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The Battle of Znaim: Napoleon, The Habsburgs and the end of the 1809 War

The Battle of Znaim: Napoleon, The Habsburgs and the end of the 1809 War

The Battle of Znaim: Napoleon, The Habsburgs and the end of the 1809 War

John H. Gill

Greenhill Books (Pen & Sword), 2020


ISBN: 9781784384500

Pages: 512
Illustrations: 80 black and white illustrations and 10 maps

In 1809 a resurgent Austria, encouraged by French reverses in Spain, decided to renew its struggle against Napoleon. The Austrian Emperor Francis, convinced of an existential threat to his Empire, and placing too much confidence in an army reformed by his brother, Archduke Charles, allowed himself to be persuaded into this course by an active war party at court. Not of this party was the Archduke Charles himself who declared the army still unready to take on Napoleon and his German allies, and who only reluctantly assumed command of the Hauptarmee. For the Austrians things went badly from the start, with what was intended as an invasion of Bavaria turning to retreat, the loss of Vienna and a culminating confrontation on the Hauptarmee`s training ground, the Marchfeld, north of Vienna. Here Napoleon received what is generally considered his first check at Aspern-Essling but exacted a terrible revenge two months later on the same ground, in the battle of Wagram. There followed an Austrian retreat northwards and a final battle at Znaim which is the subject of this book. Anyone who has read John H Gill`s With Eagles to Glory about the Rheinbund contingents in this campaign will approach this book with high expectations and will not be disappointed.

Archduke Charles retreated north in search of a strong position on which to make a further stand, although his preferred solution was a negotiated peace, unlike his brother Francis and the war party who urged Charles to further action (while they themselves withdrew to Hungary). Napoleon, disappointed that Wagram had not proved another Austerlitz, the reformed Austrian army had given him a hard fight and Charles still had an army in being, was slow to follow up. His troops exhaustion, logistical overstretch, and the unknown factor of another Austrian army under Charles’s brother Johann made it impossible to launch the kind of rampaging pursuit that had destroyed the Prussian State after Jena, three years earlier. The author`s description of the delayed French pursuit under Massena and Marmont, and its denouemont at Znaim is masterly and studded with vignettes which bring the story to life. A French column breaks ranks and slaughters, skins, and butchers a hundred sheep in minutes in front of a dismayed Moravian shepherd, before marching off with joints of meat on their bayonets; Napoleon and his Generals, after dinner, read bundles of captured Austrian mail in search of information. Among the letters is one from a French emigré in Austrian service, informing his Vienna mistress, with regret, that her husband has survived the battle of Wagram!

The ensuing clash at Znaim showed once more the contrasts between the two armies. The broken ground over which much of it was fought favoured the French who excelled at skirmishing, being considered more agile and aggressive than the Austrians. The Kaiserliks though, especially the Grenadier Brigades, proved stubborn, doughty fighters, especially in defence or in more formal attacks. The critical difference though, lay in the area of doctrine on which Gill is particularly interesting, pointing out how an Austrian General considered he had done his duty if he had obeyed his orders to the letter, regardless of the outcome, whereas Napoleon judged his Generals by results alone. That, and the confidence engendered by victory, gave extra an aggression to French operations; Marmont`s initial ‘pinning’ attack on 10th July was conducted against four times his own number.

The two-day encounter battle at Znaim, while another French victory, still had not destroyed the Austrian army. Eager to end a war that he had not started and did not want, distracted by events in Spain, disappointed and unsettled by Russia`s lukewarm support, Napoleon accepted Charles’ call for a ceasefire and negotiations for an armistice, which was signed on 12th July.

The resulting Treaty of Schoenbrunn, signed in October was crippling to Austria, with loss of territory to Napoleon and his Allies, and an 85-million-franc indemnity. It was nevertheless more moderate than Napoleon would have wished, and on Saint Helena he was to lament that he had let the Habsburgs off the hook. The Austrians still had their army, Francis still had his throne, and despite marrying his daughter, Maria Ludovika, to Napoleon the following year, remained free to bide his time in, as Gill puts it ‘murmuring discontent’. Events at Znaim played their part in all of this. This will surely be, for a generation, the definitive book in English on the post-Wagram phase of the 1809 Danube campaign, a series of events that have all too often been regarded as a footnote. Highly recommended.

Julian Spilsbury

April 2022