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Wolf Hunt-Armand Cabasson.

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Vogelsang, Ulm and Nostitz Divisions, while from the west and south-west, the Kottulinsky and Vincent Divisions mounted the assault. Finally, in the south, in the Gemeinde Au, a dense forest, the Nordmann Division haphazardly fought the remains of Molitor’s division in the hope of taking the village from the rear. A few hours previously

      Archduke Charles had also been there to galvanise his troops. But now they wandered about in the thickets, their attack stymied by the trees and by the French. Aspern had become nothing more than a pea that enormous Austrian jaws were attempting to crush. Captain Quentin Margont, leaning against a barrel, tried to make sense of the situation. Around him, soldiers in his battalion were firing off salvoes, sheltered behind a makeshift barricade blocking one of the two main streets of the village of Aspern. A bric-a-brac of carts and furniture was all that they could find to keep the Austrians at bay. The enemy attacks had been relentless since early afternoon, but this time it seemed as if the whole of Austria were marching in their direction. Line after line of infantry hurried towards them in waves.

      A French aide-de-camp arrived at the gallop. He had been commanded to pass on orders from headquarters, and was desperately looking for the general of the division. But the more the Austrians advanced, the more his resolve wavered. Was there no such general? Not even a general for the brigade? A colonel, surely?

      When the first bullet whistled past his ear, he told himself that he would settle for a captain. He approached Margont, leaning well forward on his lathered horse.

      ‘Hold firm! The 18th Infantry Regiment of the Line is on its way to help you! Pass the message on to your general.’

      ‘But that’s us - we are the 18th Regiment!’ protested Margont.

      The aide-de-camp blinked. ‘You are? So you don’t belong to Molitor’s division then? Well, that won’t do at all - you shouldn’t even be here! You must go and assist Molitor!’

      ‘But that’s impossible ...’

      ‘Well, those are the orders, Captain!’

      ‘We don’t even know where Molitor’s division is!’

      ‘I don’t either, but that’s your problem. Transmit my message to your colonel.’

      ‘But look, you have to understand, we can’t just leave, and we need reinforcements immediately!’

      ‘You are the reinforcements! The reinforcements for General Molitor!’

      This ridiculous dialogue came about because the aide-decamp, frightened at having to come to this scene of carnage, had delayed in carrying out his mission. He had received his orders half an hour ago and they were no longer valid, superseded by others delivered by another messenger. Margont, however, like all the subaltern officers, was unaware of this.

      ‘We don’t give a damn about your Molitor! Where’s our back-up, for God’s sake? And why is the rest of the army taking so long to reach us?’

      There are no bridges left, the Austrians have destroyed them all! Go and assist General Molitor!’

      With that, the aide-de-camp turned tail and fled, his horse speeding off at full gallop.

      ‘No bridges left?’ repeated Margont, dazedly.

      His old friend Sergeant Lefine slipped along the barricade until he reached the captain, without ever exposing even the smallest part of his body.

      ‘What’s happening with the bridges? What does that mean, “No

      bridges left”?’

      The deafening sound of firing interrupted every conversation. Second Lieutenant Piquebois, who had only heard every third word of the conversation, exclaimed: ‘Excellent! Molitor is on the way with reinforcements!’

      This happy news was received with cries of joy. The Austrian battalions, in their helmets, white coats and breeches, progressed in dense lines, like a tempestuous snowstorm in springtime. Bullets plundered their ranks, carpeting the streets with injured men, who crawled to the sides to avoid being trampled. The officers wore dark greatcoats and belts made of gold cloth. They brandished their swords so that they could be seen by their men and to exhort them to keep advancing.

      Between the smoke from the weapons and the smoke from the fires, visibility was decreasing rapidly. Men were firing blindly. A first Austrian battalion came to break through the barricade that Margont was defending. The soldiers riddled each other with gunfire, standing within a few paces of each other. The white coats fell, again and again, but others came to replace them. The air was heavy with the smell of burnt powder. Lefine, who was standing near Margont, shouted something to him, but all Margont could hear were cries of rage or pain and the rattling of the explosions hammering against his eardrums.

      ‘What did you say?’

      ‘... lost!’

      Margont knew how the rest of the sentence went. The French were falling back in disarray, hotly pursued by the Austrians. Every house had been turned into a bastion, and from the windows people were pelting the assailants. The church and its perimeter wall acted as a fortress. The French were sheltering behind sections of wall and the ruins of houses destroyed by the artillery. Some even crouched behind gravestones in the village cemetery, and piles of horse manure ... A corporal collapsed in front of Margont.

      These idiots are killing as many of our men as they are Austrians!’ He grabbed Lefine by the sleeve and knocked loudly against the door of a stone building.

      ‘France! France!’ he thundered, knocking fit to break his fist.

      They couldn’t retreat any further. The mass of withdrawing soldiers clogged the streets, and bullets were raining down on the panicking dark blue melee. Lieutenant Saber arrived at a run, forced a passage, stepped through a window and edged his way to the middle of the crush of muskets pointed at the Austrians. A moment later, he opened the door to his friends.

      ‘What would you have done if I hadn’t been here ...?’

      Margont shoved him forward so that he could take cover, only to be jostled himself from behind by Lefine and other frightened soldiers.

      The Austrian advance slowed, then stopped altogether. The determined resistance of the French had somewhat dented their confidence. Margont climbed to the first floor. He forced his way through the injured and the shooters to get to a skylight. Every window in the street was bristling with muskets, which were crushing the Austrians with their fire power. Were they winning? Were they losing? The situation was increasingly unclear. Before

      Margont’s very eyes, the building opposite collapsed to the ground with its crowd of defenders. All that could be seen of it now were dancing flames and twirling tendrils of black smoke dotted with orange sparks. The aide-de-camp whom he had been conversing with earlier was galloping back towards them, but his horse turned tail almost immediately at the sound of the explosion. The sight of the building collapsing terrified him.

      They make everything jump!’ cried a voice, referring to the cannon the Austrians had installed in the part of Aspern they controlled, and which they used to bombard the French point-blank. The French, decimated and discouraged, withdrew, houses collapsing in their path.

      The minute Napoleon heard that Aspern was lost, he ordered its immediate recapture. If Aspern fell, the plains where his centre was concentrated would become indefensible. The French would have control only of the village of Essling, which would find itself encircled, and would also fall. The Emperor’s line of defence was like a row of dominoes. If one stronghold fell, all the others would

      automatically follow suit. It was all or nothing. Aspern-plains-Essling or the very bottom of the Danube.

      Margont hurried towards the back, trying to restore some order amongst the crush of survivors. No one understood what was going on except the very highest ranks - and even they were not absolutely sure ... He saw French troops milling about in the south of the village. Which ones and what they were doing he had not the faintest idea. The blue lines were spread out in the fields and the meadows as if on a training exercise. Were they not even going to launch another assault on this pile of stones and