Austerlitz Campaign III

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Napoleon's Masterpiece: Austerlitz 1805

Yet war is not just a matter of battles, and the 40,000 extra soldiers that Wellington equated with Napoleon’s presence were in 1805 very nearly countered by six times that many fresh enemies in the form of the Prussian army. As the grande armée swept across Germany en route for the Danube, its progress was marked by wholesale pillage. ‘I am absolutely tired out, and cannot imagine how the body can support such constant fatigue,’ wrote Thomas Bugeaud. ‘Hunger is another tyrant. You can easily imagine whether ten thousand men coming into a village can easily find anything to eat. What distresses me more is the annoyance of stealing from the peasantry: their poultry, their bacon, their firewood [are] taken from them by grace or force. I do not do these things, but when I am very hungry I secretly tolerate them and eat my share of the stolen goods.’ In Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria, all of which had rallied to Napoleon, this was bad enough, but on 3 October 1805 Marshal Bernadotte’s I Corps – a force that occupied the outermost flank of the great wheel in which the grande armée engaged as it headed from the Rhine to the Danube – violated the neutrality of the small Prussia territory of Ansbach. Undertaken for no better reason than the fact that avoiding Ansbach would have cost Bernadotte’s men a few more days on the road, this action almost led to disaster. By the beginning of October war between Prussia and Russia had seemed all but certain, for on 19 September Potsdam had been informed that Russia had announced that she was going to march 100,000 troops across Prussian Poland and Silesia. As we have seen, the intention was to pressurize the Prussians into joining the Third Coalition, but instead they responded to this ‘rough wooing’ by mobilizing their army and announcing that they would resist any encroachment on their territory. In the event, however, the French reached Ansbach before the Russians reached Silesia. In the face of this provocation, even Frederick William could not remain inert. The French emissaries who had come to Berlin to win over the Prussians to the French cause were summarily dismissed, orders given for the army to take Hanover by force and the Russians told that they might cross Silesia. Moreover, on 3 November Prussia formally acceded to the Third Coalition by the treaty of Potsdam.

According to Paul Schroeder, none of this should be sufficient to persuade us that Prussia was genuinely bellicose in intent. The king remained indecisive and reluctant to go to war. As for his confidants and advisers, a clear majority still favoured peace: hence, perhaps, the fact that discussions regarding Prussia’s accession to the Third Coalition did not begin until Alexander, who had come west to join his armies, met Frederick William III in person. All of this, he continues, was reflected in the treaty of Potsdam, which in the first instance offered only armed mediation and, in the second, by means of a secret clause, made Hanover the price of active intervention in the struggle. On top of this there was the manner in which Prussian pressure was brought to bear. The peace terms, which, it was agreed, should be presented to Napoleon in person by the former Prussian chancellor, Haugwitz, were certainly such as to give rise to the suspicion that he would reject them – they included independence for Holland, Switzerland, the German states and the ci-devant Italian Republic. But at the same time it is impossible not to notice that four weeks were allowed for the discussion of the subject, and that Haugwitz deliberately put off his departure for Napoleon’s headquarters for eight precious days. With Napoleon and the grande armée now well and truly off the leash and winning dramatic successes in Germany, Schroeder’s conclusion is that Potsdam represented less an advance towards joining the Coalition, than a retreat from it.

Even supposing the Prussians had finally gone to war, there is no guarantee that they would have intervened with any great enthusiasm in the campaign. For one thing, they were not ready for war in 1805. When the crisis broke, their army had just embarked upon a series of reforms designed to increase the number of native Prussians under arms – it should be remembered that a considerable proportion of the troops were foreign mercenaries at this time – and create a trained reserve, and this led to a preference for caution. Potsdam’s lack of enthusiasm is confirmed by Clemens von Metternich, who was then Austria’s ambassador to the Prussian court: ‘From the first moment the emperor [i.e. Alexander] and I fell under the ill will of the Prussian negotiators. With ill-concealed anger, they resorted to every imaginable pretext to protract the arrangements which, in face of the calamitous circumstances of the war on the Danube, grew more and more urgent.’ And, last but not least, there remained the question of Hanover. Shortly after the signature of the treaty of Potsdam, a special envoy had arrived from London at the Prussian court in the person of Lord Harrowby. Authorized to offer the Prussians a subsidy of £2 5. million if they would accede to the Anglo-Russian alliance, go to war with an army of 200,000 men and promise not to make a separate peace and to guarantee the independence of Holland and the states of northern Germany, Harrowby was appalled by the clause in the treaty that gave Hanover to Prussia. Nor was Pitt better pleased when he was given the news by the special envoy dispatched to London by Alexander, Count d’Oubril. It was judged that losing Hanover would cause a recurrence of the infirm George III’s ‘madness’, and thereby give rise to a regency under the Prince of Wales, who was very much a friend of the Whigs and therefore entirely capable of ejecting Pitt and bringing to power a government that might seek a compromise peace with Napoleon. It being a choice of standing firm or losing the war anyway, Pitt therefore threatened to cancel all the British subsidies that had been promised unless the independence of Hanover was respected.

