MHM Editor Neil Faulkner analyses ‘the Battle of the Three Emperors’

The Battle of Austerlitz, 2 December 1805. The scene shows the French Emperor with his staff on a hilltop
surveying the battle. It is not immediately clear whether the vantage-point is meant to be the Zurlan Plateau or the Pratzen Heights; nonetheless, the reconstruction gives a fair impression of the density of a Napoleonic battle
The Battle of Austerlitz, 2 December 1805. The scene shows the French Emperor with his staff on a hilltop surveying the battle. It is not immediately clear whether the vantage-point is meant to be the Zurlan Plateau or the Pratzen Heights; nonetheless, the reconstruction gives a fair impression of the density of a Napoleonic battle

The formation of the Third Coalition had dissolved the immediate threat of a French invasion of Britain two months before Trafalgar settled the matter for good. Orders were issued on 26 August 1805 for the Grande Armée to abandon its cantonments on the Channel coast and march for the Rhine. Inside a month, the forward elements were crossing the river.

The Grande Armée was something new. ‘We used to have the Army of Italy, of the Rhine, of Holland,’ explained Napoleon himself. ‘There was no French Army. Now it exists, and we shall see it in action.’

Not only was there a single national field army almost 200,000 strong, but also a single will controlling it. Napoleon Bonaparte, crowned Emperor of the French the previous year, might yet be let down by his subordinates; but he would not be openly defied by them, nor his orders countermanded by some other general or politician.

General Mack surrenders to Napoleon at Ulm in October 1805.
General Mack surrenders to Napoleon at Ulm in October 1805.

In a sense, perhaps, the Grande Armée was the supreme achievement of the Revolution. It was a citizen army, not an army of subjects. It was a national army, not an army of peasant-conscripts in the service of a dynasty. It was a meritocratic army in which officers were commissioned and promoted for their talents, not their birth. And it was a modern army, organised for rapid strategic movement and rapid battlefield manoeuvre.

Based on the Channel coast for two years, it was also highly drilled and trained, and officers and men had formed strong bonds of trust and camaraderie. Not least, there was confidence in the senior leadership. Napoleon was idolised by his men, and he was served by a group of brilliant young marshals who could usually be relied on to obey orders, move fast, and fight hard in the implementation of their master’s strategic and tactical schemes.

The centralisation of command placed a massive burden on the Emperor, but in 1805 he was at a physical and psychological peak, and the events of that autumn were to be a dazzling display of his military art. The Austerlitz campaign, moreover, would mark the beginning of a decade in which European politics would be dominated – and thrown into turmoil – by Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

ULM: THE HORS D’OEUVRE

Many of the principles of Napoleonic warfare were in play in the opening campaign against General Mack’s Austrian army. One of them was speed.

The Grande Armée was divided into seven corps, each of which marched separately. Supply-trains were minimised, the soldiers living off depots inside France, off the land in enemy territory. Units were expected to march at a pace of three miles an hour, and to cover about 20 miles a day.

Because morale was extremely high, straggling and desertion were minimal. The soldiers joked that ‘Our Emperor does not make use of our arms in this war so much as our legs’; and hurrying forwards virtually all kept up. Marching across Germany, Marmont’s II Corps lost only nine men where 300 might have been accepted as natural wastage.

The Grande Armée on the march in the autumn of 1805. It marched from the Channel coast to the Rhine in barely half the time its enemies anticipated.
The Grande Armée on the march in the autumn of 1805. It marched from the Channel coast to the Rhine in barely half the time its enemies anticipated.

General Mack, meantime, at the head of 45,000 men, was pushing forwards into the Black Forest, a region of tree-clad mountains between the upper Rhine and upper Danube. ‘Everything goes well here,’ wrote the French Emperor. ‘The Austrians are in the Black Forest defiles. God will it that they stay there! My only fear is that we shall scare them too much. The next fortnight will see many things happen.’

They did. Screened by the superb French cavalry under Marshal Murat, the great mass of the Grande Armée marched into Germany to the north of the Black Forest, and then swung south in a great arc designed to cut Mack’s communications. By the time the Austrian commander grasped what was happening, it was too late: the French were across his rear, and most of his army was trapped in the city of Ulm.

On 20 October, Mack surrendered with 30,000 men. There had been no major battle and French casualties were minimal. ‘Never’, proclaimed the Grande Armée bulletin, ‘have victories been so complete and less costly.’

THE MARCH TO AUSTERLITZ

Napoleon at Austerlitz. He had made a personal reconnaissance almost two weeks beforethe battle. He conceived his plan with a perfect understanding of the ground.
Napoleon at Austerlitz. He had made a personal reconnaissance almost two weeks before the battle. He conceived his plan with a perfect understanding of the ground.

