Napoleon’s Last Thunder: A Review of John Gill’s “1809: Thunder on the Danube”

Mr. Gill’s three volume history of the War of the Fifth Coalition, 1809: Thunder on the Danube is the academic resource on the War of 1809. It is accessible to laypersons and academics alike, with very fluid and detailed writing with a great wealth of resources. Filled with maps and names, this seemingly academic history book blends the best of popular history with a scholarly tome.

The first volume largely deals with the politics, perhaps, paranoia, of the Habsburg Court in fearing that Napoleon was going to invade and dismantle the ancient Austrian (more properly – Habsburg) Monarchy. The Court was filled with many aristocrats of the former Holy Roman Empire, born in the German states that were not directly ruled over by the Austrian Archduke (in this case, Franz I/II). Many of these expatriates, Philipp Graf von Stadion among them, created a strong and powerful cabal known as the Kriegspartei, or “War Party,” and clamored for war with French. Their vision was apocalyptic in nature, and overly optimistic. Believing that the Germans of the Rhine Confederacy would join the Habsburg cause, leading to the final showdown with Napoleon, ending with his defeat, and the whimsical dream of the restoration of the Holy Roman Empire.

At the same time, Austria’s greatest commander of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Era –Archduke Charles, a younger brother of the Emperor Franz, was hardly favoring war. A hero of the Revolutionary Era, Charles had seen firsthand the ability of Napoleon and the French Army. He instituted a sweeping series of reforms to bolster the Habsburg Army, including modeling it off the French “Corps” System. Thus, when war finally began in April, Austria had a much more modern (but still cumbersome) army to fight the French.

Napoleon had gotten whim of the invasion, and rushed off to Bavaria (the principle theater of the first weeks of the war) to take control of his army. In a stunning blow, to which Napoleon fondly remembered these “8 Days” in April, he nearly crushed Archduke Charles who barely managed to slip away into Bohemia to fight another day. Leading to the rest of the war of 1809, which Mr. Gill covers in Volume II and Volume III of his work.

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Picking up where he last left off with Napoleon’s repulsion of the initial Austrian invasion (which was poorly executed, but not terribly executed either by evidence of Archduke Charles’s ability to preserve much of the main army), Napoleon begins his invasion of Austria with a rapid invasion Upper and Lower Austria. The Austrian Court, in panic, flees, and Archduke Maximilian, who is left with inadequate supplies and men, is disgraced with the quick fall of Vienna. The War of 1809 has gotten off to a terrible start, all things considered, just a month into the conflict.

Unlike the first volume, which covers much of the politics and military reforms leading up to the war, this volume primarily concerns itself with the second stage of military operations and fighting. Mr. Gill devotes much attention, even to otherwise insignificant (in the long run) battles, like the minor Austrian victory at Neumarkt under General Johann von Hiller. Napoleon pushes towards Vienna, captures the ancient capital of the Habsburg Monarchy as already mentioned, and seeks a decisive engagement with Archduke Charles. Crossing the Danube, the great battle of Aspern-Essling (May 21-22) begins where Napoleon actually wanted to retire from the battle where he was outnumbered by nearly 30,000 Austrians. A Horrific battle, leaving some 40,000+ casualties from both sides, Charles wins his symbolic victory and Napoleon is forced to retire, opening the door the Charles’s future negotiations with Napoleon “from a position of strength” and causing Napoleon to have to continue his war in pursuit of another great victory (which never happens despite the campaign of Wagram and Znaim which he covers in the third volume).

