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Savary: Memoirs of the Duke of Rovigo
Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 8
The Emperor at Schonbrnnn—Siege of Vienna—Passage of one arm of the Danube—Bombardment—Capitulation—Position of the contending armies—Passage of the Danube in the night-time—The author is present at the first landing—Construction of bridges—The army crosses the river.

THE Emperor now occupied for the second time the palace of Schonbrunn, where his head-quarters had been established in 1805. He had caused the suburbs to be occupied; but the city had closed its gates, and a few shot had even been fired from the ramparts.

The Archduke Maximilian had shut himself up in Vienna; but it contained no other troops than a few depots and the townspeople, amongst whom the muskets found in the arsenal had been distributed.

Vienna is enclosed by a strong wall of a regular and modern construction, by ditches of great depth, and by a covered way, but is without any advanced works. It has a very open glacis, and the suburbs are built at the distance required by military regulations. The suburbs are very extensive ; and since the invasion of the Turks they have been surrounded by an intrenchment covered over with masonry work, thereby forming a vast intrenched camp, closed by strong gates, and proof against any attempt to scale it. The Emperor saw, that if Vienna did not surrender in a few days, the Archduke Charles would arrive, and that nothing would prevent his introducing his army into that spacious extent of suburbs, from whence it would debouch upon us from several points at the same time, and place us in a situation the more perilous, as the Emperor had relied upon the resources he expected to find in Vienna, and of which he intended to avail himself to increase his means of subsistence. He made the round of that immense enclosure, and before returning to his palace, ordered the general of artillery, Andreossi, who was in attendance, and who had formerly been our ambassador at Vienna, to bring together that night all the howitzers that were with the army, and place them in the most judicious mariner, in order to open at ten o'clock at night a bombarding fire, which was to be kept up until the city should demand a parley. He sent at the same time to summon the Archduke to surrender the city. The reply of that prince was unsatisfactory. General Andreossi carried into effect the orders he had received ; and collected, to the best of my memory; thirty-two howitzers, which were stationed on a spot reconnoitred beforehand, and where, from a very short distance, the howitzers might range along the greatest width of the city.

Independently of this arrangement, the Emperor went in person, with one of the divisions belonging to Massena's corps, to effect at the extremity of the public walk of the Prater the passage of the arm of the Danube which separates this island from the main-land. The spot was defended by some troops of the militia, who were kept off with cannon-shot, and by means of boats brought over to us by people who swam to the opposite bank.¹ The troops first passed over, and a bridge was then constructed. From this moment we were at liberty to set fire to the great bridge named the bridge of the Tabor, because nothing could obstruct our reaching it.

The Emperor ordered General Boudet's division to cross over to the island of the Prater ; and he was returning in the night-time to his head-quarters at Schonbrunn, when, passing abreast of the suburbs of Vienna, we saw the first discharge from the howitzers, which had the appearance of a cluster of fire. There were always ten or twelve shells in the air; and the fire accordingly broke out almost instantaneously in several places. This circumstance, added to the occupation of the island of the Prater, having no doubt proved to the hostile generals that the army of the Archduke Charles would arrive to no purpose ; that it would find the Tabor bridge destroyed : and that it was therefore useless to expose Vienna to a general conflagration, they determined to enter into a parley. They ordered their few remaining troops to cross the Danube during the night: the Archduke Maximilian left his powers behind, as a sanction for the capitulation of the city, and followed the troops to the left bank of the Danube, causing the bridge on the Tabor to be burned as soon as he had effected his passage.

Vienna surrendered the next day without any other terms than such as are usually agreed upon in respect to fortified towns ; and on the 12th of May, a month after the Emperor's departure from Paris, our troops took possession of it.

We found in Vienna resources of every kind ; in a word, we became masters of a capital which we might consider as much at our disposal as Paris itself.