Ulm was a sensational victory, but it removed only one of the Coalition pieces in play. Kutusov’s 36,000 Russians linked up with 22,000 Austrians at Braunau in upper Austria on 23 October: they were the most immediate threat to the Grande Armée. But there were four other Coalition armies within striking distance, two Russian and two Austrian, and this meant that some 200,000 men might soon be converging on the French. Yet more alarming was the very real possibility that the Prussians would yet enter the war. If they did, the Grande Armée, now operating deep inside enemy territory, might soon find itself under attack from several directions by up to 400,000 men.

Napoleon had to move first, so as to strike while his enemies were still divided. The advance from Ulm began on 25 October. To the despair of the increasingly despondent Austrian Emperor, Kutusov refused to defend Vienna – entered by Murat’s cavalry on 12 November – adopting instead a strategy of withdrawal designed to extend the French communications and wear out Napoleon’s tired army, and to trade space for the time needed to effect a greater Coalition concentration.

This strategy was successful. When Napoleon reached Brünn in Moravia, he was down to about 70,000 men, whereas Kutusov, at Olmütz, had effected a junction with Buxhöwden to create a Coalition army of 90,000. And, it seemed, as long as the wily Russian avoided battle, the odds could only lengthen further in his favour.

A SCARECROW ARMY

The Grande Armée had been marching and fighting for eight weeks. It was in dire need of rest and resupply. An Austrian veteran described its appearance at this time:

You now see many of them dressed in peasant’s blouses, sheepskin cloaks, or wild-animal skins. Some are laden down in the most signal fashion, carrying long strips of lard, hams, or chunks of meat dangling from their belts. Others march all hung about with loaves of bread and bottles of wine. Their penury, however… does not prevent them from lighting their pipes with Viennese banknotes.

To advance further was to run the gravest of risks. Much of the countryside ahead had been stripped bare by the Austrian and Russian armies. Powerful enemy forces threatened the French rear, certainly from the south, where there were 90,000 Austrians in the Tyrol and northern Italy, and possibly from the north, where the Prussians might field up to 200,000 men should they be persuaded to join the war.

Only a great victory in pitched battle could extricate the French from the strategic impasse; either this, or they would be forced to retreat in the face of superior force. To bring such a battle about, Napoleon prepared a trap, and baited it with outnumbered detachments.

THE BAIT

He reconnoitred the ground on 21 November, a small man in a grey topcoat at the head of a large retinue of plumed and heavily laced marshals and staff officers.

The battlefield of Austerlitz was dominated by the Pratzen Heights. The village of Austerlitz lay to the east, but it was the complex terrain to the west that was focus of the French Emperor’s reconnaissance. Here the ground was broken by streams, marshes, and rugged hills, with numerous small villages set among them – ground where an entire army corps might lie hidden; ground where attackers might be bogged down by small numbers of well-placed defenders.

Suddenly, the reconnaissance at an end, Napoleon turned to his followers and told them: ‘Gentlemen, examine this ground carefully. It will be a field of battle, upon which you will all have a part to play.’

To make it so, the French leader now did everything he could to persuade his enemies that he was weak and eager to avoid battle. He kept the corps of Bernadotte and Davout at a distance, probing forwards with an army of just 53,000 men, tempting the Coalition to seize the apparent opportunity to fight a battle at almost two-to-one advantage. And when the Coalition host advanced, he ordered Marshal Soult to abandon the Pratzen Heights with every indication of haste and confusion, so as to confirm the impression of French weakness.

Napoleon also opened channels to his enemies, discussing an armistice with the Austrian Emperor, then seeking a personal interview with Tsar Alexander. The Tsar sent an arrogant young firebrand, Count Dolgorouki, to negotiate, and Napoleon playacted a man hesitant, uncertain, and fearful. ‘This young man, who wielded a strong influence with the Tsar,’ the French Emperor later reported, ‘returned full of the notion that the French Army was on the eve of its doom.’

Dolgorouki’s report merely confirmed the Tsar in his decision. He had already overcome the doubts of Emperor Francis and overruled his own General Kutusov: the Coalition army was marching towards Austerlitz. Accordingly, from the French camp at Brünn, orders went out to Bernadotte and Davout to march with all speed to join Napoleon.

THE TRAP

Napoleon’s plan was to turn his two flanks into defensive strong-points, allocating sufficient force to enable them to resist enemy attacks and cause a drain of manpower from the enemy centre.

Lannes’s V Corps (19,200 men) was to defend the left, with his position anchored on a prominent hillock called ‘the Santon’, which was turned into a fortified laager well supplied with guns. Bernadotte’s I Corps (13,000 men) – still on the road at the start of the battle – was to take up position in reserve behind Lannes when it arrived.

