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Napoléon’s Final Triumph

By Tim Fitzpatrick
2/9/2018 • Military History Magazine

At Wagram in 1809, Bonaparte’s Grand Armée outsmarted, outmaneuvered, outfought and outguessed the Austrian army.

In the summer of 1808, news of the Battle of Bailén and the humiliating capture of an entire French army by a second-rate Spanish army hit Europe like a thunderbolt. The Austrians, whom Napoléon had repeatedly defeated since 1796, saw fresh hope: If that Spanish army could beat a French army, why couldn’t they?

Austria in 1808–09 was split between opposing political parties— a peace party and a war party. While the peace party wanted revenge for both the territory stripped from the empire since 1796—Italy, parts of Germany and Poland—and the Austrian defeat at the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz, Archduke Charles, leader of the peace party, did not think his army ready to take on Napoléon again. Emperor Francis I ultimately tipped in favor of the war party, deciding that since Napoléon’s commitment of troops in Spain meant he could muster only 200,000 men in Germany, the odds were even.

Napoléon, realizing the Austrians could cause trouble while he was in Spain, called Russia’s Tsar Alexander I to Erfurt, Germany, to discuss affairs in Europe. The resultant Erfurt Convention, signed Oct. 12, 1808, convinced Napoléon that were France attacked, Russia would declare war on Austria. True, the Russians did agree to attack if Austria declared war, but then decided to see which side prevailed before jumping in to partake in the spoils of victory. To prepare for war with Austria, Napoléon called up more reserves, pressed the minor German states to provide troops for his army and began to stock supply depots along the possible routes to central Germany. By 1809 he would have enough soldiers to deal with both the Spanish and the Austrians.

The Austrian plan to defeat Napoléon in 1809 called for simultaneous attacks on three fronts: Archduke John would attack toward Italy, Archduke Ferdinand would attack Napoléon’s Polish allies, and Archduke Charles would lead the main attack into central Germany. Charles had reformed the Austrian army, augmenting training and reorganizing the artillery to be more efficient and use more skirmishers in its formations. As a result, the recast units boasted greater firepower than did those of the 1805 Austrian army.

Napoléon’s plan to defeat Austria called for two fronts. He would lead the main thrust along the Danube River in Germany while his stepson, Eugène de Beauharnais, would lead his Army of Italy against Austria. Napoléon planned for the two armies to converge and take on the main Austrian army near Vienna, where he could dictate the terms of peace.

The outbreak of war on April 9, 1809, took Napoléon by surprise; he had not anticipated the speed with which the Austrians moved into Bavaria. Eugène was equally unprepared; in his first battle of the Italian campaign, at Sacile on April 16, he lost the fight and nearly 7,000 men. The defeat shook Eugène, and his setback displeased Napoléon. But on May 8, Eugène defeated Archduke John’s Austrian army at the Battle of the Piave—a win that opened Austria itself to his Army of Italy. Napoléon ordered Eugène to make contact with the main French army, then moving down from the Danube at Bruck. Meanwhile, Napoléon pushed Archduke Charles’ army out of Bavaria and into Bohemia in a series of battles known as the “Ratisbon Cycle.” He then marched on Vienna, taking the city on May 16.

In late May, Archduke John’s forces retreated toward Raab (modern Gyor), Hungary, to resupply and obtain reinforcements from the Hungarians. The Austrian presence at Raab, about 90 miles southeast of Vienna, threatened Napoléon’s right flank, so the French emperor sent the Army of Italy to deal with the threat. Eugène forced John into battle at Raab and thrashed his Austrian army on June 14. With Raab in French hands and his army’s right flank thus secured, Napoléon recalled Eugène to Vienna.

Napoléon was now ready to pursue his ultimate aim of destroying the Austrian army. He decided on a quick thrust across the Danube to secure a strategic bridgehead, choosing to cross just northeast of Vienna at the midriver Lobau floodplain. On May 20, Napoléon set out with 40,000 men. The crossing initially went well, but then Charles launched a furious attack on the bridgehead between the villages of Aspern and Essling. From upstream, the Austrians sent wave after wave of heavy floating objects—stone-laden barges, trees and reportedly even a windmill—against the hastily erected French bridges, eventually breaking them apart.

With only about half his troops landed on the Danube’s northern bank, Napoléon quickly realized the danger of his army being divided and destroyed. He ordered the bridges repaired and withdrew from Aspern-Essling. Marshals André Masséna and Jean Lannes held the bridgehead long enough for repairs to be made, and Napoléon pulled the army back to Lobau on the evening of the 22nd. During the retreat, an Austrian cannonball tore through Lannes’ legs. He later died of his wounds, becoming one of the nearly 20,000 French casualties of the engagement. It was a bitter lesson, and Napoléon would never again underestimate the Austrians.

