Ulm 1805

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Ulm 1805The Capitulation of Ulm by Charles Thévenin.


The Emperor has discovered a new way of waging war; he makes use of our legs instead of our bayonets.…

Anonymous French soldier, 1805

Having dispatched his troops, Napoleon set out for Malmaison on 2 September 1805. In Paris there were some distractingly aggravating domestic problems to be dealt with; a disappointing harvest had made bread prices soar and finances were in a mess. The budget showed an immense deficit, and, as it was against all Napoleon’s principles either to borrow or to print paper money, a heavy increase in taxation was his only recourse. Rumours that he was reaching down into the bottom of the national coffers in order to pay for the new war were spreading financial panic. This, plus a call-up of 80,000 to provide him with a contingency reserve, did not enhance his popularity in the capital. On 23 September when he explained to the Senate the causes of the new war, laying the blame squarely on the Allies, the Senators evinced little more than token enthusiasm. During his return to the Tuileries, he was vexed by the unwonted lack of warmth shown by the populace. Disagreeably aware that civilian morale was not of the same high order as that of the Grande Armée, Napoleon left Paris for Strasbourg knowing how imperative it was for him to win a swift and decisive victory, if for no other reason than that the country might otherwise face bankruptcy.

At Strasbourg, the gloom was intensified by Talleyrand, the venal ex-Bishop of Autun turned Minister of Foreign Affairs, who for both national and personal reasons disapproved of the new war. With his club-foot and love of comfort, he dreaded the pain that resulted from the long marches trailing behind his master. The rest of his entourage was also suffering from presentiments that, like Turenne or Charles XII, the irreplaceable leader might possibly be struck down by a stray ball. The Empress herself, so Thiers alleged with just a touch of cynicism, ‘was the more strongly attached to him the more fear she felt about the duration of her union with him’. Having got over his latest transient infatuation with twenty-year-old, musical Madame Duchatel that spring, Napoleon displayed a renewal of his passion for Josephine and there was an emotional (and public) farewell scene. Napoleon wept and vomited, and according to Talleyrand suffered something like a convulsion – news which was warmly received in London as signifying that the arch-enemy had been laid low with an epileptic fit. ‘It really is painful to leave two people one most loves,’ grieved the Emperor, embracing them both and then setting forth, on 1 October, on one of his rare campaigns without a woman.

Once on the other side of the Rhine, things immediately looked brighter. Only a short time behind the schedule laid down by Napoleon, on 26 August the Grande Armée was concentrated perfectly in conformity with his plans and was marching superbly. It was probably one of the first times in warfare that roads were to be used so extensively for transportation of an army on a large scale. The infantry strode forth in two parallel files at the side of the dusty roads, leaving the centre free for the cavalry and heavy wagons, each division spread out over three miles in precise march discipline. With straws between their teeth so as to keep their mouths closed, the troops would begin their march at between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. and bivouac before midday. Every hour there was a five-minute halt when the music – clarinets, flute and horn – played, and when the men showed signs of sleepiness on the march the drums began to beat. Anything to keep them on the move.

Among the Guard, even though they carried heavier packs than the Line, discipline was of course superb; at Ettlingen they rendered honours in immaculate full dress when the Emperor was received by the Grand Duke of Baden. Desertions were minimal; out of Marmont’s 20,000-strong II Corps, only nine men were missing when it reached Würzburg. ‘The Emperor has discovered a new way of waging war,’ grumbled the infantry, ‘he makes use of our legs instead of our bayonets.…’ As previously noted, the speed of Napoleon’s forces on the march was legendary. Advancing into the German states, the Grande Armée, travelling light, was preceded by the quartermasters, who arranged billeting and requisitioning. Fortunately, at any rate in the early stages, food was readily available in rich Württemberg and Bavaria. ‘It was the height of the potato season,’ Corporal Jean-Pierre Blaise wrote to his parents from Germany. ‘How many times did we blight the hopes of a villager! We plundered him of the fruits of a whole year’s work. However we were, as you might say, forced to do so.…’ The unhappy German peasants tried to bury their food supplies, but the French foragers soon ferreted them out.

