As this year’s autumn turns out to be very nice around here, we are highly motivated to go out for walks. Last weekend, we visited something that is not normally associated with a battlefield, namely the Viennese Prater. However, it was the site of skirmishing in May 1809. We decided to follow the story of those fights.
In 1809, the Prater was part of an island in the Danube to the north of Vienna. Originally hunting grounds for the nobility, it was opened to the public in 1766 by Joseph II. and quickly became a place of amusement for the Viennese. One of its landmarks was the so-called “Lusthaus” (pleasure house), built 1781-1783 at the Eastern end of the main alley, the “Praterhauptallee”. The small octagonal pavilion served as a coffee house. Along the Praterhauptallee, especially in the Western part of the Prater, numerous wooden huts were located, containing all kinds of restaurants and coffee houses as well as attractions such as a camera obscura or small stages.
When Napoleon arrived at Vienna on May 10, he immediately grasped the strategic importance of the Prater. The so-called Inner City of Vienna was enclosed by a wall, which the French surrounded. However, the city was able to communicate with the northern side of the Danube, where the Austrian Hauptarmee was approaching, via the Tabor Bridge, which ran through the Prater island just to the West of the Praterstern. Napoleon therefore decided to seize the island.
The Viennese commander, Archduke Maximilian, only had a small number of troops under his command, many of them Landwehr. However, he still hoped that Archduke Charles would arrive in time to relieve the city. Napoleon, on the other hand, wanted to press the issue, so he tasked Masséna with the occupation of the Prater. He personally supervised the operation, which began with an artillery battery taking position to provide support. At the same time, a couple of volunteers – some ADCs as well as soldiers – swam through the Wiener Wasser, the arm of the Danube separating the Prater from the mainland, to collect boats. At the Lusthaus, an Austrian post consisting of two companies from the Grenz-Infanterie Nr. 13 (Walachisch-Illyrische) offered some resistance but had to endure an artillery barrage. The French then sent over two companies of the 3eme Légère, which drove off the Austrians. The French occupied the woods around the Lusthaus and began to prepare for the construction of a bridge.
Archduke Maximilian believed the main French attack would come to the West, at the Brigittenau, and thought that the crossing at the Prater was only a diversion. Therefore he ordered only a reconnaissance mission, which was to be conducted by the 2nd and 4th battalions of Viennese Volunteers. Those troops had seen heavy fighting during the Austrian retreat from Bavaria, especially at Ebelsberg, and could almost be considered veterans. Their jump-off point was to be the Praterstern, where a hodgepodge of regulars, militia and civilians were building field fortifications to protect the Tabor bridge.
We started our tour at the Praterstern, which can easily be reached by public transport and today is a very busy – and not very attractive – traffic hub. Around 9pm in the evening on May 11, the Viennese Volunteers stepped off from there. It seems that their movements were not coordinated and the battalions started in the order they arrived. We followed their way and headed into the Prater proper, which still is a very popular place of amusement today and which houses, among other attractions, the famous Riesenrad (built in 1897).
Leaving this to our left, we walked along the Praterhauptallee in a south-easterly direction. This was the way Oberstleutenant Küffel took with his 4th Viennese Volunteers, while Oberstleutenant Steigentesch and his 2nd Volunteers seem to have headed in the direction of the Krieau. The sources are unclear about the exact route (I have been mostly using the Austrian general staff history published in 1909, which is based on the documents at the Kriegsarchiv, and some of the details of this action seem to be missing in the reports).
The Prater still consists of woods interspersed with meadows, as it did in 1809.
After about 2 kilometres, we arrived at the so-called 1st Rondeau. In 1809, the Heustadlwasser, an arm of the Danube, separated the Prater from the Krieau and interrupted the Hauptallee at this point. Küffel and his men turned right to follow the banks of the Heustadlwasser. We followed in his tracks.
Part of the Heustadlwasser still exists, although it no longer interrupts the Hauptalle and is also no longer connected to the Danube.
