Austerlitz Campaign II

The Capitulation of Ulm by Charles Thévenin,
where General Mack and 23,000 Austrian troops surrendered to Napoleon
.

The strategic situation from 11 to 14 October. The French hurl themselves westwards to capture the Austrian army.

To talk of Trafalgar in this fashion is possibly to speak with the benefit of hindsight. But for Napoleon, the news was still irritating enough: hearing of the battle he supposedly ‘started up full of rage, exclaiming, “I cannot be everywhere!” ’. This is understandable enough, for Trafalgar constituted a considerable blow to his prestige. Yet marching through southern Germany, he was infinitely better off than he might have been. Let us here quote Pasquier:

What would have become of [Napoleon] if, having disembarked on the English coast with the élite of his forces, he had only kept control of the sea for a short time. What would have become of France had the great Austrian army commanded by the Archduke Charles marched across Bavaria and appeared on the banks of the Rhine? Given that there would not have been sufficient forces to put up an effective resistance, they would probably have got across and France would then have been invaded . . . In the face of that situation, the only answer would have been the one that he himself made to several people who dared to raise the possibility with him. ‘If the invasion had succeeded, such would have been the enthusiasm in France that the women and children of Strasbourg could have thrown back the Austrians by themselves.’ Is that answer not rather more clever than it is to the point?

As it was, the French experienced not tragedy but triumph. The allied plans had initially seemed threatening indeed. In the first place, the array of enemies facing France had grown yet again. The Franco-Neapolitan treaty of alliance, or strictly speaking, of neutrality, had originated in strategic considerations relating to the military situation in Italy: Masséna was badly outnumbered in the north, whilst St Cyr’s troops were scattered across the centre and south of the Italian peninsula in a number of small detachments and, in consequence, wide open to attack. Pulling them out in order to reinforce the French forces in Lombardy therefore made a great deal of sense, the only means of keeping Naples in line therefore being an agreement of some sort. No sooner had the resultant treaty of 9 October been signed than St Cyr got his men on the road. On this occasion, however, French policy failed. Freed from the threat of reprisals, the Neapolitans denounced their agreement with Paris, appealed for Anglo-Russian protection and mobilized their army. In the wake of this development a veritable war of encirclement threatened France. Linked by 53,000 troops in the Tyrol, 90,000 Austrians would invade northern Italy and 140,000 Bavaria, while 100,000 Russians marched to their aid. Joined by an Anglo-Russian army of 40,000 men which was being concentrated in the Mediterranean, the Neapolitans would threaten France’s southern flank, whilst 50,000 seaborne British, Russians and Swedes liberated Hanover and went on to assault Holland. Last but not least, 50,000 further Russians were to be dispatched to galvanize the Prussians into action and join with them in a victorious march across Germany. In short, over 500,000 men would join together in a concentric advance against a French force that, even counting the forces of Napoleon’s satellites, seemed unlikely to amount to much more than 350,000. Nor were operations neglected in the wider world, the end of August seeing a small British expedition taking ship to evict the Dutch from their strategically placed colony at the Cape of Good Hope.

Imposing as this array seemed, matters were by no means as one-sided as at first appeared. Sometimes described as the most proficient army the world has ever seen, the grande armée was not without its problems. For one thing, it was so short of horses that some of its cavalry had actually to fight as infantrymen. For another, it is certainly possible to question the received wisdom that its men had spent all their time at the ‘camp of Boulogne’ being drilled and trained without let-up. Some accounts do speak as if this was the case: ‘The troops assembled there’, wrote Emile de Saint-Hilaire, ‘were occupied and disciplined in the style of the Romans; every hour had its own job and the soldiers were forever swapping their muskets for their pickaxes.’ Much the same sort of thing, meanwhile, is recorded by Hulot: ‘Everywhere one saw nothing but parades, simulations of attack and defence, forced marches and changes of bivouac. This spectacle filled us all with the same impression: woe be to the foreigner who is set about by such an army!’ But other memories were less sanguine. To quote Fezensac, for example, ‘The regiment was rarely assembled to manoeuvre in line. There were one or two excursions – simple route marches that approximated to the sort of distance one might cover in the course of an easy day in the field – a few rounds of target practice conducted without any method, and that was about it: no training for our skirmishers, no bayonet practice . . . no attempt to construct the simplest work of fortification.’ Whether the army was ever quite the disciplined machine that it has been made out to be is therefore a moot point. Nor were its logistical capacities up to the task of supplying the troops, who not only suffered all the rigours of campaigning, but all too often went hungry. To quote Fezensac’s memories of the march into Germany:

This short campaign was a summary of all that was to follow. The excessive fatigue, the want of supplies, the rigours of the season, the disorders committed by marauders, nothing was wanting . . . The brigades and even the regiments were often dispersed and orders to get them to a certain place often arrived late as they had to pass through many different hands. The result was that my regiment often had to march day and night, and for the first time I saw men sleeping as they marched, which is something that I would never have believed possible. In this fashion, we would arrive at the position we were supposed to occupy but without having had anything to eat or drink. Marshal Berthier, the chief of staff, had written that in the war of invasion planned by the emperor, there would be no magazines with the result that generals would have to provide for their men from the countries through which they passed. However, the generals had neither the time nor the means . . . to feed so numerous an army. As the countryside found out in the most cruel fashion, what this amounted to was to authorize pillage, and yet for the whole length of that campaign we did not suffer any the less from hunger . . . The bad weather made our sufferings even worse. A cold rain fell, and sometimes wet snow in which we waded up to our knees, while such was the wind that we could never light a fire. The sixteenth of October in particular – the day when M. Phillippe de Ségur waited upon Mack with the first demand that he surrender – the weather was so awful that nobody stayed at their post. There were neither pickets nor sentries . . . [and] everyone sought such shelter as he could. At no other moment, except in the campaign in Russia, did I suffer so much or see the army in such disarray.

For all their problems, the French did possess many advantages. From Napoleon downwards, the men at the head of the army represented the very cream of revolutionary generalship. Officers and men alike were on the whole veterans of some years’ service; the army’s tactical system was more adaptable than that of its continental opponents; and Napoleon had greatly improved upon the organizational model that he had inherited from the Republic through the establishment of army corps and the concentration of part of the artillery and cavalry into special reserves of great fighting power. Able as a result to move very fast, operate on a broad front that facilitated attempts at envelopment, display an extraordinary level of flexibility and hit very hard on the actual battlefield, the army also enjoyed high morale. Spirits were lifted by the simple fact that the men were on the move at last: Hulot described feeling ‘sincere joy’; newly commissioned as an officer, Fezensac remembered, ‘I was delighted to make war’; while Jean-Baptiste Barrès wrote, ‘We left Paris quite content to go campaigning . . . War was the one thing I wanted.’

This spirit of confidence and enthusiasm was the fruit of much cos-setting. Ever since 1799 Napoleon had done all that he could to cultivate the army. Parades and reviews were a constant feature of public life; the new flags now carried by each regiment were inscribed with gold letters spelling out the personal relationship between the emperor and his soldiers; the extensive employment of generals as ambassadors was a clear statement of the intimate connection between Napoleon, French foreign policy and the military; and the vast majority of recipients of the Legion of Honour – the new decoration instituted by Napoleon for services to the state – proved to be members of the armed forces. Nor was the Legion of Honour the only reward open to the emperor’s followers. Few soldiers could aspire to rise so far – only twenty-six men ever received the title – but the glittering figures of Masséna, Murat, Ney, Lannes, Augereau and the other marshals of the empire served as living object lessons in what could be achieved by courage and devotion. Showered with estates, they became fabulously wealthy. As yet the greatest glory still lay in the future. But even so the result was a mood of real excitement. To quote Elzéar Blaze:

None but a soldier of that period can conceive what spell there was in the uniform. What lofty expectations inflamed all the young heads on which a plume of feathers waved for the first time! Every French soldier carries in his cartouche-box his truncheon of marshal of France; the only question is how to get it out.

Nor was it just a case of promotion. In his field garb of plain grey overcoat and unadorned black tricorn, the emperor looked the very epitome of the common soldier of the Revolution – his nickname, after all, was ‘the little corporal’ – and he was always displaying the affability, simplicity and familiarity of manner that invoked such love amongst the troops. To cite just one of the stories told of him at this time, a private soldier suddenly stepped out in front of Napoleon’s horse to present him with a petition. Badly startled, the mount shied, and Napoleon flew into a rage, striking the man with his whip. Almost immediately, though, he collected himself and made the soldier a sergeant on the spot.

