1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Aspern-Essling, Battle of

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ASPERN-ESSLING, Battle of (1809), a battle fought on the 21st and 22nd of May 1809 between the French and their allies under Napoleon and the Austrians commanded by the archduke Charles (see Napoleonic Campaigns). At the time of the battle Napoleon was in possession of Vienna, the bridges over the Danube had been broken, and the archduke’s army was on and about the Bisamberg, a mountain near Korneuburg, on the left bank of the river. The first task of the French was the crossing of the Danube. Lobau, one of the numerous islands which divide the river into minor channels, was selected as the point of crossing, careful preparations were made, and on the night of the 19th-20th of May the French bridged all the channels from the right bank to Lobau and occupied the island. By the evening of the 20th great masses of men had been collected there and the last arm of the Danube, between Lobau and the left bank, bridged. Masséna’s corps at once crossed to the left bank and dislodged the Austrian outposts. Undeterred by the news of heavy attacks on his rear from Tirol and from Bohemia, Napoleon hurried all available troops to the bridges, and by daybreak on the 21st, 40,000 men were collected on the Marchfeld, the broad open plain of the left bank, which was also to be the scene of the battle of Wagram. The archduke did not resist the passage; it was his intention, as soon as a large enough force had crossed, to attack it before the rest of the French army could come to its assistance. Napoleon had, of course, accepted the risk of such an attack, but he sought at the same time to minimize it by summoning every available battalion to the scene. His forces on the Marchfeld were drawn up in front of the bridges facing north, with their left in the village of Aspern (Gross-Aspern) and their right in Essling (or Esslingen). Both places lay close to the Danube and could not therefore be turned; Aspern, indeed, is actually on the bank of one of the river channels. But the French had to fill the gap between the villages, and also to move forward to give room for the supports to form up. Whilst they were thus engaged the archduke moved to the attack with his whole army in five columns. Three under Hiller, Bellegarde and Hohenzollern were to converge upon Aspern, the other two, under Rosenberg, to attack Essling. The Austrian cavalry was in the centre, ready to move out against any French cavalry which should attack the heads of the columns. During the 21st the bridges became more and more unsafe, owing to the violence of the current, but the French crossed without intermission all day and during the night.

The battle began at Aspern; Hiller carried the village at the first rush, but Masséna recaptured it, and held his ground with the same tenacity as he had shown at Genoa in 1800. The French infantry, indeed, fought on this day with the old stubborn bravery which it had failed to show in the earlier battles of the year. The three Austrian columns fighting their hardest through the day were unable to capture more than half the village; the rest was still held by Masséna when night fell. In the meanwhile nearly all the French infantry posted between the two villages and in front of the bridges had been drawn into the fight on either flank. Napoleon therefore, to create a diversion, sent forward his centre, now consisting only of cavalry, to charge the enemy’s artillery, which was deployed in a long line and firing into Aspern. The first charge of the French was repulsed, but the second attempt, made by heavy masses of cuirassiers, was more serious. The French horsemen, gallantly led, drove off the guns, rode round Hohenzollern’s infantry squares, and routed the cavalry of Lichtenstein, but they were unable to do more, and in the end they retired to their old position. In the meanwhile Essling had been the scene of fighting almost as desperate as that of Aspern. The French cuirassiers made repeated charges on the flank of Rosenberg’s force, and for long delayed the assault, and in the villages Lannes with a single division made a heroic and successful resistance, till night ended the battle. The two armies bivouacked on their ground, and in Aspern the French and Austrians lay within pistol shot of each other. The latter had fought fully as hard as their opponents, and Napoleon realized that they were no longer the professional soldiers of former campaigns. The spirit of the nation was in them and they fought to kill, not for the honour of their arms. The emperor was not discouraged, but on the contrary renewed his efforts to bring up every available man. All through the night more and more French troops were put across.

At the earliest dawn of the 22nd the battle was resumed. Masséna swiftly cleared Aspern of the enemy, but at the same time Rosenberg stormed Essling at last. Lannes, however, resisted desperately, and reinforced by St Hilaire’s division, drove Rosenberg out. In Aspern Masséna had been less fortunate, the counter-attack of Hiller and Bellegarde being as completely successful as that of Lannes and St Hilaire. Meantime Napoleon had launched a great attack on the Austrian centre. The whole of the French centre, with Lannes on the right and the cavalry in reserve, moved forward. The Austrian line was broken through, between Rosenberg’s right and Hohenzollern’s left, and the French squadrons poured into the gap. Victory was almost won when the archduke brought up his last reserve, himself leading on his soldiers with a colour in his hand. Lannes was checked, and with his repulse the impetus of the attack died out all along the line. Aspern had been lost, and graver news reached Napoleon at the critical moment. The Danube bridges, which had broken down once already, had at last been cut by heavy barges, which had been set adrift down stream for the purpose by the Austrians. Napoleon at once suspended the attack. Essling now fell to another assault of Rosenberg, and though again the French, this time part of the Guard, drove him out, the Austrian general then directed his efforts on the flank of the French centre, slowly retiring on the bridges. The retirement was terribly costly, and but for the steadiness of Lannes the French must have been driven into the Danube, for the archduke’s last effort to break down their resistance was made with the utmost fury. Only the complete exhaustion of both sides put an end to the fighting. The French lost 44,000 out of 90,000 successively engaged, and amongst the killed were Lannes and St Hilaire. The Austrians, 75,000 strong, lost 23,360. Even this, the first great defeat of Napoleon, did not shake his resolution. The beaten forces were at last withdrawn safely into the island. On the night of the 22nd the great bridge was repaired, and the army awaited the arrival of reinforcements, not in Vienna, but in Lobau.

See sketch map in article Wagram.