Battle of Raab, 14 June 1809

The battle of Raab (14 June 1809) was a victory won by the French Army of Italy over an Austrian army in Western Hungary, preventing that army from reinforcing the main Austrian army in the days before the battle of Wagram.

Although it took place in Hungary, the battle of Raab was actually the final act in a campaign that began with an Austrian invasion of Napoleon's Kingdom of Italy. This invasion, lead by Archduke John, began with a victory at Sacile (16 April 1809), but after Napoleon's early victories on the Danube the Archduke was ordered to halt his advance across northern Italy and withdraw to the north-east. This allowed Napoleon's viceroy in Italy, Eugène de Beauharnais, to go onto the offensive. After a series of minor victories, the Franco-Italian army inflicted a major defeat on the Archduke on the Piave (8 May 1809).

Portrait of Marshal Jacques Macdonald, Duke of Taranto, 1765-1840
Portrait of
Marshal Jacques Macdonald,
Duke of Taranto, 1765-1840

After this defeat the Archduke split his army, leading most of it north-east into the Alps, while a detachment was sent east towards Trieste. Prince Eugène responded by sending General Macdonald towards Trieste, while he led his main army after the Archduke. Both wings of the French army continued to win victories. Macdonald took Trieste and then captured 4,000 Austrians near Laybach (Ljubljana) on 22 May. Eugène prevented the Austrians from making a stand at Tarvisio, in the north-eastern corner of modern Italy, on 18 May, and then advanced across the Alps towards Napoleon at Vienna. On his way he intercepted an Austrian division that was making its way from Germany towards the Archduke John at Graz, destroying it at St. Michael on 25 May 1809.

The Archduke had hoped to make a stand at Graz, but by the end of May he found himself in a very dangerous position. After the battle of St. Michael Eugène was based around Bruck an der Mur, just over twenty miles to the north of Graz. Macdonald, after his victory at Laybach, had moved north, and was at Maribor (Marburg), a little further to the south. On 29 May Grouchy's cavalry (part of Macdonald's force) had reached the outskirts of Graz, and Macdonald was only about ten miles to the south. The Archduke was forced to retreat east into Hungary, taking up a position on the Raab River.  

Once on the Raab the Archduke entered into an argument with his brother, Archduke Charles, who had overall command of the Austrian armies. John wanted to continue to operate independently in the south-eastern part of the Empire in an attempt to tie down large numbers of French troops. Charles wanted him to move up to the Danube, cross the river, march to Pressburg and prepare to cooperate with the main army. Charles got his way, but a lack of bridging materials meant that all John could do was march towards Raab, where he could join up with fresh troops being raised by Archduke Joseph. His route took him east across the Marcal River to the main road to Raab, with the French coming on close behind. On the morning of 12 June Eugène missed a chance to bring on the major battle he was seeking (Combat of Papa), but this only delayed the eventual clash by two days.

In 1809 the city and fortress of Raab were at the junction between the Raab and the Little Danube. The Raab river flows north, joining the Little Danube at the southern end of a loop. A third river, the Rabnitz, also joins the Little Danube at this point, flowing in from the west. The fortified city of Raab was on the eastern side of the River Raab and the south of the Little Danube, with suburbs on the western side of the rivers. An entrenched camp had been built outside these suburbs. Most of the fighting took part on the eastern side of the Raab River, and so two areas of high ground came into play - the Szabadhegy Heights, just to the south-east of Raab, and the Csanak Heights, about five miles to the south of the city. These rose near to the river and ran away to the south-east.

As Archduke John and his men approached Raab, he met with his brother Joseph. The two men agreed to share command of their combined army, and apparently agreed that John would take up a position on the Csanak Heights. This cosy agreement would soon come back to haunt the Austrians, for on the morning of 13 June Archduke John's men marched straight past the heights and camped randomly outside Raab. Only a weak rearguard was left to defend the gap between the Csanak Heights and the River Raab. Despite the events of the last few days the Archdukes still underestimated both the strength of the French army, and the speed with which it could move. When Eugène's men caught up with the Austrian rearguard on 13 June the Archdukes still failed to realise how serious a threat they faced, and after several hours of skirmishing the French were able to occupy the Csanak Heights.