To return to Prussia, Napoleon was still taking a major chance, for a sudden display of vigour on the part of Frederick William might have caused him serious problems, while there were certainly elements in Prussia that were itching for war, or, at least, convinced that Prussia had to act. As the emperor seems to have suspected, however, vigour was not something to be looked for from the Third Coalition. Setting aside the Prussians, the latter’s actions were marked by a complete lack of coordination. No better prepared than the Prussians – under the aegis of General Mack they, too, had been engaged in a number of last-minute military reforms which had not yet settled in – the Austrians pushed their armies into Bavaria without waiting for the Russians, who in turn marched ten days later than they had agreed, while the Swedes would not move unless the Prussians did so too. Nor were matters any better in Italy. Deeply pessimistic at the renewal of war with France, the Archduke Charles allowed himself to be persuaded that he was outnumbered two to one by the French, and therefore secured orders from Vienna that he should remain on the defensive. Naples, meanwhile, did nothing, while the British and Russian forces sent to help her did not even disembark on her soil until 20 November, by which time catastrophe had struck elsewhere and made all hopes of an offensive impossible. Yet much of the leadership of the Coalition remained extraordinarily optimistic. So sure was Czartoryski of victory, for example, that he positively welcomed Prussia’s intransigence as he believed that the war with Potsdam that must follow would clear the way for Alexander to declare himself king of a reconstituted Poland as soon as the Russians had entered Warsaw. If so, it was dramatic testimony to the survival of interests that had nothing at all to do with the overthrow of Napoleon and for many years were greatly to impede the coalition-building that was the only means by which he could be resisted.

Needless to say, the result of all this was that the initiative passed to the French. Untrammelled by any significant threat to its northern flank, the grande armée swung smoothly across the Rhine and then headed south-eastwards with the aim of defeating the invaders of Bavaria. Convinced that no French forces could appear until late October, by which time he believed that Kutuzov’s Russians would have come up in his support, Mack had advanced to the Danube, and moved as far west as Ulm. To his considerable surprise, Napoleon, who had believed that his adversary was much further east, therefore suddenly found himself in the rear of the Austrians, and hastily swung his army westwards to envelop them. In the confusion, some of the emperor’s prey managed to get away, but on 20 October Mack laid down his arms with over 20,000 men. Other detachments of his forces (like those caught at Wertingen) had already been overwhelmed, while still others were routed or forced to surrender in the course of the next few days. In scarcely a fortnight, no fewer than 60,000 of the 75,000 men whom Mack had led into Bavaria had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner. It was, beyond doubt, a shattering blow. In England Pitt refused to credit the first reports, but Malmesbury ‘clearly perceived he disbelieved it more from the dread of its being true than from any well-grounded cause’ and ‘observed but too clearly the effect [confirmation] had on [him]’, remarking, ‘his look and manner were not his own, and gave me . . . a foreboding of the loss with which we were threatened’.

Elsewhere things had gone rather better for the Austrians – in Italy the Archduke Charles had repulsed a French attack at Caldiero – but the general situation was catastrophic. Although the first Russians had at last arrived on the frontiers of Bavaria, they were few in numbers and exhausted. Still worse, the French were heading straight for Vienna. By hard marching, the Russians and most of the Austrian troops still in the vicinity got away to Bohemia, but on 12 November the capital was occupied. The war, however, was not over. Thanks to the arrival of more Russians, there were now over 80,000 allied troops in Bohemia. Convinced that he could win a great victory, Alexander I, who had now arrived at headquarters, overruled the fugitive Francis II’s preference for an armistice, and ordered an offensive. Napoleon was not quite ready for this – among other things his men were exhausted – and, both to win time and to encourage Alexander to walk into the trap that was being laid for him, he requested an interview with the tsar. In response, the Russian ruler dispatched one of his personal favourites, Prince Peter Dolgoruky, to enquire as to the nature of his terms. The offer, clearly, was not a serious one, but it served a useful purpose, for the prince, a leading member of the war party in the Russian court, chose to indulge in an ostentatious show of contempt, and, by seemingly spurning a chance for peace, allowed the emperor and his apologists to blame the Allies for the continuation of the war. At the very least, Napoleon was given the chance to play the injured innocent. As he is supposed to have said to Dolgoruky, ‘How long have we to fight? What do you want from me? What does the Emperor Alexander desire? If he wants to enlarge his states, let him do it at the expense of his neighbours, Turkey especially, and then he will have no disputes with France.’

