Heavily defeated in 1805 and subjected to a diet of constant humiliation thereafter, Austria had until 1808 maintained a low profile. Under the leadership of the Archduke Charles, the army was strengthened through military reforms, but Charles himself believed that Vienna should cut its losses in Germany and Italy, abandon all notion of fighting Napoleon, and seek compensation in the Balkans. As for Emperor Francis – since 6 August 1806 Francis I of Austria rather than Francis II of the now defunct Holy Roman Empire – he remained as cautious as ever, all the more so as Russia now appeared as a potential enemy. For a time, a consensus even emerged that Austria should seek an alliance with Napoleon. But it soon became clear that the emperor was simply not interested in such a deal.
Still worse, his overthrow of the Spanish Bourbons provoked fears that he might treat the Habsburgs in the same fashion. A number of figures in the Austrian court had always been in favour of a new war. Francis’s third wife, Maria-Ludovica of Habsburg-Este, had bitter personal memories of French aggression in northern Italy; the chancellor, Phillip von Stadion, possessed a deep nostalgia for the Holy Roman Empire (in which he had enjoyed the status of a so-called imperial knight); and the youngest of the emperor’s brothers, the Archduke John, was a Romantic obsessed with the idea that the Tyrol – lost to Bavaria in 1805 – was the very cradle of the German nation and, as such, could only belong to Austria. In the wake of Bayonne, such figures had a credibility they had previously lacked, and they were now joined by others such as Metternich.
In his eyes, at least, there was no longer any option: ‘Austria was in a position in which she could not possibly maintain herself . . . Not only, then, was the renewal [of hostilities] in the nature of things, but it was for our empire an absolute condition of its existence.’ Though still hopeful war might be avoided, Francis allowed Charles to accelerate reform of the army, which he also ordered should be brought up to full strength, and rather reluctantly permitted Stadion to organize a propaganda campaign designed to stir up German nationalism and provoke an insurrection.
If the object was to secure better treatment from Napoleon, however, the effort was a futile one. On the contrary, on 25 July Napoleon dispatched a series of letters to the rulers of the Confederation of the Rhine warning them that Austria was bent on a war of revenge – a matter of particular sensitivity for states such as Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria – and that they should therefore get ready for war themselves: ‘If Austria arms, then we must arm too . . . If there is one way of avoiding war, it is showing Austria that we have picked up the gauntlet and are ready for her.’ And, on 15 August, Metternich received a most clear and public warning of the likely French response at a formal reception at the palace of St Cloud:
Napoleon advanced towards me with great solemnity. He stopped two feet in front of me, and addressed me in a loud voice and pompous tone: ‘Well, Monsieur Ambassador, what does the emperor, your master, want? Does he intend to call me back to Vienna?
With Austria restless, not to mention the many thousands of French troops tied down in Spain, a French attack on the Ottoman Empire had to be postponed. Alexander, then, got something of a shock at Erfurt. Rather than discussing arrangements for a joint attack on Turkey, the tsar found himself facing demands that he should threaten the use of military force against Austria. Thus Napoleon’s instructions to Talleyrand, whom he summoned from retirement to act as his chief negotiator, were as precise as they were cynical:
Now I shall go to Erfurt. I wish, in returning, to be free to do what I wish in Spain. I wish to be assured that Austria will be afraid and hold back, and I do not wish to engage in too precise a manner with Russia concerning the affairs of the east . . . You will insist greatly upon that, for Count Rumiantsev is sanguine about the eastern question. You will say that nothing can be done without public opinion, and that it is necessary that, without being scared by our combined power, Europe should see with pleasure the achievement of the great undertaking we contemplate. The security of the neighbouring powers, the legitimate interest of the continent, seven millions of Greeks restored to independence: all this constitutes a fine field for philanthropy. I will give you carte blanche for that. I wish only that it be distant philanthropy.
More and more, in fact, it seemed the chief goal of French policy was to keep Vienna quiet. This was vital to Napoleon at this time. After twelve years of marriage, he was still childless and yet in every battle that he fought he risked death or serious injury. In consequence, he was desperate for an heir and that in turn meant a period of peace in which he could replace Josephine with a new bride – something that was already under discussion in the French court – and spend some time with whichever princess was chosen for the task. But Alexander was not happy about his interests being relegated to the realms of ‘distant philanthropy’. As for the deal on offer, it was simply unacceptable. If the possibility of a marriage to the tsar’s youngest sister, Anna, was raised at Erfurt, then it seems likely that this was only to test out the idea’s reception.