Before attempting to recross the Danube and attack the main Austrian army, Napoléon waited for the arrival of Eugène’s Army of Italy, which would bring his total strength to 180,000 men and nearly 500 guns. He also turned to engineer General Henri-Gratien, Comte Bertrand, to create bridges and pilings strong enough to withstand further Austrian assaults. After his initial repulse, Napoléon decided to fortify Lobau as a base for his next attack, selecting General Jean-Ambroise Baston de Lariboisière to build the fortifications. Napoléon had learned from the Battle of Aspern-Essling that he needed more firepower, so he distributed among his forces Austrian cannon captured from the Viennese arsenals. He also armed 10 gunboats and 20 barges with captured cannon to protect the bridges.

By mid-June, Napoléon had transformed Lobau into a fortress (which he renamed Napoléon Island), with more than 100 heavy guns facing north for defense and to support any attack he wished to make. By the end of June, the Austrians had withdrawn from their positions near Aspern-Essling and pulled their main forces back to the heights above the narrow Russbach River. This would allow Archduke Charles to remain close enough to oppose a crossing from Lobau’s north end while safeguarding his troops from the guns on the floodplain. The move, however, played exactly into Napoléon’s plan: By drawing Charles’ main army northward from Aspern-Essling and pinning it in place, Napoléon would enable the main French army to cross the Danube from Lobau’s east side. With a feint to the north, the emperor would distract the Austrians long enough to get his forces across the Danube before the Austrians could counterattack. Once across, the French army and its German and Italian allies would fan out; Napoléon would not repeat the mistakes of Aspern-Essling.

On the evening of July 4, Napoléon ordered the French artillery on the north side of Lobau to shell the Austrian lines in order to mask his true crossing point. The ruse worked: General Nicolas-Charles Oudinot’s corps crossed the Danube in assault boats under cover of darkness and a thunderstorm to establish a bridgehead between the villages of Gross-Enzersdorf and Wittau. Next, Bertrand’s engineers used prefabricated pontoon boats to create 16 temporary bridges, fully assembling the 584- foot spans in less than 15 minutes. Masséna’s and Louis-Nicolas Davout’s corps crossed the river during the night. By 10 the next morning, Napoléon had 95,000 men safely within the bridgehead, the rest of his army soon to follow. On July 5, the French army advanced out of the bridgehead toward Charles’ main defensive position on the Marchfeld plain along the Russbach.

Charles learned of the French move too late to impede the crossing, but he managed to stage a fighting withdrawal to stronger defensive positions. By the evening of July 5, the Austrian army spanned an arc from the village of Bisamberg to Markgrafneusiedl; at the center of Charles’ lines was the village of Deutsch-Wagram. The Austrian defensive position, which commanded the Russbach heights, was formidable. Facing it was a French line that extended from the village of Brietenlee southwest to Kragan and northwest to Süssenbrunn. Masséna held the left, while Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte’s corps of Saxons, Eugène’s Italians and General Auguste de Marmont’s corps held the center from the village of Aderklaa to opposite Wagram. Oudinot’s and Davout’s infantry corps held the French right, with General Emmanuel de Grouchy’s cavalry corps on the extreme right near Markgrafneusiedl. Napoléon held Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bessières’ corps and the Imperial Guard in reserve. The stage was set for the decisive battle Napoléon and Charles had sought.

Napoléon planned to keep his left flank angled to allow support from General Jean Reynier’s artillery on Lobau. He would then launch a series of pinning attacks along the line from Aderklaa to Baumersdorf. He planned to take the key village of Markgrafneusiedl with a sweeping attack from his right, followed by a powerful attack on the center to finish off the Austrians.

For Napoléon’s plan to work, he needed his two best marshals to carry out his plan to the letter. Masséna would command a holding action on the left, despite having suffered severe leg injuries during a fall from his horse (he would be confined to a carriage for the duration of the battle). On the right, Davout was to attack Markgrafneusiedl, where a large tower dominated the Russbach heights. Once the French had secured that village, Napoléon believed, Charles’ army would have to abandon the heights.

But Charles had his own plans, envisioning a battle in which the Austrians would envelop the French/allied army and destroy it. He also hoped that Archduke John’s 12,000 men from Pressburg (modern Bratislava, Slovakia) would help General Franz von Rosenberg-Orsini hold the extreme left of the Austrian line at Markgrafneusiedl.

