Franco-Austrian War of 1809 (War of the Fifth Coalition)

The Austrian Plan
Napoleon's Preparations
Early Events on the Danube
Napoleon Reaches the Front: Eggmuhl & Vienna
Hiller's Retreat
The First Crossing of the Danube: Aspern-Essling
The Second Crossing of the Danube: Wagram and Znaim
Italy and Hungary


The Franco-Austrian War of 1809 was part of the War of the Fifth Coalition, and was Napoleon's last successful military campaign, ending soon after his victory in the massive battle of Wagram in July 1809.

The Fifth Coalition was the smallest of the series of coalitions formed to fight Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, effectively consisting of Austrian and Britain only. The Austrian decision to go to war was based on the assumption that Prussia would probably join the war; that Russia would be at worst neutral and at best break its alliance with Napoleon; and that revolts would break out across Germany. None of these assumptions would turn out to be correct. Prussia refused to budge. The Russians sent private assurances of their sympathy with the Austrian cause, but then sent an army to the border, attempting to make some easy gains while the Austrians were distracted and forcing them to keep an army in Galicia. Although there were some outbreaks of rebellion in Germany, Napoleon could still rely on his German allies at this stage, and troops from Württemberg, Saxony and Bavaria made a major contribution to his victory.

The alliance with Britain also produced rather disappointing results for the Austrians. The main British efforts during 1809 came in the Peninsular (although with a gap between evacuation from Corunna in January and Wellington's first appearance in Portugal in the summer), where they at least pinned down a large number of French troops, and the Walcheren expedition, a disastrous attempt to occupy the Dutch island of Walcheren which didn't begin until after the battle of Wagram and that saw the British lose 4,000 men to disease. The only major direct British contribution to the Austrian war effort came in the form of money.

The War of 1809 was one of the few occasions when Napoleon did not initiate a conflict. All of the impetus towards war came from the Austrians. There had always been a war party in Austria, and the crushing defeat at Austerlitz in 1805 had only served to confirm its member's belief that Napoleon had to be defeated. Pressure from this war party combined with a more general (if inaccurate) belief that Napoleon would soon turn on Austria yet again to build up a general consensus that war was inevitable. There was a peace party, centred on Archduke Charles, the Emperor Francis's brother, and generalissimos of the Habsburg army. He was responsible for the reforms that created the much improved army of 1809, and stood firmly against any renewal of the war.

The eventual decision to go to war seems to have been inspired by Napoleon's intervention in Spain. The underhand removal of the Bourbon monarchy and its replacement by his brother Joseph outranged monarchists across Europe. The defeat of a French army at Bailen on 21 July 1808 and the British victory at Vimiero on 21 August helped to convince many of the peace party that this was indeed the right time to strike, while many of Napoleon's best troops were pinned down in Spain. This all helped to convince the Emperor that war was inevitable, and by the summer of 1808 Austria was already preparing to renew the fight. Napoleon noticed the war agitation in Austria, and responded by mobilising his German allies and delaying some troops on their way to Spain, and the crisis of 1808 passed.

The Austrian Plan

Austria began to move onto a war footing in February 1809. The official decision to go to war came on 8 February. This was followed by the recall of all soldiers on furlough on 12 February. On the same day the Emperor's brother Archduke Charles was appointed commander of all Habsburg forces, with authority over the entire military machine. Detailing timetables were issued on 15 March, and 16 March the army was ordered to prepare to concentrate and form into nine standard and two reserve corps. The great movement was to begin on 25 February. Finally on 17 February the Emperor ordered the establishment of the Freikorps, a traditional method of recruiting light troops.

Portrait of Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout, 1770-1823
Portrait of
Marshal Louis-Nicolas
Davout, 1770-1823

The initial Austrian plan involved three separate armies. One was to invade Italy and attempt to recover the lost Habsburg possessions there. The second was to threaten the Duchy of Warsaw. The third and largest army, under the command of Archduke Charles, was to invade middle or northern Germany from Bohemia, defeat Davout's Army of the Rhine and then take up a position on the southern Rhine. What would happen after then, when Napoleon was expected to finally arrive on the scene with his main army wasn't entirely clear.

This plan didn’t survive for long. On 12-13 March a new set of orders were issued, moving the main army from Bohemia onto the Danube. The new plan was for an invasion of Bavaria, with the main army operating south of the Danube. The aim was to reach Regensberg before the French and split their army in half, allowing the Austrians to deal with each element separately. The motive for this change of plan is uncertain, but was probably due to a mix of concern for the safety of Vienna if the main army moved away too far to the north-west and reports that the French were beginning to concentrate their armies in Bavaria, further south than had been expected.