We had occupied it but a few days when we learned the arrival of the Archduke Charles's army on the opposite bank of the Danube. It was much more numerous than our own, and might have greatly annoyed us if it had immediately attempted to cross the river. This was the only means of compelling us at once to evacuate Vienna, and was, I think, the Emperor's chief motive for accelerating his passage across the Danube, in order to confine the Archduke Charles to an attitude of defence. Censurers have dwelt much on so important an operation having been undertaken with such inadequate means ; but they have overlooked the weighty reasons which determined the Emperor's judgment. It may here he said with justice, that nothing is more easy than criticism, nothing more difficult than the science of war.

The Emperor, in fact, could not command one-third of the means which were absolutely requisite for crossing the Danube, whether in respect to boats, cordages, or other necessary apparatus. As soon as the war was found to be unavoidable, he had instructed the minister of marine to send him some sailors of the flotilla ² ; but our march had been so rapid that they were unable to come up in time. The Emperor had in his service some officers of artillery and engineers of such indefatigable disposition, and of so inventive a genius, that he had only to state his determination to effect the operation; they found the means of accomplishing it. It may be proper to mention in this place, that if the Russian army had made a diversion in our favour, we should not have been obliged to cross the Danube. True it is, that army was not ready ; but why was it not so ? It had not a greater distance to march than our troops, some of which had been brought from Burgos.

An officer from the Emperor of Russia arrived every week at our head-quarters ; a very active intercourse of letters was kept up between Russia and us; the only intercourse we wanted was that of some battalions ; but we were without them, and were therefore compelled to rely upon our own resources.

The position of the army extended from the environs of Saint Polten to the front of Presburg: the Emperor had been under the necessity of sending a small corps of observation to the valley of Neustadt, in order to defend the defile leading into Italy. The population exhibited a greater disposition to resist us, and more animosity than in the last war ; this was, therefore, an additional difficulty for the army to contend with, which might have been very serious had we met with any severe check.

The Austrian army of Galicia had just entered the duchy of Warsaw, and penetrated to the capital, which the gallant little army of Poles had been compelled to evacuate by crossing over to the right bank of the Vistula, in the hope of being soon joined by the Russian army (the Austrian army had come by the left bank). Prince Poniatowski, who commanded the Poles, displayed great gallantry and talent in this campaign.

The Emperor, although in possession of Vienna, was surrounded with numberless difficulties: he had, besides, the Austrian army of Italy to fear, which might do him incalculable injury in its retreat before the Viceroy's army could join him. Matters would have been much worse had the Archduke Charles's army crossed the Danube. All these considerations made it imperative for the Emperor to cross the river. On this occasion, again, he showed a remarkable example of personal courage; for no one augured well of this operation, which appeared undertaken without proper precautions, although it was not openly objected to on account of the Emperor, whose decisions none dared to combat. At last, on the night of the 19th May, he ordered down from Vienna all the navigable means that had been collected in the arm of the Danube which encircles the Prater. We had only one company of pontoniers, whilst six companies were wanting for such a service. All these means were brought together, as well as the troops on the river side, at some hundred toises above the village of Ebersdorf, which stands at the distance of about two leagues below Vienna.

It was almost dark: we could not, at least, be discovered from the hostile bank, when the Emperor himself gave orders for embarking the first battalions which were intended to take up a position on the left bank. He attended personally to the placing of the soldiers in the boats, where he so arranged them, as to make the boats contain the greatest possible number. He caused cartridges to be distributed, and spoke to almost every man. He sent in the rear of this convoy a boat prepared for receiving two pieces of cannon, which he caused to be embarked in it without their caissons, but with a quantity of grape-shot and other charges, sufficient for the undertaking which he meditated. The convoy left the right bank of the Danube at nightfall on the 19th May, and landed on the left bank, at a large island called Lobau, which had been reconnoitred beforehand, and was found adapted to the contemplated object. It is exactly facing the village of Ebersdorf on the right bank, is of considerable extent, and was then so covered with wood as to present the appearance of a forest. The island is intersected in its greatest length by two small arms of the Danube, which may each be eighteen or twenty feet broad. When the Danube is very low the water runs through them in a small stream fordable in all directions even for children ; but, from one day to another, they become again small rivers ; next after those two arms is the branch which finally cuts off the island of Lobau from the left bank ; it is as broad as the Moselle in France ; is extremely rapid, and without any ford. The Austrians had a strong detachment posted in the island, and relieved it every day by means of a boat placed in front of the small town of Euzerfdorf (on the left bank), to which the island afforded its pasturage. This post had only two or three sentinels on-the bank of the large stream, and was itself stationed at a hut called the lodge of the gamekeeper, who preserved the pheasants, which were in great abundance over the island.

