The battle of Aspern-Essling (21-22 May 1809) was the first serious battlefield defeat suffered by Napoleon, and saw the Austrians repel a hasty French attempt to cross the Danube close to Vienna.
The Franco-Austrian War of 1809 had begin with an Austrian invasion of Bavaria, but this campaign ended in failure after Napoleon arrived to take personal command of his armies, winning victories at Abensburg (20 April 1809), Landshut (21 April 1809), Eggmuhl (22 April 1809) and Regensburg (23 April 1809). At the end of this sequence of battles the left wing of the Austrian army was retreating along the south bank of the Danube, while the main part of the army, under the command of Archduke Charles, had been forced onto the north bank.
In the aftermath of these successes Napoleon had two choices - cross the Danube to pursue Charles, or advance on Vienna. While the first choice offered a chance of destroying the main Austrian army, it also had the potential to drag the French into a costly campaign in the Bohemian mountains. Napoleon chose the second option, hoping that this would force Charles to move to defend the Austrian capital, allowing Napoleon to fight his decisive battle.
In the long run Napoleon's plan proved to be a success. Charles was indeed forced to move towards Vienna, eventually taking up a position on the opposite bank of the Danube. Napoleon eventually inflicted a significant defeat on that army, at Wagram (5-6 July 1809), after carefully preparing the way for a crossing of the Danube. This wasn't the sort of crushing victory that the French had been used to, but that had more to do with the improvements in the Austrian army than any decline on Napoleon's part.
Despite the eventually success of the campaign, Napoleon has been criticized for choosing to march on Vienna, rather than focusing the destruction of the main Austrian army. After the fall of Vienna on 13 May, there was even a chance that Napoleon could be trapped between two Austrian armies - Charles's over the Danube, and that of his brother John, retreating from Italy. Fortunately for the French Archduke John moved so slowly that he failed to arrive in time to take part in the battle of Wagram, let along that of Aspern-Essling!
Having taken Vienna, Napoleon wanted to cross the Danube as quickly as possible. The first attempt to cross the river actually came on 13 May, and saw a French attempt to cross to Schwarze-Lackenau just north of Vienna repulsed.
With Schwarze-Lackenau held against them the French had to find an alternative place to cross the Danube. In 1809 the Danube was very different to the controlled and largely canalized river we see today. East of Vienna it ran through multiple channels, creating numerous islands, some of them very substantial. One of these was the Lobau, a large island on the northern side of the Danube, separated from the north bank by the Stadtler Army of the Danube. Two more islands, Lobgrund and Schneidergrund, sat in the main branch of the river between the Lobau and the southern bank at Kaiser-Ebersdorf, allowing the French to build three shorter bridges instead of one long bridge to reach the Lobau. To the north of Lobau was a large plain known as the Marchfeld, surrounded at a distance by low hills.
Napoleon underestimated just how much of the main Austrian army he would face opposite Vienna, believing that large detachments had been left in Bohemia. It was also clear that the Austrians were attempting to distract him with small operations around his flanks, further encouraging a belief that the Archduke didn't have all of his army with him. Napoleon was also prone to underestimate Charles's willingness to fight and to overestimate the damage he had done to the Austrian army during the campaign in Bavaria. Napoleon's plans for the crossing of the Danube were thus based on the idea that he would have to search for the Austrian army after crossing the river, and then find some way of bringing them to battle. This idea was reinforced on 20 May when the Austrians failed to launch a counterattack against the first isolated French troops to cross onto the Lobau. The first troops to cross to the Marchfeld would thus be cavalry, and their job would be to find the Austrians. Only after that had been done could Napoleon form a firm plan of action.
When the French first reached Vienna the only substantial Austrian forces in the area were those of FML Hiller, at the end of his lonely retreat to the south of the Danube. This changed on 16 May when Charles arrived with the main army. Charles decided not to deploy his army along the Danube, but instead to take up a position on the hills around the edge of the Marchfeld. Hiller's corps had the job of watching the line of the river, as well as forming the right-wing of the army. This wing touched the Danube just to the north of Vienna, at Strebersdorf. From there the hills ran north to Hagenbrunn and Enzersfeld, then east to Pillichsdorf. Charles intended to let Napoleon bring a sizable part of his army across the Danube, then attack and defeat the French in detail, in the process winning a major enough victory to force Napoleon into negotiations.
The biggest problem facing Charles was that he didn't know where the French were planning to cross the Danube. Until the night of 18-19 May he was convinced that the French would cross from Nussdorf, close to Vienna. When the French occupied the Lobau Charles decided that they were indeed planning to cross to the Marchfeld from that island, but only to allow themselves to clear the north bank of the river opposite Nussdorf. Charles's first plan was designed to deal with this expected French plan. One part of the army was to move to block the French advance along the Danube, while the rest was to attack from the east.