Then bad weather struck and in the sodden bivouacs morale slumped. François-Joseph Joskin wrote, ‘Oh mother, what a great misfortune has befallen me to become a conscript! What an unhappy life it is to be a soldier!’ Food supplies were uncertain, boots were holed and the horses were beginning to break down. Davout was asking permission to shoot hungry marauders. Something of that Boulogne euphoria began to dissolve under the icy rain. But Napoleon was in no way dejected; to Josephine he wrote exuberantly on 2 October, ‘Our grand manoeuvres are in full swing. The armies of Württemberg and Baden are joining mine. I am in good health, and I love you.…’ By 7 October, Murat’s cavalry had crossed the Danube downstream from Ulm. The Grande Armée’s front concentrated from 125 down to 50 miles.

In contrast to his own performance, Napoleon noted (on 2 October) how ‘the enemy is marching and counter-marching and appears to be embarrassed’. Though nominally under Archduke Ferdinand, the Austrian expeditionary force on the Danube was in effect commanded by his quartermaster-general, General Karl Mack. Aged forty-three at this time, Mack had been born in Bavaria of a lower-middle-class Protestant family and had worked his way up through the ranks. In 1799 he had been defeated by Napoleon in Italy and captured, escaping the following year. He had not handled that campaign with particular distinction, and Nelson – with whom he had collaborated in Naples – went so far as to declare him ‘a rascal, a scoundrel and a coward!’ This was unduly harsh, and Mack seems to have been a courageous soldier at least as competent as most of the leaders thrown up either previously or subsequently by a nation whose greatest talent never lay in the art of warfare. As Generalquartiermeister, Mack had done his best to modernize the Austrian Army, but his efforts had been resisted as too ‘revolutionary’ by Vienna’s hidebound military establishment.

Basically, the Austrian Army of 1805 remained that of Maria Theresa and Joseph II. Its bible was still the Generals-Reglement of 1769, which stressed drill and rigidly linear tactics and a cautious strategy based on secure communications, coupled with a traditional Austrian proclivity for fortified bases. The Commissariat was regarded as too socially inferior to be administered by officers-and-gentlemen; hence it was rotten with corruption, and barely functioned. Between 1801 and 1804 the national military budget had been cut by more than half. Most of the Austrian infantry still carried the 1754 musket, and had very little practice with it. Artillery was sprinkled about in penny-packets among the infantry, much as the French were to use their tanks in 1940. Baggage trains were huge, partly due to the requirements of officers’ personal kit.

Greatly impressed by the mobility of Napoleon’s army, Mack had undertaken a series of reforms in the spring of 1805; but it had been too late, and Mack himself seems to have been somewhat carried away by optimism at what he had already achieved. More realistically, the best Austrian commander, Archduke Charles, had unsuccessfully resisted involvement in a new war on the ground that the army was simply not ready for it. He was overruled by the ‘hawks’; thus, when war came, the Austrian Army was caught in the middle of change and reform, its organization still antiquated and its movements ponderous. The High Command was in the hands of the slow-witted and argumentative Aulic Council. Its deliberations with the Russian leaders were sadly shown up by Napoleon’s axiom that, ‘nothing is so important in war as an undivided command. For this reason, when war is carried on against a single power, there should be only one army, acting upon one base, and conducted by one chief.’ Moreover, within the Ulm camp, there was already a fundamental clash of personalities between the aristocratic, overbearing Catholic Archduke Ferdinand (given titular command not least to keep it out of the hands of the mistrusted Russian ally) and the despised Lutheran ex-ranker, Mack, who was to bear the shame and responsibility of the coming disaster.

