December 2, 1805. One year to the date after his coronation as Emperor, Napoleon seems like he’s on the verge of losing everything. A larger army of Austrians and Russians has cornered him near the Czech town of Austerlitz. Instead of defeat, though, Napoleon will win his greatest victory – a tactical masterpiece that will shock the world. One of history’s most important and famous battles, this is Napoleon’s masterpiece.
We’re going skip a lot of the background today since there’s a lot to cover. I’m going to start one year out from the Battle of Austerlitz, and if you need more background there are more articles on this site. If you want ‘em, get at ‘em. If not, here we go.
On December 2, 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned by the Pope as Napoleon I, Emperor of the French. Notably, he was not Emperor of FRANCE. Napoleon’s regime was a weird blend of the French Revolution and an enlightened monarchy. He embodied many Revolutionary ideals, such as the rationalist and liberal spirit of the age – but on the other hand, he was a military dictator. He was a monarch who promoted his family’s interests and coveted glory and power – but on the other hand, he completely reformed the French law code, modernized its economy, and made France the greatest power in Europe. Napoleon represented many things to many different people. He was a man of contradictions, and that legal reform I mentioned would become one of his lasting legacies. Almost thirty countries to his day use some form of the Napoleonic Code in their legal principles. Above all, though, Napoleon was a soldier. And war was on his doorstep.
For a few blessed months from 1802 to 1803, France had been at peace for the first time since nearly the start of the French Revolution. In 1803, though, the peace treaty fell through. Britain and France were at war yet again, and Napoleon immediately started concentrating a massive army on the Channel coast across from England. Though Britain still ruled the waves, Napoleon engaged in various machinations to try and bring the French Navy around to guard his passage across the Channel. These plans would never come to fruition. The main reason was that Napoleon, for all his genius and ability, never quite understood naval strategy or naval power.
In the meantime, though, this army was being built up on the Channel. Napoleon dubbed it the Grande Armee, and it was truly grand – possibly the best fighting force ever assembled in Europe. Almost 250,000 men strong, it contained some of the most experienced soldiers and best generals, possessed the most advanced artillery, and practiced some of the most advanced tactics in European history. With little to do while they waited for the Navy to come pave their way for the invasion of Britain, the Grande Armee trained and trained and trained. Its generals – who had all been junior officers or NCOs before the war - drilled their men, ran their units well, and kept a close eye on the welfare of their men.
When Napoleon had himself crowned Emperor on December 2, 1804, he also created a new rank called “Marshal of the Empire,” and promoted some of his best generals to this position. This included men like the greedy but flexible Marshal Jean-de-Diu Soult, Napoleon’s friend, the furious and brave Marshal Jean Lannes, and the most controversial appointment of all – the icy and restrained Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout. Davout was controversial because he was of relatively junior rank, but Napoleon saw an ability in him that surpassed the others. Davout would soon repay this trust.
Napoleon’s declaration of his Imperial title, though, was the last straw for many European powers. Britain had been lobbying for allies on the continent for years, since King George III didn’t have nearly enough military power to challenge Napoleon on land. By 1804, Britain was finding a receptive audience, especially with Austria and Russia. Both of these large empires had been keeping an alarmed eye on Napoleon’s antics, and decided that he needed to be cut down to size. With their concerns allayed by a significant donation of British money, both Austria and Russia signed onto the alliance in the early months of 1805. Their alliance would become known as the Third Coalition – the first two having been formed to try and fight the French Revolutionary governments.
The new Emperor Napoleon, 36 years old, realized that a ticking clock had started. Austria and Russia had declared war, sure, but it would take them a while to get their armies prepared. That was especially true for Russia, which was HUGE and would require months to even put together an army. That meant Napoleon had to act and act fast. His army was still deployed along France’s northern coast facing Britain, waiting for the French Navy to achieve their big breakthrough and pave the way for the assault on Britain. But the longer they waited, the longer Austria and Russia had time to prepare. If Napoleon waited too long, they could be crashing over the border in a matter of months. But was there still a chance to invade England?
After a series of naval maneuvers that left the French Navy outmatched and divided by Admiral Nelson, Napoleon finally gave up any hope of invading England. Though the continuing movements of fleets would eventually result in Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, Napoleon had abandoned the English invasion long before that battle. With an amphibious assault now off the table, it was time to move his army east and confront the greater threat of the Austrians and Russians. Starting early in August, Napoleon set the massive Grande Armee in motion east, away from the Atlantic and into the heart of Germany. He had only one objective: defeat the Austrians before the Russians could arrive to reinforce them. If he had to face their combined armies, his odds of victory would shrink dramatically.