By the early evening of July 5, Napoléon—fearing that Charles would slip away and continue the war from Bohemia—decided to attack the Austrian position across the Russbach. But his attack was poorly organized and nearly led to disaster. Bernadotte struck Wagram while Oudinot assaulted Baumersdorf with Eugène in support. But Oudinot was repulsed at Baumersdorf, and Davout was late in moving to attack Markgrafneusiedl; he started forward but called off his attack when he realized that Oudinot’s forces had failed to take Baumersdorf.

Bernadotte’s attack on Wagram, led by the mixed French and Saxon division of General Pierre-Louis Dupas and supported by two Saxon divisions, initially took parts of the village. But Charles personally commanded a strong counterattack that pushed the Saxons out of the village, off the Russbach heights and back across the river. There Bernadotte’s men encountered Eugène’s supporting Italian infantry, which mistakenly opened fire on the retreating Saxons (an understandable error, given that Austrians, Saxons and Italians all wore similar white uniforms). Sensing an opportunity, the Austrians pressed forward. Caught in the crossfire between the Austrians and Italians, the Saxon units disintegrated and ran. The French in turn fired upon the Italians, who also broke and ran. Amid this chaotic melee, the center of Napoléon’s line collapsed.

By this time night had fallen on the battlefield, and the Austrians exploited the darkness to launch a general attack. At 2 a.m., Charles ordered Generals Johann Graf von Klenau, and Johann Karl Graf von Kollowrat to attack Masséna on the French left and Rosenberg-Orsini to attack Davout on the French right. Both attacks were to commence at 4 a.m. Rosenberg-Orsini’s attack stunned Davout’s elite veteran corps, but Charles quickly realized that Kollowrat and Klenau were unprepared to launch their attacks. He ordered the unsupported Rosenberg-Orsini back to his original position, allowing Davout to rally his corps.

Napoléon had ordered Bernadotte to hold the French center at Aderklaa, which was to serve as a jumping-off point for an attack on Wagram. But around 4 a.m.—the very hour that Rosenberg-Orsini attacked Davout’s position—Bernadotte inexplicably withdrew from Aderklaa to seek a better defensive position. An Austrian reconnaissance of Aderklaa revealed that it was undefended, and Charles quickly sent troops to secure it.

Around 6 a.m., when Napoléon learned of Bernadotte’s unilateral decision to move, he was furious; Bernadotte’s move had created a major gap in the French lines. Napoléon ordered Bernadotte and his Saxons—who remained in shock from the previous night’s action—to retake Aderklaa. Stung, Bernadotte replied that if he were in charge, he would have already beaten Charles by a “telling maneuver.” Regardless, Aderklaa’s Austrian defenders easily routed the Saxons.

Napoléon, observing yet another Saxon retreat, had had enough of Bernadotte’s incompetence. Riding toward the action, he met the retreating marshal, galloping ahead of his fleeing troops. Referencing Bernadotte’s earlier remark, Napoléon pointed to the retreating Saxons and asked him, “Is this the type of ‘telling maneuver’ with which you will force Archduke Charles to lay down his arms?” Bernadotte was too shocked to reply, and Napoléon ordered him to leave “the Grand Armée within 24 hours.” Napoléon then ordered Masséna to take Aderklaa, which he did.

Meanwhile, just a single infantry division under General Jean Boudet was left to guard the French left flank. An Austrian advance brushed Boudet aside and took the village of Aspern. To support the attack, Charles sent in his elite grenadier corps led by General Johann I Joseph of Liechtenstein. Klenau’s troops advanced toward Essling but stalled, sustaining heavy casualties from the French artillery on Lobau.

Around 9 a.m. both armies attacked. Masséna found himself in a very difficult position: By taking Aderklaa, he had left his own flank exposed to Kollowrat and Klenau, and he was outnumbered 3-to-1. Seeing his forces on the seeming verge of collapse, Napoléon galloped up to Masséna’s bullet-riddled carriage, dismounted and climbed in. He joked with Masséna that things were rather hot and that the marshal’s two coachmen were the bravest men on the battlefield.

Addressing the threat to his left flank, Napoléon ordered Masséna to disengage and move south toward Lobau to block Klenau and Kollowrat—an extremely daring and risky maneuver in the face of an attacking enemy. To thwart the Austrian advance, Napoléon also ordered Bessières’ cavalry of the Imperial Guard to charge enemy forces attacking the French left. Bessières was wounded, but the élan of his charge stalled the Austrians long enough for Eugène to plug the gap in the French line. He assembled a battery between Aderklaa and Brietenlee, and with more than 100 guns pounded the advancing Austrians, allowing Masséna to disengage and move south. At that point, the Austrians pulled back. Masséna marched his troops to Essling, driving the advance elements of Klenau’s corps from the town. By midday Napoléon—having repelled Charles’ best troops—had secured his left flank. He now turned his attention to the center of the battlefield.

