Conflict & Dates:
The Battle of Aspern-Essling was fought May 21-22, 1809, and was part of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).
Armies & Commanders:
- Napoleon Bonaparte
- 27,000 increasing to 66,000 men
- Archduke Charles
- 95,800 men
Battle of Aspern-Essling Overview:
Occupying Vienna on May 10, 1809, Napoleon paused only briefly as he wished to destroy the Austrian army led by Archduke Charles. As the retreating Austrians had destroyed the bridges over the Danube, Napoleon moved downstream and began erecting a pontoon bridge across to the island of Lobau. Shifting his troops to Lobau on May 20, his engineers completed work on a bridge to the far side of the river that night. Immediately pushing units under Marshals André Masséna and Jean Lannes across the river, the French quickly occupied the villages of Aspern and Essling.
Watching the Napoleon's movements, Archduke Charles did not oppose the crossing. It was his goal to allow a sizable part of the French army to cross, then attack it before the rest could come to its aid. While Masséna's troops took positions in Aspern, Lannes moved a division into Essling. The two positions were connected by a line of French troops stretched across a plain known as the Marchfeld. As French strength increased, the bridge became increasingly unsafe due to rising flood waters. In an effort to cut off the French, the Austrians floated timbers which severed the bridge.
His army assembled, Charles moved to attack on May 21. Focusing his efforts on the two villages, he sent General Johann von Hiller to attack Aspern while Prince Rosenberg assaulted Essling. Striking hard, Hiller captured Aspern but was soon thrown back by a determined counterattack by Masséna's men. Surging forward again, the Austrians were able to secure half of the village before a bitter stalemate ensued. At the other end of the line, Rosenberg's assault was delayed when his flank was attacked by French cuirassiers. Driving off the French horsemen, his troops encountered stiff resistance from Lannes' men.
In an effort to relieve pressure on his flanks, Napoleon sent forward his center, consisting solely cavalry, against the Austrian artillery. Repulsed in their first charge, they rallied and succeeded in driving off the enemy guns before being checked by Austrian cavalry. Exhausted, they retired to their original position. At nightfall, both armies camped in their lines while French engineers worked feverishly to repair the bridge. Completed after dark, Napoleon immediately began shifting the troops from Lobau. For Charles, the opportunity to win a decisive victory had passed.
Shortly after dawn on May 22, Masséna launched a large-scale attack and cleared Aspern of the Austrians. While the French were attacking in the west, Rosenberg assaulted Essling in the east. Fighting desperately, Lannes, reinforced by General Louis St. Hilaire's division, was able to hold and force Rosenberg out of the village. Seeking to retake Aspern, Charles sent Hiller and Count Heinrich von Bellegarde forward. Attacking Masséna's tired men, they were able to capture the village. With possession of the villages changing hands, Napoleon again sought a decision in the center.
Attacking across the Marchfeld, he broke through the Austrian line at the junction of Rosenberg and Franz Xavier Prince zu Hohenzollern-Hechingen's men. Recognizing that the battle was in the balance, Charles personally led forward the Austrian reserve with a flag in hand. Slamming into Lannes' men on the left of the French advance, Charles halted Napoleon's attack. With the assault failing, Napoleon learned that Aspern had been lost and that the bridge had again been cut. Realizing the danger of the situation, Napoleon began retreating into a defensive position.
Taking heavy casualties, Essling was soon lost. Repairing the bridge, Napoleon withdrew his army back to Lobau ending the battle.
The fighting at Aspern-Essling cost the French around 23,000 casualties (7,000 killed, 16,000 wounded) while the Austrians suffered around 23,300 (6,200 killed/missing, 16,300 wounded, and 800 captured). Consolidating his position on Lobau, Napoleon awaited reinforcements. Having won his nation's first major victory over the French in a decade, Charles failed to follow up on his success. Conversely, for Napoleon, Aspern-Essling marked his first major defeat in the field. Having allowed his army to recover, Napoleon again crossed the river in July and scored a decisive victory over Charles at Wagram.