The fighting on both flanks was ferocious. Under heavy attack, the French sometimes lost ground and would then counterattack to regain it,
waging a see-saw struggle through the long hours of 2 December. The battle on the flanks, especially
that on the French right, was crucial in fixing the great mass of the Coalition army, so that a decisive breakthrough could be achieved in the centre.
The fighting on both flanks was ferocious. Under heavy attack, the French sometimes lost ground and would then counterattack to regain it, waging a see-saw struggle through the long hours of 2 December. The battle on the flanks, especially that on the French right, was crucial in fixing the great mass of the Coalition army, so that a decisive breakthrough could be achieved in the centre.

The French right was deliberately extended, with Soult’s IV Corps (23,600 men) holding more than three miles of ground along the marshy Goldbach Stream from the Zurlan Plateau to the Satschan Lake. The plan was for Davout’s III Corps (6,600 men) to enter the line on the far right when it arrived.

The Zurlan Plateau was to be the Grande Armée’s centre of gravity. Hereabouts were stationed Murat’s Reserve Cavalry with 24 light field-guns (5,600 men), Oudinet’s Grenadier Division (5,700 men), and the Imperial Guard (5,500 men). Immediately south of the Plateau, at the point where the two streams that ran either side of it came together to form the Goldbach Stream, were stationed two of Soult’s three infantry divisions, those of St Hilaire and Vandamme.

This meant that, pending the arrival of Davout’s corps, General Legrand’s division would be defending more than two miles of front on the French right with fewer than 10,000 men. Napoleon’s calculation was that this would be just enough to hold what he expected – and hoped – would be the main enemy assault.

THE COALITION’S PLAN

Napoleon’s deployment at Austerlitz was a masterly application of the principle of economy of force. His flanks were required not only to hold the enemy’s attacks, but also to draw down the enemy’s strength from the Pratzen Heights.

A timeline from the original article in Military History Matters magazine.
A timeline from the original article in Military History Matters magazine.

This commanding position the French Emperor had deliberately conceded, feeding the enemy’s sense that the French were weak and reluctant to face open battle, and encouraging him to mass for an attack on the right, with the aim of cutting the French line of communications.

This was exactly the Coalition plan: to occupy the Heights and to use it as the launch pad for a massed assault on the far right of the French line. But the scale of it exceeded expectations, for the Allies committed no less than 59,000 men (commanded by Buxhöwden) to this attack, the effect of which was to thin out the rest of their line, above all on the Pratzen Heights, which became a thoroughfare of men moving onto the hill from the east and then down the far south-western slope.

In contrast to Napoleon’s carefully measured economy of force, this was an instance of extreme diseconomy. The mass of men directed against the French right was too large, and tens of thousands became backedup and unable to get forwards, while the front-line became bogged down in a ferocious see-saw struggle centred on the riverside villages of Zokolnitz and Tellnitz.

Meantime, the other two wings of the Coalition army were too small. Bagration (with 13,000 men) and Lichtenstein (with 4,600 men) lacked the strength to break through the defences of the French left. The centre was weaker still: at the time of Napoleon’s grand assault on the Pratzen Heights, only the Grand Duke Constantine’s Russian Imperial Guard (10,000 men) was deployed to guard it.

THE ASSAULT ON PRATZEN HEIGHTS

The battle had raged on either flank for about two hours when St Hilaire’s and Vandamme’s divisions emerged from the mist and smoke hanging about the valley to begin their ascent of the Pratzen Heights.

A short while before, Marshal Soult had pleaded with Napoleon to give them the order to advance. ‘I beg your Majesty to hold me back no longer,’ he is reported to have said. ‘I have 20,000 men to set in motion.’

‘How long will it take you to climb the Pratzen?’, asked Napoleon. ‘Less than 20 minutes, Sire,’ replied Soult. ‘In that case,’ the impatient marshal was told, ‘we will wait for another quarter of an hour.’

The grand assault began at 9am, and half an hour later the French were on the Heights. But this was only the beginning of what now erupted into a ferocious struggle in the centre of the Coalition line.

The divisions of St Hilaire and Vandamme had crashed into the flank of the immense column of Austrians and Russians moving against the French right. As he became aware of the threat to his centre, Kutusov set about redeploying the men of Langeron’s and Kollowrath’s corps to face this and to commence a series of counterattacks.

Marshal Soult then ordered six 12-pdrs onto the Heights and came forward in person to direct the battle. For more than two hours, an improvised battle of cannonade, musketry, and bayonet charges raged across the plateau.

But by midday, the French were in control, and Napoleon then advanced his imperial headquarters to the Pratzen, instructed Bernadotte’s I Corps to redeploy from the left to the centre, and ordered Oudinet’s Grenadiers and the Imperial Guard to cross the Goldbach: the French masse de décision was thus moved into position.

