It is customary to explain Napoleon’s greatest triumph as the War of 1805 and the victory at Austerlitz. Here Napoleon reoriented his army from the English Channel to march, in whirlwind fashion, across Europe and shatter the Austrian and Russian armies while they remained separated for a time, then utterly crush them at the infamous Battle of Austerlitz. But what about the War of 1809, also known as the War of the Fifth Coalition?
John Gill is the premier English-language expert on the War of 1809. His Thunder on the Danube trilogy is the best scholarly treatment of this middle war between the high watermarks of 1805 and 1807 and the disaster of 1812. Little known and forgotten in the Anglosphere, the War of 1809 was nevertheless brutal, remarkable, and possibly Napoleon’s greatest triumph during his stint as Emperor of France and de facto hegemon of Europe.
The War of 1809 is, as Gill states, “one of the most interest conflicts of the era, replete with insights into the strengths and weaknesses of Napoleon and his system of war as well as the approaches his enemies were adapting to counter him.” While Britain likes to steal the glory because of Waterloo, and Russia because of the War of 1812 and the legendary retreat from Moscow, Central Europe was the true blood fields of the Napoleonic Wars. And no other country fought the French, and Napoleon, so regularly and often so disastrously than Austria—the seat of the ancient Habsburg Empire.
Znaim is an interesting book in the annals of Gill’s Napoleonic scholarship. I’ve reviewed his Thunder on the Danube trilogy here. The first half of this book assumes no readership familiarity with the War of 1809 and therefore retreads some familiar ground that has already been dealt with in an wondrous fashion by our author. But for first time entrants into the War of 1809, this isn’t a bad introduction. We enter the paranoid world of the Austrian Kriegspartei (War Party) led by a German exile named Count Philip von Stadion. The Austrian army, once regarded as one of the finest in Europe, had fallen on hard times and was in desperate need of reform—so Archduke Charles, one of the heroes of the war, steps in to oversee it. Fatalistic and defeatist, Charles strenuously opposed the war court but nevertheless led the Austrian army to war against his own wishes and advice.
Napoleon, far from the warmongering imperialist he is often always depicted as, was, in 1809, a conservative man of peace. Napoleon was embroiled in brush fire wars in Spain and angered by the lack of support from his supposed Russian allies as part of the Continental System. The last thing Napoleon wanted in the spring of 1809 was a major war with one of Europe’s major monarchies. But war came and Napoleon, despite having an army far away from Bavaria and composed of many raw recruits, rallied his forces and began a vicious and magnificent campaign regaining Bavaria and seizing Vienna by May. Gill quickly soars across the April and May campaigns, culminating in the Battle of Aspern-Essling—Napoleon’s first personal defeat as Emperor of France—and quickly moves over the failed victory at Wagram where the French had hoped for a decisive knockout akin to Austerlitz but were denied, in large part, because of the courageous leadership of Archduke Charles.
Now we turn to Znaim and the heart of this work comes out for the reader.
Napoleon was still chasing his want for a decisive victory. Charles was still attempting to preserve the last bargaining chip for peace: an intact Austrian army. Two visions collided at Znaim and revealed the foresight of Charles and the magnanimity and genius of Napoleon. The rolling hills, plains, and small villages of Znaim proved to be a decisively undecisive battle. The Austrians, though in good defensive positions, were dislodged by the French but not utterly defeated like at Austerlitz or the Prussians at Jena and Auerstedt. Charles eventually prevented the army from collapsing and organized an armistice with the French emperor.
The end of the War of 1809 may have been “more than hard,” as the Austrian court and their pro-war ministers said of it, but the War of 1809 was foolish to begin with. Moreover, the armistice that saved Austria should be credited to the forgotten hero Archduke Charles. Yet the armistice and resulting peace also shows Napoleon as a pragmatist and far from his imperialist bloodlust as frequently portrayed.
Gill highlights the pragmatism of Napoleon forthrightly:
The other faction promoted preservation of the Habsburg monarchy in a reduced but more or less intact form. They were concerned about the impact in Europe more broadly and hoped for the establishment of a continental equilibrium that would favour France but also sustain an extended peace. They saw both dangers and opportunities in the situation that afternoon. Among the dangers, their chief fear was that the Austrian army would escape into the night. If it could avoid defeat, the Habsburg host might inspire uprisings across Germany…An armistice and ‘a stable peace’, on the other hand, would create an opportunity to build a new relationship with a subdued Austria, one founded on the common interests of both states.
Apparently Napoleon felt the same way and agreed to a generous peace all things considered. Austria was reduced and subdued, but not destroyed. The near millennium old Habsburg monarchy still existed and as an important, but reduced, power in Europe. She was integrated into the Continental System as an important buffer and prospective ally to France. Peace was once again restored.
Znaim is a worthy single-volume study of the War of 1809 and its culminating peace on a dreary July day after months of fighting and blood-stained fields. There is a little bit of everything that a Napoleonic enthusiast, amateur, or general historical reader might wish for. Court politics. Brilliant maneuvers. Terrible battles. Roaring cannons. Individual courage. Politics.
But John Gill’s Znaim is also a great antidote against Napoleon’s stereotypical portrayal in the Anglosphere. In Znaim, we see the two sides of Napoleon: Napoleon the soldier and Napoleon the statesman. The War of 1809 and the armistice at Znaim bring the two sides of Napoleon together in a fresh symbiosis that is rarely seen, or remembered, in Napoleonic histories and Napoleon himself. The 1809 campaign was the last great victory of Napoleon, and it also showed Napoleon as a proto-steward of European realism in politics.
The Battle of Znaim: Napoleon, The Habsburgs and the End of the War of 1809
Barnsley: Greenhill Books, 2020; 486pp.
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