The Garde Impériale at Aspern-Essling
The Austrian collapse was not quite the end of the story, even if what remained made depressing reading for Napoleon’s opponents. By the time of the battle of Wagram, Sweden was effectively out of the war: following a series of reverses, on 13 March Gustav IV had been overthrown by an aristocratic faction sickened by what they saw as the king’s mismanagement of the war effort and determined to put an end to enlightened absolutism and restore Sweden’s traditional alliance with France. As for the British, 1809 was marked by an episode that was virtually epic in its futility. Driven not so much by a desire to aid Austria as one to strike a further blow against French naval power and undo the damage to its prestige incurred by what appeared to have been its failure in Spain, the Portland administration decided to land a large army at the mouth of the Scheldt and seize Antwerp. After much delay an army was duly assembled, and by 30 July the first British troops were going ashore. Vlissingen was besieged and captured, but the British advance was so slow that the defenders had time to reinforce Antwerp to such an extent that all thought of taking it had to be abandoned. An attempt was then made to retain control of the island of Walcheren, but its climate provoked an epidemic of malaria so terrible it had eventually to be evacuated. Only in Germany (where a flying column known as the Brunswick Black Corps had chosen to fight on despite Wagram), Tyrol and Calabria did active hostilities continue, but here too the French and their allies had the upper hand. The Brunswickers were forced to take ship for Britain, the Tyroleans gradually hunted down, and the Calabrian banditti, as we have seen, subjected to ever greater pressure. Against this, the British occupation of most of the Ionian islands amounted to very little. Almost everywhere French arms ruled supreme.
All that remains to be said of the campaigns of 1809 is the territorial adjustments to which they gave rise. Needless to say, the chief casualty was Austria. On the battlefield of Wagram Francis I had responded to the news of defeat with the laconic remark, ‘We shall have much to retrieve.’ Rarely could he have spoken a truer word. Already badly hit in 1805, the Habsburgs were now punished still further. Carinthia, Carniola and that part of Croatia south of the river Sava were annexed and joined with the territories lost in Istria and Dalmatia in 1805, and the city-state of Ragusa, which had been occupied by the French in 1807, to form the French-ruled Illyrian Provinces. Western Galicia, the portion of central Poland seized by Austria in 1795, was divided between Russia and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw; and Salzburg and some other border districts were ceded to Bavaria, which also got back the Tyrol (minus the largely Italian-speaking Trentino which was passed over to the Kingdom of Italy). Austria had to pay an indemnity of 85 million francs, reduce her army to 150,000 men, and agree to join the Continental Blockade. In addition, Joseph Bonaparte was recognized as King of Spain and Joachim Murat as King of Naples. There was still the issue of Hungary: although nothing had come of the proclamation of 15 May, Napoleon pointedly failed to guarantee Francis I’s remaining possessions and continued to encourage his representatives to stir up Magyar separatism. With Austria all but bankrupt, further resistance was out of the question, and salvation was now sought in détente with France. The chief symbol of this was the marriage of the Archduchess Marie-Louise to Napoleon, the empress Josephine having previously been divorced on account of her failure to produce an heir. Stadion having resigned the post of chief minister in the wake of the battle of Wagram, Austrian foreign policy was now in the hands of Metternich, who had absolutely no illusions as to Austria’s situation. As he wrote to Francis on 10 August 1809:
Whatever the conditions of the peace may be . . . we shall find our safety only by accommodating ourselves to the triumphant system of France. That this system . . . is most unsuitable for us, I need not repeat to Your Majesty. My principles are unchangeable, but to necessity we must yield. If the present war, with extraordinary means, is unsuccessful, to repeat the attempt with reduced strength against a stronger adversary would be an act of insanity. From the day when peace is signed we must confine our system to tacking and turning and flattering. Thus alone may we possibly preserve our existence till the day of general deliverance . . . For us there remains but one expedient: to increase our strength for better days, to work out our preservation by gentle means, without looking back upon our former course.