Somewhere on this path, Küffel met a patrol of Austrian Hussars who reported that the French had already begun to build a bridge. Together with a Hussar NCO, Küffel rode forward to investigate. He could clearly hear hammering from the direction of the Lusthaus and was told that the French had only a small detachment guarding the building side. He therefore decided to attack.
We walked on to the 2nd Rondeau, where the Hauptallee continued, leading straight to the Lusthaus.
When Küffel’s men arrived at this place, they met Steigentesch and his 2nd Viennese Volunteers, who had also heard about the French bridge building. Steigentesch took over command when Major General Josef von Mesko appeared and formed the men for the attack, with Steigentesch’s men leading the way.
The men, who had been advised to charge with the bayonet and refrain from firing their muskets, advanced in the darkness along the Hauptallee.
From the 2nd Rondeau, it is only about 700 meters to the Lusthaus. Again, we followed the Viennese Volunteers’ way.
During the advance, one of the soldiers’ muskets suddenly went off. Thereupon, the others started to fire too. The French immediately returned fire and a chaotic skirmish broke out.
After a short time, the leading Austrians started to fall back, which led the rest of the column to panic. A general rout followed. The men could only be rallied at the 1st Rondeau, where they camped for the night.
The Austrians had taken heavy casualties for such a small action, namely 44 men. The staff history speculates that, for the most part, they were caused by friendly fire, but also states that they were entered as “missing” in the muster rolls, so at least a proportion of the casualties seem to have been men running off into the night in panic and not having returned by the next day.
With that, our tour ended at the Lusthaus, where the French continued to build their bridge.
Two of the buildings that flanked the Lusthaus at the time can still be seen.
The Lusthaus itself has changed little, but the surroundings are different – there is no longer an arm of the Danube directly behind it, as it was in 1809.
In the early hours of 12 May, the Austrians followed with another attack on the Lusthaus position, this time led by Grenadiers. But this was also repulsed, mainly because the French had brought over artillery. Archduke Maximilian had meanwhile decided to give up the city and evacuated the Vienne garrison over the Tabor bridge. The French did not follow, and the Austrians could destroy the bridge thoroughly (thereby avoiding a repetition of the embarrassing 1805 incident when the bridge fell into French hands intact).
French soldiers did, however, have their fun at the Prater. Musician Philippe-René Girault writes that his comrades plundered the huts and establishments along the Hauptallee and staged a huge flea market, where all kinds of costumes and musical instruments could be bought. Girault seems to have had an eye on the instruments, but in the end refrained from buying one, stating that he didn’t want to carry it around and that he also didn’t want to participate in the pillage. This, however, did not keep him from buying a spyglass with which he observed the Austrians on the left bank of the Danube.
It was interesting to trace the story of this obscure 1809 skirmish through such a well-known place as the Prater, in the middle of Vienna. It also inspired me to write a scenario to refight it with Sharp Practice.
If you want to take the tour yourself, here is a route map on Google maps: https://goo.gl/maps/bb6bqxevynCzByBT7
There is a bus station at the Lusthaus, or you could just walk to the nearest underground station, which would add another 30 minutes.
Geusau, Anton von: Historisches Tagebuch aller merkwürdigen Begebenheiten, welche sich vor, während und nach der französischen Invasion der k. k. Haupt- und Residenzstadt Wien in dem Jahr 1809 zugetragen haben. Wien 1810.
Gill, John H.: 1809. Thunder on the Danube. Napoleon’s Defeat of the Habsburgs. Volume II: The Fall of Vienna and the Battle of Aspern. London: Frontline Books 2014.
Girault, Philippe-Réne: Mes campagnes sour la République et l’Empire 1791-1810. La Rochelle: Siret 1884.
Hoen, Maximilian von et.al.: Krieg 1809. III. Band. Neumarkt – Ebelsberg – Wien. Wien: Seidel & Sohn 1909.
Zehetbauer, Ernst: Landwehr gegen Napoleon. Österreichs erste Miliz und der Nationalkrieg von 1809. Wien: öbv & hpt 1999.