Shocking: How Napoleon Crushed Austria and Changed History
May 14, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Napoleonic WarsNapoleonAustriaWarEuropean History

Shocking: How Napoleon Crushed Austria and Changed History

Warfare would never be the same.

The artillery barrage was just the prelude to a full-fledged French infantry assault by men of Oudinot’s II Corps. The Volunteers and Jagers refused to yield, stubbornly defending Baumersdorf’s scorched ruins foot by foot, yard by yard. Marshal Oudinot decided on a different approach, namely a flanking attack on the village about 8 PM, the assignment given to the 57th Regiment of the Line and the 10th Legere.

The 57th was a famous regiment with roots dating back to the prerevolutionary Ancien Regime. They were renowned for their prowess in war, so formidable they were nicknamed “the terrible.” The blue-coated soldiers went forward with elan, but were met by Austrians with equal determination. Each shattered house, each rubble-choked building, became a fortress that had to be taken by storm.

The 10th Legere bypassed Baumersdorf, moving ahead to the main Austrian position. They waded the Russbach, passed through the viscous muck of the nearby boggy patch, and then ascended the escarpment just beyond. The climb was steep, and when the leading elements of the 10th Legere finally crested the summit they were disordered and probably winded by the effort.

Before they could recover from their exertions they met a brigade of whitecoats from II Korps in position on the escarpment. The Austrians leveled their muskets and unleashed a volley, a storm of lead that caused scores of French dead and wounded and left the survivors reeling. Before they could recover they were sent packing, and literally plunging, down the escarpment slopes by a cavalry charge of chevauxlegers (light cavalry) led in person by a sword-wielding Prince Frederick von Hohenzollern. 

The first day’s battle finally concluded around 11 pm, mercifully ending the slaughter for the moment. Napoleon was in a fairly decent position, but it was obvious the long-sought decisive victory had eluded his grasp. And his ill-judged and ultimately ham-fisted dealings with the Iberian Peninsula were also coming home to roost. Napoleon had an army of 200,000 men occupying Spain, troops that could have been used to better purpose in Germany and Austria.

Because of his Spanish commitments, the quality and effectiveness of the Grand Armee was compromised. The infantry was especially diluted by too many conscripts and, because of manpower shortages, the French were forced to use German allied troops to a greater degree than in the past. There were several instances of raw troops breaking and running, though usually they did manage to rally and fight again. To be fair, there were a few instances of Austrian units taking to their heels as well.        

Throughout the battle Napoleon kept his customary sang froid. At one point, an Austrian shell exploded so close to the emperor his horse shied. Oudinot, startled, said, “They are firing at headquarters!” 

“Monsieur, in war all accidents are possible,” Napoleon dismissively replied. And even when conducting a high-stakes battle, Napoleon had time for a little humor to lighten the mood. When a staff officer had his helmet knocked off by a cannonball, “It’s a good job that you are not any taller!” the emperor said with a smile.

The next day, July 6, proved to be decisive. It was Archduke Charles who began the affair with a vigorous dawn offensive by Klenau’s VI Korps. One of his objectives was to crush the French left, while at the same time pushing on to the Danube to seize control of the Lobau bridges. If Charles could get behind the French army and cut off its means of supply and escape, it would be “marooned” and surrounded. It was a nightmare scenario for the French, and potentially an even greater disaster than Aspern-Essling. Napoleon himself might even be caught in the Austrian “net.”

The Austrians moved forward with pomp and real panache. Bands played as they marched, and the overall mood seemed to be one of supreme confidence despite some setbacks in the past. Certainly, they were no strangers to the terrain; the Hapsburg troops held frequent maneuvers at Marchfeld.        

Marshal Jean Baptiste Bernadotte made matters worse by abandoning a key position, the village of Aderklaa, without orders to do so. Touchy, with a large chip on his shoulder, he tended to cover up his own failings by shifting the blame to others. In 1806 he failed to support Davout when the latter was hard pressed at Auderstadt, yet he tried to cover up his actions with bluster and bravado. The 1809 campaign was no different.      