In theory both armies were about the same size. Prince Eugène had 29,000 infantry, 10,000 cavalry and at least 56 guns, with large contingents of troops from France, Italy and Baden. The French also had the advantage of morale, having chased the Austrians out of Italy and into Hungary.

The Austrians also had around 40,000 men, but their deployment on 14 June meant that only 32,980 were actually on the battlefield. The Archdukes were aware that their left flank was unprotected by any nature features, and were also worried about the west (left) bank of the Raab, so 8,000 men were posted on the extreme flanks and played no part in the battle. Of the 32,980 men who were involved, 10,520 were Insurrection troops. The Insurrection was a form of militia that was raised in Hungary in times of emergency. It had only come together in May, in response to the unexpected threat of invasion. By mid June it was poorly equipped and largely untrained, so the French had a significant advantage in the quality of their troops on the battlefield, as well as in numbers.

The Austrians did still have a strong defensive position, along the Pandzsa (or Páncza) stream, which ran along the southern edge of the Szabadhegy Heights. The stream ran through a deep channel, with banks up to one and a half metres tall, and was surrounded by marshy areas. It was crossed by four intact bridges. At the centre of the Austrian line was the walled farmstead of Kismegyer, which would act as an impromptu fortress during the battle.

Even on the morning of 14 June the Austrians did not realise that they were about to be attacked. Archduke Joseph believed that the French were outnumbered, while Archduke John wanted to rest until 15 June before going onto the offensive.

In the meantime the army was arrayed along the Szabadhegy Heights. The cavalry was posted on the flanks. Johann Freiherr von Mecsèry was on the left, with most of the Insurrection cavalry, while Johann Freiherr von Frimont was on the right, next to the Raab, with the regular cavalry and some Insurrection horse.

The infantry was posted in the centre, under the direct command of Archduke John. Hieronymus Graf Colloredo-Mansfeld commanded the troops around Kismegyer, while Franz Jellacic Freiherr von Buzim commanded on the centre-right. An infantry reserve was posted on the heights behind Kismegyer.

On the French side there was no doubt that there would be a battle of 14 June. Eugène had been chasing the Austrians for more than a week, had narrowly missed a chance to fight them on 12 June, and now had a chance to win a battlefield victory of his own on the ninth anniversary of his father-in-law's victory at Marengo in 1800.

The French advance began at around 11.30. Montbrun's light cavalry was to cover the advancing infantry, and then turn left to join Grouchy's cavalry in an attempt to get across the southern Pandzsa and turn the Austrian left. Seras and Grenier were to attack in the centre. The original plan was for them to attack in echelon, but the unexpectedly powerful resistance at Kismegyer soon forced them into line. On the left Lauriston's cavalry was to guard the northern section of the stream.

The infantry battle in the centre of the line was a close-fought affair. The French struggled to take Kismegyer, while their attempts to capture the town of Szabadhegy saw them expelled several times. The first attack was thrown back at around 2.30pm, a second at some point after 3.00pm and a third late in the battle.

The key to the eventually French victory came on their right, where Montbrun and Grouchy managed to get across the Pandsza, placing them on the Austrian flank. Mecsèry attempted to wheel his inexperienced horsemen to the left to face the new threat, but this caused chaos, and the Austrian left began to collapse. Heavy French artillery fire and the threat from their cavalry completed the rout.

This forced the Archduke to pull what was left of his left wing back onto the heights behind Kismegyer, exposing the farm to the assault that finally captured it. The farm fell just after 5.00pm, just after Archduke John had ordered a general retreat. The collapse of his left wing left his line of retreat east along the Danube dangerously exposed, and left him with little choice but to abandon the fight.

The French did not pursue with any great vigour. Their cavalry was apparently exhausted after several days of rapid movement and two days of fighting, and so most of the Austrian force was able to make its escape. Even so the Austrians had lost some 10,000 men in the two days of fighting, including at least 2,400 prisoners. The French lost 3,000 men.

In the aftermath of the battle the Austrians were able to escape to the east and cross safely over the Danube, but they failed to take advantage of their escape. Archduke John and his army were not present at the battle of Wagram. In contrast Prince Eugène was soon united with the main army, and the Army of Italy played its part in the fighting on 5-6 July.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (1 July 2010), Battle of Raab, 14 June 1809 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_raab.html

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