By the afternoon of July 6, Napoléon could concentrate on defeating the Austrians holding Wagram and the Russbach heights. Davout launched an offensive to outflank the Austrians atop the heights, while Oudinot made progress in the center, steadily pushing back the Austrians and finally retaking Wagram. By 12:30 p.m. Davout had taken Markgrafneusiedl. On the Austrian side, Rosenberg-Orsini’s flanks gave way before the cavalry of generals Grouchy and Louis-Pierre Montbrun; Rosenberg-Orsini put up a valiant defense, but the weight of French numbers pushed him farther back along the Russbach plateau.

Seeing that Davout had achieved his objective, Napoléon struck at the Austrian left center near Süssenbrunn, seeking to split the Austrian lines as he had at Austerlitz four years earlier. General Étienne Macdonald—his 8,000-man corps formed into a large hollow square and supported by the heavy cavalry of General Étienne de Nansouty—thrust at the heart of the Austrian lines. But the Austrian artillery inflicted heavy casualties on Macdonald’s troops, thwarting the attack. In the defensive effort, Charles had committed his last reserves of grenadiers. Macdonald asked for reinforcements to try another assault, and Napoléon agreed to commit most of his reserves—the Bavarians under Prince Karl Philipp von Wrede and part of the Imperial Guard—for a breakthrough. Again, the Austrians held.

Meanwhile, Masséna’s corps attacked again in the south, this time taking Aspern and threatening to sever Klenau’s corps from the main Austrian army. Masséna pushed Klenau back and, with help from Oudinot’s and Marmont’s corps, began to straighten out the French lines. At 1:30 p.m. Charles counterattacked Davout’s men on the Russbach heights but failed to retake Markgrafneusiedl, and by 2 p.m. Charles knew the battle of Wagram was lost. He could no longer hold his defensive positions on the heights and feared being cut off from Bohemia. He ordered a general retreat, and the Austrians— defeated but not destroyed—retired in good order. For the rest of that day, the Austrian army disengaged from the French and withdrew to Bohemia. Archduke John finally arrived at the battle at about 4 p.m., only to retreat after learning of the main army’s defeat. Napoléon’s army, exhausted from the long day’s fight, did not pursue the Austrians.

Both armies took heavy casualties: Of the 188,000 French and allied soldiers engaged, 37,000 were killed or wounded. The Austrian army took slightly higher casualties, losing 45,000 of 155,000 men. The battle cost Napoléon some of his best men: General Antoine Lasalle, a legend in the French army, was killed toward the end of the fighting, and nearly 40 other French generals either died or fell wounded. The war with Austria cost France dearly —though Napoléon could afford to take the casualties, while the Austrians could not. They had been beaten, moreover, on their own training grounds. Demoralized, they retreated toward the town of Znaim. Sporadic fighting continued until July 11, when Emperor Francis I asked for a general armistice to discuss peace terms. Archduke Charles was relieved of his command. The great Austrian gamble was over, as their hope of 1808 turned to bitter defeat in 1809.

On July 12, Napoléon named Macdonald, Oudinot and Marmont marshals of the empire. The emperor’s ability to find and motivate men of talent had again been proven one of his greatest strengths. He also knew when to replace men like Bernadotte. Davout’s attack at Wagram was a great feat of martial skill, and Masséna’s defense of the French army’s left flank became the stuff of legend. For their efforts, Davout was made Prince d’Eckmühl, and Masséna, Prince d’Essling. Perhaps the most generous award went to Chief of Staff Louis-Alexandre Berthier, whom Napoléon dubbed first duke of Wagram.

Napoléon’s victory at Wagram affirmed his talents as a combat leader. His organizational genius enabled the French to outnumber the Austrians in the critical battle of the campaign, to successfully deceive the Austrians during the Danube crossing and to fight on terrain of his choosing. He demonstrated his strategic prowess before the battle and his tactical ability during the battle. At Wagram, Napoléon was at the height of his military powers—as were his marshals. The emperor still had what historians call the “pulse” of a battle. He knew when and where critical engagements were to take place, and that keen situational awareness allowed him to move from crisis to crisis to effect a positive outcome. Napoléon had reached the apogee of his brilliant military career.


For further reading, Tim Fitzpatrick recommends: The Campaigns of Napoléon, by David Chandler, and John H. Gill’s three-volume 1809: Thunder on the Danube, Napoléon’s Defeat of the Hapsburgs.

Originally published in the March 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here

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