Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

The War in Poland and Tyrol


At the beginning of July Napoleon's movements showed that a battle was imminent. By means of feints he succeeded in making the enemy believe that his plan was similar to that which had obtained at the battle of Aspern. Thus while the Austrians were occupying their attention with the bridge of Aspern, Napoleon's forces were crossing by movable bridges lower down the river, near Enzersdorf. This was accomplished during a tremendous thunder-storm, the rain soaking the poor fellows to the skin. On the 5th July the greater part of the troops now at his disposal was ready for action, including those of Prince Euene. The Emperor's step-son, successful against Archduke John at the battle of Raab on the 14th June—the anniversary of Marengo—had joined forces with Napoleon; his opponent was hastening to the assistance of Archduke Charles. Marmont and Macdonald, after desultory fighting, also arrived at Lobau. The French army now outnumbered its opponents by 30,000 men.

The battle of Wagram began on the 5th July, but the issue was not determined until the following day. Macdonald, who played a prominent part in the fighting, as will be narrated, thus describes it in a private letter:—

"The crossing of the Danube [on the 4th and 5th July] was a masterpiece of prodigious genius, and it was reserved for the Emperor to conceive, create, and carry it out. It was performed in presence of an army of over 180,000 men [in reality about 140,00]. The enemy expected the attempt to be made at the same point as that of May 21st. [First day of the battle of Aspern.] They had prepared tremendous entrenchments, and had brought up a formidable body of artillery; but, to their great surprise, they suddenly saw us attack their left flank and turn all the lines of their redoubts. We drove them back three leagues, and when, next day, they tried conclusions with us, they lost the game.

"Never, sir, had two armies a mightier force of artillery, never was battle fought more obstinately. Picture to yourself 1,000 or 1,200 pieces of artillery vomiting forth death upon nearly 350,000 combatants, and you will have an idea of what this hotly-disputed field of battle was like. The enemy, posted upon the heights, entrenched to the teeth in all the villages, formed a sort of crescent, or horse-shoe. The Emperor did not hesitate to enter into the midst of them, and to take up a parallel position.

"His Majesty did me the honour of giving me the command of a corps, with orders to break through the enemy's centre. I, fortunately, succeeded, notwithstanding the fire of a hundred guns, masses of infantry, and charges of cavalry, led by the Archduke Charles in person. His infantry would never cross bayonets with mine, nor would his cavalry wait till mine came up; the Uhlans alone made a stand, and they were scattered.

"I pursued the enemy closely with bayonet and cannon for about four leagues, and it was only at ten o'clock at night that, worn out and overwhelmed with fatigue, my men ceased their firing and their pursuit.

"The same success attended us at all other points. His Majesty, who directed everything, amazed me by his coolness and by the precision of his orders. It was the first time I had fought under his eyes, and this opportunity gave me an even higher opinion than I already had of his great talents, as I was able to form my own judgment upon them. . . ."

Napoleon had almost used up his reserves when the Austrian retreat began. No fewer than 24,000 dead and wounded Imperialists were left on the field, a loss of probably 6000 more than that sustained by the French. Not until daybreak on the 7th did the victorious troops lay down their arms. "I soon fell asleep," says Macdonald, "but not for long, as I was awakened by cries of 'Long live the Emperor!' which redoubled when he entered my camp. I asked for my horse, but he had been taken away. I had no other, as the rest were far behind. As I could not walk (the General had been kicked by the animal), I remained on my straw, when I heard someone enquiring for me. . . . He came by the Emperor's order to look for me. On my remarking that I had no horse and could not walk, he offered me his, which I accepted. I saw the Emperor surrounded by my troops, whom he was congratulating. He approached me, and embracing me cordially, said:

"'Let us be friends henceforward.'

"'Yes,' I answered, 'till death.' And I have kept my word, not only up to the time of his abdication, but even beyond it. He added: 'You have behaved valiantly, and have rendered me the greatest services, as, indeed, throughout the entire campaign. On the battlefield of your glory, where I owe you so large a part of yesterday's success, I make you a Marshal of France' (he used this expression instead of 'of the Empire'). You have long deserved it.'

