Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

The Austrian Campaign


On a certain memorable occasion, Walpole is said to have made the remark, "They are ringing the bells now; they will be wringing their hands soon!" with reference to a universal out-cry for war on the part of Great Britain. Had it been uttered by an Austrian statesman at the beginning of 1809, it would have been equally apposite. Thinking men recognised that the army was not yet prepared to meet Napoleon, despite the fact that since the Austerlitz campaign of 1805 the improvement of her military forces had engrossed the attention of Archduke Charles, the Commander-in-chief. He was convinced that his troops were not ready to take the field, and he led the peace party solely on this account. The war party, however, headed by Count Stadion, the able and energetic Minister of Foreign Affairs, and aided by the Empress, who had considerable influence over her august husband, proved more powerful. Its supporters felt confident that as the war in Spain necessarily occupied so much of Napoleon's attention, and had drawn off such a large proportion of his troops, the time to strike was come. Austrian diplomatists had vainly endeavoured to woo both Russia and Prussia without success; the Czar had no wish at that moment to break with his ally; Frederick William trembled for his throne.

In January 1809, war was imminent. Napoleon, deceived as to the real state of affairs in Spain, set out on his return journey to France on the 16th. He at once began to organise his forces, Berthier being placed in command until the Emperor's arrival at the seat of war. Napoleon's explicit instructions were as follows:

"By the 1st April the corps of Marshal Davout, which broke up from the Oder and Lower Elbe on the 17th March, will be established between Nuremberg, Bamberg, and Baireuth: Massena will be around Ulm: Oudinot between Augsburg and Donauworth. From the 1st to the 15th, three French corps, 130,000 strong, besides 10,000 allies, the Bavarians in advance on the Iser, and the Wurtembergers in reserve, may be concentrated on the Danube at Ratisbon or Ingolstadt. Strong tetes-de-pont  should be thrown up at Augsburg, to secure the passage of the Lech at Ingolstadt, in order to be able to debouch to the left bank of the Danube; and above all at Passau, which should be able to hold out two or three months. The Emperor's object is to concentrate his army as soon as possible at Ratisbon: the position on the Lech is to be assumed only if it is attacked before the concentration at the former town is possible. The second corps will be at Ratisbon by the 10th, and on that day Bessieres will also arrive with the reserve cavalry of the Guard: Davout will be at Nuremberg: Massena at Augsburg: Lefebvre at one or two marches from Ratisbon. Headquarters then may be safely established in that town, in the midst of 200,000 men, guarding the right bank of the Danube from Ratisbon to Passau, by means of which stream provisions and supplies of every sort will be procured in abundance. Should the Austrians debouch from Bohemia or Ratisbon, Davout and Lefebvre should fall back on Ingolstadt or Donauworth."

On the 9th April, when hostilities began, the strength of Napoleon's forces was as follows:—His newly-named Army of Germany, on the Danube, numbered 174,000 troops, including some 54,000 of the Rhenish Confederacy; the Army of Italy consisted of 68,000; in Saxony there were about 20,000; in Poland 19,000; in Dalmatia 10,500. Consequently the Emperor had 291,500 troops at his disposal, some 275,000 of whom were ready to confront Austria by the middle of the month. This is an enormous number when it is remembered that he was still at war with Spain, where 300,000 men were engaged, but he had had recourse to his old plan of forestalling the conscription, whereby he had obtained 80,000 recruits.

The Austrian forces were divided into three armies: that of Germany, under Archduke Charles, consisting of 189,684 troops; of Italy, under Archduke John, totaling 64,768, including those for action in Tyrol under Chasteler; and of Galicia, under Archduke Ferdinand, with 35,400; in all 289,852. The Reserves, made up of the landwehr  and levées en masse  reached 244,247, but as Mr F. Loraine Petre points out in his masterly study of this campaign, only some 15,000 of the landwehr  were used with the active army at the beginning of hostilities. "There was little of the spirit of war in the landwehr," he adds, "and discipline was very bad. One battalion attacked and wounded its chief with the bayonet. Two others refused to march. Eleven Bohemian battalions could only be got to march when regular troops were added to them. Even then they only averaged about 500 men each, and those badly equipped and armed." But while this organisation was of little practical service at the moment, it was creating a healthy public opinion which could not fail to be beneficial in the years to come.

Already Napoleon's military glory was beginning to decline. In some of his principles he "became false to himself," he omitted to make his orders to his subordinates sufficiently clear, and on one occasion, in the early stage of the campaign, threw away "chances of a decisive battle which would then probably have made an end of the war." He also exhibited the utmost contempt for a country which "had profited by the lessons he had taught her," with the result that "her armies, and her commander-in-chief, were very different from the troops and leaders of 1796 and 1805," when he had crossed swords with Austria.

