Battle of Eckmühl 1809

1809 Cuirassier

Austrian Cavalry – Cuirassiers in 1809

Antoine de Marbot recounted an incident that demonstrated the properties of the two styles of cuirass, when at Eckmühl in April 1809 French and Austrian cuirassiers crashed together, while the accompanying light cavalry drew off to the flanks to avoid being caught up in the fight.

The cuirassiers advanced rapidly upon each other, and became one immense melée. Courage, tenacity and strength were well matched, but the defensive arms were unequal, for the Austrian cuirasses only covered them in front, and gave no protection to the back in a crowd. In this way, the French troopers who, having double cuirasses and no fear of being wounded from behind had only to think of thrusting, were able to give point to the enemy’s backs, and slew a great many of them with small loss to themselves. [When the Austrians wheeled about to withdraw] the fight became a butchery, as our cuirassiers pursued the enemy. This fight settled a question which had long been debated, as to the necessity of double cuirasses, for the proportion of Austrians wounded and killed amounted respectively to eight and thirteen for one Frenchman.

A further item of protective equipment used by heavy cavalry was a consequence of the knee-to-knee charge formation: the long boots worn to prevent the legs being crushed. Some thought them more an encumbrance than a protection, as Marbot observed of a dismounted cuirassier officer at Eckmühl who was unable to run fast enough to escape the enemy – he was killed in the act of pulling off his boots.

The plan was simple. While Davout pinned what little remained of the Austrian right, Lànnes, Lefebvre and Vandamme were to force their way forward along a ten-mile front between Hausen and Siegenburg. Their line of operations would run through Rottenburg and, once the penetration of the Austrian center was accomplished, part of the attacking force would head for Landshut to join Massena and thus isolate Charles’ left wing, while the remainder swept north toward Abbach to destroy his right. Napoleon assumed that the garrison of Ratisbon—the 2,000 men of Colonel Coutard’s 65th Regiment—would already have destroyed the bridge over the Danube there, thus denying the Austrians any easy line of retreat to the north bank of the Danube. Consequently he would only have to worry about blocking the more easterly crossing at Straubing.

At first on the 20th it appeared that all was going as planned. The attack by the French center went extremely well; beginning at 9:00 A.M., it took little over two hours for the corps to crash their way through the brittle barrier formed by Archduke Louis’ Vth Corps near Abensburg. At the same time, somewhat further south, Oudinot inflicted a sharp defeat on Hiller’s command. By midday, therefore, Napoleon’s strategic penetration was an accomplished fact, and it appeared that nothing could save the Austrian army from piecemeal destruction. By 5:00 A.M. on the 21st, Napoleon was feeling confident enough to write to Davout that he had achieved “another Jena.” He went on to enlarge on his plan for the double envelopment of the Austrian wings, clearly believing that nothing remained but the clearing up of the debris and the organization of a general pursuit. Davout was to move back to Ratisbon by way of Langquaid with two of his divisions. Taken together, these forces should suffice to attack and beat off the Ist and IInd Corps of the Austrian forces operating from Bohemia, besides encompassing the annihilation of the remnants of the Austrian IIIrd Corps on the south bank of the Danube. Meanwhile, Lannes and Lefebvre would be heading for Landshut; two German divisions and Nansouty’s cuirassiers were to lead the way, followed by Morand and Gudin, the remaining divisions of the VIIth Corps bringing up the rear. Massena, Napoleon assumed, would already be acting as the stop-force at Landshut. Very soon the road to Vienna would lie invitingly open with the shattered remnants of the Austrian army lying by the wayside. Barely three regiments could still be facing Davout.