"'Sire,' I answered, 'since you are satisfied with us, let the rewards and recompenses be apportioned and distributed among my army corps, beginning with Generals Lamarque, Eroussier, and others, who so ably seconded me.'

"'Anything you please,' he replied; 'I have nothing to refuse you.'"

In this abrupt but characteristic way Macdonald was created a Marshal—a well-merited distinction also conferred on Oudinot and Marmont for their services in this campaign. Napoleon's opening remark as to friendship referred to the five years of disgrace which the general had suffered by being unjustly implicated in the affairs of Moreau, a disfavour now to fall on Bernadotte, whose corps had behaved ill at Wagram and was dissolved. Thus almost at the same time as he gained a friend the Emperor made an enemy. It is interesting to note that Macdonald's father was a Scotsman who fought for the Pretender and his mother a Frenchwoman, and that he was born at Sedan.

Napoleon, usually the most active in following up a victory, did not actively pursue the Austrians after the battle of Wagram for the all-sufficient reason that his troops were worn-out with fatigue. If you want to know and see and feel  what a battle-field is like, glance through the sombre pages of Carlyle's Sartor Resartus  until you come to his description of that of Wagram. Here is the passage, and it is one of the most vivid in literature: "The greensward," says the philosopher, "is torn-up and trampled-down; man's fond care of it, his fruit-trees, hedge-row, and pleasant dwellings, blown-away with gunpowder; and the kind seedfield lies a desolate, hideous place of Skulls." There were two days of hard fighting at Znaym on the 10th and 11th July, in which Massena and Marmont took part, Napoleon not coming up until the morning of the second day. On the 12th an armistice was arranged.

Brief notice must be taken of the course of the war in other parts of Europe. The formidable Walcheren Expedition, so called because of its disembarkation on the island of that name, was undertaken by Great Britain as a diversion against the French. The idea had been mooted and shelved three years before, to be revived when Austria pressed the British Government to send troops to Northern Germany in the hope of fostering insurrection there. The Duke of Portland's government, prompted by Lord Castlereagh, thought that Antwerp would be a more desirable objective. Instead of the troops pushing on immediately to that city, Flushing must needs be first besieged and bombarded. This detour lost much precious time, which was used to good advantage by Bernadotte and King Louis in placing the city in a state of defence,.

The commanders of the English naval and military forces—Sir Richard Strachan and Lord Chatham respectively—now engaged in unseemly wrangling as to further movements, while meantime many of the soldiers fell victims to malarial fever. Eventually the army sailed for home, after an immense expenditure of blood and treasure, thousands of men dying and the cost amounting to many millions of pounds sterling. The expedition was for long the talk of the British people, the affair being epitomized in a witty couplet which aptly summed up the situation:

Lord Chatham, With His Sword Undrawn,

Stood Waiting For Sir Richard Strachan;

Sir Richard, Longing To Be At 'em,

Stood Waiting For The Earl Of Chatham.

In Spain things were going from bad to worse for Great Britain, and an expedition against Naples, commanded by Sir John Stewart, was eventually obliged to withdraw after some early successes. England felt the heavy hand of Napoleon very severely in the dark days of 1809.

We have noted that Archduke Ferdinand had troops to the number of 35,400 in Poland called the Army of Galicia. He was faced by Prince Galitzin and Prince Poniatovski, who had nearly 60,000 men, including Russians, Poles, and Saxons, under their command. Warsaw was secured by the Austrians after the battle of Raszyn, but following an attack on Thorn the Archduke was compelled to retreat, hostilities in Poland being terminated by the armistice of Znaym.