Yet another failing is pointed out by Mr Petre. "Napoleon's wonderful successes in every previous campaign," he notes, "and the height to which his power had risen, by the practical subjugation of all Europe to his dominion, tended to fan the flame of his pride, to make him deem himself invincible and infallible, to cause him to assume that what he desired was certain to happen. The wish now began to be father to the thought. Of this we shall find numerous instances in this campaign, the most notable, perhaps, being when, notwithstanding Davout's positive assertions that the greater part of the Austrian army was in front of himself, the Emperor persisted in believing that Charles was in full retreat on Vienna by the right bank of the Danube. His constant over-estimates of his own forces, not in bulletins but in letters to his generals and ministers, are other examples of this failing."

The campaign opened in Bavaria, where 176,000 Austrians assembled early in April 1809. Berthier, doubtless acting for the best as he conceived it, instead of concentrating at Ratisbon, Ingolstadt or Donauworth according to orders, had seen fit to scatter his forces, "in the dangerous view," as Alison puts it, "of stopping the advance of the Austrians at all points." As a result of Berthier's blunder Davout at Ratisbon and Massena at Augsburg were thirty-five leagues from each other, and Archduke Charles with 100,000 troops were interposed between them. About Ingolstadt were the Bavarians under Wrede, Lefebvre, and the reserve under Oudinot, the only forces available to oppose the Austrians, whose march, fortunately for the French, was extremely slow.

The Emperor arrived at Donauworth on the 17th April, and at once saw the danger. "What you have done appears so strange," he wrote to Berthier, "that if I was not aware of your friendship I should think you were betraying me; Davout is at this moment more completely at the disposal of the Archduke than of myself."

It was Napoleon's task to bring the two armies in touch with each other so that a combined movement might become possible. "One word will explain to you the urgency of affairs," the Emperor wrote to Massena on the 18th. "Archduke Charles, with 80,000 men, debouched yesterday from Landshut on Ratisbon; the Bavarians contended the whole day with the advanced guard. Orders have been dispatched to Davout to move with 60,000 troops in the direction of Neustadt, where he will form a junction with the Bavarians. To-morrow (19th) all your troops who can be mustered at Pfaffenhofen, with the Wurtembergers, a division of cuirassiers, and every man you can collect, should be in a condition to fall on the rear of Archduke Charles. A single glance must show you that never was more pressing occasion for diligence and activity than at present. With 60,000 good troops, Davout may indeed make head against the Archduke; but I consider him ruined without resource, if Oudinot and your three divisions are on his rear before daybreak on the 19th, and you inspire the soldiers with all they should feel on so momentous an occasion. Everything leads us to the belief that between the 18th, 19th, and 20th, all the affairs of Germany will be decided."

On the 19th Davout withdrew from Ratisbon, leaving only the 65th French infantry to guard the bridge over the Danube, and after a severe but indecisive action at Haussen, reached Abensberg in the evening, thereby effecting his junction with Lefebvre. At Pfaffenhofen Massena defeated a body of the enemy and remained there. Archduke Charles had foolishly divided his army, and while he was marching on Ratisbon, Archduke Louis and Hiller, with 42,000 troops forming the Austrian left wing, were brought to action at Abensberg by Napoleon on the 20th. The day remained with the French, who numbered 55,000, their enemies losing over 2700 killed and wounded, and some 4000 prisoners. According to Mr Petre, about 25,000 soldiers only on either side came into action. The defeated Austrians retreated in the direction of Landshut, several of the energetic Bavarian battalions following them. After a spirited fight, during which ammunition ran out and many men were killed and wounded, the solitary regiment which held Ratisbon was forced to surrender on the same day, half the troops of the G5th being taken prisoners.

On the morning of the 21st Napoleon renewed the battle against the Austrian left. About 9000 men were added to the enemy's already extensive losses, and it had the desired effect of preventing them from joining the main army. Davout and Lefebvre also engaged the Austrian centre, which retreated, leaving many wounded and dead on the field.

The Emperor was now ready to give attention to Archduke Charles who, with 74,000 troops, was bent on destroying Davout. The French Marshal was in a tight corner, the Austrian main army being opposed to him, and not to Napoleon, as the Emperor had supposed on the morning of Abensberg. As we have seen, it was only the left wing which he had defeated on the 20th.

