Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

The Austrian Campaign Continued


On the 10th May 1809, the French were before Vienna, and preparations were made for a vigorous attack. Late in the evening of the 11th the Emperor's artillerymen began to hurl shells into the city, which was but ill-defended by Archduke Maximilian, who thought too much of his own skin to be of any considerable service, and speedily retired with his troops from the capital. Within forty-eight hours of the first shot being fired many of the French troops were in Vienna, the Emperor taking up his quarters in the palace of Schonbrunn near by.

Here he issued a decree annexing Rome, to which Pius VII. retorted with a Bull of excommunication. Napoleon, always an admirer of Charlemagne, referred to that monarch as "our august predecessor." He had already hinted that the Pope should be no more than Bishop of Rome, as was the case under the rule of the founder of the Empire of the West. Several weeks later the Holy Father was escorted from the Quirinal to Avignon, and thence to Savona, in which quiet retreat the Emperor hoped he would come to his senses, in other words, to Napoleon's way of thinking. This is exactly what the aged and determined Pontiff did not do, however. He preferred to remain virtually a prisoner and to pray for the recovery of his temporal kingdom rather than to submit to the dictatorship of the Emperor. The latter did not see fit to relent until 1814, the Pope then being at Fontainebleau. He offered to restore a portion of his states, but Pius VII. refused to discuss any terms except from Rome, to which city he returned on the Emperor's abdication.

Decisive victory over his Austrian foes had yet to be gained by Napoleon, and while Hillier was slowly endeavouring to unite with Archduke Charles on the left bank of the Danube, the Emperor was laying his well-conceived plans before his generals.

The following interesting anecdote is related of this campaign. It shows how a raw recruit may become imbued with a keen sense of responsibility after spending a few months in the ranks.

A sentinel, Jean Baptiste Coluche, was stationed by two paths near the Emperor's temporary headquarters on a certain night. He had been told to allow no one to pass, so when his quick ears detected a scrunch on the gravel some distance away, he carried out his instructions without question. Jean shouted to the intruder to stop. No notice was taken; the heavy, measured steps drew nearer. Again he repeated his summons, and bringing his carbine to his shoulder, prepared to fire. At that moment the outline of a dark and unmistakable figure approached. It was the Emperor himself. When the guard, alarmed by the cries, came up to render assistance, they set to chaffing Coluche, but the only reply of the peasant conscript was: "I've carried out my orders."

This was by no means the only occasion on which the Emperor appeared when least expected, and he was wont to reward the soldier whom he found on the qui Vive  under such circumstances. It was not so with the faithful Coluche. But in 1814 the much-coveted Cross of the Legion of honour was pinned on his breast for his heroism at the battle of Arcis-sur-Aube, when the man whom he had ordered to halt before the walls of Vienna was forced to beat a retreat.

Bourrienne relates another interesting anecdote told to him by Rapp, the Emperor's aide-de-camp during the Austrian campaign. It concerns "one of those striking remarks of Napoleon," to quote Bourrienne, "which, when his words are compared with the events that follow them, would almost appear to indicate a foresight of his future destiny. The Emperor, when within a few day's march of Vienna, procured a guide to explain to him the names of every village, or ruin, however insignificant, that presented itself on his road. The guide pointed to an eminence, on which were still visible a few remaining vestiges of an old fortified castle. 'Those,' said the guide, 'are the ruins of the castle of Diernstein.' Napoleon suddenly stopped, and remained for some time silently contemplating the ruins, then turning to Marshal Lannes, who was with him, he said: 'See! yonder is the prison of Richard Coeur de Lion. He, too, like us, went to Syria and Palestine. But Coeur de Lion, my brave Lannes, was not more brave than you. He was more fortunate than I at St Jean d'Acre. A duke of Austria sold him to an emperor of Germany, who shut him up in yonder castle. Those were the days of barbarism. How different the civilisation of our times! The world has seen how I treated the Emperor of Austria, whom I might have imprisoned—and I would treat him so again. I take no credit to myself for this. In the present age crowned heads must be respected. A conqueror imprisoned!'" and yet that is exactly what happened to the speaker but a few years later.

At last Archduke Charles and Hillier joined forces on the Marchfeld, intent on regaining the lost capital. Napoleon had made up his mind to fight in the very camp of the enemy by crossing the Danube. For this purpose he built a succession of bridges consisting of boats and pontoons from Ebersdorf to the three islands in the river, and linked the last and largest of these, that of Lobau, to the opposite bank.

The first troops to cross occupied the stone-built villages of Aspern and Essling, which served somewhat as fortified places. The French found themselves confronted by quite double the number of Imperialists. Both villages were attacked with feverish energy, the assault on Aspern being the more severe. It was ably defended by Massena, while Lannes at Essling fought as he had never done before. When Hight fell, the latter still successfully defied the Austrians, while the white coats, after making repeated unsuccessful attempts to capture Aspern, had effected a lodgment in the church and the graveyard. This was partly due to the energy of Archduke Charles, who led the last attack of the day in person.

