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.

Napoleon also desired an attack on the Austrian center. If the attack on the center succeeded, it would split Charles’s army in two; if not, it would still tie up and divert the Austrians, preventing them from sending reinforcements to the hard-pressed defenders of Markgrafneusiedl. The emperor chose MacDonald and his Army of Italy for this crucial task.

MacDonald formed his men in a gigantic hollow square of 8,000 men. In his memoirs MacDonald claims that, at least in part, the formation was used because of the threat of Austrian cavalry attacks, though he did have French horsemen with him as well. Perhaps the general didn’t want to admit that unseasoned troops fought better in larger formations, and the chances of their taking to their heels was reduced, if not altogether eliminated.

Drummers beat the pas de charge, a throbbing, rhythmic tattoo that could be distinctly heard over the sounds of battle. MacDonald’s great square was a perfect target for Austrian artillery, and soon great bloody gaps were torn in the blue-coated ranks. Whole bunches of men were cut down simultaneously, but survivors were ordered to close and dress their ranks as if on parade.

MacDonald’s column was like a great wounded beast staggering along, leaving a bloody trail of entrails, which were the broken bodies of its dead and wounded soldiers, in its wake. French cuirassiers and cavalry of the guard gave support, but they could not protect MacDonald’s cumbersome formation from the artillery barrages that tormented and lacerated them with each step.     

MacDonald’s long-suffering troops had not achieved a breakthrough, but their secondary purpose, that of preventing reinforcements to Markgrafneusiedl, succeeded. Napoleon, who scanned the horizon with his telescope from horseback, saw that Davout’s firing line had passed the village’s church tower. It was plain that Markgrafneusiedl would fall to the French, and soon. Satisfied, the emperor snapped the telescope shut. Massena was making good progress on the right, and by 2 pm Klenau, his get-behind-the-French-army maneuver in tatters, was forced out of Aspern.

With his right and left crumbling, and his center barely holding, Archduke Charles was in real despair. His brother Archduke John, the man whose arrival would have tipped the battle in Austrian favor, was nowhere to be seen. In a hopeless mood and suffering from a slight wound, Charles reluctantly ordered a general withdrawal.

Napoleon had his victory, but the French were simply too exhausted to mount an effective pursuit of their enemy. Sadly, the French army lost another one of its legendary paladins when 33-year-old General of Division Antoine de Lasalle, a renowned hussar commander, was shot dead at the head of his troops.

Napoleon had won the Battle of Wagram, but as Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, once said of his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo, it was a near-run thing. Wagram, in truth, was something of a pyrrhic victory if one looks at the statistics: 30,000 casualties, 4,000 captured, and 11 guns and three eagle standards lost. In comparison, the Austrians suffered 23,000 casualties and 18,000 captured. Yet the Austrian lost only nine guns and one standard, which was mute but eloquent testimony of the Austrians’ newly learned discipline and training.

Nevertheless, the French emperor had bested the Austrians and regained his prestige. Austria capitulated, since the Treaty of Schonbrunn, signed in October 1809, was yet another punitive pact that left the Austrian empire reduced in territory and prestige. Besides the loss of territory, Austria had to pay an indemnity and honor the Continental System; thus, it was not peace, but a protracted pause before the next round of fighting.

MacDonald won his long-coveted marshal’s baton, and the honor was made even sweeter by being awarded on the field of battle. Napoleon embraced MacDonald, declaring. “On the battlefield of glory, where I owe you so large a part of yesterday’s success, I make you Marshal of France.”

The next three years after Wagram saw Napoleon at the height of his power. But the Austrians had fought well, in part because of a rising patriotic, nationalist feeling, and also they adopted some of the organization and techniques of the Grande Armee. That, as well as the lowering of the overall quality of the French army, meant that relatively easy triumphs such as Ulm, Austerlitz, and Jena would not be repeated.

Sometime later, when someone criticized the Austrian army within earshot of the emperor, he snapped, “It is evident you were not at Wagram.”

Originally Published November 22, 2019.

This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Reuters.