In Tyrol the peasant war was marked by many exciting events. The inhabitants of this picturesque land of forests and mountains were intensely patriotic and hated the Bavarians, under whose domination they had passed after Austerlitz, with an exceedingly bitter hatred. They felt that now was the time for revenge, for showing that the country was at heart still loyal to the Emperor Francis, descendant of a long line of monarchs who had exercised their feudal rights for over four centuries. A section of Archduke John's army, amounting to some 10,000 men under General Chasteler, was accordingly sent to aid the ardent nationalists, who appointed their own leaders, the most celebrated of whom was Andreas Hofer, an innkeeper and cattle-dealer of considerable substance. A signal was agreed upon; when sawdust was seen floating on the waters of the Inn the people of the villages through which the river flowed were to understand that a general rising was expected of them. There was no fear that the news would not reach outlying districts. The people did not fail their leaders, and Innsbruck, the capital of the province, then in the hands of the Bavarians, was attacked, and did not long resist the gallantry of the Tyrolese. Other garrisons met a similar fate, and in less than a week but one fortress still held out in Northern Tyrol, so well had the rugged fellows performed their self-appointed task. Unhappily for the intrepid patriots—Napoleon with his usual partiality for misrepresentation called their leaders "brigands"—disasters succeeded their early victories, and Innsbruck was held for but six weeks before Lefebvre put himself in possession. Again fortune smiled on the Tyrolese. Wrede, who commanded the Bavarians, unduly weakened his forces by sending various regiments to join Napoleon. Taking advantage of their knowledge of this fact, 20,000 peasants presented themselves before the capital and regained it. Two more battles were waged outside the walls of Innsbruck, and innumerable skirmishes took place with the large army which the Emperor now poured into Tyrol before the flames were finally extinguished in December 1809. It is safe to say that the ashes would have continued to smoulder much longer had not Hofer been the victim of treachery. He was betrayed to the enemy by an ungrateful priest, and, after trial, executed on the 21st February 1810. Many of his colleagues availed themselves of an amnesty granted by Prince Eugene, but both Hofer and Peter Mayer preferred to fight to the end. The Emperor of Austria, grateful for the services rendered to him by the former innkeeper, provided the hero's widow with a handsome pension and ennobled his son.

On the 15th October 1809 peace was restored between France and Austria by the Treaty of Schonbrunn, sometimes called the Peace of Vienna, by which the former chiefly benefited. More than once the negotiations trembled in the balance, but ultimately the Austrian war party was obliged to give way. Archduke Charles had grown tired of fighting, the wily Metternich could see nothing but disaster by its continuance. Just as business people sometimes ask a higher price than they expect to receive for an article of commerce and are content to be "beaten down," so Napoleon made extravagant demands at first and was satisfied with smaller concessions. The apparent readiness to give way, for which he did not forget to claim credit, enabled him to pose as a political philanthropist. Nevertheless, three and a half million people were lost to Austria by the districts which she ceded to France, Bavaria, Russia, Saxony, Italy, and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Pursuing the same policy of army retrenchment he had followed with Prussia, Napoleon insisted that Austria should support not more than 150,000 troops. A big war indemnity was also exacted.

The Emperor afterwards maintained that this "pound of flesh" was insufficient. "I committed a great fault after the battle of Wagram," he remarked, "in not reducing the power of Austria still more. She remained too strong for our safety, and to her we must attribute our ruin. The day after the battle, I should have made known, by proclamation, that I would treat with Austria only on condition of the preliminary separation of the three crowns of Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia." As a matter of fact the abdication of the Emperor Francis had been one of his extortionate demands in the early stages of the negotiations.

If proof were necessary of the truth of the proverb that "truth is stranger than fiction" the marriage of Napoleon to the Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, but a few months after he had threatened to dispossess her father of his throne, would surely justify it. Poor childless, light-hearted Josephine was put away for this daughter of the Caesars. The Emperor had first asked for a Russian Princess, then as suddenly turned in the direction of the House of Hapsburg because his former suit was not immediately accepted. From that time Napoleon's friendship with Alexander began to wane perceptibly. The Czar was under no delusion when he prophetically remarked, on hearing of the Emperor's change of front in wooing an Austrian princess, "Then the next thing will be to drive us back into our forests."

