Jim Owczarski, 20 November 2019
We perceived, through its whole breadth, this battlefield rising gently in an amphitheatre. The summits of the hills were crowned with fine forests; the valleys opened before us, bare enough, but cultivated and separated from one another by hills of slightly marked feature. There was the valley of Eckmühl (running from south to north), up which wound the Ratisbon road, and there was that of the two Laichlings, separated from one another by a small wood… — General Jean-Jacques Germain Pelet-Clozeau, April 1809
If your hobby is visiting battlefields, you spend a lot of time reading first-hand accounts, studying period maps, and badgering academics trying to see the story on the ground. You rebuild the battle in your mind, often moment by moment, and try to bring to order an event that was by its very nature disordered. It can be a disheartening process. As I have written elsewhere, many of the Napoleonic battlefields I study are all but lost. Those of which traces still exist have often been significantly altered. Not everything, I suppose, can be Borodino or Waterloo.
In April 1809, though, General Pelet marched with the Emperor to what would soon be known as the battlefield at Eggmuhl and stood at the heights near the village of Lindach. His description, quoted above, is among the most famous of any Napoleonic battlefield from any contemporary source.
And that view is still there.
But, as much as this delights me, I am jumping ahead. As I wrote several weeks ago, I spent half the month of August visiting the battlefields of Napoleon’s 1809 campaign. This earlier account ended with the battles for Landshut and the Austrian defeat at Teugn-Hausen (Thann). As a brief aside, in the time since that article appeared I have been contacted by the owner of one of the farms that comprises the bulk of the latter battlefield. He said that he saw one of the videos I posted with that article and wanted me to know I had filmed his house and his fields. I told him in turn that I did everything I could to avoid getting in the way of his farm equipment and most definitely did not walk among the crops. Though I have not heard from since, I am not convinced he understood why I was so very interested in his home and property.
Moving on, in mid-April 1809 Marshal Davout fought and won the Battle of Teugn-Hausen as part of his attempt to reunite his III Corps with the bulk of Napoleon’s army marching from Ingolstadt. Napoleon wanted to maneuver his army around the Austrian left and seize Landshut, preventing a withdrawal over the Isar. Terrain and weather conditions, however, would eventually prevent a rapid advance by the French right and allowed the Austrians to evade capture. That left Napoleon, holding a more or less central position, to drive into the Austrian line and try to turn its left flank and pin Charles’ army against the Danube.
The result, beginning on the evening of 19th April and running through the 20th, was the Battle of Abensberg. Fought over a wide front, Abensberg was a remarkably dispersed battlefield involving several smaller fights that rolled over miles of Bavarian countryside. This makes finding traces of the battlefield difficult and even those that are known are in poor condition.
This marker is at the location from which Napoleon observed the early stages of his first attacks on the 20th and where he delivered his famous speech to a contingent of his Bavarian soldiers.
The neglect of the Napoleonshohe is nowhere better evident than in the undergrowth that now surrounds it. It is a great pity as the site is a surprising height which would likely have offered the Emperor a commanding view, if now the battlefield has been replaced by a shopping mall.
Abensberg does fulfill the requirement of all Napoleonic battlefields, viz.: that it have a McDonald’s somewhere. In this case, quite near the Napoleonshohe. If you go, it certainly serves as a fine place to park.
Abensberg itself, especially its old city, is a delightfully incongruous mix of what tourists could readily identify as “old Germany” and a much more modern sensibility. Consider if you will the Kuchlbauer Brewery which, as most do, offers beer and tours, but has located on its grounds the internationally-known Kuchlbauer Turm and attendant art installation designed, if not completed, by the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser.
Not familiar with Hundertwasser’s work prior to this visit — my wife usually explains such things to me — I can only describe the aesthetic as the love child of an illicit union between Willy Wonka and Dr. Seuss. It is assuredly colorful, never rectilinear, and, briefly turning to politics, intensely environmentalist.
Returning to matters of which Herr Hundertwasser would likely not have approved, following his victory at Abensberg, Napoleon, thinking he was in pursuit of the whole of the Austrian army, followed those before him all the way back to Landshut. He overwhelmed the garrison left there a few days earlier only to realize that three other corps had escaped his grasp. These were back north at Regensburg where they forced the small French garrison holding it to capitulate and thus secured the crossing there over the Danube, assuring them of their ability to retreat back into Bohemia if necessary. These corps then turned to attack Davout’s III Corps which had been left after Abensberg in the general area of the Teugn-Hausen battlefield. In response, Napoleon turned to march back north and, despite the Marshal’s protests to the contrary, ordered Davout to attack the Austrians before him. This set of circumstances became, on 21-22 April, the Battle of Eggmuhl.
Any visit to this battlefield should begin at the lion monument erected to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the battle. Located near the train station at Unterdeggenbach, it would seem to have been recently restored and, in addition to the lion itself, the first 14 of 27 informational markers that narrate the whole of the battle can be found there. While in German, they are very well done.
The remaining 13 markers are spread throughout the area. Much of the battlespace is very much as it was in April 1809 which is terrific from an historical point of view, but it also means that several markers are in remote locations in the middle of farm fields that can take some finding.