Nor was Austrian withdrawal from the scene the only damage done to the cause of resistance to Napoleon. In Germany there were plenty of patriots who were ready to attribute the miserable failure of their hopes to want of British assistance. To quote the words of an officer fighting in the British army as part of the so-called King’s German Legion:
From these heroic and loyal efforts of Schill and Dornberg, and from insurrections like that organized in the name of the Duke of Brunswick . . . it may clearly be seen that, if an English force of only 4,000 men had been landed on the banks of the Elbe, and about 10,000 in East Friesland, all Westphalia and Hanover and East Friesland would directly have taken up arms to protect their country, and to regain their liberty. One Hanoverian general, with a sufficient supply of money and arms, would certainly have collected in a short space of time 80,000 men, and the bad success of all the insurrections is to be attributed to the want of the authority and sanction of England.
Just as bad, perhaps, was the manner in which Napoleon had posed as the defender of the states of southern Germany against Austrian aggression. Prior to one battle, for example, the French ruler assembled the commanders of the Bavarian troops attached to his forces and delivered a stirring harangue:
Bavarian soldiers! I stand before you not as emperor of France, but as the protector of your country and of the Rheinbund. Bavarians! Today you fight alone against the Austrians. Not a single Frenchman is in the first line . . . I have complete faith in your bravery. I have already expanded the borders of your land: I see now that I have not gone far enough. I will make you so great that you will not need my protection in any future war with Austria . . . We will march to Vienna, where we will punish Austria for all the evil it has caused your fatherland!
In one respect only was there any reason to take heart. The Austrian army of 1809 was very clearly not the Austrian army of 1805, and had meted out severe punishment to the French. At Aspern-Essling and Wagram imperial losses had amounted to over 50,000 men. The reason this was so was not because the soldiers of the Habsburg empire had been inspired by the appeal to German nationalism which had accompanied the campaign, but rather that the Archduke Charles had given the Austrian army the corps system. Hitherto used only by the French, this had been a key part in their ability to win decisive victories. Armies thus organized could operate on a broad front and thereby envelop their opponents, while on the battlefield they were infinitely more flexible in terms of their capacity to mass overwhelming numbers against one section of the enemy line or respond to attacks on their own. Broken down into the self-sufficient (and extremely substantial) sections represented by the corps d’armée, they were also much harder to smash: one corps or another might be broken but the rest of the army could go on fighting unimpaired. In consequence, battles between two such armies were likely to be long struggles of attrition from which neither side would emerge triumphant unless they could manoeuvre themselves into a position from which they could attack the enemy from all sides – something which was now likely to become much harder. Significantly, in 1806 Prussia did not have the corps system at all, while in 1807 Russia was only groping towards it. When he next faced them, however, Napoleon was to find that both armies, like that of the Austrians, had moved on: hence the fact that the war of 1809 was the last conflict in which he would triumph.
The scales of conflict, then, were tilting against Napoleon, but this was also true in another sense. Four years of incessant campaigning had cost the French and their allies hundreds of thousands of casualties. The dead and wounded of Austerlitz, Jena, Auerstädt, Eylau, Friedland, Aspern-Essling and Wagram alone came to a minimum of 120,000 men, and to these must be added the losses suffered in many other actions, together with countless other men who had been lost to sickness. Casualties had in other words easily equalled the 210,000 men who had made up the original grande armée of 1805. The officer corps had been particularly hard hit – forty generals, including the brilliant cavalry leader, Lasalle, had fallen at Wagram, along with 1,822 men of the rank of colonel or below – while Aspern-Essling had seen the death of Marshal Lannes, who has often been rated as one of the very best of Napoleon’s subordinate commanders. Making up these losses was not easy. Though by no means always a reliable observer, on this point the aide-de-camp Marbot is sharp enough:
On the evening of the battle the emperor rewarded the services of Macdonald, Oudinot and Marmont by giving them his marshal’s baton. It was not, however, in his power to give them the talents required to command an army: brave and good divisional generals as they were when in the emperor’s hands, they showed themselves clumsy when they were away from him, either in devising a plan of campaign, or in executing it, or in modifying it according to circumstances. It was held in the army that the emperor, not being able to replace Lannes, wanted to get the small change for him.