In addition, Mr. Gill focuses on the Italian Campaign, led by Archduke Johann (a younger brother of Charles). The invasion gets off to a good start, but the Austrians fail to deal a crippling blow to the French after their first engagement at Sacile in which the French and Italian armies managed to re-group after some tactical missteps from the Austrians under Archduke Johann (John). Ultimately, the Franco-Italian Army recovers, and pushes the Austrians out of Italy, thus, by the start of the third volume, although battered, the French under Napoleon north of Vienna and the Franco-Italian forces under Eugene (a relative of Napoleon) have the Austrians in a precarious position despite Archduke Charles’s symbolic victory some weeks ago. Here, however, the Austrians and their cautious leadership may have had the opportunity to press a more decisive victory against Napoleon, but alas, history only gets one shot.

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The Battle of Aspern-Essling, fought May 21-22, 1809, saw over 40,000 casualties and was Napoleon’s first defeat in over a decade and the first while Emperor of France. It proved to be only a temporary setback.

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Concluding the history of the War of the Fifth Coalition, John Gill takes the time between The Battle of Aspern and the even greater battle (second only behind Leipzig) at Wagram to focus on the other theaters of the war: Poland, Hungary, Tyrol. In Tyrol, nationalists revolt against their Bavarian (French ally) overlords at the beginning of the war to coincide with the Austrian invasion of Italy. As the invasion of Italy went south, Tyrol remained one of the bright spots of the war despite being a largely militia effort. Mr. Gill recommends his other work With Eagles to Glory for a further and more in-depth study of the campaign, which ends with the Bavarians and French capturing Andreas Hoffer and ending the rebellion. In Poland, Archduke Ferdinand invades but is unhappy with the prospects of fighting “a secondary front.” Achieving victory against the Poles at Raszyn (the wikipedia article is completely wrong), Ferdinand negotiates the safe occupation of Warsaw. This is a major mistake, allowing the Poles to escape, and create chaos in the countryside, eventually capturing the Austrian supply lines and forcing an embarrassing withdrawal from Poland. Furthermore, Eugene and the Franco-Italian armies push into Hungary and due to terrible battlefield leadership on part of the Austrians, who blunder away strategic advantages in the land, defeat the Austrians at Raab.

This is the final conclusion of his work, ending with the Battle of Wagram in which, for two days, over 300,000 men engage in one of the most horrendous battles of the Napoleonic Era. This battle was second-only to the Battle of Leipzig, and Napoleon assaulted across the Danube with lightning speed catching the Austrians by surprise. However, by night, the French assault is halted and Napoleon’s famous marshal – Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, makes serious blunders on the battlefield that permit the Austrians to regroup. The Austrians counter attack on the second day, but are repulsed, but Napoleon is unable to score a decisive victory over Archduke Charles who retires the army in good order, forcing Napoleon to continue the war by pursuing him to Znaim, where an armistice is reached that saves the Habsburg Monarchy (even if Napoleon had little intention of breaking it up). Although a victory, it was, like for Austria at Essling, just a symbolic victory and Napoleon was denied another Austerlitz or Jena. For Austria however, the war marked another humiliating defeat at the hands of the French. Archduke Charles, despite falling from favor, should be given much credit for going one vs. one with Napoleon and holding his own, even inflicting a modest defeat upon the emperor. His actions to save the army, rather than risk all in a gambit, saved the Habsburg Monarchy from utter ruination. After the war, his reputation would heal over time, although he is still criticized by many German military historians.

The third volume contains a 50+ page bibliography, which is nothing short of magnificent for both laymen and professionals to continue their own research into this conflict. In the end, Mr. Gill has written, in about 1,000 pages of actual text (plus another 600 pages or so of indices, references, and bibliography) the most comprehensive and accessible version of what the great English historian Gunther Rothenberg called, The Emperor’s Last Victory. This is simply the best multi-volume work on the subject. The next several generations of Napoleonic scholars will no doubt be referencing Gill’s trilogy whenever they look at the 1809 war on the Danube. Napoleon’s last flash of thunder from heaven realized itself in his dazzling campaign against the Habsburgs. He never again commanded such power in the palm of his hand and at the barrel of muskets and cannons.

 

This review adapted from my Amazon reviews of the three volumes brought together as one review here.

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