On the map, at least, these dispositions appeared convincing. In practice, however, they were riddled with unjustified assumptions and miscalculations which have led many commentators to claim that Napoleon’s powers of judgment were clearly in decline. In the first place, Napoleon believed on insufficient evidence that Davout and Lefebvre had between them really defeated Charles’ right wing on the 19th, whereas in fact they had only brushed with its leading formations; secondly, the Emperor calculated that the battle at Abensberg on the 20th had disposed of a further two Austrian corps; thirdly, he assumed that there was no way over the Danube for the Austrians at Ratisbon; and fourthly, that Massena was already in possession of Landshut and the Isar crossings. All these assumptions were wholly or in part unjustified. Instead of being defeated, at least two thirds of the Austrian army was still intact and under more or less effective command. Only two Austrian corps—those of Louis and Hiller—had so far received anything approaching a drubbing. As it happened therefore, Davout was still faced by almost three Austrian corps. So much for the Emperor’s “three regiments!” In addition, both the city and bridge at Ratisbon were safely in Austrian possession. Attacked by Kollowrath from the north and Lichtenstein from the south, and faced with the hopeless task of defending an extensive and badly repaired perimeter, Colonel Couthard had surrendered at 5:00 P.M. the previous afternoon. Even worse, he had failed to destroy the vital bridge. This stone structure was massively built on numerous piers and provided with extensive ice shields on each side that made effective demolition practically impossible. Davout had mentioned this fact to the Emperor several times during the preceding week, but for once the mighty brain had failed to assimilate the information. Finally, the “stop-force,” so vital if the Austrian left wing was to be caught on the Isar, was not in fact in position. Massena had experienced considerable difficulty crossing the River Amper, and this wrecked his time schedule; in consequence the main part of his force was not yet beyond Freising, although a force of light cavalry and Claparède’s division of infantry had pushed ahead as far as Mooseburg. These troops were under orders to press on for Landshut down the right bank of the Isar if they were not opposed in force. Unfortunately, Massena was not in person with his advance guard, and this move was not executed with the greatest vigor. As a result, Hiller was able to recross the Isar safely with the remnants of three corps, leaving a strong garrison to hold the Landshut bridges. Thus the enemy left wing was already making good its escape.

During the day Napoleon and his staff rode rapidly southward to join the IVth Corps and supervise Hiller’s elimination, unaware that the opportunity was already passing. The Emperor was considerably put out to discover both the town and bridge of Landshut still in Austrian hands. This situation he determined to change. While Massena’s weary men pressed up the right bank toward the town, after passing the Isar at Mooseburg, Napoleon sent forward a special column of grenadiers under one of his personal aides, the bluntly spoken General Mouton, to capture the bridge by a coup de main. Although the piles were already on fire, Mouton gallantly led his men over the bridge, captured the island in the middle of the river, and then stormed over the second span of the crossing into Landshut itself, entirely disregarding the fact that the enemy were still massed in the town. This was a feat of arms as bold as that performed at Lodi in 1796, but, as on the earlier occasion, it proved unavailing. It was too late to trap Hiller, and a disgruntled Napoleon could think of nothing better than to detach Bessières at the head of a composite infantry and cavalry force to pursue the Austrian rear guard as best he might.

Although the events of the day had resulted in the Austrians losing 10,000 casualties, 30 guns, 600 caissons and 7,000 other vehicles, the Austrian army was still far from destroyed. During the morning it had appeared that the game was won, and this put the Emperor in a rare good humor. Passing the 13th Regiment of Light Infantry (part of Oudinot’s command), Napoleon asked the colonel to name the bravest man in his unit. After some hesitation the reply came: “Sire, it is the Drum Major.” At Napoleon’s request the apprehensive bandsman was produced for Imperial inspection. “They say that you are the bravest man in this regiment,” Napoleon told him. “I appoint you a Knight of the Legion of Honor, Baron of the Empire, and award you a pension of 4,000 francs….” A gasp went up from the paraded ranks; this was munificence on a grand scale! It was the first time that an ordinary soldier had been raised to the nobility. As le Tondu shrewdly calculated, this award made a profound impression on the bewildered and homesick conscripts throughout the army; it was a good example of man-management as well as a justified recognition of personal valor.

Napoleon’s mood was somewhat less benign that evening as he came to realize the extent of his miscalculations. Interrogation of prisoners revealed that only Hiller’s and Louis’ Austrian corps had been fully involved in the previous day’s fighting. Consequently the pursuit was decidedly premature. Furthermore, Napoleon realized that the Archduke Charles was still in a position to escape the French by way of Straubing, his alternative line of communication. As on October 12, 1806, Napoleon was faced with the need to change his line of march radically toward a flank. Instead of pressing on up the Isar in the general direction of Vienna, the French right must be swung north toward Straubing to sever this line of retreat before the Austrians could take full advantage of it. Davout and Lefebvre must now serve as the direct pressure force, while Lannes moved rapidly toward Rocking in the role of enveloping force. Everything, however, depended on the continued denial of Ratisbon and its bridge to the Austrians, otherwise yet another avenue of escape would be available to Charles. The Emperor pored over his maps at Landshut, issuing a stream of orders.

