226 : The Battle of Znaim

As lockdown maintained its grip on everyday life, 2020 coursed its way from Spring into Summer in a manner never experienced before. But at least there was some good news for the 1809 project. Greenhill Books were publishing a new John Gill book in August! Of course, the Napoleon of this project had the book ordered well in advance – as a well-timed birthday present. (Yes, an August baby like the French emperor himself.) And what an excellent birthday present it proved to be!

The Battle of Znaim – Napoleon, the Habsburgs and the End of the War of 1809

Gill’s latest book is a study of the final battle of the war: the two-day Battle of Znaim, 1809. It’s not a sequel to his triumphant series, Thunder on the Danube; it’s a standalone book-length narrative. The whole war is summarised in an extensive and informative retelling. Those familiar with the war will read through this looking out for anything new. There’s plenty of new research, new maps and new insight. But it’s when the quick-paced narrative ends with the Battle of Wagram that a more detailed account unfolds as the Austrian army begins its retreat to Znaim. Small conflicts are now given added weight. A meeting of arms that was sketched in Thunder on the Danube now with added detail becomes of real interest to the wargamer. The account of Znaim itself provides more than a few possible weighty scenarios. But Znaim is the battle that ended with a sudden ceasefire. As Gill recounts, the battle was building up to a third day of fighting when hostilities were suddenly stopped. Despite Gill’s focus on the troops on the ground, he keeps reminding the reader that the army commanders and political leaders always had one eye on the Europe-wide situation. This included a larger cast than just those actively involved in battle – the Russian Tsar being a major off-stage player; someone who, quite frankly, neither friend nor foe fully trusted. This political consideration was perhaps not shared by some commanders in the field – like Marshal Davout, for example, who counselled continuing hostilities. But Davout may have been simply voicing the frustration that many in the French army shared: that the 1809 war had been a replay of 1805. Austria, they believed, had to be made to accept French supremacy once and for all and nothing would accomplish that better than the total annihilation of their army –  there on the field of Znaim. That was the dilemma of Znaim, which John Gill expertly outlines. The Habsburg gamble to ignite Europe – and especially Germany – against Napoleonic France had failed. As stubborn in defence as the Habsburg army had proved to be it did not possess the attacking capabilities of the French, even to capitalise on the successes of the valiant Tyroleans who were abandoned by the Austrians to their fate. If Archduke Charles had managed in the end to save his army then the question for Napoleon remained: after such a heavy investment in this unwanted war should France and her allies contend themselves with nothing more than maintaining the gains of 1805?

For any 1809 enthusiast, of interest is Gill’s reworked orders of battle for the Battle of Wagram, as well as Znaim. In his words: “additional research has allowed me to refine the material presented in Thunder on the Danube and in some cases to correct errors.”

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