On the morning of 20 May Charles finally realised that the main French attack was to come from the Lobau, and changed his plans again. He expected the French send their cavalry into the Marchfeld in an attempt to find the Austrians, and decided to respond in kind, giving his own cavalry the task of dealing with the French intruders.
A shortage of suitable building materials meant that the French were not able to begin work on the bridges to the Lobau until the night of 18/19 May. At the same time the French sent troops across the river in boats, occupying the Lobgrund and sending patrols onto the Lobau. By 3pm on 19 May the Lobau was in French hands, but a determined Austrian counter-attack at this point might easily have won it back.
The main bridges onto the Lobau were not ready until noon on 20 May. Napoleon decided to send nine light cavalry regiments across first, followed by 4th Corps, and then by three heavy cavalry divisions. At first all went well, but at about 5pm one of the crucial bridges was broken when a large ship crashed into it, leaving Napoleon isolated on the Lobau with around 24,000 men. Despite this isolation when the bridge between the Lobau and the north bank was completed Napoleon began to move his men across onto the edge of the Marchfeld. A number of skirmishes broke out between Lasalle's light cavalry and elements of the Austrian army. The most serious came between Essling and Schafflerhof, and saw Lasalle defeat an initial attack by Klenau's cavalry, before being forced to retreat back to Essling.
By the end of 20 May the French had 19,000 men on the Marchfeld, mainly cavalry or from Massena's 4th Corps, while Napoleon and 5,500 men of the Guard were on the Lobau. On the north bank the French held the villages of Aspern, to the north-west of their bridge, and Essling, to the north-east. Both of these villages were naturally strong defensive positions, but believed that they would be advancing across the plains on the following day the French made no efforts to strengthen those fortifications.
That night the Austrians moved into position ready to launch their own attack on the French on the following day. By the morning the Austrians were in place. V and VI Corps were at the right of the line, closest to the Danube around Stammersdorf. I Corps was next in line, behind the village of Gerasdorf. A little further to the east were II Corps and the Cavalry Reserve, behind Gerasdorf and Wagram. Finally IV Corps made up the left of the line, at Wagram. The Grenadiers were behind the centre of the line, at Seyring, north of Gerasdorf. The new Austrian line thus ran from west to east, facing the French at Aspern and Essling.
The Austrian plan for the morning of 21 May was based on the belief that the French would be advancing west, from Aspern towards Hirschstetten. Charles decided to advance in five columns. The first column (Hiller) was to advance along the Danube towards Aspern. The second (Bellegarde) was to advance parallel to him. Charles expected these two columns to run head-first into the advancing French. The third column (Hohenzollern) was to march towards Aspern from the north. The fourth (Rosenberg officially, actually Dedovich) was to attack Essling and the fifth (Rosenberg in person) was to go further east and attack Gross-Enzersdorf.
If the French had indeed been advancing to the west, then this disposition might have been effective, bringing three-fifths of the Austrian army against the head of the French columns while the remaining Austria columns threatened Napoleon's bridges. Instead the result was to dissipate the Austrian effort, with each column attacking at different times, and a two hour gap between the time the first and last entered combat.
At the start of the day Napoleon was very badly outnumbered. He had 22,000 infantry, 2,970 cavalry and 52 guns to oppose an Austrian force of 84,010 infantry, 14,250 cavalry and 292 guns. When he first realised that he was this badly outnumbered, Napoleon's first instinct was to withdraw back to the Lobau, and the first orders for a retreat had been issued when two events changed his mind. First was the news that the bridges across the Danube had almost been repaired. The second was the sound of fighting on the French left flank, to the west of Aspern.
Napoleon decided to stand and fight. The key to his new defensive position would be the villages of Aspern and Essling. Massena was given the task of defending Aspern, with Molitor and Legrand's infantry divisions and Marulaz's light cavalry. Lannes was ordered to defend Essling, with Boudet's infantry division from Massena's corps and cavalry from the Reserve. Part of the Guard defended the bridgehead, the Old Guard remained on Lobau and the remaining cavalry had to guard the gap between the villages.
The Austrian attack developed rather slowly. The three columns on their right advanced carefully, expecting to run into the advancing French. They didn't reach Aspern until around 2.45pm, and were quickly expelled by Molitor's men. The main Austrian attack on the left, made by the first three columns, didn’t develop until around 4pm. The Austrians were able to reach the western edge of Aspern, before their advance was stopped by French reserves.