Under the impulse of Ferdinand and the Aulic Council, Mack had committed the fatal error of crossing the River Inn into Bavaria on 8 September, without waiting for the Russians, who were still east of Vienna. This was exactly what Napoleon had foreseen (aided no doubt by the presence at Mack’s headquarters of the double-agent Schulmeister). Equally Mack and Ferdinand had perfectly swallowed Napoleon’s deception plan, expecting the main French offensive to be delivered in northern Italy, as in 1796 and again in 1800; they were also distracted by such carefully planted rumours as that the British had landed in Boulogne and that a coup had been launched in France against Napoleon. Refusing to believe that he would risk breaching Prussian neutrality by marching through Ansbach, they had their eyes riveted to their west, on the Black Forest where Murat’s cavalry had been ostentatiously swarming about. A series of contradictory intelligence reports were reaching Mack. As a result he continued to sit paralysed at Ulm, ordering up reinforcements from the Tyrol – only to increase Napoleon’s eventual bag of prisoners. When Marshal Soult’s corps crossed the Danube at Donauwörth on 8 October, the officers of a reconnaissance force despatched by Mack were taken by surprise in the middle of their dinner. The surprise was universal. As Thiers remarks:

Never was astonishment equal to that which filled all Europe on the unexpected arrival of this army. It was supposed to be on the shores of the ocean, and, in twenty days, that is to say the time required for the report of its march to begin to spread, it appeared on the Rhine, and inundated South Germany.

Although, with the arrival of the Grande Armée on the Danube, the curtain was now rent asunder, Mack could still not be sure of precisely what Napoleon was planning to do. He seems to have nursed a wishful belief that, since Napoleon had crossed the Danube and then swung westward again, he might be heading back to Paris to cope with the domestic crises that Mack too had heard about. Consequently he went on wavering, adopting scheme after scheme and then abandoning them. In turn his irresolution made it the more difficult for Napoleon to form an appreciation of how his enemy would react once the jaws of the trap closed behind Ulm. There were basically three options open to Mack. He could stay in Ulm and sit it out until the Russians arrived, a contingency for which he had neither the strength nor the provisions. He could try to break out of the trap and retreat on Vienna along the north bank of the Danube; but this route lay across the main line of march of Napoleon’s forces and he would be sacrificing his own communications with the Tyrol. Or he could withdraw southwards up the River Iller, to withdraw on Vienna through the Tyrol, linking up on the way with Archdukes John and Charles.

This last seemed to Napoleon the most logical contingency, and upon this judgement he went on to commit his first major error of the campaign, which, had the Austrians been less ineffectual, might easily have led to catastrophe. To prevent Mack breaking out southwards, he despatched the main weight of his army – Lannes, Soult, Davout, Marmont and the Guard – across the Danube, concentrating on Augsburg. Bernadotte was sent eastwards, as a covering force against the Russians, leaving only Murat, with Ney under his command, to control the Danube River itself on both sides.

With their vaunting pride, rivalry and ambition, one of the chief faults of Napoleon’s marshals was that they seldom took well to being subordinated to one another. Murat, the thirty-eight-year-old innkeeper’s son, who became commander-in-chief of the newly formed Guard in 1799 and Napoleon’s brother-in-law the following year, was the most over-weaningly ambitious of them all. Tall, vain, handsome and a brilliant horseman with a passion for fine horses and extravagant uniforms, Murat was renowned in the army for his rash courage (even though he was bullied by his wife Caroline). General Savary remarked acidly that ‘it would be better if he was endowed with rather less courage and rather more common sense’, and his mixture of impetuousness and self-interest was to lead Napoleon to the brink of disaster on more than one occasion during the Austerlitz campaign. He was the most resented of Napoleon’s marshals, and Ney, the thirty-six-year-old cooper’s son, immediately chafed at being placed under his command. Red-headed Ney was also courageous to a fault; of only moderate intelligence he could show initiative, but often at the wrong time, and his front-line style of leadership tended to lead him to ignore units not immediately within his sight.

