Engagement at Landshut, 16 April 1809

The engagement at Landshut of 16 April 1809 was one of the few Austrian successes during their invasion of Bavaria at the start of the Franco-Austrian War of 1809 (War of the Fifth Coalition). At the start of the war the Austrians had intended to advance from Bohemia into central Germany, but in mid-March that plan was abandoned and the main army was forced to march from Bohemia to a new starting point on the River Inn, south of the Danube, ready for an invasion of Bavaria. The main Austrian army was in place by 9 April, and on the following day Archduke Charles began the war by crossing the Inn and marching into Bavaria.

Marshal Berthier at Work
Marshal Berthier at Work

By the end of 15 April the Austrians had been presented with a chance to inflict a damaging defeat on Napoleon's scattered forces. Berthier, who had been appointed to command the Army of Germany before the start of the war, had misinterpreted Napoleon's instructions, and divided his army into three. The largest part of the army was on the River Lech, on the southern side of the Danube. The second and third parts of the army were both some fifty miles to the east. To the north of the Danube Davout's corps was approaching Regensburg (Ratisbon), although it was rather badly spread out.

The Bavarians of 7th Corps (commanded by Marshal Lefebvre) were the only troops directly in the path of the advancing Austrians, and even they were split up. One division was at Landshut, on the Isar, where the Austrians intended to cross the river. A second was at Abensburg, while a third was away to the west, at Au, with detachments at Allershausen and Attenkirchen. This presented Archduke Charles, who was approaching the Isar with the main Austrian army, with a chance to brush aside the divided Bavarians then turn north to crush Davout before the rest of Napoleon's army could arrive on the scene. The Austrians would miss this chance for two reasons. The most commonly quoted problem was their lack of speed, something that recurred on several occasions during the war of 1809, but the most important reason was that they didn't realise how badly scattered the French and their Allies actually were. Even the exact location of the three Bavarian divisions was unknown. As Charles approached Landshut he knew that one division (GL von Deroy's 3rd Division) was facing him at the river, but the Austrians had no idea that the Bavarians were so badly scattered, and believed that they might be facing the entire Bavarian army.

The first Austrian troops, a cavalry patrol, reached Landshut on 13 April, but left on the same day. It was followed by a cavalry platoon that arrived during 15 April, under the command of a member of the Austrian General Staff, Joseph von Simbschen. He attempted to persuade the Bavarians to let the Austrians cross the river unopposed, but without success. All of these troops came from GM Josef von Radetzky's advance guard of the Austrian V Corps (commanded by Archduke Ludwig). During the evening of 15 April Radetzky sent two companies of Grenzer (infantry from the border with the Ottoman Empire) into the city, and that night another two companies of Grenzer and one squadron of cavalry were sent to guard the line of the Isar on both sides of the city.

The Bavarian commander, GL Bernhard Erasmus Deroy, was in a difficult position. His single division would clearly soon be badly outnumbered, and the rest of the Bavarian army was at some distance. His position on the flatter northern banks of the river was overlooked by the high ground on the south bank, and by the buildings of Landshut. Of the two bridges across the river one linked the city to its suburbs via an island in the river (the Spitalbrücke), and could be comparatively easily defended, but the second (the Lendbrücke) led onto open fields which could be dominated by Austrian guns on the high ground to the south. Just to add to his problems the entire position at Landshut could easily be turned from either flank. His solution was to split his division in half. Most of the artillery and about half of the men were placed on some high ground to the north, while the other half defended the line of the river. Once it was clear that the Austrians were across in some force this half of the division could retreat under cover of the guns on the hills to the north.

On the morning of 16 April the Austrians made two more attempts to negotiate their way across the river. By the time these had failed Archduke Charles had arrived in person, and ordered Radetzky to force his way across the river, occupy the far bank and repair the two damaged bridges. Radetzky began with an artillery bombardment, starting at around 11 am; the Bavarians responded and an artillery duel across the river followed. At the Spitalbrücke the Bavarians held their ground, but at the Lendbrücke the Austrian guns forced the Bavarians to pull back, and by 1.30 the Austrian pioneers had repaired the bridge. At about the same time Deroy learnt that the Austrians had crossed the river further upstream at Moosburg, so his right flank was well and truly turned. Realising that it was time to retreat Deroy ordered his men to pull back from the line of the river and to concentrate around Altdorf, at the entrance to a valley that ran north-west through the hills and that was to be his escape route. Also at about this time Deroy sent off messages asking for reinforcements, unaware that some of the nearest Bavarian troops were already moving in his direction.

By about 4pm part of the Austrian V Corps had finally begun to cross the river, freeing Radetzky to pursue the retreating Bavarians. Ten Grenzer companies were sent north-east in an attempt to get around the Bavarian left, while four squadrons of cavalry attacked the main Bavarian rearguard. This attack failed, as did a series of Austrian attacks on Deroy's rearguard at Altdorf, Pfettrach, Arth and Weihmichl. During all of the clashes Radetzky's troops were outnumbered by Deroy's command, and eventually Radetzky decided to call off the pursuit and retired to Pfettrach.

Both sides could be satisfied with the way their troops had fought around Landshut. Casualties had been low, at 96 killed, wounded and missing for the Austrians and 168 (including 40 deserters) for the Bavarians. The Austrians had crossed the last major obstacle before the Danube, and were in a great position to inflict a significant defeat on Napoleon and his Allies, if only they had moved with any speed. Instead the Austrians hesitated, while at the same time Napoleon took direct command of his armies. Over the next few days the Austrian invasion of Bavaria ground to a halt, before turning into a retreat back towards Vienna.

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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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (18 October 2010), Engagement at Landshut, 16 April 1809 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/engagement_landshut.html

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