On this day in 1805 the full fury of a Napoleonic battle was visited upon the Austrian wine region of the Wachau.
Fans of Wachau wines that have been to the region have probably spent a good deal of time in the villages of Unterloiben, Oberloiben and Stein as well as the towns of Dürnstein and Krems. Yet devotees of Pichler and Knoll, tuned in though they may be to the Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners, are likely unaware that the vineyards from which these wines come from were once a battlefield, the vines all destroyed and the villages smoking ruins.
In the winter of 1805, the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was in the middle of what is widely regarded as the greatest of all his campaigns.
Ranged against him was the Third Coalition, consisting of Britain and her navy and the large armies of the Austrian and Russian empires.
Although the British inflicted a decisive defeat on the French navy at Trafalgar in late October, the war on land was progressing poorly for the coalition.
In August, with the Austrians and Russians mobilising against him, Napoleon had moved his Grande Armée from their base at Boulogne, where they had been gathering for a potential invasion of England, towards the Rhine.
In a lightning campaign he marched his army, well over 100,000 strong, into southern Germany and, after some sharp and decisive actions, encircled the ‘unfortunate’ Austrian general Mack at Ulm; forcing the capitulation of nearly 30,000 men on 14 October. In just 15 days the French had killed or captured over 60,000 Austrians and 30 generals.
Austrian arms had been humiliated and the remaining Austrian armies withdrew on Vienna with the French in pursuit. The Russians, under General Kutozov, had also arrived in the theatre and manoeuvred to link up with their Austrian allies.
By 9 November a joint Austro-Russian force of nearly 25,000 men were stationed around the town of Krems in the Wachau, blocking the road to Vienna.
After Ulm, Napoleon initially envisaged a great, decisive battle around the city with the remainder of the Austrian and Russian armies. As such, he reorganised his armies, creating a new VIII ‘Corps’* and gave each their marching orders with a view to concentrating before Vienna.
VIII Corps under general Edouard Mortier was given the task of advancing along the north bank of the Danube, a route taking them straight through the Wachau and towards the allies based at Krems.
During the course of the march VIII Corps was strung out along the Danube. Mortier was with the lead division of his corps, with the other two marching close behind. Crucially, the French light cavalry, a commander’s eyes and ears at this time, were operating independently of the main body leaving Mortier ‘blind’. He had no idea he was marching towards a superior Allied force just ahead of him.
Mortier made his headquarters at the town of Dürenstein** (today Dürnstein) on 9 November and soon afterwards elements of his advance guard began skirmishing with Russian Cossacks who took several prisoners.
In doing so they gave Kutozov a clear idea of where his enemy was deployed and in what numbers. On 10 November, he and his generals held a council of war at the abbey of Melk and decided to seize the opportunity to inflict a severe local reverse on the French advance.
The senior Austrian general Johann Heinrich von Schmitt suggested a typically complicated plan involving several columns. Some would march over the mountains through the night, with the aim of arriving at Dürenstein and onto the Loiben plain the next morning while another main column would advance straight from Krems following the course of the river. Coming together, the French division would be caught on three sides with its back to the river where it could then be destroyed.
Early on the morning of the 11th, the French set out sure there were few if any enemy troops before them. As they reached the great bend of the Danube that forms the plain of Loiben they ran into the Russian column that had advanced from Krems the night before.
Fierce fighting erupted immediately around the villages and vineyards of Unter- and Oberloiben. Yet as more Russian troops began arriving and the French advance slowed, Mortier and his divisional commander, Théodore Gazan, quickly realised they were facing a far more numerous enemy than they had anticipated.
An ADC was sent back to exhort general Pierre Dupont and his division to speed up their march. The Russians also paused, knowing more men would soon be pouring out of the mountain defiles above them and cutting off the French retreat.
The first Russian column came out of the mountains in the early afternoon and immediately put pressure on those French still in Dürenstein. Realising the seriousness of the situation, the French began falling back on Dürenstein in the hope a flotilla of boats that had been shadowing their progress downriver would be able to evacuate them.
Although in a dangerous situation, they were helped by the narrowness of the defiles out of which the Russians now poured, which funnelled their enemies into killing zones and prevented the Allied troops from bringing the full weight of their superior numbers and firepower to bear.
Help was also now on its way. Even before the arrival of the sweat-streaked messenger, Dupont had sped up the march of his division as he heard the ominous sound of gunfire in the distance.
He arrived just in time to catch a renewed Russian assault in the flank and relieve the pressure on Gazan’s hard-pressed division.
The fighting now built in intensity as more Allied troops came spilling out of the mountains and made their way down through the terraced vineyards towards Dürenstein. Night began to fall and the situation grew more chaotic. In the confusion the Austrian general Johann Heinrich von Schmitt, a capable commander who had been brought out of retirement after Mack’s surrender, was killed, probably by ‘friendly fire’, as darkness fell.
Gradually, the general fighting ceased as it grew too dark to identify the enemy. Sporadic skirmishing continued throughout the night but Mortier was able to ferry his shattered first division to the safety of the southern bank.
Both sides claimed victory the Russians with more justification (although ‘Dürenstein’ is inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe) but the battle amounted to little. The Allies had severely mauled one French division and slowed VIII Corps’ advance but had failed to utterly destroy the outnumbered French. The Austrian failure to hold bridges further down river allowed the French cavalry divisions under Murat to break out into the Allied rear and Kutosov decided on a retreat. In the end the Allies would withdraw towards Brno and the decisive battle of the campaign, Austerlitz, a resounding victory for the French, would be fought in December.
At Dürenstein both sides suffered around 4,000 casualties in dead and wounded. Gazan’s division took 60% casualties but he was lauded for his handling of the situation and ensuring the situation remained stable.
The day after the battle, the pretty towns and vineyards between Dürenstein and Krems would have been scenes of terrible carnage. All of the towns were smoking ruins, huge swathes of vineyards had been destroyed, trampled under the feet of thousands of advancing men or smashed to bits by musketry and artillery fire. Everywhere there would have been bloody piles of dead men and horses, spent cannonballs and destroyed pieces of artillery.
Dürenstein has been largely forgotten as a battle, overshadowed by Ulm and the great victory of Austerlitz a few weeks later.
But this day of combat would have shattered the economy of this stretch of the Wachau and the livelihoods of its inhabitants for years, if not decades. The historian Rainer Egger in his 1965 essay on the battle ‘Das Gefecht bei Dürnstein-Loiben’ mentions that the economic impact on the region was very great.
One can well imagine that as well as the means of their livelihood and their homes being destroyed, the winemakers and merchants of the area would have had no stocks of wine to sell after many thousands of thirsty soldiers had either bought, requisitioned or simply stolen all the wine they could lay their hands on.
By the time Napoleon’s armies next marched on Austria in 1809, a campaign, which culminated in the vineyards outside of Vienna at Wagram, the vineyards of Loiben and Krems would only just be beginning to recover.
The battle receives a mention in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, with Prince Andrew telling the Tsar about it and in 1905 a memorial (right) was unveiled in Loiben overlooking the vineyards.
*Napoleon pioneered the Corps system for his armies. Each was a self-contained army of between 12,000-20,000 men split into cavalry, infantry and artillery; capable of operating independently of each other yet never too far apart so each could offer another assistance if they encountered a superior enemy force or of being called together again by Napoleon when he wished to mass his forces for a decisive engagement.
**The castle above Dürenstein is one of the places where Richard the Lionheart was held captive by the Duke of Austria while on his way home from the Crusades. it was destroyed by the Swedes during the Thirty Years War.