Jim Owczarski, 8 April 2020
In the Napoleonic list of battles, Aspern-Essling has a special place. It was Napoleon’s first significant set-back. It should have served as a warning to the Emperor that his enemies were, as he feared, learning his way of war. And, with the death of Marshal Lannes, it was in a real way the end of glory that began over a decade before and to which Wagram was more a coda.
It is also the reason the Archduke Charles, typically astride his rearing horse with a battle standard in his hand, is damn near unavoidable as one travels about Vienna looking for traces of those days in May 1809.
It will be remembered that our last visit ended with the Battle of Eggmuhl, a visit my family and I managed from our base in the postcard medieval city of Regensburg. On our way out of town, though, my wife, who shares my love of the things of this sort, directed me to this place depicted below.
This is Walhalla,situated a bit East of Regensburg, perched on an overlook above the Danube. Resting on the not-OSHA-approved steps leading to its front face provides a stunning panorama of the river and surrounding landscape.
First conceived in 1806, though completed a bit short of a half century later, Walhalla is very much part of the Napoleonic epic. Following the shattering defeat of the Austrian army at Austerlitz, the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, and the creation of the Confederation of the Rhine at Napoleon’s hand, then-Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria wanted to create a monument to German-ness. To that end he wanted to fill this memorial with busts and plaques of history’s greatest Germans; not only warriors as the name might suggest but poets, statesmen, philosophers, and Martin Luther as well.
In all, it now contains 130 busts and 64 plaques, though it contained only 96 of the former when it opened in 1842. It is quite the climb into the hills to get to Walhalla and, based on our visit, is a popular spot for bicyclists making their way into the hills near Regensburg.
Probably more than any other trip I have ever taken, I felt I was visiting Vienna for the wrong reasons. Walking through its streets and watching the masses of opera fans, waltz fans, art fans, architecture fans, &c., make their way here and there, I felt like a full-on outsider. Do not misunderstand. I have spent years having people roll their eyes and point towards battlefields or look at me puzzled when I told them I was looking for das Schlachtfeld Austerlitz. This was of an entirely different order of magnitude. But there are gems to be found.
The greatest within the city must be the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum or Military History Museum. This is one of the finest museums of its type I have seen. Situated in an area dubbed the “Arsenal”, it has displays and artifacts from centuries of Austrian military history. I knew I was in the right place when, just as we walked in, a group of reenactors was demonstrating the proper method for firing a World War I artillery piece.
Inside there is a fair amount of 19th Century nigh-Wagnerian romanticism about the Austrian military at a time when the empire was in profound decline, but as one works backwards in time, there are marvels. This is a replica — the original is too delicate for display — of the order that Wallenstein sent to Pappenheim to come to his aid the day before the Battle of Lutzen in 1632. It is stained in Pappenheim’s blood as he did come to the battle only to be mortally wounded while riding through the battlefield smoke searching for Gustavus Adolphus. The terse though conversational order is a remarkable indication of how informal such things were, even more so given the size of Pappenheim’s force.
This is the car in which the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were being driven when they were shot, precipitating the First World War. The bullet holes are still in evidence and the couch on which he dies is directly across the room.
And there is yet another campaign tent taken from the Turks after the latter’s famous siege of Vienna was broken by the Polish winged hussars. I will observe that the tent in Vienna is similar to that on display in the German History Museum in Berlin which dates to the same events. Given the impermanence of fabric, I remain amazed that even two have survived.
Of course there are Napoleonic-related displays and those in some profusion. This is as good a place as any to begin taking note of just how much space the Emperor has been granted at no cost in the collective consciousness of Germany and Austria. While the Archduke Charles was a fine military commander and, even more, an institutional reformer at a time when the bureaucracy of the army made reform difficult, I do not think it too much to say there is a cult of the Archduke not unlike that granted by the English to Wellington. This is, after all, the massive equestrian statue of him in the Heldenplatz in the heart of the city.