A little later the next blow fell; a letter from Davout at last reported the loss of both Ratisbon and its intact bridge on the afternoon of the 20th. Not only did this mean that Charles could escape into Bohemia should he so choose, but it also implied that he was now in a position to receive active and immediate support from Bellegarde’s and Kollowrath’s corps, previously isolated on the northern bank of the Danube. Despite this new disappointment Napoleon decided to continue with his present plan; he doubted that Charles would retire into Bohemia by way of Ratisbon as this would leave the road to Vienna entirely unguarded. He calculated that Charles would either move eastward toward Straubing or make an attempt to reopen his communications over the Isar by way of Landau. Early news of any such moves would be vital; accordingly, General Saint-Sulpice, commanding the Second Division of Cuirassiers presently at Essenbach, was ordered “to keep a close watch on the road to Straubing and on that to Landau” and to send in without fail “tomorrow evening the reports from all the outposts, patrols and spies.”

Although Napoleon often had good reason to remonstrate at the failure of certain of his subordinates to keep him fully and accurately informed, he had no grounds for any such complaint with regard to Marshal Davout on the 21st. Late in the evening, a new dispatch arrived (written at 11:00 A.M.), reporting that the enemy was present in force near Tengen and Hausen: “Sire—the whole enemy army is before me. The fighting is very hot.”19 A message from Lefebvre confirmed this assessment independently. A little later another report arrived from the IIIrd Corps, sent off at 5:00 P.M., in which Davout stated that the Austrians were about to attack his left flank in strength, ending with the ominous phrase, “I will hold my positions—I hope.” Napoleon now appreciated that Davout and Lefebvre were facing a dangerous situation; clearly considerably more than three regiments were to their front! However, he decided to reinforce the sector with only Oudinot’s two divisions and the Prince Regent’s Bavarian division from Rothenburg. Thus some 36,000 French troops were being called to face at least 75, Austrians. He felt confident, however, that once Lannes’ turning movement made its presence felt the Archduke Charles would lose no time in falling back toward Straubing or the Isar. The Emperor, meanwhile, decided to wait in the vicinity of Landshut for news of Charles’ retreat and its direction.

Early in the morning of April 22, a personal emissary from Davout reached the Imperial Field Headquarters. General Piré was the bearer of a new dispatch from the Danube sector, sent off at 7:00 P.M. the previous evening. Davout reported that he was more or less holding his ground, but was running dangerously short of ammunition and that there were still no signs of an Austrian retreat to his front. The Emperor dictated an important reply revealing what was in his mind. When he began the letter at 2:30 A.M. he was still determined to adhere to the plan of the 21st; he felt that Charles was delaying his main retreat only in order to give his wagon trains time to get clear, but as a precautionary move to induce the Austrians to quit the vicinity of Eckmühl, and at the same time provide assistance for Davout in case of emergency, he was ordering Vandamme to move 25,000 men to the intermediate position of Ergeltsbach with orders to contact Davout’s right flank and make a pass towards Straubing. Napoleon was reluctant to commit the remainder of the army at this stage, for he realized that if he moved in sufficient force toward either Eckmühl (en route for Ratisbon) or Straubing, he would inevitably leave the enemy with unchallenged use of the other avenue of escape, as there were not sufficient French troops available to block both. In other words, he was anxious that Charles should reveal his hand first.

Nevertheless, Napoleon decided to move his remaining formations in the general direction of Passau so as to threaten the highway to Vienna. In the meantime, Davout was given discretion to decide whether to give ground or summon aid from Vandamme toward Eckmühl if the enemy continued to hold their present positions. This order was on the point of dispatch when the Emperor received further tidings from both Davout and General Saint-Sulpice which changed the aspect of affairs. The former reiterated that there was no sign of an impending Austrian withdrawal, the latter that all roads to Straubing and Landau were quiet. As both Lannes’ and Vandamme’s outflanking moves had thus so far clearly failed to budge the archduke, the Emperor now decided to march in full force to Eckmühl after all. In a postscript to Davout’s orders added at 4:00

A.M., Napoleon wrote: “I am resolved to get on the move, and I will be near Eckmühl by midday and in a position to attack the enemy vigorously by three o’clock. I shall have 40,000 men with me. Send me aides-de-camp with Bavarian escorts to let me know what you have done during the morning….” He went on to devise a signaling system. “Before midday I shall be in person at Ergeltsbach. If I hear a cannonade, I shall know that I must attack. If I do not hear one, and you are in an attacking position, have a salvo of ten guns fired once at midday, the same at one o’clock, and again at two. My aide-de-camp, Lebrun, will be on his way to you by a quarter past four; I have decided to exterminate Prince Charles’ army today, or tomorrow at the very latest.” Thus the whole French army, save only Bessières’ 20,000 still pursuing Hiller, was about to fall on the Austrian forces at Eckmühl.

