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The Napoleonic Wars: The War of the Fifth Coalition


By 1809 Napoleon had proved almost unmatched in the field of battle, but he hadn’t been able to permanently kill off many of his major enemies. Austria, still smarting at recent defeats, took heart from Napoleon’s draining war in the Spanish peninsular, and decided to once more ally with Britain in the Fifth Coalition, which was cemented in April 1809. Austria had asked Napoleon for an alliance which would let them attack new land in Eastern Europe, but he’d refused, and the Austrian command was split over whether attacking France was a good idea: Archduke Charles preferred more peacetime rebuilding. The British input was to be a force landed at Walcheren to distract Napoleon, the result was a force struck down with disease that retreated before the year was out. Austria now asked Russia for help and they demurred, but although Russia was officially allied to France they promised not to counter attack. Prussia was still recovering from the last war and stayed out.

Napoleon takes Vienna

Austria now attacked in two directions: Archduke Charles marched against Bavaria and declared a war of German liberation. While he had some success, seizing regions, Germany did not erupt in rebellion as hoped or later claimed. Archduke John went into Italy, smashing past Napoleon’s steps-on, Beauharnais. They hoped to defeat the French while they were without Napoleon, but had delays as the allied command wasted time. Napoleon left Spain and travelled east, arriving unhappy at the state of the French army. He began on the defensive as his army was forming, but Berthier, an excellent man to interpret commands and not give them, erred when positioning the French and Charles had a great chance to attack. When Napoleon reached the front he was further disadvantaged by having to work out exactly where his troops where, but while Charles was attacking, the Austrians were slow.

Napoleon’s answer was to mount another quick attack, taking 170,000 men – many German and / or raw recruits - across the Danube and into the Austrians at Abensberg. Napoleon chased one wing, but they collapsed after a battle, so Napoleon now moved against the remainder under Charles, who was being blocked by Marshall Davoût. He’d held off an Austrian attack until Napoleon arrived, and a battle took place at Eckmühl. The French won, but had to rest after winning five battles in six days, before Napoleon was able to march and seize Vienna once more.

Charles, who had nearly been captured at Eckmühl, now sent out peace feelers which were rejected by the Austrian high command. Historians have argued why Napoleon went to Vienna before neutralising Charles’ army, but it seems Napoleon hoped Charles would return to defend the capital, and it also gave time for Napoleon to learn of the situation in Italy, where John drove Beauharnais back, much to Napoleon’s annoyance, before John was called to come and aid the north.

Defeat and then Victory

Charles’ army had survived, acquired fresh men, drawn up near Vienna on the opposite side of the Danube, and Napoleon now tried to chase him by crossing at two small settlements called Aspern and Essling. As he did so, on May 22nd and 23rd, he faced being thrown back as the Austrians realised and reacted, and it became apparent he couldn’t get reinforcements across quickly enough, especially when the attacking Austrians cut free a floating mill which shattered the French pontoon bridges. Napoleon tried an offensive, but the cut pontoons weakened what he could use and he had to retreat.

The Napoleonic image of constant victory had suffered a genuine defeat, even if Charles’ limited, defensive tactics prevented a major victory. Marshall Lannes was killed. In Italy, Archduke John had left pursued by Beauharnais. John aimed to join up with Charles, and so Napoleon decided to defeat the latter first, this time crossing the Danube unopposed after careful planning on July 4/5, Archduke Charles having pulled back to better cover the area where he thought Napoleon would try again, but in the end Napoleon used the same spot. Surprise, bad weather and slow Austrian movement prevented Charles reacting and Napoleon was successful.

A battle took place at Wagram over two days; 310,000 troops were involved, the largest armies yet in Europe’s history. Charles couldn’t get behind Napoleon to once more stop reinforcements, and he couldn’t keep his army together. Charles managed to withdraw his force, but the French were too tired to pursue and he might have fought on, but he believed the Austrian army was on the verge of destruction, so Charles signed an armistice, and was sacked as head of the army by angry nobles. With the enemy in their capital and a shattered army, Austria surrendered. In Napoleon’s camp the ever unreliable and pernicious Bernadotte had been sent away for insubordination and failure.


The Treaty of Schõnbrunn gave France and Napoleon Austrian territory: West Galicia and some of the Balkans to France, East Galicia to Russia, plus Austria lost German lands and allowed Napoleon to take more of Italy. Napoleon now ruled a vast swathe of the continent. Austria also had to limit its army to 150,000 and join the Continental System. In addition, Napoleon had the chance to return to the Spanish Ulcer, but as he was trying to arrange a dynasty with a new marriage he didn’t.
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