An Alternative Battle of Austerlitz, 1805

Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz, by François Gérard (Galerie des Batailles, Versailles)

Allied (red) and French (blue) deployments at 1800 hours on 1 December 1805

The decisive attacks on the Allied center by St. Hilaire and Vandamme split the Allied army in two and left the French in a golden strategic position to win the battle.

The weather had turned bitterly cold and the news of the defeat of the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar had further dampened French morale. The astonishing victory at Ulm, where the Austrian General Mack’s advance army had been surrounded and compelled to capitulate, though just two months earlier, seemed a distant memory. Even after the surrender of 60,000 Austrian troops and the occupation of Vienna, the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, refused to come to terms with the Emperor of the French. The reason for this was the belated arrival of the Russian army, the other major participant in the Third Coalition of countries opposed to France along with Great Britain. Tsar Alexander’s men gave the Coalition force a decided numerical advantage, and Francis insisted in fighting on.

For his part, Napoleon needed a rapid resolution to the conflict. He was 700 miles from home and outnumbered. Back in France, the departure of the Grande Armée, and Nelson’s victory off the Spanish coast, had encouraged the supporters of the deposed Bourbon monarchy to rebel once again. There was also the possibility that Prussia, which was known to be mobilising its forces, would join the Coalition. Somehow Napoleon had to draw the Austrians and Russians into a battle on ground and under circumstances of his own choosing – and quickly. But how?

The combined enemy force, some 90,000 strong, was positioned towards Olmütz on the Morava River, in the present day Czech Republic, but then in the eastern regions of Francis’ empire. The Austro-Russian army had secured communications running back through Poland and Silesia. If Napoleon tried to attack the allied army, it could quite easily fall back on its lines of communication, and in doing so, further elongate the Grande Armée’s already severely over-stretched supply chain. Indeed, the French army was in poor shape, with their weapons, equipment, clothing and shoes all showing the signs of excessive wear. If the allied army did withdraw, the French were in no position to follow and if Prussia did declare war on France, Napoleon might well find his armies cut off from France and surrounded by enemies. Rarely had Europe’s finest general found himself in such a predicament.

The Field of Battle

The principle Austro-Russian force was concentrating at around Olmütz, some thirty miles to the northeast of Brünn (today’s Brno, the Czech Republic’s second largest city) and it was the area in the region of Moravia’s historic capital that Napoleon scouted to gain an appreciation of the ground to see if it could offer him any advantage. It was following one such reconnaissance that the soldier-historian Philippe-Paul, comte de Ségur, famously described an incident on the journey back from Wischau: ‘ turning off towards the south he entered a high plain contained between two embanked streams running from the north to the southwest.

‘The Emperor slowly and silently went over this newly discovered ground, stopping several times on its most elevated points, looking principally towards Pratzen. He carefully examined all its characteristics and during this survey turned towards us saying, “Gentlemen, examine this ground carefully, it is going to be a battlefield; you will have a part to play in it.” This plain was indeed to be within a few days the field of the Battle of Austerlitz.’

Having chosen his battleground, Napoleon had to bring on the action that he sought, and induce the Tsar and Francis to commit their troops to battle. He proposed to do this by pretending to be weak and worried, hoping that the prospect of defeating the great Napoleon would prove too tempting an opportunity to dismiss. Consequently, he planned to place a proportion of his army close to the main Austro-Russian force. This small, but significant French body, would give all the appearance of being isolated and within striking distance of the allied force. Hopefully, this would tempt the Tsar to attack and, once committed, Napoleon would then spring his trap, with the rest of Grande Armée suddenly appearing, to pounce on the unsuspecting enemy. It would a highly dangerous operation which would require perfect arrangement and impeccable timing.