The fighting in the centre opened with a cavalry melee that began at around 3.30pm, when Marshal Bessières, commanding the French cavalry, noticed that the advancing Austrians had become disorganised. The French cavalry was soon outnumbered, but held its own until the Austrian infantry of the fourth column appeared on the scene at around 4.00pm. By around 4.30 the Austrian attack on Aspern had stalled, and their cavalry had been repulsed. The French heavy cavalry had retreated back behind the dyke linking Aspern and Essling.
Only now did Charles realise that the French were not advancing. He modified his plans to prepare for an assault on Napoleon's defensive position. The first and second columns were left to attack Aspern, while Hohenzollern's third column was moved left (east) into the gap between the villages.
Napoleon had no infantry to oppose this new threat to his centre, and so he ordered Marshal Bessières to attack with his cavalry. The Austrian infantry formed into battalion masses (effectively solid rather than hollow squares), and successfully repulsed the outnumbered French cavalry. Despite this success the French attack did stop Hohenzollern's advance, and he remained stationary until nightfall.
Back in Aspern the fighting developed into a brutal melee in the burning buildings of the village. Massena was reinforced by Carra Saint-Cyr's division, and a series of attacks and counterattacks filled the rest of the day. By nightfall the Austrians held the northern part of the village and the French the southern.
On the opposite flank of the battlefield, at Essling, the Austrians were less successful. The fourth column arrived outside the village first, but delayed its attack until the fifth column arrived. This column was delayed at Gross-Enzersdorf, and didn't appear until 6.30pm. Even then Rosenberg didn’t attack, perhaps not realised that between them the two Austrian columns outnumbered Lannes by three-to-one. The two columns didn't launch a proper attack until around 7.00pm, and then only after receiving direct orders from Charles. The two columns attacked separately, and were repulsed separately - the fourth column at around 7.00pm, the fifth at around 8.00pm. Futile and badly coordinated attacks against Essling continued until around 11.00pm, but then the battlefield went quiet.
At the end of the first day of the battle Napoleon could claim a defensive victory. Outnumbered by four-to-one at the start of the day he had held off a series of Austrian attacks. Although the bridges over the Danube had been repaired for much of the day, only one infantry division had been able to cross over to the Marchfeld. This changed during the night of 21-22 May. By 7.00am on the following morning the 30,000 infantry of Lannes's 2nd Corps had crossed the river. The Austrians then managed to break the bridges again. This breach was quickly repaired, and Demont's division crossed over, before the bridge was broken yet again. After that the bridge was broken again, leaving nearly 12,000 infantry and 3,500 cavalry trapped on the wrong side of the river. Nevertheless Napoleon now had around 68,000 infantry and 11,710 cavalry at his disposal, around three times as many men as at the start of the previous day, and he spent the night planning for an attack that he hoped would break the Austrian army and end the war.
As fighting ended on 21 May Archduke Charles believed he had won his victory. He had never realised that the French bridges across the Danube had broken, nor that Napoleon didn't have his entire army across the river. Even the obvious noise of troops movements across the restored bridges were interpreted to fit with the idea that Napoleon had been defeated, and was retreating back to the Lobau. Later on in the night, when it became obvious that the French were still on the northern bank of the Danube, Charles moved his Grenadiers into the centre of the line, but was otherwise largely passive.
Napoleon's plan for 22 May was for the newly arrived 2nd Corps to make the main attack, on the centre of the Austrian line. Massena would retake Aspern on the left, and hold it against any Austrian counter-attack, while Lannes would retain command at Essling. Things went well on the flanks. Massena's attack began at around 4am, and by 7am the entire village was in French hands. Meanwhile on the right Lannes launched an early attack that eventually forced the Austrians to withdraw far enough to allow Napoleon to launch his grand attack in the centre.
Having achieved his aims on the right Lannes was now placed back in command of his own 2nd Corps, supported by Bessières's cavalry. His orders were to attack at the point where Hohenzollern's third column meet the Cavalry Reserve on its left, the weak point in the Austrian line. Lannes arranged his three divisions with Tharreau at the left, Claparède in the centre and St. Hilaire, with the most experienced troops on the right. The heavy cavalry advanced behind the right flank, the light cavalry behind the left.
Lannes began his attack at about 7.30am. At first all went well, and St. Hilaire in particular threatened to break the Austrian line, but it held. Lannes's two left-hand divisions made less progress, and eventually came to a halt, leaving St. Hilaire exposed in a salient in the Austrian line and under artillery fire from three sides. Lannes responded by sending his cavalry to attack the Austrian infantry, but Charles's reforms had greatly improved his army's ability to hold its ground, and the cavalry attacks failed. By 9am Lannes's attack had failed, and he sent a messenger to Napoleon to ask for reinforcements.