Even supposing that the words were sincere, at this stage they could achieve nothing. On 1 December, then, the two armies deployed near the town of Austerlitz. Given that the grande armée was considerably outnumbered, what followed was possibly the most masterly battle of the emperor’s career. Enticed to attack the French right in an effort to sever Napoleon’s communications with Vienna, the Allies left their centre unguarded, and this allowed the emperor effectively to split them in two. Thrown into complete disorder, his enemies fought with great courage, but by the end of the day – the first anniversary of Napoleon’s coronation – their left was all but surrounded and the rest of the army streaming off the field in varying states of disorder. All in all their casualties amounted to some 25,000 men, while the French had suffered losses of only 8,000. In the Allied camp, all was despair. Witness to the scene was Czartoryski:

The emperor was extremely cast down: the intense emotion that he had experienced made him ill . . . In every village one heard nothing but the confused shouts of people who had sought to drown their misfortunes in drink . . . If a few squadrons of French cavalry had been sent after us to complete our defeat, I have no idea what might have happened. Amongst the Coalition forces there were neither regiments nor corps d’armée: the only thing to be seen were armed gangs wandering aimlessly from place to place in a state of complete disorder and adding to the general desolation through their marauding.

Austerlitz dealt a death-blow to the Third Coalition. Russia still had plenty of troops, and the Archduke Charles had evacuated Italy and concentrated a substantial force on the frontiers of Hungary. But news of the defeat finally removed all hope of Prussian assistance: arriving at Napoleon’s headquarters in the immediate wake of Austerlitz, Haugwitz proffered Prussia’s friendship and committed her to an offensive-defensive alliance known as the treaty of Schönbrunn that promised her Hanover in exchange for a guarantee of France and her satellites and the cession of a number of territories in Germany (one of them, ironically enough, was Ansbach). At the same time, news of the defeat paralysed allied operations in northern Germany and persuaded Austria, whose equally shaken emperor had also been at Austerlitz, to seek an immediate peace settlement on the grounds that further resistance would be fatal (the Archduke Charles, indeed, was warning Francis that to continue the war would be to risk political revolution and the dissolution of the empire). As it was, peace was bad enough. By the treaty of Pressburg of 26 December 1805, Austria was forced to cede Venetia, Dalmatia and Istria to the Kingdom of Italy, Vorarlberg, Tyrol and Trentino to Bavaria, and the isolated pockets of territory still held by Austria in south-western Germany to Baden and Württemberg. Also ceded to the courts of Munich, Baden-Baden and Stuttgart were the territories of those imperial knights unfortunate enough to reside within their frontiers. In addition, Napoleon had to be accepted as King of Italy, and Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden and Hesse-Darmstädt recognized as independent states, while Austria also had to pay an indemnity of 40,000,000 francs. For all this, the only compensation was that Austria was allowed to regain Salzburg, whose Habsburg ruler, the erstwhile Duke of Tuscany, was shifted to the Grand Duchy of Würzburg. As for the Russians, they hastily evacuated their forces from Germany and Bohemia alike, and began to examine the possibility of a separate peace. In Britain news of the defeat literally finished William Pitt. Worn out by a variety of ailments and years of heavy drinking, the Prime Minister was already a sick man, and there is no doubt that Austerlitz came as a heavy blow. ‘Roll up the map of Europe,’ he is supposed to have said, ‘it will not be wanted these ten years.’ With British policy in ruins, early in the morning of 23 January 1806 the Prime Minister – Napoleon’s greatest and most consistent opponent in the whole of Europe – passed away. It was a fearful blow. To quote Lord Auckland, ‘Our situation is desperate. There is nothing to look to.’ Nor was the mood any better in Austria. In the words of the propagandist Gentz, ‘Everything is surely over now, for the little that remains can be so easily supplied in imagination that even the pleasure of surprise no longer remains to us.’

This was a key moment in the history of the Napoleonic Empire. For the emperor, of course, it was a time of triumph. Present at imperial headquarters, Talleyrand later wrote:

Never has a military feat been more glorious. I still see Napoleon re-entering Austerlitz on the evening of the battle. He lodged at a house belonging to Prince von Kaunitz, and, there, in his chamber, yes, in the very chamber of Prince von Kaunitz, were brought at every moment Austrian flags, Russian flags, messages from the archdukes and from the emperor of Austria, and prisoners bearing all the names of all the great houses of the Austrian monarchy.

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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