The Emperor ordered me to be present at the first landing, and to return in the night to inform him of the manner in which it might have been effected. I placed myself in a small skiff rowed by two pontoniers, and reached the hostile shore with the whole convoy. The sentinels gave the alarm : but no resistance was offered to us, and the whole night was employed in passing fresh troops over to the island of Lobau, whilst the artillery-officers were engaged in superintending the construction of a bridge. The latter was intended to be of immense length, and divided into two parts, in consequence of a small sand-bank which arose out of the middle of the river; but the joint length of the two bridges was not less than 240 toises. The whole of the 20th May was taken up in finishing the bridge, during which time the Emperor never left the bank, and superintended in person the uninterrupted passage of the troops in boats whilst the bridges were being completed. On the morning of the 20th news was brought to the Emperor that the enemy had effected a landing above Vienna, at a village called Nursdorf, which is, properly speaking, one of the suburbs of the city, from its great proximity to it. He was not apprehensive of any important event resulting from that landing, because the troops which were on their way from Saint Polten to Vienna, in order to be present when the Austrians should attempt a passage, arrived on the spot at that very moment: the movement of the enemy was therefore unattended with any consequence, and merely gave us two hours' uneasiness. The Emperor was so careful never to leave any thing behind him which might complicate his operation, that he profited of tile delay occasioned by the construction of the bridges to send me to Nursdorf with a brigade of cuirassiers, in order to set his mind at ease as to the result of the landing of the enemy, whom I found to have returned to the left bank.

All I had to do therefore was to go forward, and immediately turn back to join the army.

On the 21st the bridges were entirely completed, notwithstanding the great difficulties we had to contend with, owing to tile absence of the principal materials for constructing them ; since, to adduce one example, as a substitute for anchors we were compelled to use heavy weights, such as Austrian pieces of cannon, which were secured to the extremities of cables ; but as those weights fell upon a gravel bottom, they did not sink deep enough to resist the power of the current; so that the boats could not be prevented from floating down in spite of every attempt to secure them firmly to tile spot. The officers of artillery employed in constructing this bridge really performed wonders in enabling the army to pass over it.

The army filed off across the bridge in the afternoon of the 20th, and during the whole of the 21st of May; and a bridge was thrown over the last arm of the Danube by means of the Austrian pontoons which fell into our hands at Landshut. They were conveyed upon carts, and could be transported in any direction. Under cover of a wood full of briers, which lined the side of the river to a considerable extent, the army debouched to the left bank, between the villages of Essling and Aspern, though somewhat nearer the latter village. We occupied them as defensive positions, by taking advantage of the walled enclosures, gardens and burying grounds. The troops, according as they debouched, gave extension to their line by spreading themselves upon the advanced ground.

¹ - That arm of the river is the one used for the purposes of navigation by commercial men; it is always full of boats.

² - " Paris, 9th March, 1809. " Vice-admiral Decrès, `, I wish to have with the army of the Rhine one of the battalions of the flotilla. This is the object I have in view: let me know if it can be accomplished. Twelve hundred sailors would be very serviceable to this army for the passage of rivers and the navigation of the Danube. Our sailors of the guard rendered me essential services in the last campaign; but the duty they performed was unworthy of them. Are all the sailors comprising the battalions of the flotilla men able to swim ? Are they all competent to bring a boat into a road or a river ? Do they understand infantry exercise ? If they possess these qualifications they would be useful to me. It would be necessary to send with them some officers of the naval artillery, and about a hundred workmen with their tools. They would be a great resource for the passage and navigation of a river. " whereupon I pray, &c. Napoleon

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