Corps de Armée

Such an operation was only made possible because of the manner in which Napoleon had organised his army. It was divided into seven corps, whilst varying in size depending on the talents of its commander or the assignment it had been tasked with, each of which was a force of all arms capable of holding off an enemy of similar or larger numbers for at least a full day until reinforced. This meant that the corps in front of the Austro-Russian army could hold their own until the other corps marched to deliver the decisive blow. Added to this was the creation of a cavalry reserve of such a size that it could crash through the enemy’s line at the critical moment in a battle. This reserve totalled around 22,000 men including two full divisions of heavy cuirassiers.

Everything, though, would depend upon Napoleon’s brilliant chief of staff, Marshal Berthier, to bring all the Grande Armée’s corps together at the right moment. A corps of 30,000 men on the march took up five miles of good road, sixty guns with their caissons required two and a half miles, and 6,000 cavalry, riding four abreast, extended for about four miles. The length of such a column made it necessary for the corps to move along several parallel roads, keeping in mind the need for lateral communications if the situation required a sudden change of plan.

A Weak Front

The corps of Murat (Cavalry Reserve), Lannes (V Corps) and Soult (IV Corps) were to advance towards Wischau and Olmütz (present-day Olomouc) and occupy Austerlitz and the adjacent Pratzen Heights, with one cavalry brigade pushed towards Olmütz. This move would give all the appearance of an aggressive approach by Napoleon, indicating that he was still on the offensive. This was an obvious double-bluff. It would appear that Napoleon was putting a bold face on a rapidly deteriorating situation in the hope this would frighten the allies into remaining cautiously on the defensive. The Tsar, whose army constituted by far the bulk of the allied force and therefore who dictated strategy, would see through this and attack this comparatively small body of French troops which amounted to no more than 53,000 men. By 25 November, the move forward by this detached force was completed and Napoleon now had to wait to see if Tsar Alexander would take the bait.

Command of the Austro-Russian army was nominally under the command of Field Marshal Mikhail Illarionovich Golenishchev-Kutuzov, though he had to take orders from Alexander. The Tsar saw what he thought was a golden opportunity and wanted to attack immediately, as did many of the Austrian and Russian generals. Kutuzov saw no need for such action and the Emperor Francis, on whose territory this was all taking place, urged caution. If the allies were defeated, the Russians could simply abandon the expedition and return to Russia, whereas Francis would be forced into a humiliating capitulation. Francis, therefore, had the most to lose.

With all this in mind, an allied delegation was sent to Napoleon to discuss the possibility of an armistice, but in reality to get a closer look at the state of the French army. Napoleon played his part to perfection, being charming and accommodating and indicating that he was only too happy to consider discussing terms.

This did the trick. It seemed clear that Napoleon was in some trouble and would happily accept a negotiated way out of the difficulties he was in. Never had there been a better chance for any of France’s enemies, in ten years of almost continual warfare, to strike such a blow. The Tsar had indeed sniffed the bait, and was about to swallow it.

The Eve of Doom

On 28 November, Austro-Russian troops attacked Murat’s outposts and pushed them back towards Soult’s corps. This was attended by impossibly high armistice demands from the Tsar and the Emperor. With this Napoleon knew the allies were going to fall into his trap and urgent messages were sent to the other corps commanders to march for Brünn with all speed. Marshal Bernadotte’s I Corps and Marshal Davout’s III Corps were soon on the road, with a thick cavalry screen ahead of them to conceal their movements from the enemy. Napoleon would still be outnumbered, but only slightly so, and he would have surprise on his side.

Before committing his troops to battle, the Tsar wanted confirmation that he was doing the right thing, and to allay the fears of those around him that doubted the wisdom of attacking Napoleon. So another delegation was sent to the French camp. Once again, Napoleon put on a display which made the returning Count Dologorouki tell the Tsar that ‘the French army was on the eve of its doom’.

Believing that he had convinced the enemy, Napoleon started the moves that would draw the enemy into his clutches, by ordering Soult to abandon Austerlitz and the Pratzen Heights, and in doing so to give all the appearance of near-panic. Kutusov was quick to take advantage of the French withdrawal and occupy the Heights.

