Napoleon Bonaparte is renown for his military genius. Throughout his reign as Emperor of France he commanded his armies deftly, routinely performing miracles of tactical and strategic prowess. The skill of his generalship was such that Wellington himself once claimed that Napoleon's presence on the field of battle was worth forty thousand men. However, even Napoleon was fallible, eventually leading the First French Empire to defeat against the combined might of the United Kingdom, Prussia, Austria and Russia. These are the top five battles which the Little Corporal personally lost (therfore no Trafalgar, no Aboukir and no Peninsular War on this list) and which led to his downfall.


Battle of Aspern Essling

5. Battle of Aspern-Essling, May 1809, vs Archduke Charles (Austria)

The Battle of Aspern-Essling, fought along a stretch of the Danube River near Vienna during the War of the Fourth Coallition, saw Napoleon suffer a costly tactical setback by failing to hold his thin bridgehead after crossing the river. Though the Emperor would soon defeat the Austrians, the loss was his first defeat in over a decade and his first major defeat in the field.

At the beginning of 1809, Napoleon had once again captured Vienna but the bridges over the Danube had all been destroyed by the retreating Austrian army; Archduke Charles' force now occupied the opposite bank of the river. Having captured the Austrian capital without forcing a decisive engagement, Napoleon still needed to cross the Danube and defeat the Austrian army in detail. He chose the island of Lobau, one of the many islands which divide the river into smaller channels, as a crossing point. On the 19th and 20th of May the French bridged the smaller channels seperating them from the island and occupied Lobau. By the evening of the 20th the majority of the Grande Armée had gathered on the island and the remainder of the river had been bridged. The army immediately began to cross, unopposed by the Austrians.

By dawn on 21 March about ten thousand French soldiers had already been assembled on the Marchfeld, a large plain on the Austrian army's side of the Danube. For the first half of the day Archduke Charles continued not to offer any resistance; his plan was to led a substantial portion of the French army cross before attacking; thereby granting the Austrians a great local superiority in numbers. Napoleon had accepted the risk of just such a move and, to counter the danger, planned to rush his army across the river as fast as possible throughout the day and during the night. The Grande Armée deployed in front of the bridges, between the village of Aspern, on the left, and the village of Essling, on the right. These two villages lay too close to the Danube to be flanked, and so offered strong anchors for Napoleon's bridgehead.

Battle of Aspern Essling map

 At 1 pm, when about a third of the French army (23 thousand men) had crossed the Danube, Archduke Charles began his assault with five corps (96 thousand men). The Austrians focused their efforts on the two villages, with General Johann von Hiller attacking Aspern while Prince Rosenberg attacked Essling. Though Aspern was captured the Austrians were soon thrown back by a determined counterattack by Marshal Masséna's IV Corps. A renewed attack managed to secure half of the village before a bitter stalemate set in. At the other end of the line in Essling, Marshal Lannes' II Corps successfully held off Rosenberg's assault.

So as to relieve the huge pressure on his flanks, Napoleon ordered his center, which consisted entirely of cavalry, to scatter the Austrian artillery. Repulsed in their first charge, the French horsemen rallied and drove off the enemy guns before being checked and forced back to their starting position by Austrian cavalry. At 6 pm fighting ceased for the day and both armies camped in their lines. The French, having received reinforcements throughout the day's fighting, now number 32 thousand.

French cuirassier at Aspern-Essling

The fighting renewed shortly after dawn on 22 May (the French now numbered 50 thousand), when Masséna cleared Aspern with a large assault. At the same time, Rosenberg launched another assaul against Essling. After some  desperate fighting, Lannes, having been reinforced by General St. Hilaire's division, managed to hold his position in the village. At this point Archduke Charles ordered anoth concerted effort to retake Aspern, and sent Hiller and Count von Bellegarde forward. Masséna's tired soldiers gave way and the Austrians captured the village for the second time. With the villages switching from army to army, Napoleon, enjoying the advantage of interior lines, again sought victory in the center.

The determined French attack broke through the center of the Austrian line between Rosenberg and Prince Hohenzollern-Hechingen's men. Realising that this was the decisive moment of the battle, Archduke Charles led forward the Austrian reserve in person, flag in hand. Napoleon's attack was halted. At this crucial juncture Napoleon learnt that Aspern had again been lost and that the bridge across the Danube had been cut again (the bridge had already been cut the day before and had been rebuilt by the French overnight). This left Marshal Davout's III Corps stuck, powerless to help, on the other side of the river. Recognising that the attack had failed and that his situation was now fraught with danger, the Emperor ordered a retreat into a defensive position. Essling was soon lost. Once the bridge was repaired, Napoleon successfully managed to withdraw the Grande Armée onto Lobau, ending the battle.

Village Fighting

Though the Emperor had failed to defeat Austria, but at the Battle of Aspern-Essling every advantage had lain in his enemies' hands. From the Bisamberg Heights, Archduke Charles could see all of the French armies movements and could therefore attack precisely when they were at their weakest. In addition, the French had only a single, very mercurial bridge at their disposal and were deploying into a very restricted area of land. Lastly, Napoleon managed to conduct a stunningly effective withdrawl to Lobau while still in contact with the Austrians.

The Battle of Aspern-Essling cost the French a heavy 23,000 casualties (the Austrians suffered approximately the same amount). However, Napoleon's greatest loss that day was the life of his close friend and one of his ablest commanders, Marshal Jean Lannes, who was mortally wounded by a cannon ball. The Austrians had won the day, but not the war. Napoleon waited on Lobau for reinforcements and, six weeks later, ordered the Grande Armée to again cross the Danube and defeated Archduke Charles at the Battle of Wagram.


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