Good use was made of the succeeding night by Napoleon. He hurried over as many troops as possible to the bank of the Danube occupied by the Imperialists, a necessarily slow process owing to the frequent breaches made in the temporary bridges by obstructions floated down the rapidly-rising river by the Austrians. These difficulties taxed the resources of the engineers, but they stuck manfully to their task, while the troops cared little if the pontoons were under water provided they could reach the opposite bank. Early on the 22nd May there were 63,000 troops ready to advance against the Imperialists who, not having been called upon to labour so arduously through the night as the French had done, were considerably fresher for the day's work. Fighting at Aspern and Essling had been resumed long since, if indeed it had left off, the first charge of the day being against the Austrian centre by Lannes. The French battalions sustained a raking fire from the enemy's artillery, some of whose infantry, however, soon showed such signs of weakness that Archduke Charles, as on the day before, caught up a standard and shouted to the grenadiers to follow him. They did so to such good purpose that further progress of the French infantry was impossible. Nor did their comrades of the cavalry, sent to their relief under Bessieres, fare better. According to some accounts, when victory seemed almost in the grasp of Napoleon's men, the Austrians were reinforced in the nick of time and Bessieres compelled to retire.

[Illustration] from Story of Napoleon by H. F. B. Wheeler


Other disasters of an even more serious nature were in store for the French. The bridge between the right bank and the island of Lobau was severed, thus cutting off all connection with the Emperor's troops and those fighting against the Austrians.

Meanwhile the Archduke took advantage of his enemy's discomfiture by attacking the two villages which had figured so prominently in the contest of the previous day with greater energy than ever. Still the French fought on. Many a brave man fell in the desperate struggle, which finally resulted in Aspern being held by the Austrians and the French retaining Essling. The gallant Lannes had both his knees almost carried away by a shot when the battle was beginning to slacken. He had defended Essling with all his native genius and the most consummate bravery, amply retrieving his somewhat inglorious doings in the Spanish Campaign. The Emperor frequently visited the stricken Marshal, who shortly before he passed away feebly murmured: "Another hour and your Majesty will have lost one of your most zealous and faithful friends." This was on the last day of May, 1809, and the master whom he had served so well wrote to Josephine in words which show how keenly he appreciated the fallen warrior: "The loss of the Duke of Montebello, who died this morning, deeply affects me. Thus all things end. Adieu, my love. If you can contribute to the consolation of the poor Marchioness, do it." At St Helena the fallen King-maker said, "I found Lannes a dwarf, but I made him a giant!"

On the following day (the 23rd), the bridge being now repaired, the French retired to well-wooded Lobau, soon to be re-named the Ile Napoleon. The honours of the fight remained with the Austrians; the great Napoleon had been defeated! True to his creed, the Emperor announced a victory, "since we remain masters of the field of battle," and admitted simply that the fight had been "severe," in which latter contention he was indisputably correct. Success or failure, it proved to his enemies that either Napoleon's genius for war was failing or that he had undertaken more than he could carry out. This disaster, added to those which had occurred in the Peninsula, was regarded as proof positive in certain quarters that Napoleon's star was setting. They took little account of the fact that the French forces had been greatly outnumbered both in men and munitions of war, remembering only that they had retreated. Beaten many times before, a defeat or two more did not affect the prestige of the Imperialists, but for the hitherto invincible warrior no excuse was found.

Encouraged by the French reverse, an alliance between Austria and Prussia was now mooted, but Frederick William showed his usual indecision, and consequently the negotiations collapsed, to the great disappointment of the Emperor Francis's hope of an almost unanimous rising in Germany.

Had the King of Prussia possessed some of the pluck displayed by several officers who had served in his army, and now attempted to raise the standard of revolt against Napoleon in Westphalia and Saxony, Frederick William III. would have been a less sorry figure in the history of his country. For instance, Baron von Dornberg headed a campaign against the unpopular King Jerome, while Major Frederick von Schill, after attempting to capture Wittenberg and Magdeburg, laid down his life for the national cause in the assault on Stralsund. Neither of these soldiers of fortune accomplished anything of importance, mainly because the means at their disposal were abnormally small, but they displayed a spirit of true patriotism. Duke Frederick William of Brunswick-Gels succeeded in occupying Dresden and Leipzig and in forcing Jerome to retreat, but in the end the enthusiastic volunteer and his Black Band were compelled to seek refuge on British ships and sail for England.

For seven weeks after the battle of Aspern the two armies prepared for the next contest, but in expedition and thoroughness Napoleon far outstripped his opponents. If occasional fighting sometimes occurred it was usually no more than an affair of outposts. Both sides were far too busily engaged in repairing their misfortunes, securing reinforcements and additional supplies, to waste men and ammunition in conflicts which could not be other than indecisive. Napoleon took good care to see that the new bridges were more solidly constructed than those which had contributed so much to his defeat. Not only were his arrangements for their protection more complete, but gunboats were stationed in suitable positions for their defence. Lobau was entrenched and fortified; nothing was to be left to chance on the next occasion.