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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

1809, Thunder on the Danube: Napoleon’s Defeat of the Habsburgs

Gill, John H. 1809, Thunder on the Danube: Napoleon’s Defeat of the Habsburgs. Barnsley, UK : Pen & Sword/Drexel Hill, PA: Casemate, 2008. 512 p. ISBN-13# 9781844157136. Hardcover. £30/$60

This is the first of three volumes of the monumental work. The second volume will be published in November 2008, while the third is scheduled for the late summer or early autumn of 2009. This is an eagerly awaited complement to his superb 1992 With Eagles to Glory. It is an even-handed account of the campaign up to 23 April 1809, when the Austrians started their retreat, written in clear non-academic language easily accessible to all.

Volume I is 512 pages with dimensions of 9” (21.8cm) by 6” (14.4cm) by about 2” (5cm) thick. The 16 pages of plates, packed with 45 black and white illustrations, are placed in the centre of the book. The three regimental organisation charts are clear and concise but with writing barely 2mm tall the typeface could have been larger to improve their clarity. (For those who are interested in more detailed appreciation of the Confederation of the Rhine I would refer the reader to Gill’s previous book.) The list price is £30 or US $60.

Volume I, which is reviewed here, starts with the political background and reasoning for the Austrian invasion of Bavaria on 10 April 1809. Napoleon and most of his veterans were involved in Spain . Though surprised by the timing of the Austrian attack, the Emperor was finally able to turn around the strategic confusion

Volume II will follow the pursuit down the Danube valley from the 24 April and the occupied Vienna for the second time in four years. Then the Austrians recovery causing yet another defeat upon Napoleon at the Battle of Aspern-Essling ( 20 May 1809) on the shores of the Danube opposite Vienna.

Volume III will unravel the task of launching an attack across the Danube and the subsequent defeat of the Austrians at Wagram (5-6 July 1809).

The War of 1809 was the high watermark for the French Empire under Napoleon. He faced Archduke Charles who was considered by most contemporaries as the best commander in Europe. The reformed Austrian Army was vastly superior to the army that capitulated at Ulm. The operational and tactical gap between the French and the Austrians had decreased. This was almost the last time that the French could be considered superior in arms to their opponents. The triumph of the Confederation of the Rhine in staving off defeat and giving time for the French is clearly indicated in the book. It was the skill and ability of German States that staved off the defeat for Napoleon. Once he was in the theatre his ability to drive the Corps was shown.

It is interesting that the order of battle underlines that on 10 April only half of the guns employed were from French batteries and less than 32% were from the Gribeauval system. The French Cavalry were still using 8-pdrs in their horse artillery batteries. This has also been overlooked by a number of modern authors in their rush towards the set piece battles of Aspern-Essling and Wagram.

The writing is concise without the novel-like prose that is so fashionable now that glosses over or even ignores the facts needed to be made. The movement of the troops can be followed by the excellent 23 black and white maps specially drawn for the book, with a clear key of white for Austrian, grey for Napoleon’s German Allies and black for French.  The maps are drawn to a scale in kilometres and are as clear as they can be within the confines of the format. This avoids the problems of many authors who have used contemporary measures which only seem to confuse the reader. The maps show contours by shaded areas in the modern manner and are specific enough to be used as a basis for a series of wargame re-fights.

The conventions that he has diligently stuck to are commendable. Rank titles remain in their native form according to their country with equivalents given on page 306. Ligne and Legere refer to French line and light infantry. Using both the Inhaber in italics with their number for the Austrians. Arabic numerals for the French Corps and Roman numerals for the Austrian. The use of modern spelling of names that can be found on modern maps. Although a concordance would have been useful. Distances are converted into metric so avoiding the problems of interpretation prevalent in may other accounts.

Chapter 1: "War is Unavoidable."

This gives the often neglected external political context of the war.

Chapter 2: "What Do They Intend?"

Austria searches for allies and takes the opportunity to invade Bavaria as a method of intimidating her neighbour into joining them once again in a war against France . The strength of the Prussian Army in early 1809 is given in Table 1 (page 48), and Austrian Army [Table 2: p. 51], 16 Austrian volunteers [Table 3: p. 64], Austrian Sedentary formation [Table 4: p. 72]. The organisation of Austrian army is explored in concise detail.

Chapter 3: " Austria Would Not Be So foolish."

The response of Napoleon was to increase the preparedness of the Army of Germany, whose organisation is explored in this chapter. The French Regimental Organisation chart [p. 93] is alas too small to be read clearly with lettering less than 2mm high.

Chapter 4: "It is War."

The initial Austrian dispositions are shown in Map 3 and listed in Table 5 (p124). The invasion of Bavaria started on 10 April. The initial skirmishes against Davout at Hirschau (11 April), Amberg (13 April), Ursensollen (14 April) and Rheinhausen (15 April) are described.

Chapter 5: "Eight Days in April, I: The War Opens and the Tide Turn."

On 16 April, the Austrian forced the crossing at Landshut against the Bavarians under Deroy. On 17 April, Napoleon arrives in the theatre and there was a skirmish at Reinhausen. Chart 4 (p. 189) shows Davout’s order of march. On 19 April, there was a series of engagements in the Abensberg area, including Hausen-Teugn and Dünzling [Map 14: p. 192], Arnhofen [Map 15: p. 204], and Pfaffenhofen [p. 210]. All of which make them suitable for small scale wargames

Chapter 6: "Eight Days in April II: Four More Victories."

Austrian defeat at Eggmühl (22 April) and the storming of Regensberg (23 April) initiating the retreat of the Austrians.

The sixty pages of Orders of Battle (OOBs) in the appendix are fully annotated, backed up by the five tables in the text. The Orders of Battle are as follows:

Appendix 1

Listing the Regiments in order and their assignment

Appendix 2

Austrian Main Army, 10 April 1809
Troops en route to the Army
1 Other troops en route to the Army

Appendix 3: Orders of Battle for Abensberg

Austrian Main Army, Evening 19 April 1809
French Army of Germany , Evening 19 April 1809
Major order of battle changes from 20 to 21 April

Appendix 4: Orders of battle for the of Eggmühl

At the end of the book there are 117 pages of notes comprising over 1,250 endnotes packed with fascinating information and discussion of the differing accounts from the literature giving excellent clues for further research. John Gill in his bibliographic notes promises:

“The third volume of this study is slated to bear the load of an extensive bibliography to supply readers with a complete catalogue of the sources consulted and to serve as a comprehensive thematic starting point for future researchers on the war,” [p486]

This is an excellent first volume and I am looking forward with anticipation for the other volumes to complete this review. The quality is shown by the speed at which I created this review and that I could not put the book down until I had read it cover to cover. This work is complemented well by Gill's previous book on the Confederation of the Rhine contribution to the 1809 campaign, With Eagles to Glory, which came out in 1992, published by Greenhill Books. This book also is highly recommended.

His previous books are:

John Gill (1992) With Eagles to Glory: Napoleon and His German Allies in the 1809 Campaign, Greenhill Books.

Hausmann, F.J. [Gill, J. H., editor and Hausmann C.J., translator] (1998) A Soldier for Napoleon: the Campaigns of Lieutenant Franz Joseph Hausmann 7th Bavarian Infantry, Greenhill Books.

He also compiled the index to Napoleonic Uniforms.

Reviewed by Dr Stephen Summerfield

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: July 2008


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