Bernadotte rode ahead of the fleeing troops to rally them, but in so doing happened to run into a very angry emperor. “I herewith remove you from command of the Corps you have handled so consistently badly,” the emperor snapped, adding, “Quit the Grande Armee within twenty-four hours.”

In the meantime, Klenau was making good progress battling his way through the French left, ultimately cutting Napoleon off from the Lobau bridges and his line of retreat. But the Austrian army was not noted for taking the initiative. General Klenau halted and began to patiently wait for support from the Austrian III Korps.  He was only about three miles from the unprotected rear of the French army and the Lobau bridges, but he still stopped his progress, and in so doing the initiative passed to the French.

Napoleon saw the danger to his left and was going to deal with it in a decisive manner, but his main focus at the moment was on the right, where Davout was going to attack Markgrafneusiedl. Markgrafneusiedl was the key to victory, at least in the emperor’s opinion, and he was rarely wrong in these matters. In the meantime, Massena was ordered to turn and march south, his IV Corps coming to the rescue by stopping Klenau’s threatening advance.

To follow the emperor’s orders Massena had to execute a tricky and even perilous maneuver. He had to march across the face of the Austrian III Korps and Grenadier Reserve. By crossing the “T” with the Austrians at the bottom stem and the French the upper stroke, Massena’s men would expose their vulnerable flank to enemy artillery fire and perhaps even musketry.

Massena’s march would also be an agonizingly long five-mile trek. To divert the Austrians and gain some time, Napoleon ordered Marshal Jean Bessieres to attack with his heavy cavalry reserve. No fewer than 4,000 armored warriors rode past Napoleon, and as they went their galloping steeds produced a thunderous tattoo, a rumble that was punctuated by fervent cries of “Vive l‘Empereur!”

Napoleon, acknowledged their salute, but shouted additional orders over the din: “Ne sabraz pas: pointez, pointez.” This translates to “Don’t slash with your swords, use the points of your weapons instead.” The charge was a magnificent spectacle, full of pride and panoply, and their breastplates and backplates evoked memories of medieval knights. But this was the early 19th century and not the Middle Ages. Austrian artillery opened up at once, cutting bloody swathes into the advancing horsemen. Men and horses were eviscerated, disemboweled, turn to gory heaps of human and animal flesh, but the cuirassiers would not be dissuaded from their task.

Bessieres, a leader of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, habitually wore the uniform of the Guard’s Chasseurs a Chaval. He wore his hair unfashionably long and so was easy to spot on the battlefield. The marshal shared his men’s misfortune: first, his horse was killed out from under him, and then, moments later, an apparently glancing blow from a cannonball wounded him. When Napoleon heard that Bessieres was out of action, he ordered that the news be suppressed as much as possible. The marshal was a popular man. He would later recover.

The gallant charge was not in vain, because it did indeed buy valuable time. It bought enough time for Napoleon to bring his grand battery forward. The grand battery consisted of 112 guns, with some artillery coming from the Imperial Guard and some pieces from the Army of Italy.  Forming a wide arc, the French artillery soon started pounding the area between Aderklaa and Brentenlee. Cannons belched gouts of flame and smoke with each discharge as sweat-drenched gun crews worked their pieces with clockwork regularity.

The grand battery had essentially the same mission as the cavalry: protect and support Massena’s risky move south. The battery proved more effective than the cavalry, tearing great holes in the packed ranks of the whitecoats. Shells ripped into soldiers, sometimes flinging their shattered bodies up in the air, and cannonballs took off heads, arms, and legs with horrifying ease.

Desperate to find some shelter from this man-made maelstrom, elements of the Austrian III Korps retired to the Breitenlee-Sussenbrunn road. For the moment, the situation had stabilized, leaving Napoleon to concentrate on capturing the all-important key to victory, the village of Markgrafneusiedl. Davout stormed the village without hesitation, but it was soon apparent that it was going to be a hard nut to crack. Austrian defenders fought for every inch of ground. Markgrafneusiedl’s cluster of stone houses became fiercely contested strongpoints, and other landmarks, like the windmill, monastery, and an old moated church, were fortresses often to be taken not just by bullets, but by the cold steel of bayonets.