Napoleon's Preparations

One key reason for Austrian confidence was the belief that Napoleon would be tied down in Spain for some time, but on 1 January 1809 he received news of a plot against him in Paris. This forced him to leave his armies before the campaign in Spain was complete and return to Paris to deal with the threat, which came from Talleyrand and Napoleon's own chief spy Fouché. Napoleon left Valladolid on 17 January and arriving in Paris on 23 January. During this period he began to focus some of his energy on preparations for a possible war with Austria. Davout's Army of the Rhine and Viceroy Eugène's Army of Italy were both brought up to strength, while Oudinot's corps and d'Espagne's cuirassiers were ordered to move to Augsburg from bases further to the north. Warning letters were also sent to his German allies.

At the start of 1809 Napoleon's military position in Germany was almost as weak as the Austrians imagined it to be. Davout had three infantry and five cavalry divisions in central Germany and another infantry and five light cavalry divisions further to the east. Bernadotte had two divisions in the Hanseatic cities. There were also four weak divisions available in eastern France.

During February Napoleon began to move his scattered German armies closer together. He also ordered the Imperial Guard to leave Spain, and formed the four divisions in France into the nucleus of Massena's 4th Corps. In March Davout was ordered to move his main forces into a central position around Bamberg. The Saxon army was to form up around Dresden to form the left wing of Napoleon's line while Massena and Oudinot were to advance to Augsburg and Ulm. With no real idea of where the Austrians intended to strike, Napoleon had no choice other than to scatter his troops out over such a long line. One mistake was to give overall command of the forces in Germany to Berthier. An able chief of staff, he would soon prove himself unable to cope with the pressures of a semi-independent command.

Portrait of Marshal Jean Lannes, 10 April 1769-1809
Portrait of
Marshal Jean Lannes,
10 April 1769-1809

On 30 March Napoleon issued a detailed set of instructions to Berthier. These instructions were based on two mistakes - first that the Austrians would attack from Bohemia, where their army had initially concentrated, and second that they would not move until mid April at the earliest. Despite these flaws this initial plan still put most of Napoleon's men in locations that allowed them to respond to the real Austrian attack on the Danube. Davout was posted at the left of the French line, at Nuremburg. Massena's corps was posted around Augsburg. The Bavarian army, which made up a corps in its own right, was further forward, on the Isar. Lannes would take command of a new corps.

Napoleon put in place two plans for initial operations. If the Austrians attacked first, then his army was to concentrate the line of the River Lech, which runs south from the Danube to Augsburg, while headquarters would be at Donauwörth. If the Austrians didn’t move until mid-April then headquarters would be further east, at Regensburg. These two alternatives would soon cause confusion. After the Austrian invasion, which came earlier than expected, Berthier managed to confuse the two sets of instructions, and ordered Davout towards Regensburg while the rest of the army formed up much further east, on the Lech.

Early Events on the Danube

The Austrians finally began their invasion of Bavaria on 10 April, crossing the River Inn, a southern tributary of the Danube that at that point marked the border between the two states. At this point the Austrians were in a much stronger position than the French and their Allies. Six Austrian corps were concentrated on the Inn, under the direct command of Archduke Charles. The only remnant of the original plan to invade central Germany from Bohemia was the presence of two more corps on the Austro-Bavaria border west of Pilsen.

The French and their Allies were rather more scattered. Nearest to the Austrians were the Bavarian troops of 7th Corps, but they were spread out with their southernmost division around Munich and their northernmost just to the south of Regensburg. Further west the French 2nd Corps was on the Lech and the 4th on the Iller. To the north of the Danube Davout's 3rd Corps was also scattered, with elements close to Bayreuth, at Nuremburg, and at Neumarkt.

Over the next few days the Austrians advanced slowly through Bavaria, while the French position slowly worsened, mainly due to the efforts of Marshal Berthier, who quickly found himself out of his depth. Misinterpreting Napoleon's orders (which arrived rather out of sequence) he ordered Davout to move to Regensburg, leaving his dangerously isolated, with most other French and Allied troops some way to the south-west and on the opposite bank of the Danube.

Fortunately for the French the Austrian army still couldn't move with any great speed. Their only real military success came at Landshut on 16 April 1809, when they defeated part of Marshal Lefebvre's Bavarian Corps. Even after their slow advance this would still give them a chance to win a major victory, but that chance would soon pass.

Napoleon Reaches the Front: Eggmuhl & Vienna

Napoleon finally reached the front on 17 April, discovering to his dismay that his armies were not where he expected. Davout's position at Regensburg particularly worried him and a series of messengers were dispatched to order Davout to bring his corps onto the southern bank of the Danube then march south-west to join the rest of the army. These messages didn't reach Davout until 18 April, and his corps didn’t begin to move until 19 April. The remaining army corps were to move east from their original starting points to move closer to Davout, and prepare for a counterattack. 

