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Savary: Memoirs of the Duke of Rovigo
Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 9
Action of Ebersdorf—Ardour of the troops—Order of battle of our army—Battle of Essling—The bridge on the Danube is broken down—Gallant conduct of General Mouton—Marshal Lannes mortally wounded—Affliction and regret of Napoleon—Death of General Saint-Hilaire—Retreat—Napoleon holds a council with Massena and Berthier on the river side.

THE corps of Marshal Massena had already passed over, as well as two divisions of cuirassiers, when the Austrians, who occupied a position at no great distance, marched down to attack us. Ever since the 19th, or at least since the 20th, which was the preceding day, they must have been aware of the point at which we should effect a passage; accordingly, they had found time to collect their army and to advance upon us: they did not, however, evince much ardour in the charge ; and I am of opinion that if we had not attempted to extend ourselves too far that night, they would not have attacked us, and we should have avoided an unsatisfactory encounter, which was attended with a loss, the effect of which was severely felt on the following day.

The sun was setting when the army debouched from the space between the villages of Essling and Aspern. It had not advanced one hundred toises on that immense plain when a furrowing fire of cannon was opened upon it in all directions. An attempt was made to silence that tremendous cannonade by a desperate charge of cavalry. This had the effect of clearing the way for us on the right, but our left was thrown back upon the village of Aspern, one half of which was occupied by the enemy, who baffled all our attempts to dislodge them. Night put an end to the action, which occasioned us a very severe loss, not less than five or six thousand men in killed and wounded, besides the immense quantity of ammunition consumed. We passed the night within musket-shot of the Austrians, and the sentinels were on some points at no more than thirty paces from each other. In such a position it was almost impossible for either army to make a movement without the other being immediately apprised of it, the rather so as there was no obstruction intervening between them, and they both stood upon the same ground.

The Emperor came to bivouac that night on the sand, close to the Danube, which he did not again recross; he was thus within three hundred toises of the Austrian army. The whole night was taken up in passing the troops from the right to the left bank: this movement was going on at a slow rate, owing to the accidents which were constantly happening to the bridge ; and it was only by unremitting care and labour that the whole corps of Marshals Oudinot and Lannes, together with the foot-guards and some reserves, could reach the left bank. The army was all night in motion, in order to be prepared against an attack, which it was apprehended the enemy would make at daybreak on the following morning, the 22nd of May. It was then daylight at two or three o'clock, at which hour the Emperor was already on horseback, and going through the ranks of his army. As often as he appeared, his presence was hailed with deafening cries of "Long live the Emperor!" and as we were at pistol-shot distance from the hostile army, the latter took up arms, and commenced firing a few shot through the fog which concealed us from each other, and which prevails at all seasons along the borders of the Danube. One of those shot killed the horse of General Monthion, in the group about the Emperor's person.

The general officers urged the Emperor to allow them to commence the attack, in order, as they said, to take advantage of the first ardour of the soldiers. He was rather averse to the proposal, as he expected the corps of Marshal Davout, which was still on the other side of the Danube, as well as General Nansouty's division of cuirassiers, with the major part of the horse-guards, and many of the allied troops; but he was so warmly urged by his officers that he gave way, and permitted the movements of attack to commence at the hour of half past three in the morning. Marshal Massena debouched on the left by the village of Aspern: he had under his orders the divisions of Generals Molitor, Le Grand, and Carra-Saint-Cyr, and a reserve division commanded by General Démont. Marshal Lannes debouched on the right of Marshal Massena, between Aspern and Essling, having with him the division of Generals Saint-Hilaire and Oudinot, and General Boudet's division as a reserve. Behind these troops, and in second line, were the foot-guards, consisting of two regiments of fusileers, two regiments of riflemen, and two regiments of the old guard ; that is to say, one of grenadiers and another of chasseurs. Our cavalry consisted of a brigade of light-horse, under the orders of General Marulaz, two others under General Lasalle, the division of cuirassiers hitherto commanded by General d'Espagne (who was killed on the preceding day), and General Saint-Sulpice's division, with some squadrons of the guard, composed of Poles, chasseurs, and dragoons. Marshal Davout was on the right bank, ready to cross over with the division of General Friant, and those of Generals Morand and Gudin, which again formed part of his corps of troops : he had also under his orders General Vandamme and the Wirtemburgers, Nansouty's division, and the remainder of the horse-guards. The Bavarians had been sent into the Tyrol to attack the insurgents, and to protect the city of Munich ; General Wrede's division, if I recollect rightly, was in the direction of Lintz. The Emperor had a great partiality for that officer, and never parted from him but in a case of absolute necessity.

Our left and centre marched forward in the order already mentioned, always keeping an eye to our right, where our cavalry was stationed. I accompanied Marshal Lannes, who remained with General Saint-Hilaire's division. As we were traversing an immense plain, all the troops advanced in close order, partly formed in squares, and partly in columns.

The cannonade began almost at the very moment of our advance, and it made the greater havoc amongst us, as, besides our proximity to the enemy, we presented heavy masses to their artillery. The Austrians were also formed in squares checkerwise, and opened a fire of musketry upon us; but we suffered less from it than if some of their battalions had deployed. In like manner we should have done them much greater injury if, instead of troops consisting of raw levies, we had opposed to them such soldiers as those of the camp of Boulogne, which we might easily have moved in any direction, and made to deploy under the enemy's fire without any danger of their being thrown into disorder. We were still persisting in our attempts to penetrate through that checkered line when the fire of grape-shot and of musketry threw our columns into confusion, and compelled us to stop and open a fire of cannon and musketry, with the disadvantage of numbers against us. This disadvantage increased the longer we remained in our present position ; it was, therefore, natural to conclude that the engagement, so far from ending in our favour, would in all probability terminate fatally for us. We attempted to counteract the difficulties we had to contend with by ordering the cuirassiers to charge successively in several directions ; but they had scarcely penetrated the Austrian line of infantry when they were driven back and closely pursued by their cavalry, which was three times more numerous than our own. To add to our distress, the want of ammunition was generally felt about half past eight in the morning. Officers were seen crossing the field of battle in every direction at that hour, in search of the park of stores, which was still on the other side of the Danube. We were also in want of fresh troops, and were expecting, with the utmost impatience, the corps of Marshal Davout, when some officers, who had been sent to accelerate his advance, brought back the information that the great bridge of the Danube had been broken down.

The enemy, after driving us back on the preceding day, had taken up, on the bank of the river, a position from whence they had a complete view of our bridge in its whole extent ; and contriving to fill with stones the largest boats they could find, they sent them down the current. This contrivance proved but too successful ; since, of the two bridges we had constructed, the one was wholly carried away, and the other half destroyed. The scanty supply of boats and pontoniers had prevented our raising a stoccade to protect the bridge, an omission which proved fatal to us. This disaster soon became known to the troops that were engaged, made them lose all hope of assistance, and the several corps withdrew in succession from the contest. It could not, in fact, be expected that, in the absence of all ammunition, they should remain in a position where certain destruction awaited them.

The Emperor commanded a retreat, and superintended it himself, by remaining exposed to a cannonade which we no longer answered. It became more and more harassing as we approached the bridge that communicated with the island of Lobau, and formed the centre of a circle, the circumference of which was occupied by the artillery. Our left and centre disputed every inch of ground in their retreat, and had not yet returned to the position between the villages of Essling and Aspern, from whence they had debouched in the morning, when the enemy made a desperate attack upon our right, and carried the village of Essling, which was defended by Boudet's division. The retreat could only be secured by our quickly regaining that position, from whence the enemy would have reached the bridge long before the arrival of Marshals Massena and Lannes to cover it. Our situation was most critical ; and we were about to be thrown into complete disorder, when the Emperor directed General Mouton, his aide-de-camp, to attack immediately with the fusileer brigade belonging to the guards. General Mouton, who had correctly estimated the importance of succeeding in this movement, lost not a moment in placing himself at the head of the fusileers, and entering the village of Essling in charging time, regardless of the numbers opposed to him, carried and retained possession of that village until he received orders to evacuate it. This bold and successful charge afforded us the means of executing our retreat ; but the gallant General Mouton was severely wounded, and compelled to quit the field of battle.

