Jim Owczarski, 30 August 2019
I made my way back from the larger battlefields of Napoleon’s 1809 campaign in Bavaria and Austria to find the wargame community caught up in furball, conducted in the manner of the internet, about whether we all ought to call ourselves “wargamers”.
Moving briskly by all this as one does a traffic accident or somebody else being arrested, what did I learn about these battles and this campaign that might be of use to a fellow hobbyist? I will neglect the details of the campaign, most of which are well-rehearsed in several books, the most notable being Professor John Gill’s three-volume magnum opus, Thunder on the Danube. It is deservedly the normative treatment of the subject for both historians and gamers. While I have an autographed copy of the first volume, I blush to confess that I purchased all three volumes in the Kindle edition for well below market price during a recent sale. I cannot commend them highly enough.
This is a remarkably popular campaign for Napoleonic gamers. Some of this can be attributed to the presence of a commander who gave Napoleon absolute fits (the Archduke Charles) and which featured an army that, under Charles’ leadership, dealt Napoleon his first significant defeat (Aspern-Essling). It is also a bit Janus-like in that it was Napoleon’s last successful campaign while simultaneously pointing out to the attentive the cracks in his military machine that would shatter open wide in the cold of Russia three years later. Despite this, it also featured Napoleon at his resilient best, recovering from Marshal Berthier’s blundering in the Spring to achieve his victory at Wagram a few months later, so even the most Francophilic has something to love.
I broke my visit into two parts, one based in Regensburg (Ratisbon at the time of the battles) and the other in Vienna. This article and the next will focus on the Regensburg portion.
Now a world heritage (UNESCO) site, Regensburg is by equal measure tourist trap and rare example of what a medieval town might have looked like. With a stone bridge over the Danube that dates to the High Middle Ages, a well-known set of residential towers, Roman walls that date to the reign of Marcus Aurelias, and famously narrow and winding streets, it is a beautiful place to visit provided you are prepared for the heavy hand of tourism that locals have come to rely on for income.
For the student of Napoleon, however, the city over which the Emperor and Charles fought not once but twice in the spring of 1809 has changed dramatically, growing a fair deal and in the process obscuring the battlefield. The bridge still stands, populated now by couples who have come a-wooing, retirees, and marimba bands. Walking on and around it, it is not hard to understand why the French were unable to destroy it to prevent the Austrians from escaping north over the Danube.
Two of the three main gates that guarded the entrances to the city are still standing — the Jakobstor would appear to be undergoing restoration at the moment — but the location of the Peterstor, which most directly faced the French approaching from the south, is not hard to figure out.
The most famous incidents related to the city itself were the storming of the walls by men under the command of Marshal Jean Lannes and the minor wounding of Napoleon on the field before the walls. The former would have taken place a short distance from the outworks that guarded the Peterstor and an attached tower that was the target of bombardment by the French. While unable to pronounce on the matter with absolute certainty, I believe the below reflects the general area. As you can see, the city has swallowed it whole.
The spot of the wounding is easier to locate as multiple sources place it in close proximity to what is now a traffic island just a bit south of the above picture. Most remarkable, in what was otherwise an exercise in photographing modern infrastructure, was how close Napoleon seems to have been to the walls when he was wounded. Prudence might have dictated greater distance.
Leaving Regensburg behind, we drove to Landshut, located more or less on the opposite side of the early campaign battlespace from Regensburg. The weather was dreadful and we did not have a fraction of the time we had hoped, but I found the pictures I was looking for, namely the bridges over the Isar that featured in the two battles for the city. In the space of a week, the citizens of Landshut endured not one but two assaults, the first conducted on 16 April 1809 by the Austrian army essentially heading west and the second conducted on 21 April 1809 by the French army now chasing the Austrians defeated at the Battle of Abensberg. The latter was of particular consequence as it followed Napoleon’s realization that he was not chasing the whole of the Austrian army but only a wing and turned to fight Charles and what would become the Battle of Eggmuhl.
