The Rearguard Action
Storming the Bridge
The Battle in Ebelsberg
The battle of Ebelsberg (3 May 1809) was a costly French victory that saw them fight their way across the River Thaun during Napoleon's advance into Austria after his victories in Bavaria.
The Franco-Austrian War of 1809 had started with an Austrian invasion of Bavaria, but that had come to grief in mid-April, after Napoleon arrived to take personal command of the French and Allied army. The main Austrian army, under Archduke Charles, had been defeated in a series of battles (Abensberg, 20 April, Landshut, 21 April and Eggmuhl, 22 April), and split in half. The larger part, under the Archduke, was forced onto the north bank of the Danube, and then retreating into Bohemia, before heading towards Vienna. The smaller part, made up of the left wing of the army under FML Johann Freiherr von Hiller, was isolated on the southern side of the river and was forced to retreat east back into Austria.
Hiller had hoped to stop the French at the Austrian border, at the Rivers Inn and Salzach, but by 30 April the French were across the Inn at Scharding and the Salzach at Burghausen. On 1 May the Austrian covering forces suffered a series of minor defeats (combat of Riedau). Hiller was left in a difficult position. His orders were to fall back on Linz, establish a fortified bridgehead there to keep an Austrian presence on the south bank of the Danube and bring most of his command to the north bank to join the main army. The problem was that by 2 May it looked like the French would reach Linz before the Austrians, while the main Austrian army was still a week away. By the end of the day Hiller had decided that his only possible course of action was to retreat across the Traun River at Ebelsberg.
The Danube and the Traun formed two parts of a triangle around Linz. The two rivers met to the east of the city, with the Danube coming from the north-west and the Traun from the south-west. Linz itself was upstream on the Danube (although it now reaches across the Traun and has swallowed Ebelsberg). In 1809 Ebelsberg was a separate town, south-east of Linz. The Traun itself flows south-west towards Wels and Lambach, then turned south.
Two main roads linked the Inn and the Traun, and both were being used by the French. Massena was on the northern road, which ran from Schärding to Linz. By the end of 2 May his forward troops had reached Alkoven, just over five miles to the west of Linz, while his rearguard was around Eferding, about four miles further west. Napoleon was to the north of the second road, which ran from Braunau on the Inn to Lambach on the Traun. His forward troops were north-east of Wels, six or seven miles to the south-west of Alkoven, while other troops were approaching Lambach.
Napoleon was uncertain what course of action Hiller would take on 3 May, so he issued orders that he hoped would cover all possibilities. If Hiller retreated across the Danube, then the French would be free to continue their advance east. If he tried to defend Linz then Massena was to attack him, and Lannes was to send his infantry north from Wels to assist. If Hiller attempted to defend the line of the Traun at Ebelsberg then once again Massena was to attack frontally, while Lannes crossed the river at Wels or Lambach and then outflanked the Austrian position.
Hiller's task at Ebelsberg would have been much easier if he had been able to destroy the bridge before the French arrived, but his army was too widely scattered to allow him to do that. On the night of 2-3 May his main force was concentrated around Linz, but three of his rear guard forces were uncomfortably far forward. Bianchi was on the Danube at Wilhering, while Radetzky was on the Traun at Marchtrenk. The biggest problem was Schustekh's troops, in the centre of the Austrian rearguard. He had settled down for the night at Geisenheim, virtually in the middle of the French army. It soon became clear that there were French troops to his north-east and south-east. His only chance of escape was a night march along a ridge of high ground between the two rivers, and so at 10pm his men set off on a long march.
The Rearguard Action
The battle became with a clash between the Austrian rearguard and Massena's advance guard close to the village of Scharlinz. This part of the Austrian rearguard was made up of Hoffmeister's brigade from Feldmarshalleutnant Karl Freiherr von Vincent's division, while the French advance guard consisted of General Marulaz's light cavalry. The French cavalry were able to make little progress against the Austrian infantry, and were forced to wait for General Claparèdé's infantry division to arrive.
Both sides received reinforcements at about the same time. On the French side the infantry arrived, as did Piré's light cavalry brigade (part of Marshal Bessières's Reserve Cavalry. On the Austrian side Schutstekh appeared from the west, advancing into a gap between the two elements of the French advance guard. Piré attempted to stop the two elements of the Austrian force from united without success, although Schutstekh's rearguard was captured.
While this was going on Vincent ordered his men to retreat, leaving two battalions from the Splenyi infantry regiment to cover the movement. Claparède sent his leading brigade to attack the retreating Austrians, and with help from Marulaz managed to defeat and disperse both battalions.
