The Fifth Coalition, 1809
Austria was still smarting from earlier defeats and now saw the events in Spain as further cause against France. Another issue was the immense cost of keeping their huge army assembled yet inactive. They carried out some rapid reforms of their military tactics given their experiences.
They recognised that they could not draw upon the support of formal allies who were engaged in wars of their own. So assembled their force in Bohemia ready to attack.
Napoleon, aware of Austrian preparations, wanted to reaffirm its alliance with Russia, but was unaware that his ex-Foreign Minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, was briefing against him. He had concluded that Napoleon’s military agenda would eventually destroy France and advised the Tsar not to agree to Napoleon’s advances.
Napoleon still managed to get the Erfurt Convention agreed between them. This included an agreement that, in the event of war with Austria, Russia would assist France to the best of its ability.
Napoleon misjudged the Austrian attention expecting it a week later than it came and that it would come north of the Danube when it came from the south.
A series of battles ensued between April and July 1809. The Austrians broke through his centre, which was a Bavarian force, perhaps the least experienced of the French army. The Austrians then planned a twin pincer movement on the much more experienced flanks. Napoleon had arrived in theatre and made various manoeuvres to recover from the initial setback.
At Aspern-Essling the Austrians achieved Napoleon’s first major defeat pushing him back across the Danube and setting him back on his heels for many weeks. Crossing the river again the French prevailed at the battle of Wagram and chased the Austrians back to Bohemia.
The British landed a large force in the Kingdom of Holland to try to open a second front to assist the Austrians. But Wagram had already forced the Austrians to talk of peace. There were no real set piece battles but the British force was wracked by a disease that became known as ‘Walchere’n Fever, a mix of typhus and malaria. Some 4,000 of its 39,000 troops were killed by the disease.
The peace treaty of Schönbrunn between France and Austria was hugely damaging to the Austrians, they gave up lands that held a fifth of its population and reparations of 85 million francs.
This was also a turning point in terms of support for the French in central Germany. At the Schönbrunn conference an 18-year old German tried to stab Napoleon, but this was just the sharp end of a growing unrest.
The fact that most of his columns now depended more on non-French individuals had an inherent problem for the future, add to this that Aspern-Essling had shown that the French army could be defeated. The balance was tipping away from Napoleon.
Back in Paris in 1810, Napoleon used his time away from the front to annul his marriage to Josephine de Beauharnais because their union was still childless; yet he had children with a number of his mistresses.
They parted amicably with Josephine moving in to the Château de Malmaison outside Paris, she would die there of pneumonia in 1814; at that time Napoleon was living in exile on Elba.
He had promptly married the daughter of the Austrian emperor, Marie Louise Duchess of Parma, also a great niece of Marie-Antoinette! She delivered him a son the next year, 1811, who would become Napoleon II. He also forlornly hoped that the marriage would remove Austria as a foe.