The weather had turned to snow and sleet, making it increasingly difficult for the Austrian scouts to judge either the strength of their opponents or their precise dispositions. This contributed significantly to the slow speed at which Lauer advanced, and it allowed Moreau to dig in for a strong defensive battle. Unfortunately, in this vacuum of intelligence Lauer’s chief of staff Franz Weyrother believed the situation to be much more favourable for attack than in reality it was. He ordered a swift march to crush Moreau’s right flank but this march soon degenerated into bottlenecks and delays. Lauer and Weyrother now changed plan and favoured a march along a new route towards Munich.
The first contact was on the Austrian left flank at Ampfing. The Austrians here had overwhelming superiority but the redoubtable Ney commanded the French and he conducted an exceptionally stubborn defence. Nevertheless, the numbers the Austrians brought to bear forced the French back. The Austrian offensive had been a success although the Austrians incurred nearly twice as many casualties as the French.
Four Austrian columns advanced on Hohenlinden, which lay astride the Munich road. It was heavily forested, which meant that communications would be impaired, and the onset of more snow and sleet did nothing to help. Moreau conceived a plan of particular elegance. He surrendered the high points of the forest to give the impression he was falling back while luring the Austrian column under Kolowrat into a trap. As they debouched from the woods and approached Hohenlinden, a strong flanking force led by Decaen and Richepance would take the Austrians by surprise.
As the Austrian advance guard emerged from the woods it quickly overwhelmed the French. Two grenadier battalions of the Sebottendorf regiment under General-Major Spannochi attacked their opponents with a bayonet charge and drove them back. Supported by three Bavarian battalions, the grenadiers advanced steadily until a strong French counter-attack drove them back to the treeline. Attacked by cavalry, the grenadiers formed square and repulsed three charges by a hundred chasseurs. Though it had been Moreau’s strategy to lure the Austrians, he was surprised at the ease with which they advanced: one by one the hamlets around Hohenlinden fell to the Austrians. A battalion of the Gemmingen regiment stormed Forstern while another battalion, this time of the Branchainville regiment, captured the village of Tarding. Spurred on by their commander Prince Schwarzenberg, another battalion, the old Walloon regiment of Murray, swept into Kronacker, the key to the French left wing.
But on the French right wing the forward elements of Richepence’s division had had better luck against the Austrians under Riesch and Kolowrat. They outmanoeuvred Kolowrat’s forces. Riesch’s troops took so long to reach the battlefield that Richepence was able to move his forces between the two columns with devastating consequences for Kolowrat. Suddenly Kolowrat, already engaged to his front and flank, faced an attack from his rear.
News of Richepence’s movements quickly reached Weyrother, who rode swiftly in the direction of the fighting to see for himself what was happening. A storm of artillery greeted him, throwing him from his horse and depriving Lauer of his chief of staff at the critical moment in the battle. Three regiments of Bavarians who held this sector of the front cracked under the pressure of four infantry charges and fled. (The high ratio of Bavarian prisoners to casualties has been interpreted as suggesting the Bavarians’ heart was not in the struggle.) As Kolowrat’s regiments on the Austrian right flank were gradually surrounded by Decaen and Grouchy, the situation on the Austrian rear and right flank became critical.
Meanwhile at Kronacker, Schwarzenberg became aware that all was not well with the rest of the Austrian forces. He received an order to withdraw. Suddenly, a lull in the fighting occurred. As the smoke parted, a French officer appeared with a white flag, the traditional method for the victor or vanquished to parley, and called on the Austrians to surrender. Schwarzenberg replied by ordering his artillery to redouble their rate of fire. But the Austrians were falling apart, caught in a tactical noose which Moreau was relentlessly tightening.
Fortunately for the Austrians, it being December, darkness fell over the battlefield by five o’clock and under the cloak of this natural camouflage Schwarzenberg found a path through the woods to extricate what was left of his men. The battle was over. Hohenlinden was as complete a victory for the French as any general could have wished. Moreau, with none of the dash or energy of Napoleon, had won a decisive victory. In Napoleonic style he had destroyed his opponents’ army far more convincingly than even Napoleon had done at Marengo. For the loss in dead and wounded of fewer than 3,000 men, Moreau had inflicted more than 12,000 casualties, including prisoners of the Austrians and their Bavarian allies. The loss of 50 Austrian guns, a number unheard of since the Seven Years War, was a disaster of particular humiliation. The utter failure of the Austrians to coordinate their attacks was dubbed by a Bavarian general present as ‘ignorance and ineptitude’.