Relations between the two marshals were thus immediately strained. On 11 October, when (in interpretation of Napoleon’s instructions) Murat ordered Ney to move his whole corps across to the south bank of the Danube, there was a violent row in front of many witnesses which nearly ended in a duel between the two commanders. Finally only General Dupont’s division of 6,000 men was left on the north bank of the Danube, muddled by conflicting orders that resulted from the marshals’ altercation. Murat – and certainly Napoleon – was unaware of just how weak the French forces now were that side of the river.

Meanwhile, Mack had captured orders revealing Ney’s dispositions and realized that an escape route north was open. Suddenly the unfortunate General Dupont found himself confronted by 60,000 Austrians ‘in an imposing attitude’, some twenty miles north-east of Ulm. Typically of the spirit of the Grande Armée, however, Dupont hurled forward two regiments in a savage bayonet attack. The Austrian front line recoiled, leaving behind 1,500 prisoners. For the next five hours there was violent fighting in and around the village of Haslach, between Dupont and 25,000 Austrians. Dupont’s division was cut to pieces, and possibly only saved from being overrun by the fact that Mack himself had been wounded in the battle. But Dupont held; if he had not, the Austrians – says Thiers – ‘would have fled into Bohemia, and one of Napoleon’s most splendid combinations would have been completely frustrated…’. Certainly there would have been no Austerlitz.

Opinions differ over who was to blame for this near-disaster; Thiers says it was Murat, Ségur blames Napoleon. Wherever the fault lay, Napoleon on hearing of Dupont’s plight immediately took over the reins himself, ordering Ney to push vigorously across the Danube upstream from Dupont. On 14 October, Ney, enraged by this decimation of one of his divisions and Murat’s overbearing manner, seized Murat’s arm and shook him violently in front of the Emperor, exclaiming angrily, ‘Come, prince, come along with me and make your plans in face of the enemy.’ He then galloped off, in full uniform and decorations, to supervise the relief operation ‘amid a shower of balls and grape, having the water up to his horse’s belly.’

Dupont’s valour, however, had provoked fatal dissension in the Austrian camp. On 12 October, Archduke Ferdinand wrote bitterly to his kinsman, the Emperor, ‘General Mack has already projected and put into execution today three absolutely different plans.’ Although the French error had opened an escape route out of the Ulm trap, Ferdinand had thrown it away by pressing the attack on Dupont so half-heartedly; yet he now urged Mack to agree to his escaping from Ulm in that same direction with at least a part of the army. Mack protested that, left with only 30,000 men until the Russians should arrive, this would abandon him completely to the mercy of Bonaparte, while Ferdinand’s force would just be chopped up piecemeal by the French cavalry. But, with true Habsburg arrogance, the Archduke challenged him: ‘Confine me in the fortress if you wish to prevent me. Does your power extend to that!’

Ulm, and the Austrian army there, was doomed. On 12 October Napoleon wrote triumphantly to Josephine, ‘The enemy are beaten and don’t know what they are about. It all looks like the most successful, the shortest and the most brilliant campaign ever fought.…’ The following day he issued a proclamation to the army, declaring, ‘Soldiers! It is only one month since we were encamped on the Ocean, facing England.… Soldiers! Tomorrow will be a hundred times more famous than the day of Marengo; I have placed the enemy in the same position.’

By the night of 15 October, Ney had retrieved the situation on the left bank of the Danube by winning a brilliant victory at Elchingen (which was later to earn him the title of Duke of Elchingen), and had established himself on the Michaelsberg heights overlooking the city from the north-west. That day the Emperor, while gazing down on Ulm, came under heavy fire himself when a concealed Austrian battery poured grape-shot into the Imperial group, and Lannes had to seize the reins of his horse to lead him hastily out of danger. (At another time, on the River Lech, the Emperor had also narrowly escaped death or serious injury when his horse, stumbling, had fallen on top of him. The episode had been kept a strict secret from the rest of the army.)