When the Archduke heard that Napoleon was on his track he abandoned the idea of attacking Davout and made his dispositions to meet the Emperor. Immediately they came up, the bridge, village, and chateau of Eckmuhl were captured by the French. The heights were stormed in truly magnificent style, and a brave attempt was made by the Bavarian cavalry to capture the enemy's battery on the Bettelberg, which was doing considerable execution. They were driven back, but an hour later a French cuirassier regiment captured the greater part of the guns, with the result that Rosenberg, the commander of the fourth Austrian army corps, was forced to retreat. The Emperor then ordered the cavalry and infantry to pursue the unfortunate Imperialists, who broke away almost in a panic.

It now became evident that a general retreat was necessary, the Austrian left wing making in the direction of the river Isar, the main army, after a further sharp conflict with the enemy, reaching the Danube, the idea being to retire into the forests of Bohemia. It is calculated that nearly 10,000 Austrians were killed, wounded, or taken prisoners on this terrible day.

At St Helena, where, like the old soldiers in Chelsea Hospital, Napoleon so often "fought his battles o'er again," he frequently referred to the battle of Eckmuhl. On one occasion he called it "that superb manoeuvre, the finest that I ever executed," attributing its indecisiveness to his lack of sleep on the previous night.

Under cover of night, and during the early hours of the morning of the 23rd, the cumbersome baggage of the Imperialists was hurried across the bridge which spans the Danube at Ratisbon. This was followed by the retreat of part of the army over a pontoon bridge hastily put together, the Austrian rearguard protecting the necessarily slow and somewhat difficult passage. Nine battalions only remained on the right bank of the river when Napoleon was making his final preparations to take the walled town of Ratisbon by assault. Fighting had already begun near the town. Ladders were secured, and the intrepid Lannes was soon within the old-time fortress, which speedily capitulated.

In his Incident of the French Camp  Browning has sung of a lad who took part in the storming. He depicts Napoleon standing on a little mound

"With neck out-thrust, you fancy how, Legs wide, arms locked behind, As if to balance the prone brow Oppressive with its mind."

The Emperor soliloquises that if Lannes "waver at yonder wall" his plans may miscarry, when—

"Out 'twixt the battery-smokes there flew

A rider, bound on bound

Full-galloping; nor bridle drew

Until he reached the mound.

"Then off there flung in smiling joy,

And held himself erect

By just his horse's mane, a boy:

You hardly could suspect—

(So tight he kept his lips compressed,

Scarce any blood came through)

You looked twice ere you saw his breast

Was all but shot in two.

"'Well,' cried he, 'Emperor, by God's grace

We've got you Ratisbon!

The Marshal's in the market-place,

And you'll be there anon

To see your flag-bird flap his vans

Where I, to heart's desire,

Perched him!'"

Napoleon's eye flashed with the pride of victory, but presently:

"Softened itself, as sheathes

A film the mother-eagle's eye

When her bruised eaglet breathes;

'You're wounded!' 'Nay,' the soldier's pride

Touched to the quick, he said:

'I'm killed, Sire!' And his chief beside

Smiling the boy fell dead."

The Emperor himself was slightly wounded while directing operations. A spent musket-ball struck his right foot and caused him considerable pain. "Ah! I am hit," he remarked quietly, adding with grim humour, "It must have been a Tyrolese marksman to have struck me at such a distance. Those fellows fire with wonderful precision." The matter soon got noised abroad; the news was passed from rank to rank that the "little Corporal "was wounded. Anxiety was evident in almost every face. Men who had seen many a comrade struck down and had not so much as moved a muscle of their features took on a look of care and of pain until reassured that the Emperor's injury was a mere contusion. A louder cheer was never raised during the whole of his career, than when Napoleon rode along the lines a little later. Not till then were "his children" convinced of his safety.

Thus ended what has been called the Campaign of Ratisbon, during the five days of which, according to Major-General August Keim, the Imperialists lost nearly 40,000 troops in killed, wounded, and prisoners. Truly a prodigious number and eloquent proof of the valour and energy of their opponents.

There was now nothing to prevent Napoleon from presenting himself before Vienna, but while his troops, flushed with success, were marching towards that picturesque city, their leader heard grave and disquieting news. The Bavarians under Wrede had been defeated on the 24th April by the retreating Austrians under Hiller, who was endeavouring to come up with Archduke Charles. Bessieres had also been forced to retire. In addition Prince Eugene and the army of Italy had met with disaster at the hands of Archduke John at Sacile eight days before, and had not an immediate concentration of the various Austrian armies become essential for the defence of Vienna the consequences must have been serious.

Marshal Macdonald points out in his Recollections that a defeat in Italy was of secondary importance; the decisive point was Germany. There is, however, a moral point of view to be taken into consideration in warfare, to which he also draws attention. "It might have a bad effect," he says, "upon the Italian mind, already prejudiced against us, kept under as they were, but not conquered; and upon that of the Germans and their armies, although they had been so often beaten, and their territory so often invaded by us. But they were like the teeth of Cadmus; no sooner was one army destroyed than another came to take its place. They seemed to rise out of the ground." Napoleon was aware that the Tyrolese had broken out in revolt, and that similar movements were expected in other places.