Despite Napoleon's best efforts, the Austrians still had a chance to win a major victory. Charles was in the perfect position to intercept Davout and crush his corps. On the night of 18-19 April the Austrians were based around Rohr, fifteen miles to the south of Regensburg and ten miles east of Neustadt and the only other hostile troops in the immediate area, the Bavarians of Marshal Lefebvre's 7th Corps. With the troops at his disposal Charles could easily have taken on both of these corps, and his first set of orders for 19 April would have given him his chance. This involved moving his army a short distance to the north, putting him across Davout's line of march.

During the night the Austrians intercepted a message from Lefebvre to Davout, informing him that help was on its way. The Austrians took the message to mean that Davout was planning to spend 19 April around Regensburg, and Charles decided to alter his line of march. Instead of the short move north, his entire army would move north-east, then turn north to try and pin Davout against the Danube at Regensburg. Unfortunately for the Austrians Davout began to move south-west early on 19 April. When the Austrians finally made contact, it was only with the left wing of their army, and most of Davout's men had already slipped past the trap. The resulting battle of Teugn-Hausen (19 April 1809) saw Davout fight off the Austrian left, and allowed the rest of his corps to join up with the main French army.

On 20 April the initiative passed to Napoleon. The Austrians were stretched out over a wide area, with their right wing still around Hausen and their left on the Abens River. Napoleon planned to smash his way through the Austrians line on the Abens, then fan out behind them and trap what was left of their army. The only problem with his plan was that Napoleon believed the Austrian right to have been smashed on the previous day, and so his main attack on 20 April hit the Austrian left rather than its centre. Even so the resulting battle of Abensberg was a disaster for the Austrians. The French and their German allies smashed a hole in the Austrian line, forcing Hiller and the left to retreat east back towards Landshut, while Charles and the right remained static around Eggmuhl. The only Austrian success on 20 April came at Regensburg, where the small French garrison was forced to surrender, leaving the bridge over the Danube intact.

Napoleon's misjudgement continued on 21 April. Believing that the main Austrian army was retreating east, and that only a few regiments were left on their right, he left Devout in place to mop up there, and led the main part of his army east to Landshut. Here the French won another victory (battle of Landshut, 21 April 1809), but failed to trap Hiller, who was able to continue his retreat to the east.

Further north it was becoming clear that Davout was facing rather more than the three regiments Napoleon had expected. Instead Davout found himself facing the three largely intact corps of the Austrian right, under the direct command of Archduke Charles. The Austrians also had two corps on the north bank of the Danube, although Charles chose not to bring them south to his aid. On the night of 21-22 April Napoleon finally realised his mistake, and turned the main body of his army north to deal with Charles. Once again the French and their allies won a victory (battle of Eggmühl, 22 April 1809), but once again it was not quite as conclusive as Napoleon would have liked. With the bridge at Regensburg in their hands the Austrians were able to escape to the relative safety of the north bank of the river. The French caught up with the retreating Austrians on 23 April, but were unable to stop them slipping across the river. The battle of Regensburg (23 April 1809) saw the city and the bridge fall into French hands, but only after most of the Austrian army had escaped.

This ended the Bavarian phase of the war. In one week Napoleon had transformed the situation. Davout had been saved and the Austrians beaten in four separate battles. Charles's morale had suffered, and despite still having a sizable army at his disposal after the fighting at Regensburg he felt that his only option was to retreat into Bohemia.

Hiller's Retreat

While Charles manoeuvred on the north bank of the Danube, the left wing of his army, under Hiller, was in a potentially rather dangerous position, facing the main part of Napoleon's army. Hiller's conduct of the retreat was rather variable. Eventually he managed to escape with much of his army intact, but on occasions his optimism nearly caused a disaster. Every slight delay in the French advance was interpreted as a change of fortune and a chance to stand and fight.

Marshal Bessieres on Horseback
Marshal Bessieres
on Horseback

At first Hiller was only facing a small French force under Marshal Bessières, and he even managed to inflict a defeat on this force at Newmarkt (24 April 1809). After this victory Hiller learnt of the Austrian defeats at Eggmuhl and Regensburg and retreated back behind the River Inn, into Austria.

Over the next two weeks Hiller was pursued by Napoleon and the main bulk of the French army. He received a series of orders to cross to the north bank of the Danube to join the main army, but missed a series of chances to obey those orders. An attempt to hold a bridgehead at Linz also failed.

