My last “Preserving the past” instalment took us to Graz, Austria’s second largest city.
In this one, we are in Vienna, Austria’s capital, but we’re focusing on a small part that wasn’t incorporated into the city of Vienna until 1904. It’s called Aspern, and while it’s a tranquil little part of the 22nd district now, a bit more than 200 years ago it was the center of one of the bloodiest confrontations of the Napoleonic Wars.
It’s the year 1809 and Napoleon’s adversary is Archduke Charles, commander of the Austrian forces.
Following the capture of the city of Vienna, Napoleon decided to cross the Danube river near the island of Lobau in order to confront the army of Archduke Charles. What he didn’t know was that the Archduke’s army was already far nearer than suspected, that is in the then suburb of Vienna Floridsdorf, and not, as Napoleon thought, still near Brünn in Bohemia. He therefore didn’t put much emphasis on securing the area or getting his army across the Danube as fast as possible.
As first parts of the army had crossed over the Danube, they quickly occupied the rather undefended villages of Aspern and Essling, where they were soon surprised by the first formations of the Austrian forces.
The battle raged for two days, and after the Austrian forces had driven the French back onto Lobau island, more than 27,000 French men had lost their lives, among them famous French Marshal Lannes, close friend and confidant of Napoelon. Even though the battle ended in a victory for the Austrian troops, they too lost around 23,000 men.
Still, it was the first time in a decade that Napoleon had been defeated and therefore an important reminder to both him and his adversaries that under the right circumstances, even he could be beaten.
Commemorating the event, the Aspern Museum is set in an old chapel in the center of the little town. It’s tiny, by any standards, and it’s open only on Sundays from 10am to 12am.
The lion on the square in front of the museum is by artist Anton Dominik von Fernkorn. It symbolizes a lion dying on top of French symbols like the imperial eagle and various other insignia. The statue was built in remembrance of all soldiers who lost their lives in the course of the battle.
The museum itself is one room into which you descend down a few steps and features mostly artefacts from the battle. Coins, buttons, rusty guns and various insignia fill the display cases.
The walls are adorned with many paintings, contemporary and from the period, depicting the battle or their various commanders.
Even though the museum is tiny, it’s a lovingly preserved and at times rather eclectic collection of remnants, giving you an interesting glimpse into this short period of the past.
Two more things: the museum is only open from April until October. So either be very quick to go there or wait until April. Also, it’s free to visit, but I have the feeling they’re quite happy if you buy a couple of their postcards and photographs.
But that’s not all: when you’re done with the museum, there’s yet another way to walk in the footsteps of the soldiers from 200 years ago. Quite literally, actually.
The Napoleon Track
After the French forces were pushed back by the Austrians and had to retreat, they did so to the island from which they had come, Lobau island.
What exactly did Napoleon do there, once the initial shock of having been defeated had worn off? This, according to David G. Chandler in his book “The Campaigns of Napoleon”:
First, he evacuated all the army save Massena’s corps from the island of Lobau and set about turning it into a regular entrenched camp, with good roads, strong fortifications armed with 129 guns and, above all, reliable links with the south bank. Before the end of June, two good bridges had been built linking Kaiser-Ebersdorf with the Schneidergrund islet, and beyond that point were three more onto Lobau itself. Solid stockades were piledriven into the river bed upstream to ward off floating obstructions; a flotilla of gunboats manned by the Marines of the Guard was brought into service to patrol the approaches, and a vast quantity of material was stockpiled on the island for bridging the last channel.
Walking twenty minutes from the Aspern museum towards the Danube will lead you straight to this little island.
Vienna’s forestry service has mapped out the “Napoleon Wanderweg” (Napoleon track), which leads you around the island and marks interesting spots with little obelisk markers. You’ll have to look closely, though, because you might miss one or two hidden inside the dense underbrush.
One of them marks the head of the bridge built by the French where they crossed the Danube onto the island, another marks the spot where Napoleon probably had his headquarters.
While you won’t find any exciting remnants of Napoleon’s troops there, it’s a nice way to look back into the past, imagining what the island might have looked like 200 years ago, teeming with French troops building, recovering and living there for roughly six weeks.
Today, the whole island is rather tranquil (and known to be a rather popular spot for nudists during summer).
Finally, after the roughly two hours it takes you to walk across the island, you might be kind of hungry. Why not dine at Napoleon’s Schnitzelhaus? Considering that Napoleon preferred his food on the simpler side, I tend to think he might have liked that.