The morning of the 22nd opened in deceptive calm. For several hours of daylight neither Davout nor Lefebvre could report any notable enemy activity on their front. Then, a spurring messenger from General Pajol, stationed on the extreme left of the IIIrd Corps’ position, reported that large-scale enemy movements were in progress between the main road running beside the Danube and the village of Abbach, lying about one mile from the river bank. It appeared that the Austrians were deliberately moving to attack the left flank of the IIIrd Corps’ outlying division, and Davout lost no time in ordering up Montbrun’s cavalry in support of Friant and his neighbor Pajol. In fact, what was happening was this: the Archduke Charles planned to leave the 40,000 troops of Rosenburg and Hohenzollern to attack Davout and Lefebvre and thus protect his lines of communication with Ratisbon while the remaining two corps presently under command, namely those of Kollowrath and Lichtenstein, marched for Abbach to secure undisputed control of the river bank and thus cut Napoleon off from the Danube and his presumed lines of communication.

The Austrian plans were obviously on the point of going awry at 1:30 P.M. when the sound of gunfire from the south revealed the approach of Napoleon and the main body. Davout lost not an instant in ordering his men to attack along the whole line, despite their numerical inferiority, and this action had the desired effect of pinning the Austrians. Several deeds of great gallantry were performed; the 10th Regiment of Light Infantry for instance succeeded in storming the village of Leuchling and soon after took possession of the wood of Unter-Leuchling at the cost of crippling casualties and in face of the most determined opposition. In the meantime, the Bavarian divisions of Deroy and the Prince Royal (VIIth Corps) attacked the right of the Eckmühl position while General Demont moved up the valley of the River Gross Laber to cover the crossing of Lannes’ troops, constituting Napoleon’s advance guard. Very soon thereafter, General Vandamme’s Württembergers were in the act of capturing Buckhausen and the two divisions of Lannes’ corps were in position to fall with a will on the Austrian IVth Corps, holding the eastern approaches to Eckmühl, Gudin’s troops seizing the important heights of Rocking. For once Napoleon’s favorite battle maneuver of a frontal attack linked with an outflanking column was working with great efficiency.

With his southern flank on the point of collapse, the Austrian commander in chief lost no time in ordering an immediate retreat to Ratisbon. This movement proceeded throughout the hours of darkness, covered by the cavalry. Napoleon, meanwhile had reached Egglofsheim with Lannes and Massena, and there held a council of war with his senior generals to settle their future actions. There was a marked disinclination to order an immediate all-out pursuit of the discomfited Charles. The generals were as weary as their men, and for once Napoleon decided to follow their advice. The troops of Morand and Gudin were dropping to the ground fast asleep from where they stood in the ranks, and the Württembergers were hardly in better fettle. Weighing up the pros and cons of an immediate exploitation of his army’s success, Napoleon decided that the dangers of a full-scale night action, with all the inevitable confusions and crises this would entail, might prove too much for his men’s present condition. Consequently, only the cavalry were permitted to follow the foe. Generals Nansouty and Saint-Sulpice moved their 40 squadrons of cuirassiers and a further 34 squadrons of German cavalry to the fore of Gudin’s division and proceeded to harass the enemy horsemen throughout the night; many fierce moonlit encounters occurred. The exhausted infantry divisions meanwhile bivouacked on the field of battle. As a result, the Austrians avoided total disaster.

During the early hours of the 23rd, the leading Austrian formations began to file over the bridges of Ratisbon toward Bohemia. As soon as it was light, Napoleon launched his rested men in pursuit. Except for Massena, sent off to capture Straubing, all the army was ordered toward Ratisbon, for Napoleon was now full of eagerness to get onto the heels of Archduke Charles and attempt to finish the work commenced at Eckmühl. However, the events of the day proved frustrating in the extreme. Old though the fortifications of Ratisbon were, they were staunchly defended by Charles’ rear guard, 6,000 strong. Attack after attack on the deep ditch and fortifications beyond failed to penetrate the defenses, and at one time it appeared that there would be no alternative but to mount a full-scale, regular siege. “But to sit down in front of the walls and open siegeworks and dig trenches and emplacements and mines and batteries, would fatally delay the campaign. Under cover of the siege of Ratisbon, the Archduke Charles would quickly reorganize his defeated army.” It was impossible to ignore the place and push on directly for Vienna; such an action would only invite a future Austrian counterattack against the extended French communications by way of the city and its bridge. It seemed, therefore, that the whole campaign would have to come to a standstill until Ratisbon could be reduced. Such a check might persuade Prussia and various other dissident German states to join in the conflict on the side of Austria. This was a dire prospect which Napoleon determined to avoid at all costs; there was consequently no alternative but to order fresh assaults heedless of casualties. The task was entrusted to that reliable fire-eater, Marshal Lannes. Then, while supervising the preparations for the storm, the Emperor was slightly wounded in the right foot by a spent cannonball. The news spread like wildfire throughout the aghast army, but Napoleon lost no time in mounting his horse in spite of considerable pain and rode up and down the lines showing himself to the men and bestowing a considerable number of decorations on deserving soldiers as he passed. Confidence and morale were immediately restored.