In the aftermath of this failure Hiller had a chance to defeat the line of the River Traun, but this ended in disaster at Ebelsberg (3 May). A failure to destroy the bridge over the Traun and a lack of preparedness meant that the French were able to force the Austrians out of what should have been a strong position. Hiller was forced to retreat across the Enns, this time destroying bridges behind him. Once again the French were held up, and once again Hiller interpreted this as chance to stand and fight, this time on the Ybbs. Only after another defeat, at Blindenmarkt on 6 May, did he finally cross the Danube, on 8 May.

Before crossing the river Hiller detached some of his troops east to defend Vienna, before moving the rest of his command towards the Austrian capital along the north bank. He arrived after the start of the short siege of Vienna (10-13 May 1809) but was unable to prevent the fall of the city. A few days later the main army finally arrived opposite the city, setting the scene for the main act of the war.

The First Crossing of the Danube: Aspern-Essling

Napoleon's victories in Bavaria had not brought him the decisive battle that he had expected (and that on occasion he believed he had won). His advance on Vienna had also disappointed in that respect, and in mid May he was faced with a serious problem. Charles and the main Austrian army were probably facing him across the Danube close to Vienna, but Napoleon couldn't be sure of that, or that Charles would stand and fight. An early attempt to cross the Danube, on the same day as the surrender of Vienna, ended in failure, and Napoleon had to look for an alternative route across the river.

The chosen crossing point was to the east of Vienna, and took advantage of the presence of a large island, the Lobau, close to the northern bank of the river. At this point Napoleon's main worry was that the Austrian army might slip away into Bohemia, forcing him into a long pursuit across difficult country, and so he decided to try and 'bounce' his way across the Danube. The first French troops reached the Lobau on 19 May, and the first bridgehead on the north bank was established on 20 May. The next morning saw both Napoleon and Charles preparing to advance. Napoleon wanted to find the apparently elusive Austrians, while Charles saw a chance to win a limited victory against part of the French army.

When the Austrians finally came into sight, marching to attack Napoleon's left wing around Aspern, his first reaction was to order a retreat back onto the Lobau, but news that a broken bridge over the Danube had been fixed and that fighting had already broken out forced him to stand and fight. On the first day of the battle of Aspern-Essling (21-22 May 1809) the French successfully held their ground against Austrian attacks, and Napoleon prepared to go onto the offensive on 22 May. This attack began fairly well, but the bridges over the Danube were damaged by Austrian attacks, leaving Napoleon cut off from reinforcements or fresh supplies. By 11am it was clear that he could no longer win the battle, and his main aim was to survive until night fall.

After some hard fighting the battle came to an end after one final Austrian attack on Aspern at around 5pm. That night Napoleon's army slipped away onto the Lobau, after having suffered its first serious battlefield defeat.

The Second Crossing of the Danube: Wagram and Znaim

Napoleon responded to this defeat in two ways. The first was to prepare far more carefully for his next attempt to cross the river. The Lobau was strongly fortified, and the bridges to it were much better made and were protected by lines of pilings designed to stop the Austrians from damaging it by floating objects down the Danube. The island became a military camp, filled with every sort of supplies.

The second was to call in as many reinforcements as possible. Bernadotte's Saxon corps was already on its way, and arrived in time to take part in the entire battle. Eugène de Beauharnais also arrived in time with the Army of Italy. Marmont's Army of Dalmatia and Wrede's 2nd Bavarian Division arrived in time to take part in the second day of the battle.

The battle of Wagram (5-6 July 1809) was the largest battle yet in Napoleon's career. It really began late on 4 July when the first French troops crossed from the eastern side of the Lobau onto the north bank of the Danube. A series of prefabricated bridges were in place by the morning of 5 July and by 9am Davout, Oudinot and Massena had each crossed over with their corps. The French advanced north out of their new bridgehead, and established themselves on the Marchfeld, the large plain opposite Vienna.

At the end of this first phase of the battle the main French army was facing north towards the left wing of the Austrian army, on the Russbach Heights. Napoleon decided to launch an attack on those positions late in the day, partly to try and pin the Austrians in place and partly in an attempt to discover how strong they were. This attack failed to gain a foothold on the heights, but did come remarkably close.

On the morning of 6 July both Napoleon and Charles intended to attack their opponent's left wing. Napoleon ordered Davout to attack the eastern end of the Russbach Heights and roll up the Austrian line. Charles sent two army corps to attack the weak French left closest to the Danube. The Austrian attack started first, and caused a serious crisis for Napoleon. He responded by moving Massena's corps across the battlefield, covering that movement with a massive artillery battery. This effectively stopped the Austrian offensive.

