When Napoleon marched victoriously into Italy, his second-in-command was being forced back in defeat from the Rhine by none other than the Holy Roman Emperor’s own brother.
Considered one of the greatest military commanders of the Napoleonic Era, Archduke Karl Ludwig Johann was born on the fifth of September 1771, in the Duchy of Tuscany. His father, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, then the Duke of Tuscany, sent him in his youth to live with his childless aunt and uncle in Vienna. He later moved to the Austrian Netherlands (modern-day Belgium), where he began his military career, fighting against the army of the Revolutionary French Republic.
Already a distiguished commander, Karl was sent to evacuate the Austrian troops from Italy in the face of the advancing Napoleon, and to hold the Rhine against the French ruler’s Fieldmarshal Jourdan, whom he defeated in Switzerland, driving him back over the Rhine in 1799.
Poor health and the epilepsy from which he always suffered caused the Archduke to retire to Bohemia, but in 1802 he was recalled to check the French advance into the Empire. However, the Imperial army’s outdated tactics and equipment were no match for the well-trained French, and in 1805 after the Battle of Austerlitz, Karl’s brother Holy Roman Emperor Franz II dissolved the Electorate and abdicated the Holy Roman Throne.
Now High Commander of the Austrian Army, Karl instituted wide reaching military reforms and in 1809 went into battle against the self-proclaimed Emperor of the French. On May 21 through 22, the Hapsburg Archduke defeated Napoleon and prevented him from crossing the Danube in the Battle of Aspern-Essling. He soon afterward lost the Battle of Wagram on July 6, and retired from his military career.
Married in 1815, he succeeded in 1822 to the Duchy of Saxe-Teschen, which he ruled well until his death on the thirtieth of April 1847, a year before the Austrian and Hungarian revolutions. His fortitude and valour in the face of an almost invicible enemy have well earned Karl the title of Napoleon’s most formidible opponent, and his principles based on defence are a shining example in an age of total war and destruction.