No-one would relinquish the high ground if they were intent upon attacking, or even holding a defensive stance. The French, it seemed, knew the game was up and that they had better withdraw or be annihilated. To confirm this, the rest of the French cavalry pulled back from Wishau, again in an apparent state of disorder, followed now by the slow but increasingly confident Austro-Russian army. But as the Tsar’s men lumbered towards Austerlitz, Bernadotte’s I Corps arrived secretly behind Napoleon’s front, on 30 November, with Davout and the III Corps just a day’s march away. The following day was spent by Napoleon inspecting his troops and ensuring that everything was in place for the battle on the morrow.

He also issued an Order of the Day, which, rather than just appealing to the soldiers’ patriotism and sense of honour as such addresses usually did, actually explained an element of his plans for the battle:

‘SOLDIERS – The Russian army is before you, come to avenge the Austrian army of Ulm …

‘The positions which we occupy are formidable, and while the Russians march upon our batteries I shall attack their flanks.

‘Soldiers, I shall in person direct all your battalions; I shall keep out of range if, with your accustomed bravery, you carry disorder and confusion into the ranks of the enemy. But if victory is for a moment uncertain, you shall see your Emperor expose himself the foremost to danger; because victory must not hesitate an instant today, when, above all, the honour of the French infantry is concerned, which bears with it the honour of the whole nation.

‘Note that no man shall leave the ranks under the pretext of carrying off the wounded. Let everyman be filled with the thought that it is vitally necessary to conqueror these paid lackeys of England who so strongly hate our nation.’

As well as taking them into his confidence regards his plans, Napoleon was using clever psychology here, in that if the men did not see Napoleon at their head, they knew they were on course for victory and would keep on fighting, believing they were succeeding.

That evening Napoleon slept until 22.00 hours and then rode around part of the battlefield with twenty men of the Chasseurs à Cheval de la Garde Impériale, narrowly being captured by a party of Cossacks. He returned through the French camp. It was a foggy, moonless night and the Chasseurs lit torches of fir and straw to light the Emperor’s passage. ‘Seeing in the light of their torches a group of mounted officers approaching them, the soldiers quickly recognised the Imperial party, and many torches were lit,’ recalled Pierre Daumesil, ‘Soon the entire French line was ablaze, and repeated shouts of “Vive l’Empereur!” echoed across the Goldbach stream to the Russian lines. Regimental bands added their music to the exhilaration of the moment.’ Napoleon was moved by the scene, and as he later settled back in his tent, he was heard to murmur: ‘This has been the finest evening of my life.’ The following day would be remembered as the worst of his thirty-five years.

The Fog of Austerlitz

The field of battle for 2 December 1805, stretched from the villages of Welatiz and Bosenitz, just to the north of the road from Brünn to Austerlitz in the north, to the lake of Satschan, about six miles to the south. From east to west it spread from the Goldbach stream to the town of Austerlitz itself. The ground is slightly hilly but fairly open, dominated by the Pratzen plateau, with a wide, swampy region running northeast from the Satschan lake, along the River Littawa, on the eastern base of the plateau towards Austerlitz. On the day, the Austro-Russian army amounted to something between a little more than 85,000 to almost 88,000, compared to the 73,000 which Napoleon would eventually have under his command.

The fog of the night had not lifted when dawn broke on 2 December which hindered the assembly of the Austro-Russian formations. The allied plan, devised by the Austrian General Franz von Weyrother, was to direct the main effort against the seemingly weak French right, which was held by Soult. This would cut Napoleon’s line of retreat back to Vienna. As the French flank was being turned, another strong body would attack along the Olmütz-to-Brünn road on the French left, which also appeared to be held by a single corps, that of V Corps. What von Weyrother did not know was that already Bernadotte had joined Lannes, and Davout was closing in upon Soult. Von Weyrother’s plan also called for other columns to move from the Pratzen Heights as the French reeled under the blows of the two flanking columns to strike at the French centre to complete the victory. There were two complimentary flaws in this plan. The concentration of effort on the two flanks meant that the allied centre was very weak, and the Pratzen Heights – the high ground that dominated the battlefield – would be abandoned. Apparently General Langeron pointed out these dangers but his concerns were ignored. Napoleon, it was argued, was looking for a way out of the dangerous position he was in and he would never dream of sending troops to actually attack. This, though, was exactly what Napoleon hoped would happen.

