The Battle of Wagram was not a typical Napoleonic victory. Two days on July 5th and 6th with casualties of at least 70,000 soldiers on both sides, Wagram was one of the bloodiest battles of the Napoleonic period.
This was in stark contrast to Napoleon’s earlier victories in which he was able to inflict significant casualties on the enemy while receiving comparatively little casualties.
Another notable element about the battle was that it pitted a dominant France against a recovering Austrian Empire. Wagram was fought only four years after the disastrous Austrian defeat at Austerlitz in 1805. Despite this, the Austrians were able to put a force of over 120,000 soldiers to do battle with Napoleon’s Grande Armee.
Dos de Mayo by Francisco Goya
Following the end of the War of the Fourth Coalition, France’s position on the European continent seemed secure. They had shown their military supremacy on land and had agreed an alliance with the great power of Russia. Prussia was weakened. Austria was isolated. France was in the ascendancy.
Yet, Napoleon’s blunder of invading Spain and being drawn into the Iberian Peninsula proved to be the first domino in his empire crashing down. The Spanish were made of sterner stuff than had been previously thought. French defeat at the Battle of Bailen in July 1808 to a Spanish army was testament to this.
Napoleon was forced to both intervene personally into Spain and also to commit significant numbers of men to the ensuing campaign. Many of these soldiers would be drawn from Central Europe and therefore diminishing French influence in the region. The defeat of the French at Bailen and the transfer of soldiers from Central Europe to Spain was greatly encouraging for Austrians agitating for war and revenge.
However, by 1809 the Austrian Empire was almost bankrupt. It needed British subsidies and the promise of a military expedition in Northern Europe to be convinced into waging war with France for its lost territories and prestige.
This expedition into Northern Europe would be the infamous Walcheren Expedition of 1809 into the Low Countries. The Austrian army was a different force compared to the army defeated at Austerlitz in 1805. The Austrians had passed reforms to contend with the French.
An example of this was the adoption of French-styled conscription to replace the soldiers lost in the Austerlitz campaign. The need for manpower was even more pressing considering that Austria would essentially be alone in fighting the French in Central Europe.
Central Europe during February 1809
The French now had to deal with a recovering Austria on the continent. At this point, Austria was the only continental power that could perhaps challenge France. With memories fresh from Austerlitz, Austrian recruits rushed to serve. Napoleon could not underestimate them.
To do so would be foolish.
This sequence of pages go into more depth on the Battle of Wagram, exploring the major engagements, and offering the implications of Napoleon's victory.
Up Next: Opening Manoeuvres
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