Napoleon had partly based his plan on the presumption that more reinforcements would be able to cross over the Danube, but just as Lannes was running into trouble another boat hit one of the bridges, creating a large breach. There was still a chance that the bridge could be repairs, and so for the next two hours Lannes was ordered to hold his advanced position, in preparation for a renewed assault, but at about 11am another part of the bridge was destroyed. This finally convinced Napoleon that he could no longer win the battle, and so Lannes was ordered to retreat to his starting point. Just as the retreat was about to begin St. Hilaire was badly wounded, forcing Lannes to take direct command of his division. Luckily for the retreating French Charles decided to use his Grenadiers to pursue them, instead of Hohenzollern's II Corps, the nearest unit. This gave Lannes's men time to return to their starting point, back in line between Aspern and Essling.
The battle now moved into its final phase, with the French on the defensive and the Austrians attacking. On the left seven hours of vicious fighting took place in and around Aspern. Massena was slowly forced back, but the Austrians weren't able to hold onto their gains.
In the centre the main Austrian effort came between 2pm and 3pm. Despite a massive artillery bombardment the Austrians were unable to dislodge Lannes, who made the most of his own limited artillery to soften up the advancing Austrians before repelling them with volleys of musketry. He was helped by Napoleon's presence close to the front line, which both inspired and worried his troops!
All was quite on the French right until around 11.30am, when Charles ordered Rosenberg to attack in person. Rosenberg and Dedovich launched a series of assaults between then and 3pm, all of which failed. Only at 3pm did the Austrians finally make a properly coordinated attack and captured most of Essling. The French held onto the strong position in a granary at the edge of the village, but the rest was lost. At about the same time the bridge linking the north bank to the Lobau was cut, truly isolating Napoleon.
The loss of Essling led to the most serious crisis of the battle for the French. Napoleon ordered five battalions of Guard Fusiliers and Tirailleurs, under the attack of GD Mouton to retake the village, but their attack failed. This left Napoleon with only two battalions of Guard Fusiliers with which to rescue the situation. GD Rapp, a member of his staff, was ordered to use these two battalions to help Mouton disengage. The entire army was then to retreat into the narrow Mühlau salient, a small area of land surrounded by a bend in the river separating the north bank from the Lobau. Luckily for Napoleon Rapp disobeyed his orders, and instead led a last desperate counterattack that perhaps to his surprise triggered an Austrian retreat. Essling fell back into French hands, and the plans for a retreat were abandoned.
This ended the main part of the fighting in the centre and around Essling. The Austrians limited themselves to an artillery bombardment, which harassed the French but didn't threaten their position. It did cost them Marshal Lannes, hit by a 3-pounder ball that crushed his left knee. Lannes was evacuated to the Lobau, meeting Napoleon while crossing the bridge in an emotional scene. Lannes survived for nine days before dying of his wounds.
The last serious fighting took place around Aspern, where Hiller renewed his attack at around 5pm. Massena managed to hold up the Austrian advance for some time, before finally being ordered to retreat from the village to a nearby brickyard in preparation for the upcoming evacuation.
That night the French successfully retreated back over the repaired bridge onto the Lobau, ending the battle of Aspern-Essling. Napoleon had suffered his first clear-cut defeat, failing both in his attempts to establish a firm bridgehead across the Danube, and in his efforts to defeat the Austrian army on 22 May. In many respects the French had actually performed remarkably well, holding off a much larger force on 21 May, and threatening to win a significant victory on the following day, despite still being outnumbered. The Austrians had proved themselves capable of holding their ground in a way that wouldn't have been possible four years earlier, and in the aftermath for the battle their confidence rose dramatically. Both sides suffered similar losses, with the Austrians reporting a figure of 22,900 killed, wounded, missed or captured. French casualties are less certain, but were probably around 20,000.
The news of Napoleon's defeat spread around Europe, restoring the enthusiasm of many of his opponents, but the optimism would be short-lived. The bridges linking the Lobau to the southern bank of the Danube were not repaired until 24 May, but Charles failed to take his chance to attack the French while they were isolated on the island. Napoleon learnt the lessons of his defeat on 21-22 May, and spent the next few weeks making sure that his next crossing of the Danube would be successful. Lobau was firmly connected to the southern bank of the Danube, and the island was turned into a massive armed camp. The careful planning paid off, and Napoleon's next major attempt to cross the Danube ended in victory at Wagram on 5-6 July 1809.