The more well known battlefields such as Waterloo, Gettysburg, Borodino and even the 52 BC site of Alesia in France where Caesar defeated the Gallic chieftain Vercingetorix, have been preserved in reasonably good condition enabling the tourist and historian to obtain some idea of what these sites looked like at the time of these engagements. Unfortunately, with the exception of Znaim (now Znojmo, Czech Republic), the battlefields of Aspern/Essling and Deutsch Wagram (1809) in Austria are almost unrecognizable today. The city of Vienna has slowly crept across the Danube River covering everything in tarmac, brick, steel and concrete. Only certain areas of the Wagram site remain where the visitor can still obtain some notion of how vast this Napoleonic battle was, involving over 300,000 troops and 1,000 cannon. The sad thing about these famous fields of conflict is that, allowing for one or two museums commemorating these battles situated around the site, there is not even a public viewing platform, or a few acers set aside as a battlefield park, to give the visitor any idea of what occurred across this now rapidly disappearing landscape.
Aspern/Essling, May 21st -22nd 1809
In the autumn of 1808 Napoleon was in Spain dealing with insurrection when news came that Austria was mobilizing for war. Unfortunately the dithering attitude of the Aulic Council towards the Archduke Carl’s campaign plans allowed the French emperor time to return to Paris and it was not until April 1809 that Austria declared war. Even so, Napoleon was not with the army at this time and had given Marshal Berthier command of the French army in Germany. Not having the masters touch Berthier chose faulty dispositions splitting his forces in widely scattered detachments. Only the slowness of the Austrian concentration and the arrival of Napoleon himself at headquarters on April 17th saved the French from what could have been a serious defeat.
After the battles of Abensberg, Landshut and Eckmühl the Archduke Carl was forced to withdraw his army into Bohemia and Napoleon entered Vienna on May 13th. While the French were enjoying the pleasantries of the Austrian capital, Carl bought his army down onto the Marchfeld plain on the north bank of the Danube across from Vienna.
Despite being warned that the Danube was subject to flooding from the winter ice melts, Napoleon was eager to get to grips with the Austrian army before the arrival of Carl’s brother, the Archduke John, with his army from Italy. First occupying the large island of Lobau, the French managed to cross over the river on the 21st May and took possession of the villages of Aspern and Essling. However, troop movement over the pontoon bridges were constantly being disrupted as rock filled barges were sent down the river to break them up. Due to this the French never had sufficient forces over the river to deal with the constant attacks carried out by the Austrians. On the 22nd May Napoleon orders his troops to fall back across the river, both sides having lost around 25,000 men during the two day battle. Carl had administered the first defeat on the seemingly invincible French emperor.
Aspern and Essling Today.
I have visited both sites, Aspern/Essling and Deutsch Wagram, five times over the last fifty years, beginning in 1969, and each time a little more has been lost to new development. It is worth reading what Dr David Chandler wrote about them in his introduction to F.Lorraine Petre’s Arms and Armour Press edition of his work, Napoleon and the Archduke Charles. A History of the Franco-Austrian Campaign on the Danube in 1809 (1976), when he visited them in 1965:
A modern visitor to Vienna, with a day of fine weather to spare and an interest in touring the sites of two celebrated Napoleonic battlefields, can indulge his [or her] whim for the price of a half-hour tram ride from the centre of the city. Once the suburbs are passed, the journey along the North bank of the Danube enters the broad plain of the Marchfeld and brings the traveller to the pleasant villages of Aspern, Essling and Gross-Enzerdorf. Today they show no signs of the bitter fighting that raged through their streets on the 21st-22nd May, and again on the 5th and 6th of July, 1809 – although the imposing walls of the famous granary at Essling, which General Boudet’s infantry held so staunchly throughout the earlier battle, are still to be seen. A short walk through open fields leads to the site of the French battery position on the Mühlau salient, where the grassed-over redoubt is still recognisable. From here, shot and shell were poured into the flank of General Klenau’s Austrian VI Corps at 8.a.m. On the climacteric second day of the battle of Wagram, so as to permit the withdrawal of the same Boudet’s hard-fighting, but massively outnumbered, battalions, and to win time for the redeployment of Massena’s IV Corps to plug the threatening gap developing on the left of the French line of battle.
The site was much the same when I visited in 1969, although there were already new constructions taking place along the road that runs from Aspern to Essling.
The maps herewith shows how the site looked during the course of the fighting of 21st-22nd May. Note the compactness of the villages and the still untouched meadows surrounding them. The modern map and aerial view show how the villages have almost merged into one vast urban sprawl which is still spreading today.
