“Ground I may recover, time never.“ – The Battle of Wagram

5 July 1809, near Vienna, the Battle of Wagram began, with 300,000 men involved one of the greatest battles of the age, ending in a costly, hard-won victory for Napoleon on the following day.

“Be fair, my friends! To be the empire of such an emperor, what a splendid destiny for a nation, when that nation is France, and when it adds its genius to the genius of such a man ! To appear and to reign, to march and to triumph, to have every capital for a staging area, to take his grenadiers and make kings of them, to decree the downfall of dynasties, to transfigure Europe at a double quickstep, so men feel, when you threaten, that you are laying your hand on the hilt of God’s sword, to follow in one man Hannibal , Caesar, and Charlemagne, to be the people of a man who mingles with your every dawn the glorious announcement of a battle won, to be wakened in the morning by the cannon of the Invalides, to hurl into the vault of day mighty words that blaze forever, Marengo, Arcola, Austerlitz, lena, Wagram ! To repeatedly call forth constellations of victories at the zenith of the centuries, to make the French Empire the successor of the Roman Empire, to be the grand nation and to bring forth the Grand Army, to send your legions flying across the whole earth as a mountain sends out its eagles, to vanquish, to rule, to strike thunder, to be for Europe a kind of golden people through glory, to sound through history a Titan’s fanfare, to conquer the world twice, by conquest and by resplendence, that is sublime. What could be greater?" (Victor Hugo, “Les Misérables”)

Napoleon at Wagram by the leading French authority on “Blood and Thunder” sujets, Horace Vernet (1836)

Few European armies have been ridiculed as much as the Imperial Austrians and indeed, the conduct of their high command during most of the 19th century and, more often than not, in the Great War was ridiculous, subsumed by the Czech-Austrian wit Roda Roda in bomots like “Hötzendorf and his Austrians delayed the Russians until military arrived.” But the Austrians under Daun and Laudon were able to beat even Frederick the Great several times and if their conduct against the armies of Revolutionary France and later Napoleon was poor, so was that of the rest of the Europeans, including that of the celebrated Prussians. After the humiliating Peace of Pressburg in 1805, the defeated Austrians had time to reform their armies and learn from the bitter lessons received on the battlefields from Marengo to Austerlitz. And they did, with a vengeance, up to the point of bankruptcy looming over Vienna and the Danubian Monarchy and when Napoleon’s back was turned to Spain and the Peninsular War, the Austrians under Archduke Charles invaded the French satellite state of Bavaria even without a formal declaration of war in April 1809. Charles initial successes and rapid advance up the Danube was soon halted when the experienced French commanders asserted themselves and Napoleon himself arrived on the scene. Charles was driven back across the border but blew up the bridges across the Great River to deny the advancing Grande Armée d'Allemagne the access to Vienna and when Napoleon managed to cross the Danube on improvised pontoon bridges, Charles managed to inflict on him the first major defeat he had to suffer when he commanded an army in person, at Aspern-Essling in May 1809. Both sides had bled considerably in battle, Archduke Charles was all for opening negotiations with Napoleon as long as they still could, but his brother, Emperor Francis, opted for continuing the war while Napoleon prepared his second crossing of the river. Vienna fell, on May 13th and Charles, compelled by his brother’s decision, prepared to “strike one more blow against the French" but "risk nothing or as little as possible", an attitude that usually ended in tears when fighting Napoleon.

Napoleon leading his troops during the crossing of the Danube before the Battle of Wagram, July 1809, by Frédéric Naulet

Bolstered with men and materiel from Beauharnais’ army led out of Italy and victorious in two battles over the Austrians under Archduke John, at Raab and Graz, Napoleon finally managed to establish a stable way across the Danube at the Lobau, a floodplain close to Vienna. “The Danube no longer exists for the French army", he wrote on July 2nd and three days later and 8 weeks after Aspern, the French crossed the river again in strength and despite a continuous barrage from enemy artillery, 150,000 men were ready around noontime of July 5th, to strike at Archduke Charles and the Austrian army from the bridgehead at Groß-Enzersdorf. In the afternoon, French troops under Massena had captured the villages of Aspern and Essling and when night fell, Napoleon’s troops were stretched in a wide semi-circle across the Marchfeld plain east of Vienna with the centre near Wagram. A last attack led by MacDonald foundered under heavy Austrian fire and the battle would continue on the next day while an attempt to destroy the improvised bridges across the Danube to cut off Napoleon’s supply failed. On the next day, under withering artillery fire from both sides, the Austrians and the French with their Italian, Bavarian and Polish allies battled across the Marchfeld until the Austrian left wing was enveloped by Davout’s divisions, a charge led again by MacDonald finally broke the Austrian centre and around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, Archduke Charles’ army, or what was left of it, was in full retreat. Napoleon had won the Battle of Wagram.

Albrecht Adam: Nach der Schlacht bei Wagram, 6. Juli 1809 (After the Battle of Wagram)

Not that the French butcher’s bill looked much better than the Austrian’s. Despite Napoleon claims of having lost a few thousand men in battle, casualties numbered in fact up to 40,000 dead, wounded or missing while the Austrians had suffered about the same losses. After the defeat at Aspern and the loss of 20,000 more men, Wagram was the first of Napoleon’s battles he had won only with accepting and suffering a considerable amount of casualties. But Austria was, by and large, out of the War of the Fifth Coalition and forced to conclude another humiliating peace, this time at Schönbrunn, imposing a heavy political toll on House Habsburg, both in territorial losses and indemnities paid. However, Aspern-Essling and Wagram showed that it was indeed possible to defeat Napoleon in open battle and that sensible strategic and tactical insights and actions were no longer a French domain while even Napoleon found it difficult to cope with the losses of experienced officers and veteran troops who knew their trade. Along with the size the involved armies had grown to, made now often enough of green recruits who needed considerably more attention to perform the complex and often foolhardy manoeuvres expected of them, things became rather unwieldy. Napoleon faced the same challenges when he invaded Russia three years later and paid dearly for the consequences. In a way, his victory at Wagram was the beginning of the end.

And more about the Battle of Wagram on: