Wagram 1809

I have just finished reading Eric Gill’s account of the battle of Wagram in the third volume of his Thunder on the Danube series. I want to use this post to reflect a bit on some of the implications of this battle for those interested in simulation.

Ever since I first read about Wagram as a teenager in David Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon, I have been deeply fascinated by it. It has massive scope, the second biggest battle of the era, and with more coherent narrative than the Leipzig, the biggest.  It resembles Borodino in some ways, but is less linear. And it shows the Austrian army in a good light – an army that is a bit of an underdog in its treatment by historians in the centuries since, lacking a major national champion. They lost, but with honour intact – no worse than what the Russians achieved at Borodino – though in a strategic context that meant an honourable defeat was not good enough, unlike the Russian battle.

Also this is a battle taking place on a nearly featureless plain – closer than most real battles to the sort of thing we try on a tabletop. It begs to be refought as a simulation – though it is just too big. One day I might give it a try! May be I can develop a doubled up version of DTN to bring it within the range of feasibility. Episodes from the battle could be used as a testbed for rules – though since the various sub-battles tend to blend into each other, this would be a challenge.

Mr Gill has made good use of sources on both sides, and is on the whole pretty objective. He is a little too judgemental for may taste – but then almost all historians of Napoleonic military history are. I prefer my history to be about what happened and why, to quote AJP Taylor. Mr Gill has lots of bad things to say about Charles and the Austrian decisions when compared to Napoleon and the French. This is not unjustified – but I find this type of writing a bit of a bore. I would like to understand why they reached the decisions they did. And there is always a slight suspicion that the Austrians are being judged to a higher benchmark that the French.

More seriously, I could have done with the account providing a bit more detail; it could have added 50% in length easily. This contrasts with the excellent detail the author provides in some of the smaller engagements of the campaign. As a result I find a number of things puzzling. Why did the Saxon infantry collapse on the second day? They don’t seem to have been directly attacked. There is also a lack of detail over the encounter between Oudinot’s corps and Hohenzollern’s – even though the former suffered very high percentage casualties. Gill vaguely alludes to artillery being responsible in both cases – but this does not seem to be based on solid analysis. A third mystery is that in Massena’s march from the centre to the flank, he reports them coming under heavy artillery fire. But they were covered by the famous Grand Battery – which surely would have drawn the fire, and masked the movement?

Unfortunately I don’t think any of the other books I have that cover the battle will do much to illuminate these issues. For a simulator it is this habit of historians to drop into airy explanations that is particularly frustrating. We want to look at the data! One reason to try to simulate episodes from the battle.

Three issues from this battle struck me particularly: command and control; panic; and weapon ranges. I have already reflected a bit on command and control in my thinking aloud piece on my new rules. The difference between the two sides seems mainly to be a the corps level. The Austrians had only recently introduced a corps system, and they seem to have had very limited planning capability, relying on detailed plans drawn up by army HQ; it says something for the strength of the Austrian army HQ that they were able to produce these detailed plans as quickly as they did. But Napoleon found it much easier to watch and wait – and then give his corps instructions at a high level. This difference explains a lot about how the battle unfolded. As the second day got going Charles was chasing around adjusting the plan to take care of events – while Napoleon was able to calmly direct things from a distance. This difference is certainly worth trying to replicate in a simulation.

It is interesting, though, that when Napoleon made a spur of the moment decision to attack the (concealed) Austrians on the first evening, that the hastiness of it all meant that the French attacks were conducted inefficiently, especially by corps commanders less able or less trusted than Davout (who only made a gentle probe – perhaps all Napoleon intended). The corps needed to be given time to digest orders in order to deliver them efficiently.

As for panic, this poses a particularly interesting problem for simulation. Mr Gill’s account points to two particular occasions when substantial elements of the Austrian army started to panic and flee, having to be rallied by the senior officers, up to Charles himself. The first was on the evening of the first day when the Army of Italy  caught the Austrians off guard. The second was early on the second day (featuring many of the same troops, perhaps significantly) when the French retook Aderklaa and launched an attack beyond. The problem isn’t explaining these events – it’s understanding why these are the only two. As the battle developed, the Austrians suffered many further reverses, from one end of the line to the other. But they held firm. Disorder might appear, but as the French cavalry arrived to take advantage, the Austrians recovered composure and beat them off. In the general withdrawal the Austrians did lose a few battalions crushed by cavalry attacks, but their overall composure is quite striking. What made troops panic on a few occasions, and but not on many others?

There were panics on the French side too. Both the attacking forces in the two Austrian panics suffered the same fate, as the Austrians successfully rallied and counterattacked.  It is worth adding that on both occasions the French pulled themselves together and play a key role later in the battle. The Saxon infantry gave way on both days; the second time, it would appear, based just on an artillery bombardment. These panics don’t cause the same difficulty. They resulted from attacks that got out of hand and became vulnerable. The Saxon collapse on the second day is more of a problem – since ordinarily it takes a flash of cold steel to cause a disorderly retreat – though these men had suffered very badly the previous day. These incidents will repay study when assessing the way combats and higher level morale work.

The issue on artillery and musket ranges is based on a general impression rather than detailed  evidence. The quotes Mr Gill uses (especially from French witnesses) stress a lot about the strength of artillery and fire and bullets that the men endured – borne out, of course, by the high casualty figures. A striking figure is that the French artillery fired something close to 100,000 rounds – about 200 per piece present. That sounds a lot, but Austrian losses were about 38,000. Most of them would have been as the result of artillery fire. So the hit ratio for artillery was at least 25%; the Austrian rate would have been very similar. Each artillery piece cause 50+ casualties. That strikes me as being quite high given the generally primitive technology. Both sides reported instances of the opposing artillery firing too high at even close ranges.

Now one of the issues with creating simulations is that the quoted effective ranges are quite short: 100-200m for muskets, 500-1,000m for artillery. It is often stated that it was waste of time engaging targets at greater ranges than these. In terms of my wargames rules these maximum ranges are about 1 inch for infantry weapons and 3-7 inches for artillery. Not far at all; most units, most of the time are out of range.  Now while there were some close encounters at Wagram, particularly in the key villages, my impression is that a lot of the combat took place at longer ranges. Something doesn’t seem to be adding up; the usually quoted effective ranges seem to be too short.

One potential resolution to this puzzle is the idea that projectiles were still lethal at well beyond the effective aimed range, especially artillery – but also musketry which was often aimed too high by inexperienced troops (veterans advised to aim for the feet). Perhaps in the flat and open terrain of the Marchfeld a lot of the casualties were caused by projectiles that had missed their primary target. Though we read of lucky artillery shots that might kill a dozen in a single blow, we don’t read of entire infantry units collapsing under fire – even in front of the French Grand battery. This all speaks of a generally high and widespread attrition,n rather than artillery units crushing anything in their path. However, being caught in an “en potence” position with fire from two directions, as happened to Rosenberg’s and Oudinot’s corps and the Saxons, seems to have been particularly lethal. Since simulations tend to focus on direct hits and ignore the effects of indirect fire, this is interesting. But then again, the slow casualty rate from indirect fire was not as disruptive to morale as sudden impact.

Plenty to reflect on from this epic battle.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.