Peace talks were to be offered to Britain – something that the tsar was increasingly anxious for – but only on terms that seemed unlikely to bear fruit, in that London would be required to recognize the new territorial arrangements in Europe and to force Patriot Spain and Spanish America to acknowledge Joseph Bonaparte as their legitimate monarch. And, in exchange for pressurizing Austria, Russia was offered little or nothing. In theory, she could have Finland and the Danubian provinces, but there was no mention of armed assistance from France and some suggestion that these annexations would not be recognized unless peace was forthcoming with Britain. As for the rest of the Ottoman Empire, she would be expected to guarantee its independence and integrity. Against all this, vague hints that in the future things might be very different counted for very little, while the tsar may have been encouraged by a Talleyrand who, according to his own account, was increasingly convinced that the emperor had to be stopped. Alexander’s duty, he is supposed to have told him, was to resist Napoleon, who had now become a threat not just to the peace of Europe but also to its very stability.
Such was Alexander’s discomfiture at discovering Napoleon’s change of position over the Ottoman Empire that Talleyrand’s intervention was hardly necessary. At all events discussions between the two emperors did not go smoothly. ‘The tsar was unshakeable,’ wrote Caulaincourt. ‘Nothing could alter his resolve. He refused to see in the arguments and insistence of his ally anything but a proof of the hostile intentions and schemes of revenge of which he suspected him . . . Alexander showed great character . . . On one occasion, for instance, Napoleon . . . tried the experiment of working himself up into a rage, and, losing control of himself, threw his hat . . . upon the ground and stamped on it . . . Alexander stood still . . . and, looking at him with a smile, said, when he had calmed down a little. “When you become violent, I just become stubborn. With me anger is of no avail.
Let us discuss and be reasonable, or I will go.” ’ In the end all that Napoleon could obtain was the promise that Russia would support him against Vienna should Austria attack him. Beyond that it was agreed that a joint peace offer should be made to Britain, and that France should keep Spain and Portugal and remain in occupation of Silesia, and Russia retain the Danubian provinces and Finland. As for the Ottoman Empire, it was guaranteed by both sides, though Russia was permitted to abandon her current armistice with the Turks and resume active military operations if negotiations with the Turks had made no progress by 1 January 1809. All this was agreed in a document signed on 12 October 1808, and the monarchs then parted amidst further protestations of friendship.
These, however, meant nothing. What counted was that Alexander rode home with the firm conviction that Napoleon could not be trusted and, in particular, that he could not be allowed any extension of his power in Eastern Europe. War between France and Russia was neither inevitable, nor close – for one thing the current Foreign Minister, Rumiantsev, was a firm proponent of the French alliance – but it had suddenly become possible again.
No peace came from Erfurt. The talks offered to Britain were rejected out of hand and Austria was not dissuaded from the course on which she had embarked. Indeed, given Napoleon’s belligerent attitude, the latter was driven even further down the road towards a fresh conflict. Among significant parts of the establishment there was still no enthusiasm for renewing the struggle, but on 23 December a resigned and despondent Francis resolved on war.
Needless to say, the Austrians endeavoured to secure help from Russia, Prussia and Britain alike, but the first was unwilling to break with Napoleon when she was still embroiled in both Sweden and the Balkans; the second was cowed and under military occupation; and the third distinctly lukewarm. Given the constant French refrain that continental coalitions were the fruit of British gold, this last point is worth considering. With war looming, in October 1808 Vienna had contacted London with a request for money, but at £7.5 million the sum was far beyond Britain’s means – it far outstripped any other payment that had previously been made – and it was made clear that, while help would be given, it would only appear after Austria had shown herself to be in earnest.
A second and somewhat more moderate request met a slightly more encouraging answer, but only in April 1809 was it eventually agreed that £250,000 would be sent to Austria in silver and a further £1 million deposited in Malta for Vienna to draw upon at will. Nor is any of this surprising. Not only was there little faith in the Austrian army, but right up to the last moment it was feared that Vienna was not bluffing. As for reports that preparations for a great popular insurrection were underway in Germany, these were accorded little credence. In brief, far from ‘Pitt’s gold’ buying an attack on Napoleon, it was rather the other way about.