It shares this place of honor with no less an eminence than Eugene of Savoy who, it might be argued, had a greater record of military achievement in his time. Even Charles found the statue a bit absurd. It depicts a moment from the Battle of Aspern-Essling in which he is said to have grasped a fallen standard and led men directly against the French. Charles, upon seeing a model of the statue, is reported to have said that it was an impossible pose as the standards were far too heavy for him to have lifted in that way.
And speaking of that standard, it is granted a position not unlike that of a relic within the museum, the flag gone but replaced with laurel wreaths and the like.
With apologies for the horrid photography.
There are a number of imperial eagles taken in battle on display and even a Napoleonic-era observation balloon, but the shadow of the Archduke reached well into the 20th Century as the plaque below demonstrates.
Leaving Vienna proper to visit Aspern-Essling, let me begin with a bit of scheduling. The two museums relating to the battle are open only on Sunday mornings and only from 8 a.m. until Noon. Fortunately, very fortunately, we found this out in time to rearrange our schedules and spend several hours visiting and racing between the two. Both museums are very small, but are worth the visit. The first is in Aspern near the church that became the scene of so much fighting on the French left. The proprietor and his wife are delightful and they are curating one of the larger collections of musketballs and other battlefield remains that I have seen.
Outside there are a number of smaller memorials, but the main attraction is the Lion of Aspern, exhausted from the fight, resting on an imperial standard. There is some evidence at the Essling museum that locals considered making a much larger monument to the battle — think the Volkerschlachtdenkmal at Leipzig, but cooler heads appear to have prevailed.
Also, directly across the street, there is this newer monument, again dedicated in large measure to the praise of the Erzherzog.
I am glad that I was able to visit both museums, but, if I could only have visited one, it would certainly have been that inside the granary at Essling. Remarkably hard to find if you do not know what you are looking for, it stands alongside the well-known granary at the South end of the Austerlitz battlefield as a purpose-built tactical nightmare for the Napoleonic commander. The development that has grown up around the granary makes getting a clear idea of how it looked in 1809 difficult, but it is undeniably imposing and would have stood out like a beacon.
The granary has all the things the best battlefield monuments have like the original door which still has holes from musket balls in it from the fighting that swirled around it for several hours.
Even better, it has within it what the curator claims is the largest battlefield diorama in Central Europe. The curator is a delightful host and I have no reason to gainsay him. My love of such things is a matter of record and, while it is no Siborne, it is a fine depiction of the entire battlefield including the church, the berm that stretched between Aspern and Essling at the time of the battle, and, of course, the granary.
And, with apologies for my shoddy cinematography, a walk around the whole affair:
As for the battlefield itself, there are none of the lovely expanses of Teugn-Hausen or Eggmuhl. The Ford Motor Company constructed a sizable Opal plan between the two towns obliterating much of the battlefield. Aspern and Essling themselves, once well outside Vienna, are now essentially well-connected suburbs. The well-known Vienna tram has a stop not far from the Aspern church and museum.
I was able to find two matters of interest, though. The first, more banal, was the obligatory MacDonald’s, one of which, I believe, must be proximate to every Napoleonic battlefield. This one is in Essling.
The other is the likeliest location for what proved to be the fatal wounding of Marshal Jean Lannes, one of Napoleon’s best commanders and closest friends. As the story is told, Lannes was resting towards the end of the two-day battle grieving the loss the loss of a fellow commander who had been decapitated by a cannonball in mid-conversation not moments before, when another cannonball, fired from the East, shattered the pan of one knee and tore the tendons from the back of the other. One leg was amputated shortly thereafter but he nonetheless died a few days later.
There are a couple good candidates for the location, but Essling has grown so much — there is even a sort of “new” Essling to the North of the “old” Essling — that the topography is difficult to read even using Google Maps. That said, an intersection not far from the site of the Long Garden that, along with the granary, anchored the right of Napoleon’s line, seems the best. It is an un-evocative modern intersection, but I did take a moment to remember Napoleon’s own paladin there.
Next and final stop? Lobau Island and Wagram!