Reviews: Military Books


1809, Thunder on the Danube (Vol. II): The Fall of Vienna and the Battle of Aspern

Gill, Jack. 1809, Thunder on the Danube (Vol. II): The Fall of Vienna and the Battle of Aspern. London: Frontline, 2008. 448 p. ISBN 9781848325214. £30

This stubby, unpretentious-looking little book contains 36 black and white illustrations (including several refreshingly new subjects), 48 excellent maps, a chart (a detailed layout of Hiller's advance column of 24 April) and 7 tables of various troop details. There are also an index and bibliographical notes. For the OOB enthusiasts, the Appendices contain a wealth of detailed data.

Having enjsoyed the author's With Eagles to Glory some years ago, and knowing of his knowledge of the German language and sources, I expected a lot from this work. I was not disappointed. The depth and breadth of the research, the mass of DETAILED knowledge of the events, characters and the theatre of the war are mind-boggling; the plethora of footnotes sometimes approaches the density of a literary blizzard, almost detracting from the reading of the account itself. There are six footnotes on page 5 alone, six on page 24, seven on page 25 and so on. I found the pursuit of these footnotes disrupted the flow of the narrative and I rapidly suffered from terminal footnote fatigue, but others might love them and the intricate micro-details that they contain. The final point on footnotes came for me, when, on page 13, footnote 42 explained to me exactly what 'rocamadour cheese' was!

There is a treasure trove of details of Austrian orders of battle (OOB) and snippets from regimental and personal histories, the like of which has not been seen in an English language book before, that I know of. The details of the minor German contingents of the Army of Germany are covered in some detail. The maps might be somewhat daunting for a novice of European geography, that on page 8 for the clash at Neumarkt on 24 April confronting him with an alphabet soup of the gobbledygook names of tiny Bavarian hamlets and villages (Eggenfelden, Egglkofen, Vilsbiburg, Vilshofen, Wurmannsquick, Niederbergkirchen).

Negotiating this maze would have been made MUCH easier by inclusion, at first mention, of the name of the tantalising, but anonymous 'river' on page 9, of which there are no less than nine on the map. It turned out later to be the Inn. Its early mention would also have helped the reader to grasp the facts of the tactical situation so much more quickly. Similar confusion is caused on page 50, with mention of the capture of 'Raab' by German cavalry of Legrand's division on 2 May. These cavalry had been in action at Riedau (southeast of Passau) the day before and the reader could be forgiven for wondering how they popped up at Raab (now Papa in western Hungary, site of the battle on 14 June 1809 and some hundreds of miles away to the east of that combat) so quickly.

The mystery is unexplained, either in the text or the maps of this chapter, until minute scanning of my large scale map of western Austria, reveal a hamlet of Raab about 5 kilometers north of Riedau. The author must cultivate the patience to lead the geographically-challenged amongst his readers along the desired paths of obscure, minor hamlets and villages, the alien names of which litter many pages of this excellent work, in far-off foreign countries with adequate narration.

This same problem recurs frequently throughout the book. It rapidly became obvious that the author was familiar with the in-fighting, back-biting and squabbles among the Austrian staff and commanders, as well as those among the much-better-known members of Napoleon's entourage; a refreshing change. The poor state of the unready Austrian Landwehr and volunteer formations, rushed to the front, where they embarrassed the commanders, staff and supply systems, rather than evening up the tactical equations, is well illustrated on pages 19 and 26.

The passivity, complacency, lack of urgency and foresight shown by many Austrian senior commanders, such as Hiller, are well documented and must have contributed greatly to their defeat in this campaign. The killer instinct, which Napoleon breathed like fire through the veins of his entire command and staff structure, was almost absolutely missing in the Austrian higher army echelons. The avalanche of panic-stricken Austrian ad-hoc actions, following their reverse at Regensburg, to organize defensive measures in the unprepared areas eastward of Salzburg, with odds and scraps of depot troops and raw, untrained Landwehr units, following their defeats around Regensburg is well described.

The Austrian high command, having made no effective preparations for a possible French and allied invasion of their heartland, were now trying to make bricks without straw - and very little clay - at a frightful pace, as the enemy flooded towards Vienna. Some Austrian commanders obviously did not even know the current make up of their subordinate formations and were issuing dangerously unrealistic orders, which could never be properly fulfilled.

The dangerous decay of cohesion in the Austrians under Hiller's command, exposed to lax leadership, missing logistics, confused orders and the elements is well illustrated as the catastrophe of Ebelsberg is described. The tactical inferiority and lack of confidence of Austrian infantry when confronted with hostile cavalry is shown to have been a real problem; their rare success against French cavalry in Neumarkt on 2 May being paraded as a glowing example of what could - and should - be done.

This throws a dreadful light on the poor state of tactical training and the quality of the battalion officers, NCOs and men of that army. They did, however, redeem themselves at Aspern, standing firm against repeated assaults by French cuirassiers. Archduke Charles' 3-day delay in Budweis (3 - 6 May), when the fate of Vienna was being decided, contrasts poorly with the speed of advance of Napoleon's formations. Space has been found to cover the Italian theatre of operations and the revolt in the Tyrol in great detail. Even the 'side show of a side show', the campaign in Dalmatia, is covered.

In conclusion, this is a magnificent, meaty production, the result of many years of painstaking study of the best sources and a monumental amount of hard work. Well illustrated and complemented by plenty of good maps and a wealth of detail, it is well worth the price. I have two minor criticisms: too much micro-detail often clutters up the free flow of the narration and there are just TOO many footnotes, but, maybe that's just me. I look forward to Volume III.

 

Reviewed by Digby Smith

 

Editor's Note: John Gill has given to the Napoleon Series additional material relating to the Franco-Austrian War of 1809, that could not be included in his book. It can be seen at: The 1809 War with Austria: the "Thunder on the Danube" Archives

Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2009

 

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