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France and Austria Sign the Treaty of Vienna: October 14, 1809

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations, Part 2.


Napoleon had let General Miollis handle the pope; he himself still had a war to fight. Archduke Karl of Austria was approaching Vienna from north of the Danube River with a large force, and Napoleon was seeking a way of crossing the river to meet the Austrians. He found it at a place where the large island of Lobau divides the Danube into two streams. After setting up camp on the island, Napoleon moved about 24,000 men across the river to occupy the villages of Aspern and Essling. He thought the archduke’s army was still far away.


Imagine Napoleon’s surprise, then, when on May 21, 1809, the archduke’s army, 95,000 strong, attacked the small French force at Aspern and Essling. The French army was barely able to hold its own that day, so fierce was the Austrian assault. Though reinforced overnight and the next morning to about 55,000 men, the French were hard pressed by the Austrians and by nightfall had lost 21,000 men. Fearing the destruction of his army, Napoleon withdrew it at night to the island of Lobau.


Theatre of the battles of Aspern and Essling and Wagram
Theatre of the battles of Aspern and Essling and Wagram

Napoleon had lost a battle, but he would not admit defeat. While occupying Lobau and the south bank of the Danube all the way to Vienna, he sent messengers to France, his allied states in Germany, and to his kingdom of Italy, demanding reinforcements. By July 1, Napoleon had 150,000 troops encamped on and around the island of Lobau.


On the night of July 4, 1809, using a terrible storm as a screen to hide his movements, Napoleon moved the Grande Armée across the river over several bridges it had built. By the evening of the next day, July 5, he was ordering an attack on the Austrians. Though surprised by the sudden appearance of the French, the Austrians were not driven from their positions around the village of Wagram. On the morning of July 6, Archduke Karl took the first offensive and exercised such skillful generalship that, at one point, he surprised even Napoleon and seriously threatened the French army. By the end of the day, however, the French had broken the center of the Austrian line, and the archduke was forced to order a retreat. But Napoleon did not pursue the enemy. His army was too exhausted. Tens of thousands of men from both armies lay dead on the field.


Napoleon had no reason to think that Wagram would be the last major battle he would fight against the Austrians. Archduke Karl’s forces were still intact, and those of his brother, the Archduke Johann, had joined them. But, broken by the news of another defeat, Emperor Franz I agreed to an armistice and asked for terms of peace. After much negotiation, both sides on October 14, 1809, signed the Treaty of Vienna. Again, Austria had to abandon more of its territory to France. The Fifth Coalition, like the earlier four, had failed to destroy Napoleon Bonaparte.

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