THE ATTACK OF THE RUSSIAN IMPERIAL GUARD

By 1pm, Napoleon had about 45,000 men concentrated in the centre of the battlefield. His intention was to swing the bulk of this mighty mass to the right, so as to envelop and destroy the Coalition’s over-weighted left under Buxhöwden. Before he could do so, however, the Russian Imperial Guard launched a second full-scale counterattack on the Pratzen Heights.

The charge of the Chevalier Cavalry of the Russian Imperial Guard during the second crisis of the battle. The struggle for the Pratzen Heights proved more ferocious than Napoleon anticipated.
The charge of the Chevalier Cavalry of the Russian Imperial Guard during the second crisis of the battle. The struggle for the Pratzen Heights proved more ferocious than Napoleon anticipated.

The first wave of foot Guards winded themselves by charging with the bayonet over 300 yards; even so, they broke through the first French line and were brought to a halt only by the concentrated musketry of the second.

Then, as Vandamme’s tired men inclined to the right to begin the planned envelopment manoeuvre, they were struck in their exposed flank by 15 squadrons of Guard cavalry, supported by battalions of Grenadiers. Here, in the early afternoon, was the second great crisis of the battle.

De Ségur (a French staff officer who later became an historian of Napoleon’s campaigns) described the scene:

Vandamme’s two battalions on the left were overwhelmed. One of them, indeed, after losing its eagle and the greater part of its weapons, only got up to flee at full speed. This battalion, belonging to the 4th Regiment, almost passed over ourselves and Napoleon himself – our attempts to arrest it being all in vain. The unfortunate fellows were quite distracted with fear and would listen to no one; in reply to our reproaches for deserting the field of battle and their Emperor, they shouted mechanically, ‘Vive l’Empereur!’, while fleeing faster than ever.

VICTORY

But, in fact, the crisis was more dramatic than dangerous. The imbalance in the distribution of force across the battlefield was now decisive. In the final struggle for the Heights, the Russian Imperial Guard was outnumbered four-to-one.

Vandamme kept his head and marshalled his men. Napoleon ordered the cavalry of the Imperial Guard into action. Bernadotte, on his own initiative, sent in the division of General Drouet from his own command. Then, as the situation stabilised, two squadrons of Guard chasseurs and one of Mamelukes were launched on a final attack.

This last broke the resistance of the Russian Imperial Guard. Some 500 Grenadiers and 200 of the Tsar’s personal retinue of Chevalier Guard were killed in ten minutes. ‘Many fine ladies of St Petersburg will lament this day’ was Napoleon’s ironic comment when the survivors were paraded before him.

Napoleon receives the surrender of the
Austrian Emperor Francis II after the Battle of Austerlitz.
Napoleon receives the surrender of the Austrian Emperor Francis II after the Battle of Austerlitz.

By 2 o’clock, the Coalition centre had ceased to exist, and its army was broken in two. The French masse de décision swung to the south. Too late, Buxhöwden attempted to extricate his men. By 3 o’clock, the Allied line was breaking up, thousands of men fleeing to the south, towards the frozen lakes on the edge of the battlefield.

Napoleon ordered up 25 cannon to smash the ice on Lake Satschen. As it broke up, it tipped thousands of Russians into the freezing water beneath; no one is sure how many drowned, but around 2,000 is a likely figure.

All told, 11,000 Russians and 4,000 Austrians lay stricken on the field, more of them dead than wounded, for Austerlitz had been a brutal battle in which men were routinely bayoneted on the ground by their enemies. A further 12,000 were made prisoner. So the Coalition army lost 27,000 men – along with 180 guns – and this was a full third of its original strength.

The French losses, by comparison, were 1,305 killed, 6,940 wounded, and 573 taken prisoner. At this modest cost, Napoleon had broken the military resistance of both Austria and Russia.

Emperor Francis – whose army had been defeated twice, at Ulm and Austerlitz, and whose capital was in enemy hands – capitulated immediately. The Treaty of Pressburg, signed within a month, was harsh: Austria lost Venice to the new (French-controlled) Kingdom of Italy; the Tyrol, Vorarlburg, and other Alpine territory to Bavaria; and Swabia to Württemberg.

Tsar Alexander returned to Russia with the remnants of his defeated army. Prime Minister Pitt was dead within a few weeks – his frail frame broken, some said, by the bitter news of Austerlitz. The Third Coalition had, to all intents and purposes, ceased to exist.

It would be Prussia’s turn next. Then Spain’s. Then Russia’s. The Napoleonic decade had begun.


This is an article from the December 2015 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.



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