Monday, June 25, 2012

'Worst Case Scenario #2' - The Crossing at Nussdorf - May 13, 1809

Voltigeurs crossing the Danube by barge.
One of my favorite wargaming subjects is the 1809 Austrian campaign, in particular the Battle of Aspern-Essling. It is regarded as a one of the pivotal actions of the Napoleonic period as it showed to the world that Bonapart, a man who up to that point had never tasted the bitter fruit of defeat, could actually be beaten.


Aspern-Essling was not only about the struggle for the two villages, but also involved the unknown element of the river Danube itself. The crossing of the Danube to Lobau Island and then onto the northern Marchfeld plain was fraught with danger, as fast flowing currents, high floodwaters and Austrian-launched debris made the passage along the pontoon bridges a precarious affair. Nonetheless, believing that the Austrians were in retreat and trusting in his own infallibility, Napoleon forged ahead with the crossing and established a small bridgehead on the northern bank. To make a long story short, Napoleon could not reinforce and expand his toehold fast enough to avert disaster and was forced to retreat back across the river in defeat.

I have quite a few books pertaining to the 1809 campaign, so you can imagine my great interest when I read John Gill's account of an early attempt by the French to force a crossing of the Danube before the events of Aspern-Essling. In Napoleonic terms this is a very tiny affair, virtually insignificant in relation to the main events, but it poses several interesting questions to what may have occured if Napoleon had been able to cross on an earlier timetable and at a different location where perhaps the Austrians may not have been so well prepared to deploy and defend.

Historical Background
Even prior to his occupation of Vienna on May 13th, Napoleon knew he needed to get his army across the Danube so as to pin Archduke Charles and bring on a pitched battle. Accordingly Bonapart sent his engineers ahead to reconnoitre possible crossing points to which they found several - the two best candidates being at Lobau Island (which they ultimately used) and just north of the capital, near the village of Nussdorf.

Napoleon commanded Lannes to effect a bridgehead at Nussdorf and the Marshal in turn assigned one of his divisional commanders, St. Hilaire, to the task. 

St Hilaire, being limited by the amount of boats available, slowly ferried over three companies of Voltigeurs from the battalions of the 72nd Ligne (approximately 300 men). Once out of the barges they organized at a large building called the 'Jagerhaus', near the southern end of the island, and then began to reconnoitre north.

It must be stressed that at this time the French did not know that what they were landing on was not the opposite bank of the Danube (which is what they believed), but rather it was the island of Schwarze Lakenau.

Map of the Schwarze Lackenau Action (from J.H. Gill's 'Thunder on the Danube')
The French light infantry pushed Austrian pickets back and proceeded north. When they emerged from the treeline near Jadlersee they came under Austrian artillery fire which forced them back into cover. St Hilaire began to send more men from the 105th Ligne to help reinforce the Voltigeurs. (In total, St Hilaire managed to get approximately 1,000 men onto the island.)

The Austrians, under Oberst von Csollich (chief of staff to General Hiller), quickly realized that the French were trying to form a bridgehead and (uncharacteristically) acted quickly. Csollich ordered the 3rd Landwehr, the closest unit to the island, to cross a narrow weir at Jedlersee to stall the French advance. He then instructed GM Weissenwolff's brigade to follow on to support the Landwehr's efforts. Finally he directed a detachment of Grenzers who were on picket duty at Floridsdorf to cross over to the south end of the island in order to harry the French rear.

In the resulting combat the Landwehr barely held their bottle due to agressive French counter attacks, but bought enough time for the 1,700 men of the three battalions of Kerpen Infantry Regiment Nr 49, the lead unit of Weissenwolf's brigade, to cross the weir to support them. 

The French were forced to fall back under the weight of numbers but were supported by artillery fire from 26 guns that had been deployed across the river at Nussdorf. A new defensive line was established along a series of ditches and the Austrian attack began to falter.

The Austrian commander of the 1st battalion, a Major O'Brien, discovered a fence-line along the northern edge of the island which could afford cover for an advance. As a result, the Austrians turned the French flank and a vicious melee ensued. At around the same time the Grenzers from Floridsdorf made their efforts known to the rear of the French position, threatening to overrun the barge crossing.

The French officers, seeing their position being double enveloped, realized all was lost and formally surrendered. Of the 1,000 French that were involved in the action about 700 were put out of action by death, wounds or capture. The Austrians lost approximately 400 men all told.

The Game Scenario
This could be a great little game for a battalion-level set of rules, something like 'Black Powder', 'Lasalle' or 'Republic to Empire'. It could also be done as a large 'Sharp Practice' game, with each Group effecting an infantry company. 