The Battle of Deutsch Wagram, 5th – 6th July 1809
Once he had driven the French back across the Danube the Archduke Carl set about fortifying the area around both Aspern, Essling and Gross Enzersdorf. Petre tells us that:
Beginning on the Austrian right the south-west corner of Aspern was connected with the river by a line of trenches, with abbatis in front, running generally south-west from Aspern across the Geminde-Au, with several redoubts [redoubts I and II] and other small works in it. There was a work [redoubt III] at the south-east corner of Aspern, and another [redoubt IV] farther out to the south-east. The village itself does not seem to have contained any special works, though the houses, of course, must have been prepared for defence. From the centre of the eastern side there ran eastwards a continuous parapet along the road to Essling. In this there were three redoubts [V,VI and VII], the first near Aspern [see map], the other two dividing the distance to Essling into three more or less equal parts. [Work No VIII] was at the southern extremity of the farm and garden stretching south from Essling. [Work XI] was on the road Essling- Enzersdorf, about two thirds of the way to the latter, and connected by a parapet with [Work X] which stood on the bank of the Stadlau arm, opposite the lower end of the Ile Espagne [Spanish island]. The parapet continued at right angles to that just mentioned, along the left bank to another redoubt [Work XI], nearly due south of Enzersdorf and opposite the Ile Lannes. [Work No XII] was on the south side of Enzersdorf. [Work XIII] outside it to the south-east. [Work No XIV] was at the eastern exit to Enzersdorf, and [Work XV] to the south-east of work XII. There the field works ended, except for [Work XVI] built at the junction of the Stadlau arm with the main stream. Between the line of works XV- XVI and work XVII, there was an interval of some two miles unprotected by any works.[Petre, page 328-329]
Another author, John H.Gill, in his well researched account of the campaign, 1809 Thunder on the Danube Vol III, states that, ‘…entrenchments that had been constructed since May, but these were weakly armed and neither properly constructed nor sited to the best advantage….they excited only derision from some officers.’ [page 199]
Although no detailed plans are available showing the exact construction of these fieldworks, there are some very good topographical maps of the Marchfeld, including the villages of Aspern and Essling, produced sometime in the mid to late nineteenth century, showing what appear to be very substantial and well constructed redoubts still in good condition dotted around Aspern (see maps).*
One can see that, far from being “not properly constructed,” these redoubts are of a superior design. Indeed, if we take a look at other Napoleonic battlefield fortifications (see diagrams), the Austrian engineers seem to have lavished a considerable amount of time and effort on their fieldworks. One notes that rather than just the standard star redoubts, the diagram shows that these are built rather like small forts, with a smaller inner redoubt set inside the main structure. The Great Redoubt, or Raevsky Redoubt, on the battlefield of Borodino, although constructed to hold 18 cannon was, nevertheless, a hastily constructed work open at the rear. The Austrian fortifications seem far more sophisticated.
Having studied a section of virtually unspoiled ground to the south-east of Aspern and using Google Earth as an overlay to the nineteenth century map and then taking measurements from each, it does look as if one, albeit only in outline, of the redoubts built around the village is traceable today (see details below). One notes that the outline of the property, seen from above, seems to have followed the actual foundations of a redoubt. If this is proven to be correct than this would be the only artefact that remains of the chain of fortifications that were built in this area prior to the battle of Wagram.
There are some maps showing the redoubts around Aspern in greater detail than on the maps herewith.
On the first day of battle (July 5th) the Archduke Carl realised that his dispositions were faulty and that the French were crossing to the east of the Lobau island intending to come between both wings of his army. He pulled back his main line, covering the ground Bissamberg-Leopoldau on their right flank, then taking in the village Breitenlee, Sussenbrünn and Aderklaa in the centre, then Deutsch-Wagram and Markgrafneusedl and the higher ground behind the meandering Russbach stream on their left.
The land around Markgrafneusedl, as well as the town itself, has changed considerably since 1809, however, one can still obtain a reasonable view over part of the battlefield looking towards Wagram by climbing the mound that sits atop of the rise of ground just north of the town and is dominated by an old dilapidated mill or church. French Marshal Louis Davout’s III Corps were engaged here and along the banks of the Russbach against the Austrian 4th Corps under Rosenburg, while the French cavalry under Grouchy and Montbrun took on the Austrian squadrons under Nostitz further to the right. This ground now appears to be used for sand extraction and also has several wind turbines dotted across the fields (see Ariel photos).
The Russbach stream itself is not wide, only a matter of some three feet or so, and only a couple of feet deep, but is still bordered by a thick growth of bushes and trees as it was at the time of the battle and therefore proved difficult for artillery to be effective (see panorama).