Thus far we see only a force of the sort that the American scholar John Lynn referred to as ‘an army of honour’ – an army whose members sought to advance their own interests and were concerned only with their own status and prestige. Yet despite the eclipse of overtly Republican generals such as Moreau and Pichegru – who were either dead or in exile – and the cult of imperial glory in which the army was the centrepiece, many of the soldiers continued to persuade themselves that they were fighting, if not for the Republic, then at least for its ideals. In this they were encouraged by Napoleon. The very first bulletin of the campaign calls the army ‘only the advance guard of the people’. Inspired by such language, many soldiers could believe, along with Charles Parquin, that the army’s goals remained ‘the great ideals of the French Revolution – the ideals of liberty, of unity and of the future – which, as everyone knows, the emperor Napoleon personified’. As proof of the depth of feeling that underlay such comments one has only to point to the particular hatred with which many soldiers regarded the Catholic Church. Wherever popular resistance was encountered – in other words in Spain, Portugal, the Tyrol and southern Italy – it was the Church that got the blame, and the Church that paid the price. ‘It was the monks who did most to make war against us,’ wrote one soldier of the war in Spain. ‘We cornered fifty of them in a church and massacred them all with the points of our bayonets.’ Underlying all this was a sense of cultural superiority that deepened with every mile that the army moved east and south. As one hussar officer in Spain put it: ‘With regard to the knowledge and the progress of social habits, Spain was at least a century behind the other nations of the continent.’

To return to Parquin, we see here not just the conviction that the army was fighting for the Revolution, but also faith in the person of Napoleon himself. Confidence in its leader was one of the French army’s most potent weapons, and one that was, of course, sedulously cultivated by the French ruler, not least by the constant pretence that he made of sharing its privations. But if this was indeed pretence, Napoleon at least made a genuine point of moving amongst his troops: the scene that took place on the eve of Austerlitz is particularly famous:

His army was but half as strong as that of the enemy. His soldiers had hitherto always been victorious, but, with so small a force . . . it was of the utmost importance to him to know whether the confidence of the troops in their own superiority would . . . be sufficient to make up for their inferiority in numbers. It therefore occurred to him to go on foot, accompanied by Marshal Berthier only, throughout the camp and listen unnoticed to the chat of the soldiers round their fires. By eleven o’clock he had already traversed a great distance when he was recognized. The soldiers, surprised at finding him in the midst of them, and afraid that he might lose his way going back to his headquarters . . . hastened to break up the shelters they had made of branches and straw to use them as torches to light their emperor home. One bivouac after another took up the task, and in less than a quarter of an hour, torches lit up the camp, whilst passionate cries of ‘Vive l’empereur!’ resounded on every side.

Mixed in with the aura of greatness were little touches of humanity. At Ulm it was observed that the French ruler’s famous greatcoat got singed when he sat too close to the fire. Nor had Napoleon lost his common touch. Writing of the same battle, one soldier remembered, ‘We were eating jam made from quinces . . . The emperor laughed. “Ah!”, said he. “I see you are eating preserves; don’t get up. You must put new flints in your guns: tomorrow morning you will need them. Be ready!”’ Not many soldiers actually received the favour of a personal word of enquiry or encouragement from their commander, of course, but that is not the point: the stories of such encounters doubtless grew in the telling, while the troops believed that they were cared about. As one François Avril wrote, ‘We have observed with the greatest interest the tender care taken by His Majesty to improve the lot of [the] . . . warriors charged with the task of defending the integrity of French territory.’ Close proximity to the emperor, meanwhile, brought a genuine sense of well-being. Reviewed by Napoleon in the midst of some particularly inclement weather, a common soldier named André Dupont-Ferrier wrote, ‘I don’t think I have ever been as cold as I was that day, and I don’t know how the emperor could bear it . . . but it seemed that his very presence warmed us, and repeated shouts of “Vive l’empereur!” must have convinced him how much he is cherished.’ Just as important was the sense that Napoleon was looking to each and every soldier for his survival. ‘We saw the Emperor Napoleon pass . . . He was on horseback; the simplicity of his green uniform distinguished him amidst the richly clothed generals who surrounded him; he waved his hands to every individual officer as he passed, seeming to say, “I rely on you.” ’ The consequences were enormous. ‘The presence of the emperor,’ wrote one veteran of the Austerlitz campaign, ‘produced a powerful effect on the army. Everyone had the most implicit confidence in him; everyone knew, from experience, that his plans led to victory, and therefore . . . our moral force was redoubled.’ Well might Wellington remark, ‘His presence on the field made a difference of 40,000 men.’

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