A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Monday, 29 June 2015

The Danube - Now I May Have to Go Back!

In September 2013 I went with a friend to realise a long-held fantasy and visit Napoleon's 1809 battlefields on the Danube. If you wish, you can read something of my trip here.

It was a great adventure for me - it's a wonderful part of the world, and we met some marvellous people - I was, as I said at the time, staggered by the kindness and the assistance we received from local enthusiasts. We had to scope our visit carefully, because of the time and funds we had available - we decided, reluctantly, not to visit Aspern-Essling or Wagram, and we never did make it to Landshut, but we spent some excellent days at Abensberg, Eggmühl, Ingolstadt and Ratisbon (Regensburg), and then moved on to enjoy the Army Museum and the cream cakes in Vienna.

Napoleon's 1809 campaign is something of a pet topic. I can hardly claim to possess a great deal of expertise, but it has always had a strong appeal - the Emperor and his Grande Armée maybe in their final glory, fabulous setting in the heartland of ancient Europe; I have spent some years collecting books on the period, and promising myself that, when I was retired, I would make it a serious study to keep my wits sharp.

Well, of course, I have now achieved the retired bit, and our 2013 trip was a great success and something I still think about a lot. As preparation for that visit I struggled to get an overview at the right sort of level to do some planning, and to see how the parts dovetailed. I experienced the latest in a series of ghastly failures to come to grips with Claudio Magris' literary travelogue, Danube, and probably decided, once and for all, that I am not worthy. I made better headway with Patrick Leigh Fermor's epic journals describing his walk along the Danube in the 1930s, but PLF, sadly, did not get to the Regensburg area. On the history front, I found John A Gill's four wonderful books on the 1809 campaign to be too detailed for a fast pass, and promised myself that they will form a major element in the "serious study" period which is yet to come. The general histories, such as David Chandler's and a couple of John Elting's books, did not get into enough detail - excellently written, but aimed at a high enough level to fit into a broader narrative.

Eventually I did my scoping based on F Loraine Petre's 1809 book, plus one by Gunther E Rothenburg - that worked OK, though the maps in Petre's book are beggars to unfold, and are definitely not recommended for windy battlefields. I also brought back a great stack of archive material from the Abensberg museum and elsewhere which has taken a place in the heap for future study.

Well, almost two years later I have finally got hold of just the books I should have had as a starting point. I recently bought James R Arnold's Crisis on the Danube and Napoleon Conquers Austria, which, respectively, cover the whirlwind period at the start of the campaign and the later period near Vienna. Highly recommended - these are moderately sized paperbacks (the latest editions are self-published, primarily because Mr Arnold was not prepared to settle for the kind of quality associated with modern publishing and manufacture), written in a sensible, lucid style of which Petre himself would surely have approved. The level of detail is excellent for an introduction to the subject, or for setting a framework for deeper study. I particularly appreciated the nicely-constructed diplomatic timeline at the beginning of the Crisis volume, and the battle descriptions are clear and concise and supported by useful monochrome maps and illustrations. I am enjoying making good progress through the first volume - this is exactly the sort of overview I could have done with in 2013, and will set me up nicely for a more detailed potter with Gill's books and the Elting & Esposito atlas (and, if I can find a decent one, an appropriate boardgame would be good, to follow the moves). Only things I will miss now will be the beers and the walks and Dampfnudel Uli's steam dumplings.

You know, I may have to go back sometime. I have mentioned the subject to the Contesse. She would not be up for standing in the rain on the Isle of Lobau, I think, but the other aspects of such a trip would probably be fine.

Arnold's website is worth a visit, by the way.

I'm also currently reading John Gribbin's excellent In Search of Schrödinger's Cat - a layman's guide to quantum mechanics. Thus far I have been following the historic development of the ideas - he hasn't lost me yet - and we are fast approaching the bit where I may get a little spinning of the head and a violent craving for caffeine. I am not intimidated - the whole topic is explained in a straightforward, clear manner which I have found to be excellent (even for an absent-minded old goat such as me). Though the academic fields are (literally?) light years apart, Dr Gribbin's book offers a pleasing contrast to the Claudio Magris' volume I mentioned above, which is mostly a monument to its own cleverness.

I am not embarrassed to be seen to be reading popular science - most of the physics I covered in my mathematics degree course would have been very familiar to Good Old Sir Isaac, so this is a rewarding area of, well, gentle enlightenment rather than education, I guess; rewarding if I can avoid explosion of the cortex. There seems little risk of my using this blog to further our shared understanding of the quantum, but it is going well, thus far.

Cortex intact? Check...


  1. We have much in common! I, too, have a particularly lengthy interest in the 1809 campaign and my undergraduate degree was in mathematics. I have yet to reach retirement, though.

    Although my hardcover editions of Arnold's duo are well worn thumber through by now, still, they remain some of my favorites. Petre, Rothenberg, and Bowden/Tarbot are good too. Like you, Gill's Thunder trilogy is awaiting its turn for a complete and thorough reading although I dive into them on occasion to pinpoint a bit of information.

    For a boardgame from which to follow the 1809 campaign, I suggest Victory Games' aptly named 1809. See details on Boardgame Geek:

    Some day, I would enjoy walking the battlefields along the Danube.

    1. Thanks for that Jonathan - I had considered the game you suggest. There is a more complex game, I note, but managing and sorting counters is not a favourite pastime of mine, so I'll happily go for the simpler one!

      My Gill trilogy now has 4 books, since I also got his "Eagles" title which focuses on the Confederation troops on the Danube. I've seen copies of Bowden's book for sale, but they go for fiendish prices over here.

      Regensburg is an excellent base, if/when you go - handy for all the Bavarian sites, and great eating and drinking!

      Regards - Tony

    2. Gill's "Eagles" book is where I first got my taste for Gill. "Eagles" is a masterful glimpse into the German Confederation and an excellent resource for the wargamer.


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