Small wonder that in after years Napoleon referred to his second marriage as "That abyss covered with flowers which was my ruin."

To compare Napoleon's two consorts is extremely difficult, because their temperaments were essentially different. Josephine was vivacious, witty, fond of dress and of admiration, and brought up in a very different school of thought to that of Marie Louise. The former had witnessed, and to some extent felt, the terrors of the Revolution at their worst; she had mixed with all sorts and conditions of men and women, some good, many bad; the latter had been nurtured with scrupulous care, so shielded and safeguarded that she scarcely knew of the follies and sins which mar the everyday world. She once wrote to a friend that she believed Napoleon "is none other than Anti-Christ." When she heard that the man she felt to be "our oppressor" was to become her husband, she lifted her pale blue eyes to the skies and remarked that the birds were happier because they could choose their own mates! And yet, although she was so horrified, she had a certain nobility of character which enabled her to understand that in making the surrender she would be performing a double duty to her father and to her country: "This marriage gives pleasure to my father, and though separation from my family always will make me miserable, I will have the consolation of having obeyed his wishes. And Providence, it is my firm belief, directs the lot of us princesses in a special manner; and in obeying my father I feel I am obeying Providence."

But what were the reasons for Napoleon's dissolution of his first marriage when his love for Josephine is beyond question? Pasquier thus sums up the matter for us:

"For some time, past," he says, "the greater number of those about him, and especially the members of his family, had been urging him to repudiate a union which could not give him an heir, and which precluded the idea of his dreaming of certain most advantageous alliances. As early as the time of his consecration as Emperor, the greatest pressure had been put upon him to prevent him from strengthening the bonds uniting him to Josephine, by having her crowned by his side; but all these endeavours had been neutralized by the natural and potent ascendancy of a woman full of charm and grace, who had given herself to him at a time when nothing gave any indication of his high destinies, whose conciliatory spirit had often removed from his path difficulties of a somewhat serious nature, and brought back to him many embittered or hostile minds, who seemed to have been constantly a kind of good genius, entrusted with the care of watching over his destiny and of dispelling the clouds which came to darken its horizon. . . .

"I can never forget the evening," adds Pasquier, "on which the discarded Empress did the honours of her Court for the last time. It was the day before the official dissolution. A great throng was present, and supper was served, according to custom, in the gallery of Diana, on a number of little tables. Josephine sat at the centre one, and the men went round her, waiting for that particularly graceful nod which she was in the habit of bestowing on those with whom she was acquainted. I stood at a short distance from her for a few minutes, and I could not help being struck with the perfection of her attitude in the presence of all these people who still did her homage, while knowing full well that it was for the last time; that, in an hour, she would descend from the throne, and leave the palace never to re-enter it. Only women can rise superior to the difficulties of such a situation, but I have my doubts as to whether a second one could have been found to do it with such perfect grace and composure. Napoleon did not show as bold a front as did his victim."

The Archduchess was in her eighteenth year, Napoleon in his forty-first. She was not without personal charms, although Pasquier, who keenly sympathised with Josephine, scarcely does her justice. "Her face," he says, "was her weakest point; but her figure was fine, although somewhat stiff. Her personality was attractive, and she had very pretty feet and hands." The marriage was celebrated by proxy at Vienna on the 11th March 1810.

That Marie Louise grew to love the man of whom she once wrote that "the very sight of this creature would be the worst of all my sufferings" is very improbable, and in the end she played him false. She certainly showed no wish to join him at Elba, and shortly after his death married the dissolute Adam Albert, Graf von Neipperg, her third husband being the Comte de Bombelles. The Emperor believed in her faithfulness to the last. "I desire," he said to his physician, Antommarchi, "that you preserve my heart in spirits of wine, and that you carry it to Parma to my dear Marie Louise. Please tell her that I loved her tenderly, and that I have not ceased to love her."