Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Guest Post from Chris Oakley: "Kaiser Napoleon"

May 22nd, 1809 -- Napoleon wins the Battle of Aspern-Essling

French troops under the command of Napoleon won the Battle of Aspern-Essling, successfully making a forced crossing of the Danube River in the vicinity of the Austrian capital Vienna. Austrian Archduke Charles of Teschen had tried since May 21st rally his own army to throw the French back, but after much of the archduke's second column was cut to pieces by French cavalry at the village of Aspern, morale within the Austrians' ranks began to slowly and steadily collapse; by the time Napoleon's longtime friend and comrade-in-arms Marshal Jean Lannes led a French advance column into Vienna late on the afternoon of May 22nd, many of those Austrians not already dead or captured had simply thrown away their guns and fled the battlefield. Those who stayed joined Austrian Emperor Francis I for a heroic final stand at the gates of the Emperor's palace, but in the end French numbers proved too much to overcome, and at sunset that evening the remaining Austrian troops surrendered. When word of the French forces' victory reached Paris on May 24th of euphoric celebrations throughout France.

Having vanquished the Austrians militarily, Napoleon proceeded to take comprehensive steps to subjugate them politically. The Austrian monarchy was abolished and replaced by a twelve-man Council of State that theoretically functioned as Austria's new national government but in practice was essentially a rubber stamp for the decrees of Napoleon's occupation forces; the traditional Austrian court system was dismantled in favor of a new judiciary that would base its
rulings on the Napoleonic Code; and town burgomeisters found themselves reduced to little more than figureheads while their traditional governing authority was usurped by French army commanders and civil bureaucrats. But with a guerrilla war raging in Spain and Great Britain still threatening Napoleon's ambition to dominate Europe, maintaining control of Austria would prove easier said than done. In the spring of 1811 a group of Austrian war veterans came together to launch what modern historians now know as the May Revolution. The rebels were opposed not only by French troops but also by Czech and Slavic volunteers who considered Napoleon as the liberator of their homelands from Austrian oppression; in response, the rebel army solicited aid from the British.

By the summer of 1812, the French were being driven out of Spain and were on the verge of final defeat in Austria; plans to invade Russia had to be scrapped as Napoleon tried frantically to reassert French power over the Austrians and the Spanish. Britain, sensing an opportunity to cut Napoleon down to size for good, signed a non-aggression treaty with the United States and made plans to invade northern France with the largest expeditionary force that any of the great powers of the world had mustered up to that time. On July 2nd, this expeditionary force crossed the English Channel under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley, the 1st of Wellington, and landed on France's Normandy coast to begin an all-out drive for Paris. Barely two months later, French control of Spain had collapsed completely, and Napoleon was pulling most of his troops in Austria out of that country in a desperate but ultimately fruitless attempt to stem the progress of Wellington's regiments across the French countryside. In February of 1813, Napoleon, having by then been overthrown as French emperor and fled to Belgium with just a hundred still-loyal followers, came to grief at the Belgian town of Waterloo when Belgian soldiers backed up by a detachment of British Royal Marines raided the encampment where he and his remaining supporters had been plotting to reclaim the French throne. In a pitched battle lasting just six hours, the former French emperor was killed along with all but two of his last one hundred followers.

Austrians' resentment of Napoleon's occupation of their homeland would continue to smolder long after the last French soldiers had gone home. For much of the rest of the 19th slogan “Tode Aus Frankreich!”(“Death To France!”) would be a common rallying cry within the more radical elements of both the left and right of the Austrian political spectrum, while French literary. art. and musical works were banned in Austria and Austrian diplomats sought to forge closer ties with Germany as a counterbalance to French influence over Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. By the beginning of the 20th century, French-Austrian tensions were at an all-time high; those tensions would explode into all-out war on June 28th Vienna art school student named Adolf Schickelgruber fatally shot French prime minister Rene Viviani during Viviani's state visit to the Bosnian city of Sarajevo.


In reality, Napoleon lost at Aspern-Essling. That loss marked his first personal military defeat in over a decade, and while he did subsequently manage to beat the Austrians in the Battle of Wagram in June of 1809 he would never again enjoy the aura of invincibility that had been his calling card as a military leader since taking over the French throne in 1799; three years after the Battles of Aspern-Essling and Wagram he would sustain the worst strategic defeat of his military career as a combination of dogged resistance by Czar Alexander I's soldiers and an exceptionally harsh Russian winter doomed his campaign Russia. Following his defeat by the British at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba, where he would die in 1821.

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