Pride of place among these markers must be given to that dedicated to the Lindach Heights. This is the spot from which Napoleon watched much of the battle and which gave rise to General Pelet’s comments at this beginning of this article. And it was here that I first realized Eggmuhl may be the Napoleonic battlefield most like the terrain created by tabletop wargamers. With its wide and deep plain at the center — crossed only occasionally by roads or watercourses, gentle slopes rising to remarkable ridges, charming Bavarian-style homes dotting the landscape, and even bridges and fords at key locations, it is hard to imagine a grander set of tactical challenges. Throw Schloss Eggmuhl and the church and forest of Unter Laichling into the bargain and it is a fairly irresistible combination.
And, while I received a really nasty bite from something or other on my lower back while standing here, this was truly special.
Consider these other examples:
This is the bridge over the Grosse Lauber leading into Eggmuhl itself. Obviously a modern replacement, the smallish river has been channelized and is less swampy than would have been the case in 1809, but it nonetheless gives the visitor a sense of why the Wurtemburgers Napoleon tried throw over the river had such a bad time dislodging the swarms of skirmishing grenzers on the other side.
This is the entrance to the beer cellar that was just south of the Grosse Lauber. I have rarely been so tempted to pry nailed boards of the entrance to get at what would obviously have been a dangerous interior.
This is Schloss Eggmuhl. Now a senior living facility, the berm and outer walls that made it a significant obstacle to the attacking French are still very much in evidence. I will also note that we had the run of the outside of the place for nearly an hour with no one coming out to ask why we were so interested in photographing their berm.
Switching to the other side of the battlefield, this is the churchyard at Unter Laichling that St. Hilaire’s division spent two days trying to clear of Austrians, only to stall on the remarkable woods beyond. I have seen many versions of this battlefield in miniature and none — none — have depicted the scale of the challenge faced by those soldiers.
REVERSE SHOT: The church is in the middle of this shot. The hills and forest above it are a whole other challenge rating.
One spot that must not be missed is that from which Crown Prince Ludwig (later Ludwig I) of Bavaria, launched his troops against the ridge behind (to the east) of Unter Laichling. As pointed out by the historical marker, the surrounding view has changed very little from that depicted in Wilhelm von Kobel’s 1810 painting “Die Schacht bei Eggmuhl”. In addition to the general chaos of the battlefield, including a cannonball tearing through ranks of soldiers near the Prince’s command staff, the painting depicts Bavarian troops going into action to attack the Austrian grand battery that had been situated behind Unter Laichling throughout the day and which Napoleon himself had directed the Bavarians to destroy.
Another special view is that which would have greeted St. Hilaire as he and his men first emerged from the deep woods west of Unter Laichling on 21st April. It is another reminder, as if one were needed, of the task that was placed before him and the whole event is placed, for me, firmly in the category of “oh, I am sorry, you want us to do what?!?”
Also, although this is easily the hardest marker to find, the site of the grand battery erected to harass the French from above Unter Laichling is profoundly instructive. If I may tender a recommendation, it is probably best to park in Unter Laichling and walk up, but be aware that the journey is both long and steep. It is entirely worth the effort. The view is all but the opposite of that from Lindach and gives the visitor a near-terrifying sense of how commanding this position was. So commanding was it that the battery was able, by turns, to annoy the first elements of Napoleon’s army that attacked across the Grosse Lauber at the beginning of the battle and then to swing ’round to bombard the Bavarian troops mentioned above. It has also caused me to give a great deal of thought to the ranges at which Napoleonic armies employed positional artillery. The story of the Bavarian assault, the seizure of the battery, the savage Austrian cavalry counter-attack, and the swirling melee that developed right near this spot is one of the legends of the battle and is well-told by the marker.
Before leaving Eggmuhl, I would like to comment on the battlefield’s Napoleonshohe. One of the better known of these, it offers a dramatic view of the battlefield from its southeast corner.
The problem, as the historical marker points out, is that, unlike the Lindach Heights, there is no evidence that Napoleon ever set foot there. While my family and I were resting on the benches provided on the site, though, an elderly gentleman who had been listening to us talk, approached us. He asked if I spoke German, and when told him I did, he asked what would bring Dutch people to Eggmuhl? When I told him we were American he was both delighted and astounded, I suspect because not too many of us make it out that way. He said his name was Jerry and we spent the next half hour or so talking about all manner of things: politics, the economy, immigration policy, the Merkel and Trump governments, being a farmer, &c. When the topic turned to the Napoleonshohe, however, he became adamant. Gesticulating more than a little bit, he insisted the marker was nonsense, that his father and his father before him had said Napoleon watched the battle from the spot where we were sitting, and that everybody in the area just knows the truth of the matter.
I do not know how my visit to Eggmuhl could have ended any better. I know not what course others may take, but for me, every 21-22 April from now until breath leaves me, I will think of Jerry and the spot from which all the real people of Eggmuhl know the Emperor watched the battle.
Thanks for coming along on this part of the journey. The next will speak of more lions, another MacDonald’s, and cast aspersions on factories owned by the Ford Motor Company. Until then.