It is unnecessary to follow all the Emperor's movements on his march to the Imperial city. Bessieres, with comparatively few troops at his disposal, came in conflict with a much larger force under Hiller, and was repulsed. The Marshal somewhat retrieved this mishap by crossing the Inn at Passau, where he took several hundred prisoners. These "affairs" were but skirmishes to the battle of Ebelsberg (sometimes spelt Ebersberg) on the 3rd May 1809 between General Hiller and the French vanguard under the impetuous Massena, at which Napoleon was not present. Hiller had taken up his position at Ebelsberg, crossing the long wooden bridge over the turbulent Traun, a tributary of the Danube, to which admittance was only gained by an extremely narrow gateway beneath a tower, while the whole structure was at the mercy of the guns in and near the castle on the heights above. For purposes of defence the situation approached the ideal, the only thing needed being a skilful commander. The day proved that the Austrian general was lacking in nearly all the qualities possessed by the French officers who opposed him, and was unworthy the men who fought in the ranks. A desperate struggle led by the fearless Coehorn took place on the bridge; men were flung into the surging waters below, while the Austrian artillery-men, perhaps not knowing that many Austrians were on the frail structure, fired at the combatants on the bridge with disastrous results to their own side. To make matters worse several ammunition waggons blew up. It was a repetition of the scene on the Bridge of Lodi, only the carnage was more terrible. Once across, the castle became the next objective of the French, but it was not captured until many a gallant soldier had lost his life in a hand-to-hand struggle in the town below. Hitherto only a comparatively small number of Massena's troops had maintained the fight, but the Marshal now hurried fresh men across the bridge to support those engaged with the enemy. Gradually the men fought their way to the castle, and Mr Petre tells us that of one regiment which appeared before it, Colonel Pouget, who commanded, alone escaped without a wound.

"The entrance to the castle," Mr Petre writes, "was by a vaulted archway open at the outer end, but closed by a strong wooden gate at the inner end. Above was a window, closely barred with iron and with loopholes on either side. From all of these there poured a heavy fire, especially from the grated window. The losses of the besiegers, as they stood and returned the fire from the exposed space between the archway and the mouth of the hollow road, were fearful. Men crowded up to take part in the fight, which was directed by Pouget from the angle of the archway, whence he could both see his own men and the grated window. The French infantry fired as quickly as they could; some even used the dead bodies of their comrades to raise them more on to a level with the window. Then Pouget sent for a well-known sportsman, Lieutenant Guyot, who, taking post within five yards of the window, poured in shots as fast as loaded muskets could be handed to him by the soldiers. Other picked marksmen joined him, and, at last, the Austrian fire began to fail. Sappers had now arrived and were at work breaking in the thick gate.

"In the enthusiasm of the fight Colonel Baudinot and Sub-Lieutenant Gerard of the 2nd battalion had managed to get forward, though most of their battalion was blocked in the narrow road behind. These two intrepid men, followed by a few others as brave as themselves, managed to find a way by the cellar ventilators, whence they got into the castle. Between Gerard and a grenadier of the garrison, who entered a room on the first floor simultaneously, there was a desperate encounter, which was not interfered with by the entrance of a third visitor in the shape of an Austrian round shot. Just at this moment the gate was broken in, and the garrison, including, presumably, Gerard's grenadier, very soon surrendered as prisoners of war."

Surely no more thrilling adventure than this is to be found in any story book? And yet it is but one of many that might be related of this campaign alone, could this volume be extended beyond the present limits.

But the storming of the castle of Ebelsberg was not yet over. The burning town had been cleared of the Imperialists, who were now pouring a veritable hail of shot on the besiegers from the surrounding heights, and their situation was perilous in the extreme, cut off as they were from their friends and surrounded only by their foes. Why the Austrians should have begun to retreat when such an opportunity was offered them to annihilate the enemy is beyond comprehension. Such was the case, and they hastened towards Enns, leaving two thousand killed and wounded, and over that number of prisoners. The French also lost very heavily. Late in the afternoon Napoleon came up, and in company with Savary, entered the town. He was by no means pleased with the terrible sights which met him on all sides, and bitterly lamented the heavy losses which his troops had suffered. Savary states that the Emperor remarked: "It were well if all promoters of wars could behold such an appalling picture. They would then discover how much evil humanity has to suffer from their projects." If he did thus speak, it shows how blinded he had become by his own egotism; for Napoleon had certainly forced the war on unhappy Austria, now sorely discomfited by the turn events had taken.