Further to the French left came their II Corps under Marshal Oudinot confronting the Austrian 2nd under Hohenzollern across the Russbach between Markgrafneusedl and Deutsch Wagram. The ground in this area of the battlefield today is still quite good, with only the overhead power lines and their massive pylons in evidence. The “high” ground on the Austrian side of the Russbach is hardly discernable until the stream is crossed and then only rises a few feet above the surrounding plain.
Wagram itself is now about three times as large as in 1809 (see maps) and it is, like Aspern and Essling, hard to imagine how it looked during the conflict (see photos). There are still one or two buildings that have stood the test of time, and also a very good museum in a house that was used by the Archduke Carl during the battle (Heimatmuseum, Erzherzog Carl-Strasse 1,2232, Deutsch Wagram), displaying uniforms and weapons, as well as some battle dioramas that allow the visitor some glimpse of what took place around the battlefield.
Further on to the French left is the village of Aderklaa which was held by elements of the Austrian 1st Corps under the command of Bellegarde who were confronting the French under Marshal Marmont.
Certainly the best preserved (for now) part of the whole Wagram site is the ground between Aderklaa and the outskirts of Breitenlee. It was in this area that General (later Marshal) of Division Etienne Jacques MacDonald formed his divisions, Broussier’s on the right and Lamarque’s on the left, followed in reserve by Moreau/Seras, some 11,000 men in reduced size battalions, into a huge square 1,700 yards wide and 750 yards in depth. A massive array of artillery was placed on each flank of the formation, with cavalry in support. When standing on the site today one gets an overwhelming sense of the magnitude of this particular stage of the battle, with the masses of troops presenting perfect targets to the Austrian artillery as they moved to the attack (see Google Earth overlay).
By 8:00 p.m. on the evening of the 6th July the battle of Wagram was over and the Archduke Carl had no intention of renewing the battle on the following day. At 10:00 p.m. the Austrian army had begun to withdraw from the field.
The losses had been great even by Napoleonic standards, the French losing some 38,000 men in killed, wounded and captured. The Austrian lost 35,000 in similar proportion. Over 18,000 had been killed and for weeks after the battle there were still masses of corpses scattered across the Marchfeld plain. This vast amount of slain begs the question as to the disposal of so many bodies. Hardly any mass grave pits have thus far been discovered, and indeed to have buried so many bodies there must have been several hundred of these across the site. There has been a suggestion put forward that many of the dead were thrown into the Danube and this may possibly be true of some of the corpses. Certainly it was recorded that, after the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, many of the slain were disposed of by casting them into the river. Maybe the ever expanding developments that are slowly covering this historic battlefield will eventually yield some proof of mass grave pits, if so than a monument should be erected that remembers these otherwise forgotten soldiers.
Znaim, 10th-11th July 1809.
The old town of Znaim (now Znojmo) in the Czech Republic is the perfect place to stay when on a touring holiday that takes in the sights of this area of Moravia as well as those of Austria just over the border. There is defiantly an atmosphere of “Old World Charm” about the place, and the food, beer and wine are all one has come to expect from the vineyards and farms of the Czech Republic.
Full detail of the battle can be found in John H.Gill’s work, ‘1809 Thunder on the Danube, Vol III’ For those visiting the site for the first time I herewith give a brief description of the parts of the battlefield that are still reasonably recognizable today and enable the traveller to imagine what took place. Dr Bob’s panoramas and the modern map that accompany them will help orientate around the site. I have also included a modern map and my own rough map of the battlefield showing troop dispositions on 10th July 1809. Full detail of the battle can be found in John H.Gill’s work, 1809 Thunder on the Danube Vol III. For those visiting the site I herewith give a description of some parts of the battlefield that are still in reasonably good condition that enable the traveller to imagine events during the battle.
To the south of Znojmo, around the site of the new bridge across the Thaya river, there has been quite a lot of new development taking place. The pen and ink drawing herewith shows how it looked during the battle. Take the road from Hodonice heading for Têŝetice ( old name Klein-Tesswitz) climbing up from the river. Good views across the southern part of the battlefield are available from here. Now continue along the road towards Tvoňhráz (old name Kukrowitz), about two kilometres. From here one can take in the whole battlefield looking towards Znojmo (Znaim). There are hardly any obstructions (see Dr Bob’s panorama) and one can take in the ground where the various Austrian corps were stationed confronting the French divisions under Claparade and Clauzel, as well as the French cavalry under Montbrun.
Like Aspern/Essling and Wagram no mass grave pits have thus far been discovered.
Graham J.Morris 11th February 2021.