Corps de Génie – French Napoleonic Engineers

French Army engineers already had an excellent reputation during the Ancien Régime. Their education and training were organised along enlightenment ideas of rationality, so there was a strong emphasis on geometry and mathematics. Napoléon, who knew of the value of a scientific approach to warfare, organised the army engineers into the Corps Impériale du Génie in 1804. It comprised several special branches, such as sappers (general combat engineers), miners (specialists in mining) and “gardes” (responsible for the maintenance of fortresses). They were organised into companies, with each army corps nominally having one company of miners and at least one of sappers. Each company had their own caisson with tools. Usually marching with the advance guard, they facilitated the movement of their corps by making ad hoc improvements to roads and bridges. They also often worked alongside the pontoniers in building new bridges. One of their most famous exploits was the bridging of the Danube before the battle of Wagram, which was conducted under the supervision of engineer General Henri-Gatien Bertrand.

Building the Lobau bridge. Image from Musée du Génie.

In Sharp Practice, engineers are a support option and come in groups of 5. I pondered which figures to use – if using marching poses, they would look silly when deployed for working and vice versa. So, I decided to make two sets and use markers to indicate casualties.

As I could not find engineers in 15mm, I used light infantry for the marching pose.

For the officer, I used I nice little figure from Stonewall Figures which is meant to depict distinguished French surgeon Dominique Jean Larrey. I thought about painting him as a surgeon – if there is one soldier from the Napoleonic period that really deserves a model, it is Larrey, who worked very hard to alleviate the suffering of the wounded. However, I already have a model of a surgeon, so I decided to transform him into an engineering officer. I kept the mule he is riding, as I thought that might be fitting for a somewhat eccentric engineer, and tucked a roll of paper under his arm – no doubt depicting an ingenious plan for crossing the Danube!

I built the caisson myself and painted it (and the uniforms of the drivers) in the colour of the artillery trains. I don’t know if the engineers used a different colour, but in this way, I can also use it as an artillery caisson.

For the deployed engineers, I decided to make three bases. This time, I used horse artillerists and converted them by adding tools and arranging them in vignettes. This has the advantage that they can also be used as deployment points or as decorative elements to enliven the table. The wheel barrow, the saw and the axe are 3D printed.

It’s been fun arranging those little scenes and I hope to use them in one of our next games of Sharp Practice!

Review: Five Parsecs from Home

The pandemic situation is worsening again in Austria and face-to-face gaming with my friends once again comes to a halt. This really is annoying and mentally draining, especially since it could have been avoided if the government would have listened to the experts. This time, the situation taxes even my life-long honed and highly developed skills of escapism.

So, I decided to spontaneously treat myself to something I had my eye on since it came out: Namely the new edition of Ivan Sorensen’s Five Parsecs from Home. Around this time last year, I gave the old version, which was published by Nordic Weasel Games, a try. It was not exactly what I was looking for, so I modified it beyond recognition for my Tanit’s Talons solo campaign (which is documented on this blog).

However, this time I am more in the mood for a story that centres on the classical small group of misfits, canonized by books and TV shows like Firefly and The Expanse. Also, I have to say that I was attracted by the nice look of the 3rd edition book, which was published by Modiphius. Yes, I am that shallow, but I do like pretty books.

K. also showed interest in the game, so we started by creating a crew. This takes a little while, as it involves a lot of dice rolling, but it’s great fun to see the crew come to life with backgrounds and motivations. We ended with the crew of the star ship Black Cat, a worn colony ship, making their way through the galaxy.

As we are in debt, we wanted to take an opportunity mission, but old pirate rivals of us turned up to teach us a lesson. Fortunately, we managed to turn the tables around and taught them a lesson they won’t forget so fast, as they decided to leave us in peace for good. This was a pretty successful first game and it did provide us with some money to buy new equipment.

The campaign system really is the heart of the game. The rules for tabletop combat are quick and fun. They work very well and offer plenty of opportunities for tactics. But the driving force is the campaign system, which tasks you with managing the career of your little band. The game has been called an RPG lite, and Ivan himself states that the Traveller RPG was a huge influence, but if you expect something like Rangers of Shadowdeep, where you follow a storyline that has been established by the author, you will be disappointed. There are RPG elements, mainly in regard to managing the crew’s resources, but as a whole, it is more akin to a story generator. There are many tables to roll for events, meaning there is a lot of randomness. Now K. and I like this, as for us, this randomness creates a story and gives us the bones to add our own narrative. However, it might not be for everybody. For the individual scenarios played on the tabletop, the randomness is mitigated by several mechanisms, such as Luck Points, Story Points and Stars of the Story cards.