When the Austrian armies crossed the frontier into Bavaria and the kingdom of Italy on 9 April 1809, they did so all but unsuccoured. Only in the Tyrol was any assistance on offer. Here the local inhabitants had become increasingly resentful of Bavarian rule, which was both destructive of provincial privilege and strongly anti-clerical, while there were also long traditions of irregular military service, with the result that, under the leadership of the innkeeper Andreas Hofer, talk of insurrection had assumed concrete form. Initially, however, Austrian success was considerable. With much of the old grande armée serving in Spain, Napoleon had only 80,000 troops available for service in Germany as opposed to the 180,000 who had marched to meet the Prussians in 1806.
Nor did it help that politics dictated that the Austrians should be seen to be the aggressors: the French forces in Germany were kept well back from the border, while Napoleon himself remained in Paris and gave Marshal Berthier – normally his chief of staff – command of the deliberately misnamed ‘Army of the Rhine’. Also, the spring thaw meant that the rivers of Bavaria were in full spate, with the result that the grande armée could not concentrate with any great speed. Hampered by the floods though he was too, the Archduke Charles therefore overran much of eastern Bavaria. Nor were matters much better for Napoleon elsewhere. The army of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw could put less than 20,000 men into the field; the Kingdom of Italy was largely defended by raw recruits; and the Tyrol was held by a mere 3,000 Bavarians.
While Charles went forward in Bavaria, then, other Austrian armies captured Warsaw and scored successes in Italy and the Tyrol, where the local insurgents had soon eliminated the inadequate Bavarian garrison. And, finally, the Kingdom of Italy was swept by a wave of agrarian unrest. For a brief moment, indeed, the atmosphere was one of panic, as witness this account of the aftermath of the defeat of Eugène de Beauharnais at Sacile:
At length I reached Verona. All was in confusion. The wounded were coming in in large numbers, [and] fugitives, riderless horses, carts, baggage wagons [and] carriages [were] crossing each other . . . blocking the streets and filling the squares; in short, all the horrors of a rout . . . The authorities were without news and crowded round me to ask for some . . . The Viceroy . . . sent several aides de camp to . . . desire me to come straight to him . . . He was even more taken up with what the emperor would say and write than with the affair itself. ‘I have been beaten,’ he said, ‘at my first attempt at commanding, and in a bad place too. The emperor will be furious; he knows his Italy so well.’
Austria’s success proved short-lived, however. Despite gallant attempts by two Prussian officers named Schill and Dornberg to whip up revolts in Westphalia and Prussia, Germany remained quiet, and so Napoleon was able to fall on Charles with every man he had available. Thoroughly overawed, the Austrian commander was soon falling back on Vienna, which he proceeded to abandon to the French. Threatened with being trapped, the Austrian forces in the Tyrol and northern Italy fell back in their turn, while in the east the Poles countered the fall of Warsaw with an invasion of Galicia. On 21-22 May an attempt by Napoleon to cross the Danube just east of Vienna was thrown back by Charles at Aspern-Essling with heavy losses, but in Italy the Austrians were beaten at the river Piave and forced to retreat to Hungary where they were defeated for a second time at Raab.
Meanwhile, in response to Napoleon’s demands for support, a Russian army invaded Galicia and occupied Cracow. The coup de grâce, however, came at the battle of Wagram. Fought just outside Vienna on 5-6 July, this was a titanic struggle that saw Napoleon secure a narrow victory. Now badly outnumbered, Charles knew that his forces would not be able to endure another battle and was much alarmed by a proclamation that Napoleon had issued on 15 May in which he called on the Magyars to revolt and promised them an independent state. In practice, the results turned out to be non-existent, but when the French caught Charles up at Znaim, the Archduke promptly asked for an armistice. Yet Wagram had been a respectable performance on the part of the whitecoats. There had been little pursuit, and it was clear enough to veterans of Napoleon’s campaigns that something was wrong. To quote the infantry officer, Elzéar Blaze:
Wagram had no great material results. That is to say there was no great haul of the net as at Ulm, Jena and Ratisbon. Scarcely any prisoners were made; we took from the Austrians nine pieces of cannon, and we lost fourteen . . . In general, after a battle an order of the day acquainted us with what we had done . . . In his proclamations to his army, which Napoleon drew up himself, he told us . . . that he was satisfied with himself, that we had surpassed his expectations, that we had flown with the rapidity of an eagle; he then detailed our exploits, the number of soldiers, cannon and carriages that we had taken. It was exaggerated, but it was high-sounding and had an excellent effect. After Wagram we had not the least proclamation, not the least order of the day . . . For upwards of three weeks we knew not the name it was to have in history.