Once the Russians and Austrians were on the move, a mass of 65,000 men would erupt from behind the Santon stream at its confluence with the Goldbach to confront the allied main force, whilst the divisions of Vandame and Saint-Hilaire (16,000 men and two batteries of artillery), would seize the Pratzen Heights. This would split the allied army in two, and whilst the enemy’s right flanking move was held by Lannes corps, the main French force would wheel round to the south and crush the left half of Kutuzov’s army. It was a brilliant and ambitious plan but, if the Russians abandoned the Heights, it could hardly fail.

First Moves

Tsar Alexander was anxious for the start of the great victory he visualized and, as the minutes ticked by he finally voiced his growing frustration. He addressed his commander in chief: ‘Mikhail Illarionovich why haven’t you begun your advance?’ Kutusov replied ‘I am waiting for all the columns of the army to get into position.’

‘But we are not on the Empress’s Meadows [a parade ground near St Petersburg], where we do not begin a parade until all the regiments are formed up!’

‘Your Highness, if I have not begun it is because we are not on parade, and not on the Empress’s Meadow. However, if such be Your Highness’s order …’

Ready or not, the Austro-Hungarian divisions moved off, and by 06.00 hours most of the attacking formations were on the move. General Buxhwden was in overall command of the main striking force which would crush the French right, and it was the five battalions of General Kienmayer’s 1st Infantry Brigade of his Advance Guard, leading the way, which first came into contact with the French as the Austrians approached the village of Telnitz on the banks of the Goldbach. The Austrians, anxious to show the Russians that they could fight as well as themselves, assaulted the village ‘with great resolution’. The ground, though, was difficult as the Goldbach at this point ran in ditches, behind which was a low height covered with vineyards and houses. Telnitz was held by a battalion of line infantry, the 3rd, as well as the Légion Corse. ‘Covered behind the inequalities of the ground,’ wrote the nineteenth century historian, Adolph Theirs, ‘these clever tirailleurs, taking cool aim at the hussars that had been sent forward in advance, brought down a great number of them … The Austrians, tired of a murderous conflict productive of no result, assaulted the village of Telnitz in a body of five united battalions which did not succeed in penetrating into it owing to the firmness of the 3rd of the line, which received them with the courage of well-tried troops.’

The other columns of Buxhwden’s force (First Column, Lieutenant General D. Doctorov; Second Column Lieutenant General A. Langeron; Third Column Lieutenant General I. Przbyswski; Fourth Column, lieutenant generals M. Miloradovich and J. Kollowrath) followed but not in the coordinated fashion that Von Weyrother would have hoped, but Kutuzov had predicted. Eventually, though, the allied main force overpowered the French left wing and Davout’s corps had still not reached the battlefield.

This was a critical moment in the battle. All Napoleon’s calculations were based on being able to hold back Buxhwden until he had taken the Pratzen Heights and broken through the Russian centre. Fortunately, Berthier’s arrangements proved to be satisfactory as usual, and the first until of III Corps finally marched into view. Corporal Blaise was with Heudelet’s division which was ordered to counter-attack: ‘General Heudelet put himself at our head and we marched boldly forward in battle order until we were halted by a ditch which was too large for us to cross. General Heudelet thereupon ordered our colonel to move us over a bridge away to our left. This necessary movement was the cause of our undoing, for the soldiers were so eager to come to grips with the vaunted enemy infantry that they disordered their ranks … and when we tried to reform our battle order under heavy fire, some Austrian hussars … in the thick smoke and fog which was a feature of the day, wounded a great many of us and captured 160 man including 4 officers.’

