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Decisive Battles of History: Wagram

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Horace Vernet: The battle of Wagram in 1809

Horace Vernet: The battle of Wagram in 1809

Political Background

The chaotic years of the French Revolution and the unstable and unpopular governments came to an end with the Coup of 18 Brumaire. A young and very popular Napoleon Bonaparte took power and France.

At first, he was the First Consul of the Republic, but in 1804 he crowned himself Emperor of the French Empire. Napoleon made peace with Britain in 1802, the Peace of Amiens, but mutual distrust and bad faith in honouring the treaty and a conflict of interest set Britain and France on a collision course. The treaty barely lasted a year before it finally broke down in 1803, bringing back open warfare between Britain and France.

Britain enlisted the help of Austria and Russia in 1805 to defeat Napoleon. Still, Napoleon’s Grand Armee decisively defeated the Austrians at Ulm and a combined Russian and Austrian army at Austerlitz. Austria had little choice but to sue for peace, while Tsar Alexander retreated home but refused to make peace with Napoleon.

Napoleon’s bullying of Prussia in the aftermath of Austerlitz pushed Prussia to attack France. Russia joined Prussia and Britain, plus their smaller allies, in what became known as the War of the Fourth Coalition. Just like in 1805, Napoleon struck fast and defeated one of the main armies of the coalition (the Prussian army at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt) before they were able to unite and converge on him with superior numbers.

The Prussian army was defeated in a 33-day blitzkrieg, but destroying the Russian army proved harder. As it was already late Autumn by the time the French moved into Poland, the poor roads made the rapid movements that allowed the French to destroy the Prussians impossible. Napoleon fought inconclusively against the Russians from December to June but finally got his chance to defeat the Russians at Friedland and won yet another crushing victory.

The Continental System

Prussia and Russia were forced to sue for peace, and both became the allies of France after the Conference at Tilsit. Peace with Britain, however, eluded Napoleon. After the disastrous defeat of his navy at Trafalgar, he gave up on the idea of defeating Britain on the seas and started an economic war against Britain, the Continental System.

The old ally of Britain, Portugal, was reluctant to comply with Napoleon’s Continental System. The Portuguese disobedience led to a French invasion of the country in late 1807. Napoleon followed up his invasion of Portugal by dethroning the Spanish Bourbons in the spring of 1808. This time, however, he made a grave miscalculation. The blatant French takeover of the country outraged the Spanish people, who rose against the invaders.

The inexperienced French troops suffered defeats in the first half of 1808, and Napoleon was forced to intervene directly in Spain. To have sufficient numbers, he withdrew over 100,000 soldiers from Germany, but his counterattack failed to destroy the Spanish resistance in its entirety.

Even worse than the reverses in Spain was the reaction of Austria to the withdrawal of French forces from Germany. The war hawks of the Austrian Court convinced Emperor Francis that the time to turn back the reverses of the previous decade and a half had arrived, and Austria should attack in early 1809. It took some convincing, but the cautious Francis agreed to restart hostilities with France in the end.

Austria was helped by the promise of subsidies from Britain and the military reforms of Archduke Charles, who was remodelling the Austrian army on the lines of Napoleon’s Grande Armee. Despite the reforms, Charles was not eager to put his men to the test against the French just yet, but in the end, he had to comply with his brother's orders.

The strategic situation in 1809

The strategic situation in 1809

The War of the Fifth Coalition

The Austrian Offensive and French Counterattack

The Austrian attack began on April 10, 1809. Napoleon was caught off guard by faulty intelligence, and it was Marshall Berthier who was in command of the French armies in the first week of the war. Berthier was Napoleon’s ever-reliable and hard-working chief of staff, but he was a distinctly mediocre general at his best days, and his indecisiveness nearly cost the French greatly.

Most of the French troops were concentrated around Augsburg, Donnauworth and Augsburg. Marshall Davout’s isolated III Corps was isolated in Regensburg, and Charles was converging on him to destroy Davout’s force. Napoleon arrived at the scene on April 17 and immediately took command of Berthier.

Napoleon ordered Davout to retreat from Regensburg. He also ordered two of his other Marshalls, Massena and Oudinot, to threaten the Austrians from their flank, forcing Charles to divert some of his troops to meet the threat.

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Davout won a minor victory on April 19 at Teugen-Hausen. Napoleon redrew his plans and decided to hold the two crossing points over the Danube and Issar rivers at Regensburg and Landshut. Davout left a division at Regensburg, and Messena was on his way to Landshut. The Austrians would have been trapped between the French army and the Danube if the plan had succeeded.

Bad weather slowed down Massena, which allowed the southern flank of the Austrian army to escape. The Austrians also succeeded in overwhelming the defenders of Regensburg and thus foiled the plan of Napoleon. Napoleon led the bulk of the French forces, and they won another victory at Landshut on April 21. He ordered Marshall Bessiere to cross the river and pursue the retreating Austrians.

While Bessiere was on his way chasing the Austrians, Napoleon took the bulk of his victorious troops north to reinforce the outnumbered troops of Marshall Davout. Davout was facing off Charles around the Eckmull. Napoleon arrived in time to reinforce Davout and defeated the Austrians, who suffered their fourth defeat in four days at the Battle of Eckmull.