Five Parsecs from Home is a great game if you are in the mood for some solo or cooperative sci-fi action. It even motivated me to paint a couple of figures – a welcome change from ten months of painting napoleonics!

Battlefield Walk – The Viennese Prater

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.

Business card of café owner Jüngling, showing some of the huts along the Hauptallee. Image from Wien Museum.

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.

The Praterstern in 1781. Image from Wien Museum.

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).

View along the Hauptallee.

The Prater still consists of woods interspersed with meadows, as it did in 1809.

The Prater around 1780. Image from Wien Museum.

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.

The Lusthaus

Two of the buildings that flanked the Lusthaus at the time can still be seen.

Image from the Franziszeischer Kataster.

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.

Image from Europeana.

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.


Sources

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.

Battlefield Walk – Wagram Day 1: Taking the Hanslgrund

One of the great things about researching local stuff is that visiting the sites doesn’t take a lot of effort. I have already been to Aspern and Essling as well as to the Lobau. Apart from the church and the granary, there is not much to see at the first two locations (the museums were closed due to the pandemic). The Southern part of the Marchfeld is heavily developed and especially around Aspern and Essling, a heavily trafficked road, urban sprawl and industry make walking around rather unpleasant. The Lobau is a great place and well worth visiting – I might write a short piece about it at some other time.

However, there are places where less changes have taken place and some interesting insights can be gained by walking. One of those is the so-called Hanslgrund, which served as a staging area for Oudinot’s Corps on the first day of the Battle of Wagram.

We started our tour at the Uferhaus Staudigl, a small restaurant with a parking lot that serves as a gateway to the Lobau for many walkers. In 1809, there was a house at or near this location, called the “maison blanche” by the French and the “Uferhaus” on Austrian maps. This house was used as an Austrian observation post, but because the banks of the Lobau were heavily wooded, not much of what was going on could be seen.

By the beginning of July 1809, Lobau island was heavily fortified and served as the staging area for Napoleon’s planned crossing into the Marchfeld. For a while, the Austrians assumed that Napoleon would cross over between Aspern and Essling, as he had done before. However, his intention was to move his troops over the Stadler Arm to the East, take Groß-Enzersdorf and use it as a pivot to wheel his army around it so its front was facing to the North and he was in a position to outflank the Austrians. During the night of 4th to 5th July, this extremely well prepared and planned crossing took place.

Oudinot’s 2nd Corps had the task to secure the French right flank by occupying the Hanslgrund, an island to the East of the Lobau which was separated from the Marchfeld by a creek called the “Steigbügel Arm”. 

Our tour explored the way of the 2nd Corps and the retreat of the Austrian troops during the night and the morning of July 4th and 5th.

Map detail from Sittig: Geschichte des k.u.k. Feldjäger-Bataillons Nr. 1

Starting at the Uferhaus, we first walked to the South along the Stadler Arm. In July 1809, this area was occupied by elements from GM von Frelich’s Brigade, namely outposts of the 1st Jäger Battalion and the Stipsicz-Hussars. The Austrians had also built a redoubt (redoubt nr. XVI) on the southernmost edge of the Hanslgrund, which held a small battery of 3-pdr guns.

I don’t think there is any trace left of this redoubt, although perhaps an archaeologist might discern the layout from the composition of the ground or the vegetation. In any case, we halted where we thought it might approximately have been and reflected on what happened there in the evening of July 4th, 1809.

Area around Schanze 16

In the afternoon of July 4th, a heavy thunderstorm had begun which provided cover for the French crossing but also made the nightly operations even more difficult. Around 21.00, 1500 troops of Conroux’ brigade landed near redoubt nr. XVI under the cover of a heavy bombardment from the Lobau batteries as well as a flotilla of gunboats. Wearing white armbands to recognize each other in the stormy night, they drove away the one-and-a-half companies of the 1st Jäger posted there, capturing three 3-pdrs in the process. The short and chaotic fight, which also seems to have involved attacks by the Hussars, ended with the Jäger retreating towards a bridge over the Steigbügel Arm and the French following. The Jäger managed to destroy the bridges over the Arm and Conroux’s men halted, as the darkness and the weather made orientation on the heavily wooded Hanslgrund very difficult.

During the night, French engineers built a bridge over the Stadler Arm and Oudinot brought over his Corps, which formed in the Hanslgrund and prepared for an early morning attack.

We continued our walk through the Hanslgrund to the village of Mühlleiten.