Despite such setbacks, Davout’s men helped recover Telnitz, only for a renewed assault by General Doctorov’s column to succeed in recapturing the village. Though the allies had the upper hand in the south, the easy breakthrough which had been anticipated by von Weyrother, upon which the whole of his plan depended, had not yet happened. This was in part because the Russian Second Column had become involved in what has been described as a massive traffic jam caused by the decision from the Russian staff on the Pratzen Heights to move the Fifth (Cavalry) Column across the front of Langeron’s men, causing a delay of almost an hour. All this meant that the French right was holding, just as Napoleon hoped it would, and the battle was developing exactly as Napoleon and anticipated.

Crossing the Goldbach

Eventually, though far later than had been planned, Langeron arrived on Doctorov’s right followed by Przbyswski’s Third Column on the right. Telnitz was retaken and the allies began to cross the Goldbach. It seemed that by sheer weight of numbers that the allies were overcoming the French. Then, as they crossed the stream, they were attacked by General Bouchier with six regiments of dragoons, followed by the rest of Heudelet’s infantry, and the Russians were thrown back in disorder. Davout’s men continued to push forward, taking advantage of the confusion in the Russian ranks. Astonishingly, a total of only 10,500 Frenchmen had not only stopped, but driven back, more than 50,000 Russians and Austrians. Often in history smaller, well disciplined and organised, bodies of troops, have defeated much larger enemy forces which are much harder to control and manoeuvre. Such was the case on the morning of 2 December on the banks of the Goldbach stream.

‘It was not yet eight o’clock,’ wrote Captain Segur, one of Napoleon’s aides-de-camp, ‘and silence and darkness were still reigning over the rest of the line, when, beginning with the heights, the sun suddenly breaking through the thick fog disclosed to our sight the plateau of Pratzen growing empty of troops from the flank march of the enemy columns. As for us who had remained in the ravine which defines the foot of the plateau, the smoke of the bivouacs and the vapours which, heavier on this point than elsewhere, still hung around, concealed from the Russians our centre deployed in columns and ready for the attack.’

Napoleon turned to Soult, who was to lead the assault upon the Pratzen, and asked him, ‘How long will it take to move your divisions to the top of the Pratzen Heights?’ The marshal replied, ‘Less than twenty minutes, Sire, for my troops are hidden at the foot of the valley, concealed by fog and campfire smoke.’ Napoleon hesitated for a moment, and then said, ‘In that case we will wait another quarter of an hour.’ Napoleon wanted the last of the allied columns to leave the heights before delivering the blow that would decide the battle, and end the Third Coalition.

But the sun which shone on the Pratzen Heights suddenly penetrated the mist that had concealed Soult’s division. The wary Kutusov, who had been opposed to the entire idea of attacking the French at all, immediately understood what he saw – a large body of French infantry that had not been engaged which was poised to cut right through the Austro-Russian line. The normally lethargic Russian general was a bustle of activity. The troops still on the Heights preparing to march down the slope were halted and orders were sent recalling Kollowrath’s Austrians and Miloradovitch’s twenty-five Russian battalions which were descending on the left towards Sokolnitz.

Napoleon had waited too long. For many years afterwards, Russians and Austrians who had been at the battle, would talk of the ‘sun of Austerlitz’, which had shed its light on the French, and shone its glory upon the Tzar and the Emperor of Austria.

Another few minutes and Miloradovitch would have been engaged and unable to extract his troops in time. But Kutusov’s urgent appeal reached the Russian general in time, and he wheeled his battalions round and headed back up the slope before Soult could begin his advance.

It was a race for the top of the Heights, but, despite the speed of the French columns, it was a race the Russians were always going to win. As Soult neared to within 200 yards of the summit, he saw the dense line of green-jacketed infantry stretched across the skyline.

To loud cries of ‘Vive l’Empereur’ Thiébault’s and Saint-Hilare’s divisions attacked with their usual impetuosity. But the Russians were stern opponents, and after a single volley, the men of the Novgorod, Apsheron, Little Russia and Smolensk regiment strode out purposefully, bayonets levelled.