During the orgy of blame that engulfed Vienna in the aftermath of the disaster of Hohenlinden, little attention was paid to the fundamental flaws in the Austrian strategy. The Archduke Charles with his keen strategic sense noted that the battle had been lost by ‘fragmentation’ of the Austrian forces which, divided into columns beset by poor communications, invited defeat. But no one listened to the Archduke Charles. Unfortunately, Weyrother, after surviving Hohenlinden, would live to devise another over-complicated allied battle plan, this time near the Moravian village of Austerlitz. In the meantime, the Archduke Charles was summoned back to take command of the shattered remains of the army and pick up the pieces.
The Archduke Charles returns
Agreeing in his own words to ‘willingly sacrifice myself for the interests of the state’, Charles replaced his brother and Lauer on 17 December with full Imperial authority to command. The sight which greeted him was beyond his experience and as he reported to his brother, the Emperor, dispiriting. Less than half the army that had fought at Hohenlinden was still intact and what remained looked more like an ‘Asiatic horde than a disciplined European army’.
An armistice was a priority for the army though Thugut opposed it, still favouring a ‘war to the knife’. Charles noted: ‘if Moreau refuses to sign we are lost’. Fortunately Moreau had his own concerns, notably the Austrian citadels threatening his lines of communication, which he had had to bypass. Accordingly, the next day an armistice was signed at Steyr in Upper Austria.
While the Archduke Charles took over the remnants of the Austrian army north of the Alps, Melas was succeeded south of the Alps by Bellegarde. To his credit, Melas did everything to ensure the transition was as smooth as possible. Preliminaries were signed at Treviso in late January. A few weeks later a Neapolitan force under the ‘unfortunate’ Mack, an Austrian general of whom we shall hear more, was wiped out. Much of Italy was again under French control and the Second Coalition against France had collapsed. Constrained by her pledge to London not to make peace until February, Vienna prevaricated until the formal peace was signed on 9 February at Lunéville. Blamed for all the disasters that had befallen Austrian arms, Thugut was sacked.
The Austrian diplomats who convened at Lunéville were led by Cobenzl and faced an unhappy task. After Marengo, Napoleon would have been satisfied with a frontier on the Mincio for his satellite Cisalpine Republic. After Hohenlinden he would accept nothing less than the Adige much further east. The Treaty of Lunéville confirmed Archduke Charles’s warning that Austria would pay a high price for going to war in such an ill-prepared way. The treaty terms were of a harshness unknown in earlier Habsburg history. France cemented her claim to the left bank of the Rhine, and Austria had to accept the German principalities’ ‘mediatisation’ as well as recognising the ‘independence’ of the Ligurian, Cisalpine and Batavian republics which, together with Switzerland, were now firmly within Napoleon’s sphere of influence. Such a state of affairs could not represent the status quo for the Habsburgs. The humiliating terms of Lunéville meant that Vienna would immediately prepare for the next war against Napoleon.
The four years of peace were not wasted by Vienna. A series of reforms helped the army rebuild morale and ensured that the mistakes of the Second Coalition War were not repeated. Principal among these was the central issue of command. The Archduke Charles was not only given a command but he was placed in charge of the deliberations of the Aulic Council. But in a repeat of the previous campaigns’ errors of judgement, the Archduke was not to be present at the principal theatre of the coming conflict. Instead of realising that Marengo had been Napoleon’s choice of ground for unusual reasons and that he would have preferred to fight on the road to Vienna, the Austrians continued to believe that northern Italy would be the principal theatre of operations in the coming war. The Archduke was therefore given a command in that theatre.
To be fair, the Archduke Charles only had himself to blame for this assessment. On 3 March 1804, he had submitted a memorandum detailing how the French were unlikely to want to march all the way across Swabia and Bavaria and would therefore, in the event of hostilities, almost certainly seek a resolution in northern Italy where their lines of communication were far more cohesive. Moreover, the Archduke argued, in the Italian theatre there would be a tempting opportunity for the French to drive the Austrians back on to the Alps beyond Trieste. A victorious French army could menace Vienna via Styria as it had done in the closing phase of the First Coalition War.