But it was not just the officers. Also dead or maimed were thousands of the veteran sergeants, corporals and common soldiers who might have made good subalterns or provided the cadres around which the ever larger numbers of conscripts being called forth from France and her allies could have been mustered. Henceforth, then; French armies were far less sophisticated than before. Instead of the highly flexible system of infantry tactics with which Napoleon’s troops had gone to war in 1803, from 1809 onwards battles were marked by the use of formations that were little more than bludgeons and, still worse, likely to incur terrible casualties. Also a feature after 1809 were small cannon attached in pairs to infantry regiments for close support, which in practice were more of a hindrance than a help. And as a result of these changes, the chances of achieving decisive victories on the battlefield receded still further, especially as the campaign of 1809 had also revealed the first signs of physical and mental weakness in Napoleon himself: many of his orders had been oddly imprecise, and after both Aspern-Essling and Wagram he had suffered genuine exhaustion.
There were domestic implications here as well. All across the Napoleonic imperium, the years 1808 and 1809 had seen a massive acceleration in the demands of the state for manpower. Where systems of conscription already existed, the pressures grew heavier. In France, 1808 saw the mobilization of three separate levies of 80,000 men, including many from the year groups of 1809 and 1810. In the Kingdom of Italy, the 12,000 men taken each year from 1806 onwards had to be supplemented by an additional levy of 9,000 men in 1809. In Baden the 8,000-strong army was at this same moment directed to find an additional 6,000 men in preparation for the war against Austria. And where no French-style system of conscription existed, it was now introduced: in Naples, for example, the ballot began in the summer of 1809. The extent of this ‘blood-tax’ can be exaggerated: even in the Kingdom of Italy, where conscription has generally been regarded as having been very severe, no more than 7 per cent of the available manpower was ever taken in any given levy, while the expansion of the state’s frontiers meant there was actually a small decline in the proportion of the male population that had to be taken. Yet the impact was none the less severe enough, and in most parts of the empire there was considerable low-level resistance in the form of desertion and draft evasion. All this produced much brigandage, periodic riots and occasional outbreaks of wholesale insurrection. In France, at least, improved policing and ever-increasing legal penalties managed greatly to reduce the problem. But beneath the surface the limits of popular acceptance were being placed under ever greater strain, and all the more so given the fact that in part the war had changed its character. If the Austrian campaign had been, like the struggles of 1805-7, a relatively civilized affair fought out within the so-called ‘rules of war’, the fighting in Spain and Portugal had, in popular legend at least, assumed a very different character. Men sent to the Peninsula did not just die in battle: just as often they were murdered or subjected to the most appalling tortures. In short, confidence in the empire was undermined even in France, while in Germany and Italy it was in effect smothered before it had any chance to take off. There was as yet no revolution, nor anything remotely resembling one, but from 1809 onwards it is hard to see the French imperium as anything other than a house of cards.
To conclude then, in the autumn of 1809 Napoleon was seemingly as unassailable as ever. Austria and Sweden were so cowed that they had both effectively changed sides; Prussia was helpless; Britain was securing only limited benefits from her few allies and seemingly unable to forge stable relations with junior partners; the cause of insurrection in Germany had been stripped of all credibility; and Russia was still an ally of France. Meanwhile, if the Peninsular War continued to rage unabated, it seemed likely that the French would eventually crush Spanish resistance and then turn on Portugal in irresistible force, while internal pacification was also making some progress in Italy. Nor, in the end, was the campaign of 1809 anything to be ashamed of: French control of Europe had been reasserted; a moment of great danger overcome; and Napoleon’s Polish, German and Italian auxiliaries shown to be soldiers who were potentially very good. Yet it is hard not to have a sense that the wind had changed. Victory at Wagram had come at the cost of efforts that far outstripped anything that had yet been demanded of the French empire and had only been achieved with considerable difficulty. French armies, it appeared, could be beaten after all. And Napoleon himself had been shown to be fallible. All this brings us back to Tilsit. In the end what had brought Alexander into the French camp had been not so much the French ruler’s personal charisma but the sense of awe that he generated. This aura, however, was now shattered, while at Erfurt the tsar had learned that Napoleon was not to be trusted. Russia’s interests, it was now clear, would only be backed by France so long as they did not conflict with her own, whereas French interests were to be backed by Russia no matter what the costs to her own aspirations. The moment when Tilsit broke down had not yet come, but it could now be foreseen.