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

Napoleon then began his own main attack. Davout was making steady progress on the right, and so Napoleon decided to send Macdonald to attack the Austrian centre. This attack, using 8,000 men in a massive hollow square, was an expensive failure, but by now Charles had learnt that his expected reinforcements would not arrive in time. As Davout continued to push back his left and the French attack in the centre regained momentum, Charles decided to retreat. The orders were issued at 2.30, and over the next few hours the battered Austrian army slipped away to the north.

The battle of Wagram was a clear French victory, but the Austrian army was still intact, and in the immediate aftermath of the battle Napoleon didn't know where it had gone. His response was to send several columns up some of possible routes. Massena was sent up the correct road, the highway to Znaim, but was held up by the Austrian rearguard on 9 July (combat of Hollabrunn). On the same day Marmont, who had been sent up the road to Brünn, but who had turned off to head towards Laa, ran into another part of the Austrian army (combat of Laa, 9 July 1809). Marmont misinterpreted what he was seeing, but correctly reported that the main Austrian army was at Znaim.

On 10 July Marmont reached Znaim with his Bavarian and French troops (battle of Znaim, 10-11 July 1809). At first he believed he was facing the Austrian rearguard, but after some initial successes it became clear that most of the Austrian army was in front of him, and he was lucky to hold onto his early gains. At the same time Massena was being help up again (combat of Schöngrabern)

On the next morning Massena arrived to attack the Austrian position from the south, while Napoleon joined Marmont. Massena's attack carried him across the Thaya River and close to Znaim itself before an Austrian counterattack nearly caused disaster. French cavalry restored the situation, and the French were advancing slowly across most of the battlefield when the fighting was ended by the announcement of an armistice.

Italy and Hungary

In 1805 Napoleon formed the Kingdom of Italy, ignoring previous treaty agreements. After failing to find an alternative candidate he had crowned himself as King of Italy, and appointed his son-in-law, Eugène de Beauharnais, as Viceroy. At first the kingdom consisted of the former Ligurian (Genoa) and Cisalpine (Milan, Modena) and the Venetian territories west of the Adige) Republics, but after Austerlitz the Austrians were forced to surrender parts of Venetia, Istria and Dalmatia, and the kingdom stretched across northern Italy. In 1809 the border with Austria ran along the Julian Alps.

At the start of the War of the Fifth Coalition the Army of Italy was scattered across much of north-eastern Italy in an attempt not to provoke the Austrians. Two divisions were in the far north-east, around Udine. The rest of the army was stretched out across northern Italy with the furthest elements of the army at Lake Garda.

Napoleon expected the Austrians to send 100,000 regular troops across the Alps at the start of any war, but this time they surprised him, and only sent 50,000 men in two corps, under the command of Archduke John, a younger brother of the Emperor and of Archduke Charles, the overall army commander. This meant that the Austrians would be weaker on the Italian front than Napoleon had expected, but that they would be correspondingly stronger on main Danube front.

Despite his limited number the Archduke's campaign began well. His envoys carried the declaration of war to the French outposts on 9 April, and on the following day his troops forced the French out of their most advanced posts. Eugène was forced to abandon his original plans for a stand on the Tagliamento River, and withdrew to Sacile, on the Livenza. The Austrians followed the retreating French closely, and so on 16 April, when Eugène attempted to attack what he believed to be the Austrian advance-guard, the Archduke was able to win what might have been an important victory (Battle of Sacile). Eugène was forced to retreat back to the Adige, with the Austrians following close behind.

The Austrian's promising position in Italy was undermined by news from the Danube, where Napoleon had taken command and had won a series of victories, at Abensberg (19-20 April), Landeshut (21 April), Eggmuhl (22 April) and Ratisbon (23 April). Vienna would soon fall to the French, and the Archduke was ordered to abandon his advance into Italy and pull back to the north-east. For the moment he was ordered to hold on in north-eastern Italy.

This would not prove possible. The Austrian retreat encouraged Prince Eugène and the Army of Italy. The Austrians suffered a series of minor defeats as they retreated back across Italy, before Eugène won his first major victory, on the Piave on 8 May. In the aftermath of this retreat the Archduke was forced to retreat back into the Alps, sending part of his army east towards Trieste, while he led most of it towards the north-eastern corner of modern Italy and the road towards Vienna. Eugène copied him, sending General Macdonald towards Trieste while he followed John.

Both wings of the French army won further victories, pushing the Austrians out of the mountains. Eugène prevented them from making a stand at Tarvisio (18 May), forcing the Archduke to retreat east towards back to Graz. Eugène then moved north-east through the mountains towards Napoleon at Vienna, winning a lucky victory at St. Michael on 25 May when he stumbled into an Austrian division that was moving from west-to-east across his path. Macdonald occupied Trieste, then captured 4,000 Austrians at Laybach (Ljubljana) on 22 May, before turning north towards the Archduke's new position at Graz. By the end of May the Archduke had been forced east, onto the Raab River.