At last all was ready for the escalade. Our informant, Baron Marbot, played a leading part in the drama that now unfolded. After two assaults by volunteers drawn from Morand’s division had failed in a costly fashion, no further troops would step forward and take the scaling ladders in hand. “Then the intrepid Lannes exclaimed, ‘Oh, well! I am going to prove to you that before I was a marshal I was a grenadier—and so I am still!’ He seized a ladder, picked it up, and started to carry it toward the breach. His aides-de-camp tried to stop him, but he shouldered us off…. I then addressed him as follows: ‘Monsieur le Maréchal, you wouldn’t want to see us dishonored—but so we shall be if you receive the slightest scratch carrying a ladder toward the ramparts, at least before all your aides have been killed!’ Then, despite his efforts, I snatched away one end of the ladder and put it on my shoulder, while Viry took the other and our fellow aides took hold of more ladders, two by two. At the sight of a Marshal of the Empire disputing with his aides-de-camp as to who should mount first to the assault, a cry of enthusiasm rose from the whole division.” A rush of officers and men followed—” the wine was drawn, it had to be drunk.” After a period of confusion and heavy loss, it was Marbot and his comrade La Bédoyère who were first up the ladders and over the walltop. By late evening, all Ratisbon was in French hands except for the outskirts surrounding the bridgehead on the northern bank.

Although Ratisbon had thus been captured by a coup de main, the bridge was still commanded by the enemy. Massena had meanwhile enjoyed no better fortune at Straubing, where he found all the crossings already destroyed. After receiving these tidings, Napoleon was compelled to concede that the Archduke Charles had escaped him, at least for the time being. The chance of a quick knockout blow, as achieved in 1800, 1805 and 1806, had this time passed him by, and the first phase of the Campaign of 1809 was over without a decisive result. Most commentators blame the way in which Napoleon insisted on sending off Massena on a wide sweep toward the River Saale on the 20th. He thus broke up the concentration of the army which he had been so determined to achieve over the preceding three days and deprived himself of a decisive superiority of force during the ensuing actions in the vicinity of the Danube. There is considerable justice in this accusation, but of course Napoleon was not gifted with second sight, which might have revealed the course events were to follow. As we have seen, he completely miscalculated the position, strength and intentions of his adversaries, and even of his own forces, on more than one occasion.

These criticisms notwithstanding, Napoleon undoubtedly changed the overall military situation beyond all recognition in the week following his arrival at the front. Berthier’s errors were retrieved, the initiative undoubtedly regained, and Charles given such a drubbing at Eckmühl that he wrote to the Austrian Emperor soon after: “If we have another engagement such as this I shall have no army left. I am awaiting negotiations.” Napoleon was clearly dominating his adversary and the road to Vienna lay open before him. Moreover, the tactical handling of the succession of battles was particularly brilliant, and over the period the Austrians lost some 30,000 casualties. This was no mean achievement when we remember that a considerable proportion of Napoleon’s army consisted of raw conscripts, and that almost all the crack formations, including the Guard, were absent from these actions. What was more, the fact that Charles was in headlong retreat proved sufficient to dissuade the wavering members of the Confederation—Bavaria, Württemberg and Saxony in particular—from deserting the French alliance. Thus Napoleon had some justification for reasonable satisfaction, and was particularly pleased with the conduct of some of his senior officers. On the 22nd, he found time to parade St. Hilaire’s division and tell its commander in front of his men: “Well, you have earned your marshal’s baton and you shall have it.” Fate, however, was to ordain otherwise. Before the coveted insignia could arrive from Paris, St. Hilaire would be dead alongside the irreplaceable Lannes and the able cavalry commander General d’Espagne—all of them destined to be casualties in the grim fighting at Aspern-Essling that lay less than a month away.

The Emperor still had not heard of the fall of Ratisbon and its intact bridge into Austrian hands.