As in 1809, at the heart of Landshut is an island of sorts known as “Between the Bridges”. This island is connected to the “mainland” of the city by a pair of bridges, one on either end of a connecting road. It is the northern bridge that features in the painting below and was the view I most wanted. As you can see, while there has been a fair amount of development in the area, the basic outlines of the vistas are there and would still be recognizable to the French soldiers who stormed across the bridge.
One of the highlights of the entire trip was our visit to the battlefield at Teugn-Hausen. Fought just before Eggmuhl, Teugn-Hausen is one of wargaming’s unicorns: an actual encounter battle. In it, the Austrians under the Archduke tried to prevent the French under Marshal Davout from rejoining the bulk of the French army. The Iron Marshal, ever aggressive, attacked the Austrians and turned what could have been a significant delaying action into a victory. The Armchair Dragoons have been gaming out a Black Powder 2 scenario based on the battle and have found it both fun and informative.
The battlefield is only a few kilometers from Regensberg and has a topography — notably the wooded Buch Berg and Hausner Berg — that is easily identifiable from the highway approaches to the area. So identifiable is it that we took to using it as a fixed point as we navigated about exploring the area. While such things are hard to know with absolute certainty, every map consulted suggests the battlefield, and even its forestation, is very much as it was. This being the case, some notes for those who would re-create this battle:
1. The Buch Berg, depending on how one comes at it, is a far greater bit of terrain than most wargamers allow. Not only is it a significant height, but the approaches to it, particularly from the direction of Teugn, are steep. At the start of the battle its wooded top was held by Austrian skirmishers and Marshal Davout, eager not to cede an advantage, threw an entire battalion against it in open order rather than waiting for it to form. Having now stood at the point from which that assault was launched, I can only admire those who followed the order to advance. The brief, poorly-filmed but hopefully comprehensible, video below expresses as much:
2. The woods on both the Buch Berg and the Hausner Berg are significant. The below is a photograph of my son acting as a skirmisher — perhaps of the Peterwardein Grenzers — at the edge of the woods at the top of the Buch Berg. As you can see, while the interior of the woods can vary, only a few feet in would have been sufficient to provide concealment to the skirmishers skulking there. And, answering a question we posed during the development of our Black Powder 2 game, yes, these are dense woods.
3. Ridges are a tricky business. The video below tells a story from the center-left of the Austrian line. It refers to one of the fiercest engagements of the battle and involves a fight in what amounts to a dip in the terrain on the way from Teugn up to the Hausner Berg. Standing there I was struck by how much this might have affected the outcome of the French assault, but also how difficult it would be to show something like this on a tabletop absent a map.
4. I think some games on the battle neglect the importance of Roith. A very small village at the time, it is now little more than a developed farm-stead. Coming upon it as we did after stumbling for a while through the forest on the Buch Berg, it was one of the few times I felt I was getting close to trespassing. Its position on the flank of the Austrian left, tucked into a shallow valley hidden from the escarpment before the Buch Berg, makes Davout’s eventual decision to swing through it and attack from that side seem inspired. Any gamer and game that does not at least allow for a struggle for the minor strong point is missing something.
And, not that it matters from a gaming perspective, but I do not know many of our tribe who are not drawn to those special moments in battles where bravery, treachery, indolence, madness, &c., can be seen still on the ground today. The below view is taken from a spot near where GM Alois Liechtenstein personally lead Infantry Regiment No. 23 (Wurzburg) in an ultimately unsuccessful charge against French forces that had over-topped the Hausner Berg and were peering out of the treeline facing Hausen.
The battlefield, once you get there, is an easy visit and there are numerous convenient paths, most of them built for farm machinery, that criss-cross it.
When next we gather, it will be my great pleasure to tell you about one of the finest Napoleonic battlefields I have visited: Eggmuhl.