Archduke John now became involved in an argument with his brother, Archduke Charles. John wanted to retain his army's independence and operate against the French to his south, thus hoping to prevent Eugène from joining with Napoleon. Charles wanted him to cross the Danube and join the main army. On 21-21 May Napoleon had suffered his first ever battlefield defeat, at Aspern-Essling, while attempting to cross the Danube. While Charles hoped that this might lead to a peace treaty, he also wanted to strengthen his army in case Napoleon attempted to cross the river for a second time. Charles won the argument, and John was ordered to march up to the city of Raab and cross the Danube. At Raab he would join up with his brother Joseph and the Hungarian Insurrection, a militia called out in emergencies.

As John moved north-east towards Raab, Eugène was moving south from Wiener Neustadt to intercept him. The Archduke escaped from this trap, but the French were close on his trail. Eugène just missed a chance to force a battle at Papa on 12 June, but this only delayed things by two days. After a skirmish on 13 June the Austrian commanders still seem to have believed that they outnumbered the French, but in fact the two armies were about the same size, each 40,000 strong. To make things worse 10,000 of the Austrian troops were the inexperienced, badly trained and badly equipped Insurrection, and 8,000 troops were posted off the battlefield! The resulting battle of Raab (14 June 1809) was another major victory for Eugène, despite some determined fighting by the Austrian infantry. The French were eventually about to outflank the Austrian left, forced the Archduke to order a retreat before he was trapped against the Little Danube. Eugène was criticised for the sluggish pursuit that allowed most of the Austrians to escape, but he had still inflicted around 10,000 casualties on the Austrians, and forced them to abandon the southern bank of the Danube.

In the aftermath of this defeat the Archduke moved up the Danube to Pressburg, where he would remain for most of the rest of the war. In contrast Eugène was able to move up towards Vienna to join the main French army, taking part in the battle of Wagram (5-6 July 1809). A few minor skirmishes took place after this, before news of the armistice ended the fighting around Pressburg.


The third most important theatre of war was in Poland. Here the French had created the Duchy of Warsaw, the first nominally independent Polish entity since the country had been partitioned out of existence in 1795. All three of the Duchy's most important neighbours (Austria, Prussia and Russia) disliked its very existence, fearing that it would act as a nucleus for a revived Polish state and would trigger revolts amongst their own Polish subjects.

The Austrian plan for the invasion of the Duchy was nothing if not ambitious. An army under Archduke Ferdinand Karl Josef d'Este was to capture Warsaw, defeat the Polish army and repartition Poland. Part would go to Prussia to bring them into the war, another part possibly to Russia to keep them out of it. While this was going on Ferdinand was to turn left and bring his army into central Germany to join the main Austrian army (this final part of the plan was abandoned after the main army moved from Bohemia onto the Danube). Ferdinand had the 30,000 men of VII Corps to achieve his aims.

He was facing a much smaller Polish army, 14,200 men under the command of Prince Joseph Poniatowski. Many of these men were inexperienced and the army itself was only a few years old. The high command was experienced - Poniatowski, Dabrowksi and Zajaczek had years of experience - but they detested each other, making cooperation very difficult.

Ferdinand opened the fighting in Poland, crossing the border at the Pilica River south of Warsaw on 15 April. Poniatowski advanced to Raszyn, where he decided to make a stand in an attempt to defend Warsaw. The resulting battle of Raszyn (19 April 1809) was effectively a draw, but the Poles suffered heavier losses than the Austrians and withdrew back to Warsaw. Ferdinand then made a critical mistake. Ignoring the part of his orders that called on him to destroy the Polish army, he instead negotiated for the peaceful occupation of Warsaw. This was agreed on 21 April. The Poles were allowed to move anything they wanted out of the city, and so by the end of 23 April their army and all of its supplies were on their way to Modlin and Serock. Ferdinand occupied Warsaw, but he agreed not to fire across the Vistula on the Polish bridgehead at Praga, while the Poles agreed not to bombard their own capital from Braga. Ferdinand's main motivation was a belief that the Prussians would accept Warsaw and enter the war, freeing him to move into Germany to face the real enemy. Instead the Prussians stayed firmly out of the war, the Austrians were forced to leave a large garrison in Warsaw, and the Poles were given time to reorganise their army.

