The date is May 22, 1809. The place is the bridgehead over the Danube near the villages of Aspern and Essling, 4 miles east of Vienna. Napoleon, desirous to engage Archduke Charles and the Austrian army on the opposite side of the Danube had launched his leading divisions across the river. In all 24,000 French troops were digging in and awaiting the bulk of the army to cross the bridges. The commanders; Bessiers, Massena and Lannes; as well as Napoleon were unaware that Charles and 100,000 Austrians were heading headlong towards them with the intention to drive them into the Danube.
Though the French fought valiantly, the inability to keep the bridges open, and hence to provide reinforcements for Massena's embattled IV Corps eventually led to their withdrawal and the most serious set back to date of and army under Napoleon's direct command.
The precarious position of the French troops in combination with their dogged determination and the skill of their commanders led to some of the most desperate fighting of the Napoleonic Wars. Some excerpts from the chapter on this battle follow.
Coignet recalled that no words could describe the agony - no other word was appropriate - of standing in rank under bombardment, awaiting death without even firing a shot in reply. Whole files were carried away as the Austrian shot ploughed through the ranks, knocking the bearskin caps twenty feet into the air, and all Coignet could do was to call out a constant litany of 'Close up! Close up!' as the gaps in the ranks were filled. Two guns nearby made some reply until all their gunners were down; General Dorsenne, commander of the 2nd (Old Guard) Division of the Imperial Guard, sent forward a dozen grenadiers to replace them. They too fell, and the gun-carriages were splintered and scattered like so much firewood. Both Dorsenne's horses were killed under him, so he remained at the head of his men on foot; then with dismay they saw him fall as a shell exploded beside him. He stood up, covered in dirt, and called, 'Your general in not hurt. You many depend upon him, he will know how to die at his post!' The file next to Coignet was hit, and he saw his right arm all bloody. He thought he had lost it until his lieutenant seized his arm and the awful mess fell off, revealing his sleeve undamaged: it had merely been numbed when hit by the remains of one of his comrades. As Coignet had no feeling in the arm, the officer told him to drop his musket and draw his sabre with his left hand; but finding the hilt to have been carried off by a cannon shot, he decided to use his musket one-handed instead.
Lannes was conversing with the old General Pouzet when a ball struck the latter on the head and laid him dead at Lannes' feet. The death of such a dear friend came as an unbearable blow. Lannes wandered away distractedly some hundred yards and sat alone upon the bank of a ditch, staring blankly at the movement of the troops. Some moments later four soldiers came by carrying a body; as they paused to rest the cloak in which it was wrapped fell open to reveal poor Pouzet. Lannes jumped up with the cry 'Is this terrible sight going to follow me everywhere?', then walked away to sit on another bank, legs crossed and with a hand over his eyes. As he sat in sorrowful meditation, a ricocheting 3-pound roundshot bounced nearby and struck his crossed legs, smashing one kneecap and lacerating the sinews at the rear of the other. As Marbot limped over to him Lannes exclaimed, 'it's nothing much; give me your hand to help me up', but the injury was too severe. Marbot commandeered some infantrymen to carry the Marshal to safety.
Lannes was carried to an aid-post near the fortified bridgehead, where there was such a scene of horror that Lejeune recalled it with the words 'Oh, my God!' Amid the piles of dead and wounded, the surgeons advanced conflicting theories about the best treatment for Lannes; that of Larrey prevailed, and in less than two minutes the leg with the worst damage was amputated. Hearing that his friend was severely stricken, Napoleon hurried up and knelt in tears beside Lannes' stretcher, embracing the Marshal (which smeared blood on Napoleon's waistcoat), and declared that he would live. 'I trust I may' replied Lannes, 'if I can still be of use to France and to your majesty.'
At about 10 p.m. the chief of staff, Marshal Berthier, ordered Lejeune to prepare a boat to carry Napoleon from Lobau to the south bank of the Danube. It was pitch black, the period of the new moon, so Lejeune had the greatest difficulty finding his way across the island to the site of the still demolished bridge, frequently falling over wounded whose cries of anguish were partially drowned by the howl of a rising wind in the island's trees. Having filled the best boat with fifteen experienced oarsmen, pilots and a few good swimmers (in case it should be upset and Napoleon had to be rescued), Lejeune tried to grope his way back to headquarters, hands outstretched to prevent his walking into a tree in the blackness; instead he bumped straight into Napoleon, who was making his way to the boat. Napoleon consulted his watch; it chimed eleven and he remarked that it was time to retreat. By the light of a flickering torch, using his sabretache as a writing-desk, Lejeune wrote the order for withdrawal for Massena and Bessieres; Berthier signed it, and then Napoleon was gone, his oarsmen pulling the boat out into the Danube. The torch was blown out by the wind almost immediately, and the boat disappeared into the gloom; not until late in the following day, when he heard of its safe arrival on the far bank, did Lejeune shake off the fear that it had been swamped and Napoleon drowned.
ASPERN & WAGRAM 1809 - MIGHTY CLASH OF EMPIRES
NAPOLEON AND THE ARCHDUKE CHARLES
NAPOLEON CONQUERS AUSTRIA