Approaching Mühlleiten from the South

During the night, the Jäger rallied there. GM von Frelich ordered to village to be held (against the advice of at least one of his officers, Unterleutenant Wilhelm Reiche), so the Jäger barricaded the access roads, and a squadron of Stipsicz-Hussars was posted on the right flank.

At the time, the village was a very open Angerdorf and therefore difficult to defend. The Anger can still be seen, as can the small chapel, which was built in 1710.

Detail from the Franziszeischer Kataster.

We now walked back towards the Lobau, going in the opposite direction of the attacking French.

Looking from Mühlleiten to the west (the dam is new and was not there at the time).

The next image shows the view towards Mühlleiten from the direction of the approaching French. Again Conroux’ men led the attack in the early morning of 5th July.

Looking towards Mühlleiten from the west.

After a short fight, the Austrians were dislodged, with the Jäger retreating towards Hausen and Schloss Sachsengang, the headquarters of GM von Frelich. During their retreat, they were harassed by French cavalry.

As it was getting dark, we decided to head back to the Uferhaus and take the car to Schloss Sachsengang. Our walk back led us to the place where a bridge over the Steigbügel Arm was located. 

The Steigbügel Arm was located to the left.

When the French attacked the Hanslgrund, the retreating Jäger rallied there and destroyed the bridge, which the French then rebuilt during the night.

The Steigbügel Arm no longer carries water and it is not delineated in modern maps. However, looking at Google Maps, the contours can still be seen, so I was curious if we would find any traces.

And indeed, we did!

Seeing the remains of the creek’s bed, it became clear how much of an obstacle it was, why it was so important for the Jäger to destroy the bridges and why the French did not pursue the Jäger over the Arm at night.

When we finally arrived at the car, it was getting late and the sun was setting, but I still wanted to see Schloss Sachsengang. This small castle, which was built during the Middle Ages, was at the time the Headquarters of GM von Frelich and the rallying point for the 1st Jäger. It was already occupied by elements of the 7th Jäger Batallion when the retreating troops arrived from Mühlleiten. Again, Wilhelm Reiche advised against making a stand there, as he feared becoming cut off from the army, but the orders were to the contrary and the Jäger posted two 3pdrs and sharp shooters at the castle’s towers. The Austrians also posted Jäger at the villages of Hausen and cavalry from the Stipsicz and Primatial Hussars on the flanks.

Detail from the Franziszeischer Kataster.

The castle itself is not open to the public, but we could access the forecourt. It gave us a good impression of the strength of the position. But it also became quite clear that it was a veritable trap against a large number of enemy troops, as its small size made it easy to surround and contain the garrison inside.

Schloss Sachsengang

And this was exactly what happened: After a failed attempt to storm the castle, the French positioned howitzers and tried to incinerate the roofs. This also failed at first and a lively skirmish developed, with French soldiers trying to set the outbuildings aflame and Austrian sharp shooters trying to prevent them. Sources disagree when the Austrian garrison finally capitulated, but it was irrelevant anyway, as at that time, Oudinot had already moved his Corps to the North and brought it into line with the Army preparing itself to march across the Marchfeld. The Schloss Sachsengang garrison posed no threat, as it was contained by a batallion of Grenadiers.

After their capitulation, the Jäger defending the Schloss became Prisoners of War and did not participate in any further actions of the 1809 campaign.

This was a very interesting and enlightening tour. It was also very enjoyable, as the wetlands along the Danube are a nice place for walking. I was especially happy to see the remnants of the Steigbügel Arm – such discoveries can only be made by walking the ground.

If you want to take the tour yourself, here is the route on Google Maps. It is possible to walk to Schloss Sachsengang, and we would probably have done it if it hadn’t been already that late in the day.


Sources:

Gill, John H.: 1809. Thunder on the Danube. Napoleon’s Defeat of the Habsburgs. Volume III: Wagram and Znaim. London: Frontline Books 2014.

Hellwald, Friedrich Anton Heller von: Der Feldzug des Jahres 1809 in Süddeutschland. 2: Von der Schlacht bei Aspern bis zum Schlusse des Feldzuges. Wien: Gerold 1864.

Pelet, Jacques Germain: Mémoires sur la guerre de 1809, en Allemagne. Tome quatrième. Paris: Roret 1826.

Pils, François: Journal de Marche du Grenadier Pils. Paris: Ollendorff 1895.

Sittig, Heinrich: Geschichte des k.u.k. Feldjäger-Bataillons Nr. 1. Reichenberg: Selbstverlag 1908.

Treuenfest, Gustav Amon von: Geschichte des kaierl. und königl. Husaren-Regimentes Nr. 10 Friedrich Wilhelm III., König von Preussen. Wien: Verlag des Regiments 1892.