The campaign that followed this decision, from September to October 1805, would be one of the most brilliant and most studied campaigns of history. The intricate details of the Ulm Campaign are a whole chapter in David Chandler’s “The Campaigns of Napoleon,” so I’m going to boil it down to an extremely simple formula. Forgive me.
Napoleon had adopted a new system of organization for his army. Instead of a loose hodgepodge of brigades like most other European armies, he had streamlined his Grande Armee into a system of “corps”, each commanded by one of his trusted Marshals and each composed of a combination of infantry, artillery, and cavalry. The corps were intended to act and fight as independent units if necessary, but to function as portions of a larger army if they were brought together under Napoleon’s leadership.
Because of their independent status, self-sustaining organization, and their commanders’ skill and trust, the corps system allowed Napoleon to exercise command on a much broader scale than any other European army. When his opponents thought in terms of single field armies moving along a single axis of advance, Napoleon had spiderwebs of small armies roving across the countryside in intricate patterns to outmaneuver and destroy his opponents. That was what happened in the Ulm Campaign.
The Austrian General Mack had begun to advance through southern Germany towards the French border near the Black Forest. While Napoleon sent one of his corps to block Mack and hold his attention, he directed the rest of his army on a wide and complex outflanking movement throughout central Germany. Like a massive swinging door, the Grande Armee descended on Mack and the rest of the Austrian army before they even realized what was happening.
The scale of the campaign was larger and more carefully planned than anything attempted in warfare up to that point; keep in mind that every communication and order took place at the speed of horseback. Napoleon controlled the movements of eight separate corps in the broad march across Germany. Mack, facing only a single corps to his front, was like a child on the beach with his back turned to the tidal wave.
When the wave crashed, it crashed hard. Within a few weeks, Napoleon had encircled Mack’s entire army, penetrating deep into Germany after only a few skirmishes. Totally outmaneuvered and isolated, Mack was forced to surrender at Ulm in southern Germany on October 20, 1805. The French took 60,000 prisoners, including Mack and ten other generals, at the cost of 2,000 killed and wounded. The shock of this victory was not just due to its completeness, but in how Napoleon had won such a dramatic victory without a single major battle. It had been one of the most perfect expressions of his military genius: he had planned and conducted the campaign so well that he barely had to fight for it.
But the war wasn’t over. Napoleon had accomplished a major goal: defeat the Austrians before the Russians arrived to help. The Austrian army had not been totally destroyed, though, since many units had not been encircled at Ulm; furthermore, the Russians were approaching. Napoleon continued his campaign with speed, pushing east quickly and capturing the Austrian capital of Vienna on November 12. Already, though, his troops were running into Russian forces; it was clear that their main army was on the way, and Napoleon had never fought the Russians before. It was well-known that they were a tough, lethal and brave army, unlike the Austrians who Napoleon was used to fighting.
Let’s take a moment and remind ourselves of the situation. Yes, Napoleon and his French army have won some big victories in the last few months – but he’s reaching the end of his tether. His troops are hungry, footsore, and tired. They’ve been marching for almost three straight months, and fighting in some cases. They’ve crossed half of Europe, and have overrun a lot of territory that has to be held. Numbers have dropped from disease or exhaustion, and their supply lines are strained to the max. Distance is a powerful factor in reducing the sustainability of an army, and Napoleon’s Grande Armee was hitting its limits.
In November 1805, the French occupied almost all of southern Germany, and their enemies were amassing in Bohemia (the modern-day Czech Republic.) To a rational mind, it would be time to take stock, resupply, and rest up before going on to a fight. Napoleon could have stuck around in Vienna and rested his troops before trying his luck, especially since winter was approaching and he was likely to be outnumbered in any battle he fought. Most of his army was spread out across Europe, and the Russians were no joke. But Napoleon knew that he could not be secure until he had won his great victory. The Ulm Campaign had only been part of the equation. He needed to face off and defeat the Allies in a decisive battle.
Napoleon led his army into Bohemia as the land was being blanketed with snow and the trees were ringed with ice. His infantry marched along, muskets on their blue-coated shoulders and their breath turning into smoke in the cold of central Europe. The cavalry in their gaudy uniforms had trouble finding forage for their horses. The artillerymen maintained their weapons and hoped for the best. Everyone in Napoleon’s Grande Armee knew that they were going to fight the combined forces of the Austrians and Russians, and knew this would be the battle that would decide the fate of the newborn French Empire.
