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After so many victories and triumphs; after the battles of Tilsit,
Austerlitz, and Jena, the humiliation of all Germany, the triumphal days
of Erfurt, when the great imperial actor saw before him a whole "parterre
of kings;" after a career of victory which endured ten years, Napoleon on
the 22d of May, 1809, had sustained his first defeat, lost his first
battle. True, he had made this victory cost dearly enough. There had been
two days of blood and carnage ere the conflict was decided, but now, at the
close of these two terrible days, the fact could no longer be denied: the
Austrians, under the command of the Archduke Charles, had vanquished the
French at Aspern, though they were led by Napoleon himself.
Terrible indeed had been those two days of the battle of Aspern or
Esslingen. The infuriated foes hurled death to and fro from the mouths of
more than four hundred cannon. The earth shook with the thunder of their
artillery, the stamping of their steeds; the air resounded with the shouts
of the combatants, who assailed each other with the fury of rage and hate,
fearing not death, but defeat; scorning life if it must be owed to the
conqueror's mercy, neither giving nor taking quarter, and in dying, praying
not for their own souls, but for the defeat and humiliation of the enemy!
Never since those years of battle between France and Austria has the
fighting been characterized by such animosity, such fierce fury on both
sides. Austria was struggling to avenge Austerlitz, France not to permit
the renown of that day to be darkened.
"We will conquer or die!" was the shout with which the Austrians, for the
twenty-first time, had begun the battle against the enemy, who pressed
forward across three bridges from the island of Lobau in the middle of the
Danube, and whom the Austrians hated doubly that day, because another
painful wound had been dealt by the occupation of their capital--beautiful,
beloved Vienna--the expulsion of the emperor and his family, and the
possession of the German city.
Thus conquest to the Austrians meant also the release of Vienna from the
mastery of the foe, the opening the way to his capital to the Emperor
Francis, who had fled to Hungary.
If the French were vanquished, it meant the confession to the world that
the star of Napoleon's good fortune was paling; that he, too, was merely a
mortal who must bow to the will of a higher power; it meant destroying the
faith of the proud, victorious French army in its own invincibility.
These were the reasons which rendered the battle so furious, so
bloodthirsty on both sides; which led the combatants to rend each other
with actual pleasure, with exulting rage. Each yawning wound was hailed
with a shout of joy by the person who inflicted it; each man who fell dying
heard, instead of the gentle lament of pity, the sigh of sympathy, the
jeering laugh, the glad, victorious shout of the pitiless foe.
Then Austrian generals, eagerly encouraging their men by their own example
of bravery, pressed forward at the head of their troops. The Archduke
Charles, though ill and suffering, had himself lifted upon his horse, and,
in the enthusiasm of the struggle, so completely forgot his sickness that
he grasped the standard of a wavering battalion, dashed forward with it,
and thereby induced the soldiers to rush once more, with eager shouts of
joy, upon the foe.
More than ten times the village of Aspern was taken by the French, more
than ten times it was recaptured by the Austrians; every step forward was
marked by both sides with heaps of corpses, rivers of blood. Every foot of
ground, every position conquered, however small, was the scene of furious
strife. For the church in Aspern, the churchyard, single houses, nay, even
single trees, bore evidence of the furious assault of the enemies upon each
other; whole battalions went with exulting shouts to death.
On account of this intense animosity on both sides, this mutual desire for
battle thus stimulated to the highest pitch, the victory on the first day
remained undecided and the gathering darkness found the foes almost in the
same position which they had occupied at the beginning of the conflict. The
Austrians were still in dense masses on the shore of the Danube; the French
still occupied the island of Lobau, and their three bridges conveyed them
across to the left bank of the Danube to meet the enemy.
But the second day, after the most terrible butchery, the most desperate
struggle, was to see the victory determined.
It belonged to the Austrians, to the Archduke Charles. He had decided it by
a terrible expedient--the order to let burning vessels drift down the
Danube against the bridges which connected the island of Lobau with the
left shore. The wind and the foaming waves of the river seemed on this day
to be allies of the Austrians; the wind swept the ships directly upon the
bridges, densely crowded with dead bodies, wounded men, soldiers, horses,
and artillery; the quivering tongues of flame seized the piles and blazed
brightly up till everything upon them plunged in terrible, inextricable
confusion down to the surging watery grave below.
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