebersdorf) bridge to replace the boats that had been lost. Finally a Voltigeur company crossed the river to Lobau in boats; the Austrians made no attempt to stop them.

Napoleon was now able to concentrate on his next move, which had been preoccupying him for some time. 'I don't want to hear a word about the state of the bridges,' he had told Baron Comeau during the retirement. 'Just get to Davout and tell him I want him to keep his corps and the rest of the Guard in the best possible state and out of Vienna!'

Until well into the small hours of the 23rd, the weary French Pontonniers at Ebersdorf assembled boats and filled them with biscuit, wine and cartridges, which they then took to Lobau, through racing waters that were still full of large objects rushing downstream.

Next morning, as the Austrian soldiers were singing Te Deum on the Marchfeld, nightingales were singing on Lobau above fields strewn with amputated limbs.

Until the Vienna bridge was repaired, the men on Lobau ate horsemeat stew cooked in cuirasses. Drinking water had to be drawn from the Danube, which was tainted with dead bodies.

As the losses were totted up, the scale of the defeat began to emerge. The 18th Line of Legrand's division, for instance, had lost 600 men; in the corpse-choked ruins of Aspern, the 16th had lost its colonel, its adjutant, its eagle-bearer, four subalterns and a captain.

Marshal Lannes died on May 31; General Count Louis V.J. St. Hilaire, on June 3. Ten days after the battle ended, the dead were still unburied on the Marchfeld, which was covered with charred corpses and projectiles–40,000 had been fired by the Austrians alone.

The Austrians had captured a huge amount of materiel, including three cannon, seven ammunition wagons and 17,000 muskets. They also claimed to have taken 3,000 cuirasses, a figure no doubt based on the Austrian practice of classifying a breastplate and a backplate as two cuirasses.

According to a contemporary Austrian account, 30,000 wounded were lying in hospitals in Vienna and its suburbs. 'Many were carried to St. Polten, Enns and as far as Linz,' wrote an Austrian onlooker. 'Several hundred corpses floated down the Danube and are still thrown daily on its shores:'

Four years earlier, a French officer had categorized Austrian soldiers morose mercenaries; had he been at Aspern-Essling, he would have recognized in them something very like the spirit that the French had shown at Austerlitz. Charles' infantry, in particular, had fought with the utmost tenacity-in one assault on Essling, his grenadiers had made five rushes against the burning houses, thrusting their bayonets into the loopholes when their ammunition was spent.

No Austrian soldier had fought more tenaciously on the Marchfeld than the general-in-chief himself, but his generalship had not been above reproach. He had delayed the assault on Essling by giving his fifth column too long a flanking march, and he failed to attack Massena's weakest point southwest of Aspern in sufficient strength. Most serious of all, he made no attempt to turn the defeat of a demoralized enemy into a rout.

Six weeks after Aspern-Essling, Napoleon won the battle of Wagram. On the evening of the battle (in which Lasalle was killed), the wine cellars of the region were ransacked and the French army drank itself into a stupor. 'If 10,000 Austrians had made a determined attack on us,' wrote one French officer, 'it would have been a complete rout:'

By the terms of the peace that followed Napoleon's victory at Wagram, Austria ceded territory that included most of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slovenia. The Hapsburg Empire lost three and a half million subjects and its army was reduced to 150,000.

If Charles had only harried Napoleon's stricken army a l'outrance when it was retreating from the Marchfeld, all this could have been avoided-and perhaps a great deal more. For if Napoleon had been decisively defeated on the Danube in th e spring of 1809, Talleyrand and Fouche might well have seen it as giving them their long-awaited chance to bring back the Revolution. It was much more than a battle that Napoleon could have lost on the burned and bloody village grounds of Aspern-Essling. 'Could have'…but what counts the more is the victory he salvaged in the end at Wagram.

This article was written by David Johnson and originally published in the April 2001 issue of Military History. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!

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