The citadel of Ulm was now held in a vice on three sides, with Soult moving up on the fourth from the south-west. Napoleon called on Mack to surrender; Mack refused. He was like ‘a tethered goat in an Indian village awaiting the visit of a tiger’. On 16 October, Napoleon ordered Ulm to be bombarded with a few warning shells. Conditions in the city, largely as a result of the Austrians’ chaotic Commissariat, were already appalling: ‘Many thousands of men made their quarters on the open streets, where they cooked and slept.… The whole city was a latrine, permeated with a pestilential stench.…’ Meanwhile, as threatened, Ferdinand had pulled out with 20,000 men, abandoning Mack altogether. Equally, just as Mack had predicted, the Horse Guards pursued them, putting the unhappy fugitives to the sword at every turn; the Bavarian peasants plundered them as well, cutting the traces of the artillery to steal the horses. Finally, only 2,000 men struggled into Prague.

Blindfolded, Napoleon’s aide, the Comte de Ségur, was led into Mack’s citadel to renew cease-fire negotiations. Until that moment the unfortunate Mack had still no idea that he was encircled by 100,000 enemy troops, plus another 60,000 between him and the Russians. With his own army now divided in half, his position was clearly hopeless but still he refused to surrender. Finally, on 19 October he gave in and on the following day Napoleon, mounted on a white horse, watched as the army that was to have taken Strasbourg and Paris passed into captivity. The incessant rain of the previous weeks had suddenly turned to glorious sunshine. A conversation took place between Mack and Napoleon, whom a captured Austrian officer described in his moment of glory as dressed ‘in the uniform of a common soldier, with a grey coat singed* on the elbows and tails, a slouch hat without any badge of distinction on his head, his arms crossed behind his back, and warming himself at a camp-fire’. To Mack, a ‘powdered old man in a splendid uniform of blue and white’, Napoleon remarked, ‘I don’t know why we are fighting each other.… I did not wish it; I did not intend to fight any but the English, when your master came along and provoked me,’ adding (prophetically, as far as his own was concerned), ‘All empires come to an end.’

Napoleon was never to win an easier success. Mack disappeared into ignominy. While Archduke Ferdinand was to become the darling of Vienna for his flight from Ulm, the plebeian Mack was made scapegoat for the defeat; he was court-martialled, broken from service, and thrown into a dungeon for several years.

On 21 October, Napoleon issued his victorious proclamation:

Soldiers of the Grande Armée:

In a fortnight we have made a campaign; we have accomplished what we intended. We have driven the troops of the house of Austria out of Bavaria.… The Army, which, with equal ostentation and imprudence, came and placed itself on our frontiers, is annihilated.…

Of the hundred thousand men who composed that army, sixty thousand are prisoners; they shall go and replace our conscripts in the labours of our fields.… Soldiers, this success is owing to your unbounded confidence in your Emperor, to your patience in enduring fatigues and privations of every kind.… But we shall not stop there; you are impatient to commence a second campaign. That Russian army, which the gold of England has brought from the extremities of the earth, shall share the same fate.…

It was a classic victory, and was won with an extraordinary economy in casualties on the French side; however, Austrian losses (including those inflicted in the ensuing sweeping-up operations) are reckoned to have totalled almost 60,000 men. Including those lamed by the long march, Napoleon lost no more than 2,000 men hors de combat, most of them from the single, battered division of General Dupont.

News of Ulm, when it reached England, was greeted with a mixture of shock and outrage. Lord Auckland declared that a captain of the London Volunteers would have done better than Mack. Lady Bessborough wrote, ‘I am so terrified, so shocked with the news I scarcely know what to wish. This man moves like a torrent…’, while Lord Grenville was incredulous: ‘An army of 100,000 men, reckoned the best troops in Europe, totally destroyed in three weeks.… Yet even this, I am afraid, is only the beginning of our misfortunes.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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