Aspern Essling

21-22 May 1809

The Napoleonic Guide's Suggested Tours

1809 Danube Campaign Battles Map

Having succeeded in capturing his Austrian enemy's capital of Vienna on 13 May, Napoleon Bonaparte needed to cross the Danube to seek out and destroy Archduke Charles and his main army.

The emperor's problem centred on the successful destruction of bridges across the rain-swollen Danube by the retreating Austrians and he finally found a potential crossing point at Lobau Island, some four miles away. The island was occupied and a bridge constructed by engineers.

On 20 May, Marshal Massena led his IV Corps across to form a bridgehead and to check for enemy troops. By the next morning, more than 24,000 men with 60 cannon were occupying the villages of Aspern and Essling.

The first thing the French command knew about the Austrian army was when more than 95,000 troops, supported by 200 cannon, moved against them.

Reinforcements to the bridgehead were limited by the regular loss of part of the span due to debris and boats sent down the torrent by the Austrians.

Fortunately, for the French, a low wall ran between the two village strongpoints and this, together with desperate courage, allowed them to hold large portions of the positions.

Driven out on several occasions, the French soldiers always managed to retake them at the point of a bayonet.

By the 22 May, most of Bonaparte's forces were on the northern bank but the destruction of the bridge delayed Marshal Davout's III Corps and weakened a French counterattack that pushed the Austrians to breaking point.

Knowing he did not have enough men to break the enemy, the French emperor ordered a withdrawal to the Aspern-Essling line where a renewed series of Austrian attacks forced him to pull back on to Lobau Island.

The repositioning took most of the night to achieve, but it was done in good order and when the final troops made the crossing the bridge was taken down.

While not a true defeat, Aspern -Essling marked the first serious reverse suffered by Bonaparte at the hands of his foes.

More than 21,000 French soldiers became casualties and the army suffered the grievous loss of one of its finest commanders, when Marshal Lannes died after losing a leg to a cannonball wound.


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