Still, as the Austrians were able to retreat in good order and they held the crossing point over the Danube at Regensburg, Charles was able to save most of his army. The French were in hot pursuit of Charles, but the main Austrian army was beyond their reach by the time they stormed Regensburg.

Thanks to their victories between April 19 and April 23, the French forced the Austrians to withdraw from Bavaria, but the decisive victory eluded Napoleon for the time being.

After securing the crossing point over the Danube at Regensburg, Napoleon had two options. He could either follow Charles into Bohemia and try to force a decisive engagement or march along the Danube towards Vienna and capture the Imperial capital.

Napoleon chose to march against Vienna, and he outpaced Archduke Charles, who had to progress a longer route, in the race to Vienna and captured the Imperial capital for the second time after 1805. A popular revolt forced him to send troops to Tyrol, and the long lines of communications also forced Napoleon to divert further troops to defend his supply lines which were going through Linz.

Napoleon easily won the race for Vienna and captured the city on May 13. However, capturing the imperial city was a minor success, as the Austrian force that escaped destruction at Landshut three weeks earlier escaped Napoleon and rejoined Charles.

With the armies of Charles and another Austrian army under the command of Charles’s brother, Archduke John, intact, there was no hope for the Austrians making peace just yet.

Napoleon knew that he needed to force a decisive battle and destroy the army of Charles to force Emperor Francis to the negotiating tables.

Charles arrived on the plains on the north bank of the Danube opposite Vienna on May 16. He decided to keep his army several miles behind the river to remain undetected and attack the French while they were crossing.

The garrison of Vienna destroyed all the bridges over the Danube while they retreated. The French had to build their ones when they wanted to cross, and they selected the area around the island of Lobau as their crossing point. At this point, Napoleon’s overconfidence got the better of him, and he decided to cross the river when he only had around 80,000 men under his command.

He was not expecting resistance to his crossing, which was done in a very careless manner. The French bridge over the Danube was not defended by palisades and was vulnerable to Austrian attacks.

Strategic moves in the early phase of the campaign

Strategic moves in the early phase of the campaign

The French began to cross on May 21. Their crossing was initially slick, but 98,000 Austrians fell upon them out of nowhere. The Austrians sent several barges down the Danube and succeeded in destroying the bridge that was the lifeline of the French army. The French succeeded in defending their bridgehead on May 21, but their situation was difficult. They received reinforcements overnight, but thanks to Austrian attacks on their bridge, at no point was the full French force deployed north of the Danube.

With their greater numbers, the French tried to achieve a breakthrough on May 22, but all their attacks were repulsed, and eventually, Napoleon had no choice but to concede defeat and retreat. Napoleon lost for the first time since he became Emperor in 1804, and his defeat was made even worse when he received news that one of his closest friends, Marshall Lannes, was mortally wounded during the French retreat.

Archduke Charles succeeded in preventing the French from crossing the Danube. Still, his army suffered great losses during the two-day Battle of Aspern-Essling, and the Austrians were in no condition to chase the French after their victory.

The defeat was a bitter pill to swallow for Napoleon, but the reverse did not break the spirit of the Emperor, and he made careful plans for his next offensive. He took his time and concentrated around 170,000-180,000 men south of the Danube, built up several crossing points and fortified some of the islands of the Danube to assist his crossing.

The Battle of Wagram

The French were ready to attack six weeks after the battle of Aspern-Essling. They crossed the Danube on the night of July 4, and the Battle of Wagram began the next day. Napoleon outnumbered the Austrians by over 30,000 men, but he had to dislodge an Austrian force in a strong defensive position. The first day of the battle was inconclusive, and the two armies attacked again on July 6.

Charles realised he was outnumbered, so he deemed his only chance of success was to attack. He tried an ambitious double envelopment, but poor coordination sabotaged his plan. Still, his army nearly managed to break one of the French flanks before a redeployment of French troops stabilised the situation.

Once his flank was secure, Napoleon ordered a general advance across the line, and Marshall Davout started turning the Austrian left flank. With few reserves to pluck in holes and seeing that his whole army was under intense pressure, Charles decided to retreat while he still had the chance to.

The Austrians retreated in good order, and luckily for them, the French army was exhausted and suffered such losses that it was in no position to pursue them after the battle.

Wagram was the worst bloodbath of the Napoleonic wars up to 1809. With the two armies numbering over 300,000 men, the two-day battle cost them between 60,000-70,000 casualties.

The French began to chase after the Austrians two days after the battle. They caught up with the Austrians around Znaim. A battle began between the forces of Charles and the advanced French forces under the command of Marshall Marmont and Massena. Charles, by that time, believed that his army was in no shape to fight another battle and signed an armistice with Napoleon, which effectively ended the war.

Aftermath

The armistice was followed by the Treaty of Schonbrun in October 1809, which officially ended the war. The Austrian Empire was forced to cede further territories and became entirely landlocked. It was forced to limit the number of its army to 150,000 soldiers. Francis agreed to marry his daughter Marie Luise to Napoleon to cement an alliance between France and Austria.

Sources

Chandler, David. (1973). The Campaigns of Napoleon. Scribner.

Connely, Owen. (2006). Blundering to Glory: Napoleon's Military Campaigns. Rowman & Littlefield.

McLynn, Frank. (2021). Napoleon: A Biography. Arcade.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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