The clash of arms was a terrible one, but weight of numbers and gravity was in the favour of allies. As the French were slowly pushed back, two brigades of von Lichtenstein’s cavalry, which had also been summoned by Kutusov, crashed into rear of Soult’s isolated regiments.

Disaster

Witnessing the confused scene on the slopes above, Napoleon knew that the battle hung in the balance. True to his word, he galloped up the Heights to show his men that the result was in doubt. But when the French troops saw their Emperor, it only served to confirm what they knew – they were in trouble. Instead of galvanizing them into greater efforts, it had the opposite effect. It was clearly a case of every man for himself.

The French soldiers had never known defeat under Napoleon. They had supreme confidence in him, believing he would never fail. All that was shattered in moments. Napoleon watched the Grande Armée dissolve in front of him. It was the end of the dream.

The news of the French defeat soon reached Berlin and King Frederick William responded quickly, ordering those regiments that were fully mobilzed to take advantage of the situation, cutting off a large part of the retreating French infantry divisions. The Grande Armée was destroyed. So sluggish had been Kutusov’s pursuit, Napoleon could well have rallied his men and, with the help of reinforcements from France, held the allies on the Rhine, but the intervention of the Prussians proved fatal to what was to prove to be Napoleon’s weak grip on his adoptive country.

Though there was still a strong army in the south fighting the Austrians in Italy, there was little hope for France. Whilst Napoleon dreamt up ambitious schemes to attack the approaching enemy columns, his marshals knew that the only way to avoid France being overrun was to remove Napoleon. So it was, that on Christmas Eve, 1805, Louis XIII returned to Paris and was installed in his capital. Napoleon, however, was granted generous terms by the allies and he was permitted to retire with dignity to Corsica, the island of his birth. His had been a great adventure – until it came to an end on a low range of hills to the north of Vienna.

THE REALITY

The Battle of Austerlitz was probably Napoleon’s greatest victory, which resulted in the destruction of the allied army. Around 27,000 Austrians and Russians were killed, wounded or taken prisoner, amounting to more than thirty per cent of the total allied force. This happen because Tsar Alexander had taken over command of the allied army from Kutusov, who had shown nothing but distain for von Weyrother’s plan and had argued against attacking Napoleon in the first place. Once Napoleon saw the Russians moving off the Pratzen, he send Soult’s IV Corps up the slope to push through the now extremely thin allied centre, cutting Kutusov’s army in two. Supported by Bernadotte’s corps and the Imperial Guard, Soult then swung round to the south, trapping Buxhwden’s force against the Satschan lakes. The allied troops tried to escape across the frozen lakes, and seeing this, Napoleon ordered up twenty-five cannon to fire upon the ice. The effect of the cannon balls, crashing onto the ice which was already under severe strain from the thousands of fleeing soldiers and the heavy artillery teams, began to crack. Though the number of men drowned in the freezing water was thought to have been many thousands, when the lakes were drained shortly after the battle only a few corpses were recovered. What the breaking of the ice did was block the allies only line of retreat, which why as many as 12,000 became prisoners.

The day after the battle the Emperor Francis sought an armistice, whilst the remnants of the Russian army retreated to the east. When news of the scale of the Austro-Russian defeat reached London, Prime Minister William Pitt is reported to have said, in reference to a map of Europe, ‘Roll up that map; it will not be wanted these ten years.’ He was proven, at least partially, correct. The Third Coalition was brought to a speedy end and the map of Europe was redrawn. The principle effects of this was that Napoleon created a grouping of the western German states, called the Confederation of the Rhine, to act as a buffer between France and Prussia. These states were formerly part of the Holy Roman Empire. Robbed, therefore of much of his authority Francis relinquished his title and the Holy Roman Empire, which had stood for almost 900 years, ceased to exist. Its demise was unquestionably one of the factors that enabled Prussia to become the dominant Germanic country which, in 1871, absorbed the smaller German states to form the German nation that we know today.

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