Ferdinand's next move was to try and cross the Vistula at Gora, south of Warsaw. Work on a bridge began, but at the same time Mohr's brigade was shipped across by the end of 22 April, and had surrounded the Poles at Braga by 24 April. Mohr was now in a very dangerous position, facing Poniatowski's 14,000 men with only 5,000 men of his own, and no bridge across the Vistula. Poniatowski could see his opportunity, but didn't know that there was no bridge. On the night of 24-25 April he led about half of his army towards Mohr, fighting two separate combats at Radzymin and Grochow on 25 April. This was something of a missed chance for the Poles. Mohr suffered around 400 casualties, and was forced to retreat back towards Gora, but a more determined attack might have destroyed his brigade. As it was this Polish success, fought in clear sight of Warsaw, gave the Poles a great moral advantage as the campaign continued.

Ferdinand now decided to move his entire army across the Vistula. Mohr's brigade was temporarily moved back to the west bank of the river while work continued on the bridge. A small detachment was left on the east bank to build a bridgehead. On the Polish side Poniatowski was becoming more confident, and by 29 April he had decided on a very bold course of action. Instead of trying to defeat Ferdinand around Warsaw, he would invade East Galicia, part of the Austrian Empire gained during the Partitions of Poland. This bold offensive began with an attack on the Austrian bridgehead at Gora (3 May), which ended in a clear Polish victory. The Austrians were now trapped on the west bank of the river. Polish forces now swept across East Galicia. After a minor setback at Kock on 6 May they reached Lublin then advanced south to the River San. Another Polish column advanced along the Vistula, reaching Sandomierz, which fell on 18 May after a brief siege, while further to the east Zamosc was taken on 20 May. After these successes Poniatowski decided to pause on the San to see how events would unfold.

While the Poles were having success in Galicia, the Austrians were involved in a pointless expedition towards Thorn, north-west of Warsaw. The main bulk of his army advanced as far as Gabin, while Mohr was sent ahead to Thorn. After some initial successes on the night of 14-15 May Mohr attempted to besiege the city (14-18 May), before being recalled after news arrived of the Polish invasion of Galicia. Ferdinand attempted to restore the situation by leading most of his command south towards the main Polish army. One detachment had already been sent south in an attempt to save Sandomierz, but arrived far too late. Ferdinand's next plan involved the rapid recapture of that city, after which his army would split in two and operate on both banks of the Vistula. As the Austrians moved south fresh Polish troops appeared in the north, and on the night of 1-2 June the Austrians were forced to abandon Warsaw. By the start of June the focus of operations had moved to Sandomierz. Ferdinand and about half of his men were outside the city to the north. Most of Poniatowski's men were either inside Sandomierz, or just to the south of the city, between the San and Vistula.

Ferdinand soon had to abandon his plans to cross the Vistula to the north of Sandomierz, and instead decided to try and retake the city by crossing the river upstream and operating against the Poles between the Vistula and the San. Poniatowski retreated to the San, taking up a position at Gorzyce. On 12 June he fought a defensive battle against the Austrian advance guard, despite his army being split in half by the San. The battle ended in a draw, but the Poles were forced to withdraw to the east bank of the San. The reason for this was the disappointing behaviour of their Russian 'allies'. Officially still allied with Napoleon, the Russians eventually sent troops across the border into East Galicia, although only after the Austrians had been forced out by the Poles. One Russian division reached the San opposite Gorzyce on 11 June, but then refused to take part in the battle. This left the garrison of Sandomierz dangerously isolated. Their commander negotiated generous terms, and on 19 June the garrison marched out to rejoin the main Polish army.

The arrival of the Russians ended the most dramatic phase of the war in Poland. They had no intentions of actually fighting the Austrians, and Ferdinand did not want to provoke them, so he was unable to cross the San to attack Poniatowski. When the Russians did finally cross the San they advanced very slowly, but only after a period in which they had effectively prevented the Poles from taking any offensive actions. The end result of this was that both Ferdinand and Poniatowski crossed to the west (left) bank of the Vistula. The Austrians were now very much on the defensive, but little more fighting took place in this theatre before the news of the armistice agreed at Znaim ended the war.


Dalmatia had been in French hands since the aftermath of the battle of Austerlitz in 1805. In 1809 it was being run by Marmont, who had two infantry divisions at his disposal (Clausel and Montrichard). His orders were to join the Army of Italy as quickly as possible.

The Austrians intended to invade and reoccupy Dalmatia. This was to be achieved by General von Stoichevich, with a brigade of around 8,000 men. Marmont was able to post around 11,000 men on his northern border.

The fighting began on 26 April with an Austrian advance across the border and into the Zrmanja river valley. The Austrians had the best of the early exchanges, capturing key positions along the river and then fighting off a French counterattack. This was followed by something of a stalemate, as the Austrians remained in their new positions and the French prepared for another round of attacks. 