Storming the Bridge
By around 11.30 the fighting had reached the western edge of the wooden bridge into Ebelsberg. Vincent and Radetzky's men were attempting to escape across the bridge into the town, while Massena's leading troops pursued. Inevitable scenes of chaos followed with hundreds of Austrian troops drowned as they were pushed off the bridge into the river.
Ebelsberg should have been a very strong defensive position. The long bridge entered the town through a gate which led into the market. Another gate then led into the eastern part of the town. Just to the north of the market was the schloss - more of a chateau than a true fortress, but still a strong defensive position. The biggest problem with the Austrian position was that Hiller had not expected to have to fight in Eberlsberg, so the town was only lightly defended. Two battalions from the Wallach-Illyria Granz Regiment No.13 under Obertst Gratz were deployed in the town, with one in the buildings overlooking the bridge and one in the eastern part of the town. Three companies of infantry from III/ Lindenau were placed in the Schloss. Most of Hiller's men moved on through Ebelsberg and took up positions outside the town, where they prepared for a rest. II Reserve Corps was sent further east, to guard against any French move to outflank Hiller's position from the south.
The first Allied troops to reach the bridge were from Coëhorn's brigade of Claparède's division. The first troops available were two battalions of light infantry, the Tirailleurs du Po and Tirailleurs Corses. Coëhorn led these two battalions across the bridge, pushing right behind the retreating Austrians, and giving them no chance to destroy the bridge. By around noon the French had captured the buildings closest to the river, and the western edge of the market square.
The Battle in Ebelsberg
The final phase of the battle was fought for control of Ebelsberg itself. Coëhorn realised that he needed to take control of the higher ground outside the town if he was to be secure, but didn't yet realise that most of Hiller's army was posted just behind the rising ground. He split his force in three, sending one column left to deal with the Austrian guns near the Schloss and a second right to clear the southern edge of the town. The third column attacked across the market square, cleared the Austrians out of the eastern part of the town and advanced along the road towards the main Austrian force.
Although the Austrians had been caught almost entirely by surprise when Coëhorn crossed the bridge, some parts of Hiller's army now reacted quickly. In the centre three battalions of Vienna Volunteers, eventually supported by four battalions of regular infantry, managed to get into the centre of the village, cutting the French force in two. Bitter fighting now spread into the buildings of Ebelsberg as the isolated French troops in the eastern part of the town fought back. The French left was also in trouble, as an attempt to take the castle ended in chaos after an Austrian counterattack.
By around 2pm Claparède was close to defeat, with Austrian troops from the south threatening to recapture the eastern end of the bridge, and his lines in the centre and left close to collapse. The French position was only saved because Hiller was unwilling to commit any more of his troops to the desperate battle in the town when he had already decided to continue his retreat as quickly as possible. This allowed the French troops already in the town to hold long enough to allow Legrand's division to join them.
Legrand's division crossed the bridge into Ebelsberg at around 2.30pm, at roughly the same time as one Austrian artilleryman managed to set fire to one of the buildings near the bridge. Legrand managed to restore the French position, but he was unable to make any further progress. An attack on the Schloss failed, while an attack on the eastern part of the town succeeded, only for the French to be pushed back by an Austrian counterattack.
At around 3pm Hiller decided to abandon the struggle in the town, and issued orders to the troops still engaged there to withdraw. Even so the fighting continued until around 4pm before the French finally had control of the burning town. No real pursuit was possible by this point, fortunately for Hiller, whose men were close to collapse by this point. Even so he lost around 5,330 men missing and captured during the day, to go with the 2,870 dead and wounded. French casualties were similar, with 2,750 dead and wounded, but only 800 men were missing or captured.
The seizure of Ebelsberg had been one of the most impressive achievements of arms yet seen in the campaign, but it was also largely pointless. Hiller's position at Ebelsberg had already been turned by Napoleon's main column, which crossed the Traun further upstream at Wels.
The French pursuit continued east to the River Enns, but this time the Austrians were able to destroy the bridges across the river, forcing Napoleon to stop for two days while they were repaired. Hiller nearly missed this chance to escape. By 6 May his confidence had returned, and he was preparing to defend his current position to the east of the River Ybbs. A sharp defeat at Blindenmarkt on 6 May and firm orders to cross the Danube changed his mind, and by the end of 8 May most of Hiller's army was on the north bank of the great river. A few units were sent to Vienna, where they took part in the brief siege that saw the French capture the Austrian capital for the second time in five years.
|1809 Thunder on the Danube: Napoleon's Defeat of the Habsburgs, Volume II: Aspern, John H. Gill. The second volume in this high quality series looks at the fall of Vienna and Napoleon's first defeat at Aspern-Essling, as well as widening the picture to look at events in Italy and Dalmatia. Brilliantly researched and yet thoroughly readable, this is an essential book for anyone interested in the period. [read full review]|
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