Marshal Lannes having returned to the position he had quitted in the morning for the purpose of attacking the enemy, used his utmost endeavours to preserve it, and dismounted, owing to the proximity of the fire of the enemy's artillery, which made it hazardous to remain on horseback: the cavalry had crossed over long before, and was stationed in the island of Lobau. The Emperor himself had quitted the field of battle, after issuing his final orders in respect to recrossing the bridge ; and he was engaged in pointing some artillery in the island of Lobau, for the purpose of protecting the retreat of our columns, when intelligence was brought to him that Marshal Lannes had just had his legs carried off by a cannon-shot. He was affected to tears at the news ; and at the moment he was listening to the particulars of that sad event, he perceived a litter coming from the field of battle with Marshal Lannes stretched upon it. He ordered him to be carried to a retired spot, where they might be alone and uninterrupted. With his face bathed in tears, he approached and embraced his dying friend. Exhausted by the great loss of blood, Marshal Lannes said to him in broken accents, " Farewell, Sire: spare a life dear to all; and bestow a passing thought upon the memory of one of your best friends, who in two hours will be no more !', This deeply affecting scene created in the Emperor a powerful emotion. General Saint-Hilaire had a short time before been brought back- wounded in the foot by a cannon ball; he died of the wound a fortnight afterwards. The loss-of Marshal Lannes was felt by the whole army, and completed the disasters of that fatal day.

The enemy did not take advantage of our retreat, but left us unmolested the whole evening in our position between Aspern and Essling. It was five o'clock before we retired to the wood bordering the river, which we recrossed in the night without further annoyance. The bridge of boats on the arm of the river was taken to pieces, and the pontoons which had formed it were placed upon carts, as well as the anchors, cordage, beams, and thick planks, all which were sent to the bridge on the broad arm of the Danube, where they were made to replace the boats carried away by the current. The whole army, infantry, cavalry, artillery, the staff, the wounded, every thing without exception, was removed to the island of Lobau on the morning of the 24th. The Emperor was still there in person on the 22nd at nightfall ; he came close up to the great arm, the bridge of which had been destroyed: the waters of the Danube had greatly increased, this being the season of the melting of the snow coming from the Tyrol : so that even the two arms which traversed the island, and had hitherto been found dry, or at least fordable, had become dangerous torrents, requiring hanging bridges to be thrown over them.

The Emperor crossed them in a skiff, having the Prince of Neufchatel and myself in his company. We were unable to bring our horses over, and were under the necessity of continuing our journey on foot. When arrived on the bank of the Danube, the Emperor sat down under a tree, and there waited for Marshal Massena, to whom he had sent orders to join him. He soon came up to us, and the Emperor formed a small council, in order to collect the opinions of those about him as to what had best be done under existing circumstances.

Let the reader picture to himself the Emperor sitting between Massena and Berthier on the bank of the Danube, with the bridge in front, of which there scarcely remained any vestige, Marshal Davout's corps on the other side of the broad river and behind in the island of Lobau itself, the whole army separated from the enemy by a mere arm of the Danube, thirty or forty toises broad, and deprived of all means of extricating itself from this position, and he will admit that the lofty and powerful mind of the Emperor could alone be proof against discouragement. He was fully prepared for the suggestion about to be offered to him of recrossing the Danube in the best manner possible, and of leaving behind what could not be removed, such as the whole of the artillery, the horses, &c &c.

The Emperor quietly listened to all the arguments urged upon his attention ; and then said: " You might as well, gentlemen, advise me to retreat to Strasburg. If I recross the Danube, I must evacuate Vienna, because the enemy will cross over immediately after me: may they not then drive me back to Strasburg? In my present condition I have no means of resisting their attack except by endeavouring to cross to the left bank of the river if they should cross over to its right bank, and thus to manœuvre round Vienna, which is really my capital, and the centre of my resources. If I recross the Danube, and the Archduke should also cross it at Lintz, for example, I shall have to march upon Lintz ; whereas, by remaining in the position I now occupy, if he attempts that movement, I shall cross over and follow him until he turns round upon me. It is impossible I should remove to any distance from Vienna without leaving behind me twenty thousand men, one half of whom will otherwise have returned to their ranks before the expiration of a month from the present time."

He brought every one back to his opinion ; and although the prospect of reposing from our fatigues on the other side of the Danube would have been cheering to every one, we resigned ourselves to the necessity of remaining in the island. Marshal Massena assumed the command of all the troops which were concentrated there : and the Emperor gave him written instructions regarding the mode of defence he was to adopt, if, as there was reason to apprehend, he should have to resist an attack.

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