BATTLE OF AUSTERLITZ
2 December 1805
There is perhaps no finer example of Napoleon’s remarkable military genius than the comprehensive defeat he imposed on a numerically superior Russian-Austrian force near the small Austrian town of Austerlitz at the height of the war between France and its allies and the Third Coalition of Britain, Russia and Austria. Napoleon was not diffident about his military reputation. In 1804, he had had himself crowned emperor in what was until then a new revolutionary and republican state; he had little respect for his enemies and great confidence in his capacity to out-think and out-fight them. This confidence was infectious. On the eve of Austerlitz, 1 December 1805, he was almost captured as he went with his guards to reconnoitre. On his return to camp, his troops spontaneously lit straw torches to light his way and struck up a strident chorus of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ With the cries echoing around him, Napoleon was heard to mutter ‘it has been the finest evening of my life’. The following day, the first anniversary of his coronation, was a remarkable triumph for Napoleon and his enthusiastic soldiers.
The victory at Austerlitz came at an opportune moment. Napoleon’s Grande Armée was campaigning in cold winter weather far from France, deep in central Europe, and with the prospect, despite earlier victories, that Prussia might join the war and send a large army southwards. In late October, the British had contributed the decisive naval victory at Trafalgar to the Coalition’s efforts. A large Russian army, personally led into Europe by Tsar Alexander I, was supported by a smaller Austrian force, both approaching from the east. Napoleon needed to be sure that battle would be joined and won; he dispersed his forces to lure the Tsar into thinking that he was weaker than he really was.
The bait was swallowed, and although some advisers wanted the Tsar to wait until even more reinforcements were available, he was impatient to impose his mark on European history by vanquishing the undefeated emperor of France. Once it was evident that battle was what the Coalition wanted, Napoleon drew up his main force at a battlefield of his own choosing and summoned the distant armies of Marshal Bernadotte and Marshal Davout to join him. The French would eventually have a mixed French and Italian force of 73,000 (not all of whom would see action) and 139 guns against a Coalition force of 85,700 with 278 guns spread across two or three fronts.
The site of the battle played an important part in the final outcome. Napoleon chose a narrow plain, the Plain of Turas, positioned between two small branches of a river, with a hilly plateau, the Pratzen, to his right and a good field for cavalry action in front. His inspiration lay not only in choosing a suitable field, but in anticipating what his enemy would do. He expected the Russians and Austrians to try to outflank him by occupying the Pratzen as a base from which to turn the French line by attacking the right wing from the rear. To do this, the Russian army would be stretched out along the few miles of the plateau, itself exposed to a possible counter-thrust, which the French would mount from the plain, cutting the enemy army in two and destroying it.
This is exactly what the Russian generals Mikhail Kutuzov and Franz von Weyrother decided to do, though Kutuzov was aware of the risks involved. Expecting the Coalition armies to outnumber Napoleon by perhaps two to one, the object was to keep the French front line occupied by a limited threat, while the rest of the army crept along the plateau and behind the enemy. It was not a poor plan, though it depended on Napoleon not realizing the danger until too late. In fact, Napoleon planned the battle to take exactly this form; holding the front line, keeping a weaker but sufficient force on the right wing, at the end of the plateau, and sending the bulk of his army up the slopes of the plateau to shatter the enemy from the flank.
No battle goes exactly to plan, but in this case Napoleon understood his enemy so well that had he had spies at the Coalition headquarters, set up at the small town of Austerlitz, they could hardly have informed him better. During the night of 1 December, some 56,000 Coalition infantry and a large body of cannon made as secret an advance as they could across the Pratzen plateau. Their objective was to be in position the following morning to attack the French right through the villages of Telnitz and Sokolnitz, then cross onto the Turas Plain where the main French force could be rolled up from behind.
The plan went wrong from the start. The cavalry under Prince Lichtenstein had misunderstood its orders and was at the front of the columns moving across the plateau instead of behind it on the cavalry plain. The effort to reverse the movement of men and horses slowed up the advance and meant that early the following morning there were fewer Russians to storm the French right than intended. Somehow, the French and Italians of Davout’s right wing, still waiting for reinforcements on the march to the battle, held up a force five times their size. This was the most risky element of Napoleon’s plan, for if the front here cracked quickly, the enemy might indeed take his forces from the rear. The French defenders and the Russian attackers took heavy casualties and the villages changed hands many times, but the line did not break.
Napoleon’s main army was poised to attack the plateau. Heavy mists meant that the move into position was invisible to the Coalition columns, while the higher plateau was bathed in sunshine, making the enemy entirely visible to the French below. Around 29,000 French troops commanded by Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult suddenly appeared out of the mist, to the consternation of the enemy. The delay caused by the movement of Coalition cavalry meant that more Russians were on the plateau than expected and there were fierce contests to control the heights. But Kutuzov, already wounded, could see what was happening and tried to rescue an imminent disaster.
The Russian Imperial Guard, held in reserve near Austerlitz, were sent to drive the French back, but despite savage hand-to-hand fighting, some of it close to where Napoleon, now on the plateau, was directing the battle, the Guard was decimated. At the front line, French cavalry and infantry held back and then repulsed the smaller Russian cavalry forces under Prince Pyotr Bagration, who, seeing the disaster unfolding, retreated in good order. For the 35,000 Russians crammed into the far end of the plateau and still unable to penetrate the French right wing, there was little hope. The battle was effectively won by mid-day, but the fighting on the ridge and in the villages continued; Kutuzov’s order to retreat took four hours to reach the drunken commander, General Frederick Buxhouden, who by mid-morning was too intoxicated to understand anything. The Russians began retreating while bombarded by French cannon and attacked from the rear.
Thousands tried to cross the frozen Satschen Lake, hauling cannon across, until the ice broke. Several hundred drowned, the guns were lost and thousands more dragged themselves, frozen and exhausted, onto the muddy banks, to be slaughtered or captured by the French.
This was a classic victory and Napoleon savoured the moment. Tsar Alexander burst into tears when the disaster was over. The Coalition remnants retreated, but the French army was too exhausted by the contest to pursue them. The Coalition losses have been estimated at 27,000 dead, wounded and captured, though precise Russian figures are lacking; French losses were 1,305 dead, 6,940 wounded and 573 prisoners. This was Napoleon’s finest battle, a testament to his strategic intuition and charismatic example.