The stalemate was broken on 16 May. Marmont concentrated most of his men against the Austrian left around Kravibrod and Mt. Kita. On 16 May (Combat of Kita) he forced the Austrians away from their positions around Mt. Kita and forced them to retreat back to Gracac, captured Stoichevich during the battle. On 17 May the Austrians held their own in fighting around Gracac, but were forced to retreat when the French threatened to outflank them. The Austrians retreated to Gospic, where once again they held their own against Marmont (combat of Gospic, 21-22 May 1809), but were once again forced to retreat, this time by a combination of near-exhaustion and orders to send two of their best battalions to reinforce another Austrian army. The retreat was less kind to the Austrians. Many of the local troops deserted as the army moved away from their home areas, and the rest of the army narrowly escaped from the French at Zutalovka (25 May 1809). In the aftermath of this fight the two armies moved off in different directions. The Austrians moved north-east and attempted to rebuild their forces, while Marmont moved west to the coast, before turning north to join with the Army of Italy. The overall success of Napoleon's plan to concentrate his forces was demonstrated on 6 July, the second day of the battle of Wagram, when the Army of Dalmatia reached the battlefield.


The road to peace began several days before the battle of Znaim. In the aftermath of his defeat at Wagram Archduke Charles had become increasingly pessimistic about the chances of his army surviving another battle, and began to press for an armistice. On 8 July the Emperor Francis decided to send General Johann, Fürst von Liechtenstein as a peace envoy to Napoleon. Early on 10 July news reached the Austrians at Znaim that Napoleon had accepted Liechtenstein's appointment. He turned over command of his troops to Schwarzenberg, and headed south towards Stockerau, where the main road south from Znaim reached the Danube. Liechtenstein's journey would be largely pointless, and he only reached Napoleon's camp on the night of 11-12 July.

At the end of 10 July Charles tried to arrange a local armistice with Marmont, using Liechtenstein's mission to justify it, but this offer was refused. On the afternoon of 11 July Napoleon decided to accept this offer. The staff officers were sent out to bring the battle to an end, and negotiations began between Berthier and Wimpffen to arrange a one-month long armistice. It was at this stage that Liechtenstein appeared. Charles accepted the armistice agreed by Wimpffen, and the military phase of the war came to an end.

The initial armistice terms were harsh, and caused a great deal of discontent in Vienna. Charles resigned on 23 July, a victim of his opponents at court who had used the armistice to turn his brother against him. Two sets of negotiations began - a formal meeting at Altenburg and more informal direct communications between the two emperors. It was this second set of negotiations that eventually led to the appointment of Liechtenstein to negotiate the peace treaty, and the eventual signing of the Peace of Schönbrunn on 14 October. This treaty saw Austria lose her remaining access to the sea, 20% of her population (3.5 millions people), limit her army to 150,000 men and agree to pay a war indemnity of 85 million gulden. The Poles gained most of Galicia, although Russia was rewarded with Tarnopol. Bavaria gained Salzburg and a number of provinces on the River Inn. Trieste was lost, as was all of Croatia and Dalmatia south of the River Save.

It is unlikely that any of the participants in the War of 1809 would have suspected that it would be Napoleon's last victorious campaign, but that would be the case. In 1810 and 1811 Napoleon had a chance to focus on the Peninsular War, but he never returned to Spain, and that war continued on, becoming a major drain on French resources. In 1812 he embarked on the disastrous invasion of Russia, which ended with the destruction of his last great army.  Napoleon was able to take a large but inexperienced army into Germany for the campaign of 1813, but despite some successes that campaign ended with defeat at Leipzig, and a second major French army was destroyed. The defensive campaign of 1814 showed Napoleon almost back to his best, but despite a number of missed chances ended in defeat and abdication. Finally the famous Hundred Days of 1815 ended with defeat at Waterloo and a return to exile.


1809 Thunder on the Danube: Napoleon's Defeat of the Habsburgs, Volume I: Abensberg, John H. Gill. The first volume in a monumental account of the 1809 war between France and the Habsburg Empire, Napoleon's last victorious war, looking at the reasons behind the Austrian declaration of war and the early battles that ended the Austrian invasion of Bavaria and paved the war for Napoleon's campaign around Vienna. [read full review]
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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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1809 Thunder on the Danube: Napoleon's Defeat of the Habsburgs, Volume III: Wagram and Znaim, John H. Gill. The third part of a very impressive narrative history of the War of the Fifth Coalition, looking at the final battles at Wagram and Znaim and the subsidiary campaigns in Poland, Hungary, Dalmatia, Styria and the Tyrol. Manages to be both very detailed and readable and coherent, a very impressive achievement. [read full review]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (17 November 2010), Franco-Austrian War of 1809 (War of the Fifth Coalition),

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