A Brief History
On July 5, 1809, the forces of the French Empire (and her allies) fought the forces of the Austrian Empire (and her allies) at Wagram, Austria, an enormous battle that cost both sides a combined 80,000 casualties and was fought between over 300,000 soldiers fielding over 1000 pieces of artillery, making it perhaps the largest battle in European history up to its time and also the bloodiest military engagement of the entire Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars thus far.
The Battle of Wagram was a French victory, but a costly one. Napoleon had been distracted by the Peninsular War during the War of the Fifth Coalition and had dispatched many of his troops to fight in that theater, leading the Austrians to believe the French forces in Germany were weakened and ripe for the taking. Archduke Charles of Austria-Teschen led his Austrian and allied army into Bavaria to attack French forces, initially surprising the French who recovered rapidly and turned the tables on Charles and the Austrians. The Austrian capital of Vienna was taken by the French, but Charles was not yet done! Charles regrouped and reformed his army North of the Danube and continued the campaign, losing some battles but winning some as well, notably at the Battle of Aspern-Essling where a French attack was beaten.
Napoleon and his French troops were joined by Bavarian and Italian allies, making up a formidable army of about 165,000 men supported by over 600 cannons. The Emperor led this army across the Danube on the night of July 4, 1809 to attack Charles and his army of between 140,000 and 173,000 men. The French attacks were mostly unsuccessful, as the Austrians enjoyed good defensive terrain, but Charles blundered by going on the offensive and attempting a double envelopment, one of the riskiest military tactics. While the Austrian attack was repulsed by the French right, the attack on the French left front threatened to break through. Napoleon launched a timely counterattack by his cavalry and drove back the attackers. French artillery was redeployed to present a “Grand Battery” of concentrated fire that shredded the Austrians. (The Grand Battery technique was a French tactic by which all available artillery was massed together to be used at a decisive time and place to turn the tide of a battle. At Wagram, the tactic worked as envisioned.) The battle continued past July 5th into July 6th when Charles realized he could not win and retreated to save the remainder of his forces.
The French had suffered as many as 40,000 casualties (killed, wounded, missing or captured) while the Austrians suffered as many as 41,250 casualties and the loss of initiative. The French were exhausted, as were the fleeing Austrians, and the French had expended about 100,000 rounds of artillery fire in the battle! The French forces needed some time to rearm and regroup before continuing to chase the Austrians. Charles and his army were pursued by the French, but by July 7th had managed to set up a defensive front. Other battles with the Austrians and French continued for the next few weeks, until Charles decided he could not win the war and bargained for an armistice while he still had an intact army. (Charles did not have the permission of Emperor Francis of Austria to conduct peace talks, but as the army commander any decision Charles made would be de facto official.)
The Battle of Wagram and subsequent actions drove the Austrian Empire out of the War of the Fifth Coalition, effectively ending that war. Peace was to remain elusive, as the Napoleonic Wars were to continue until after Napoleon was decisively defeated at Waterloo and soon afterwards abdicated his throne for the second and final time. Although Wagram was a French victory, the large number of casualties combined with another large loss of men at Aspern-Essling (20,000) eroded the numbers and quality of Napoleon’s forces as many of his trained and veteran troops were lost. These battle-hardened men were sorely missed in later actions as hastily gathered replacements were not up to the quality standards of Napoleons previous army.
Another fallout from the Battle of Wagram was the resignation of Marshall Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte from the French Army. Bernadotte had previously expressed his desire to resign from the army, but Napoleon continued to press him into service. The Emperor was not happy with the performance of Bernadotte’s command at Wagram and his preparations for the defense of Antwerp, and in turn Bernadotte was not happy with what he perceived as a lack of support from L’Empereur. Napoleon accepted the resignation of Bernadotte and was going to appoint Bernadotte as Governor of Rome, but Bernadotte accepted an offer by Sweden to become heir to the throne of Sweden! Although Napoleon demanded an oath by Bernadotte to never take up arms against France, Bernadotte refused on the grounds that a monarch could not make such a promise on behalf of his country. Napoleon nonetheless granted Bernadotte his release and Bernadotte ended up becoming King Charles XIV John of Sweden (and King of Norway in 1818). By 1813 during the War of the Sixth Coalition Sweden had taken up arms against Napoleon and the French as an ally of the Sixth Coalition. Bernadotte died at the age of 81 in 1844, while Napoleon had died in exile on St. Helena Island at the age of 51 in 1821.
The Battle of Wagram may not have the fame and mystique of some of the more famous battles of the Napoleonic Wars, but it certainly was a big one, both in scale and importance, but especially in the loss of life and limb. Question for students (and subscribers): How would you rank Wagram in the order of important battles of the Napoleonic Wars? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Markham, J. David. Napoleon for Dummies. For Dummies; 1 edition, 2005.
Markham, J. David and Matthew Zarzeczny. Simply Napoleon. Simply Charly, 2017.
The featured image in this article, Napoleon at Wagram, painted by Horace Vernet (Galerie des Batailles, Versailles), is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.