The game could start with the orignal 300 Voltigeurs heading up the island towards Jedlersee and meeting the Austrian Landwehr.  

The Kerpen Regiment Nr 49 should come on as a randomized event after several turns into the game. The regiment should only be able to come across the weir one battalion at a time, in march column. The Austrians should only commit the 1st Battalion of the 49th first and only bring on the others with another successful reinforcement roll.

The French should have a chance of reinforcement every turn. The maximum would be one company per turn as they only had 3 barges(!).  None of the available barges were large enough for the French to get artillery across at this time.

Nonetheless, the French will have the support of 26 canon who should be abstracted as 'off-board' artillery sweeping the western half of the island, from the Jagerhaus to just north of the ditches.

The ground should be boggy, with a mixture of open areas and pockets of light woods. The river is impassible except at the weir but the ditches should be fordable all along their length, being considered as rough terrain to slow up any advance across them. The ditches themselves will have a small embankment to give light cover.

I would think that if the French can establish themselves at the weir across from Jedlersee they could effectively staunch the flow of Austrian reserves from the north. Nonetheless they may need to leave a detachment to guard the crossing from the Grenzers coming from Floridsdorf who in turn could cut off French reinforcements. Very tricky!

French Forces:
3 Companies of Voltigeurs fromt the 72nd Ligne (300 men)
6 Companies from the 105th Ligne (600-700 men originally but this could be expanded if the French reinforcement rolls are good)
26 canon across the Danube at Nussdorf (abstracted as off-board artillery)

Austrian Forces:
3rd Landwehr (400 men)
Kerpen Regiment Nr 49, 3 battalions (1,700 men in total)
Wall-Illy Grenzers (200 men)

John H. Gill, "Thunder on the Danube, Volume II: Aspern" (2009).

Sir Howard Douglas, "An Essay on the Principles and Construction of Military Briges and the Passage of Rivers in Military Operations" (1853).

Archibald Alison, "History of Europe from the Commencement of the French Revolution to the Restoration of the Bourbons" (1841).


  1. Excellent little scenario - was wondering when you might be sending me a copy of your Food for Powder? Cheers David C

    1. I haven't forgotten about you, David! Thanks much for your interest but we are still in the midst of rewrites so it will be awhile yet. I'll definitely let everyone know when a playtest copy is ready.

  2. We are all looking for the "Food for Powder". Nice scenario, but I am not sure how you could run it for Lasalle. I do not know enough about Sharpe Practice, but of course I have a copy up there somewhere.


    1. Yeah, I think I was a bit optimistic about it being usable with 'Lasalle'. I'll have to amend that. You and Iannick are definitely on the list for playtesters for "Food for Powder" (once I get a more palatable version ready...). Thanks for your comments!

    2. Thanks Curt, Iannick I believe is losing interest in BP, I actual like the game as you can really "bend it". Being a pal tester, may interest him. I suspect I next game will be Lasalle or FoB, hopefully in August.


    3. I look forward to reading your reports of either FoB or Lasalle. I wish there was a direct flight to Montreal from Regina as I'd really like to meet up with you guys sometime.

  3. Looks like a nice challenging little scenario. A good battle Aspern Essling - among a great campaign to fight. Look forwar dto see how this one goes

    1. Thanks Dave! Yes, Aspern-Essling is such a great cliffhanger in a campaign that exhibited an incredible amount of drama.

  4. Sounds like a great idea for a game, I may use this for a FIW skirmish game, can't see why you couldn't move the game back 50 odd years??

    1. I think it would make for an excellent French and Indian War scenario. The Austrians could be Americans and their Grenzers could be allied natives. Very cool.

  5. A very interesting scenario. I think that "Sharp Practice" can be a very useful ruleset for this game.

    Best regards.

    1. Thanks Juan. Yes I agree, 'Sharp Practice' or even 'Black Powder' could work well with this scenario. In 'Black Powder' the French forces could be represented by 'Tiny' units or several skirmish formations. From my reading there were two French Majors on the island and it seemed that they did not coordinate their commands together to great effect.

    2. Then, "Black Powder" with its really chaotics command effects.

    3. Yes, it may be interesting to introduce some friction between the two French commanders perhaps with them competing to get initiative and reinforcements.

  6. Are there any other "skirmish" rules out there which could apply this scenario?

    1. I've been looking at these rules from 'Capitan' which look quite promising as well. We should give them a go sometime.


Thanks for your comment! As long as you're not a spam droid I'll have it up on the blog soon. :)