As his army advanced, Napoleon rode off with his staff to inspect a series of hills and ridges near the small village of Austerlitz. After the Emperor had studied them for a while, he picked out the key piece of terrain – the Pratzen Heights, a massive terrain feature that overlooked the whole battlefield. He informed his staff that he would fight the major battle here: it was perfect. The trick was getting his opponents to the chosen location.
The Austrian Emperor Francis I and the Russian Tsar Alexander I both accompanied their armies in Bohemia, which together numbered almost 95,000 men. They were prepared for and confident in a fight with Napoleon, especially since he probably had no more than 65,000 and it was well-known that his army was near its limits of exhaustion and starvation. They were still cautious since his military genius was well-known, but in the last days of November they began to receive encouraging reports. Napoleon was pulling his troops back, suddenly much more cautious and careful. They also began to receive messages from Napoleon asking to negotiate an end to the war. To the two Emperors, this sounded like Napoleon was having issues and was in a moment of weakness. If there was ever a time to strike, it was now. The Allied army moved southwest to confront Napoleon near the town of Austerlitz.
Napoleon had laid a trap on multiple levels. By suddenly pulling back his army and asking for peace terms, he gave the impression of weakness. He had purposely kept reinforcements away from his army to give the impression of low numbers. By acting cautious and indecisive, he gave overconfidence to his Allied opponents and encouraged them to come fight his army near the hills around Austerlitz. Finally, in one of his riskiest moves of all, he allowed the Austrians and Russians to occupy the dominant Pratzen Heights without a fight. This only cemented Allied confidence in their ability to defeat Napoleon – which was exactly what he wanted.
Napoleon deployed his troops on a line north to south, facing east, where the Allies arrayed their massive force on the Pratzen. Marshal Jean Lannes, along with the cavalry force of Marshal Joachim Murat, held the left flank to the north. Napoleon deployed some forces on the hills in his center, but kept Marshal Jean-de-Diu Soult’s corps hidden behind the hills – out of sight of the Allied lines. Finally, Napoleon only scattered a handful of troops on his right and southern flank, deliberately weakening it. Napoleon wanted the Allies to attack his southern flank – in fact, he counted on it. Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout, the cold and stern commander with his tiny glasses, was coming up just in time to reinforce the southern flank, once again just as Napoleon had planned. The southern flank would appear vulnerable, but in Napoleon’s plan Davout’s troops would arrive in the nick of time to hold it together.
The Allies were utterly confident of victory. Their plan was to bombard the French positions from the domineering Pratzen Heights, while the bulk of their army assaulted Napoleon’s apparently weak southern flank. To do this, they would have to cross a ravine that led down to a frozen lake, which would cut them off from the Pratzen if anything went awry. Though Tsar Alexander’s top general Mikhail Kutuzov cautioned him against this plan, Alexander dismissed his concerns. Everything about Napoleon’s recent behavior indicated that he was on the verge of disaster. By cutting his line of retreat to the south, the Emperors of Austria and Russia could surround Napoleon’s army and force him to surrender. Victory was just over the horizon.
As night fell on December 1, both armies prepared for the fight in the bitter cold of Bohemia. The Emperor Napoleon didn’t look much like an Emperor, walking through his camp with a simple blue coat and a bicorn hat. He wasn’t the short man of legend, but not exactly tall either, especially compared with his Imperial Guard that followed him in their bearskin hats. As Napoleon passed through his army, though, every man who saw him felt a sudden stirring. The Grande Armee lit their torches to acknowledge their Emperor, and as midnight passed and December 2, 1805, dawned, Napoleon remembered that it was the first anniversary of his coronation. The torchlight procession on the eve of Austerlitz remains an article of French military legend, almost a holy moment in the midst of this long and terrible war. Napoleon remembered the night before Austerlitz as the greatest night of his life: the moment when he and his army were one.
The Battle of Austerlitz began at 8:00am on December 2, 1805. As the Russian and Austrian guns launched an ear-splitting bombardment from the Pratzen Heights, four long columns of infantry descended on Napoleon’s weak right flank. Just as Napoleon had planned, though, Marshal Davout and his III Corps were already riding up in the nick of time to stem the Russian offensive. Several isolated villages became key features of contention for both armies, as Russian grenadiers and French skirmishers battled in the streets for the stone houses of Tellnitz and Sokolnitz Castle. Regiments of light hussar cavalry galloped back and forth, and guns crashed over the frosty field, shaking loose fragments of white mist. Davout justified Napoleon’s trust and truly earned his Marshal’s baton with his desperate and courageous defensive stand against the might of the Allied army.
As the Russian attack faltered, Tsar Alexander ordered more and more Allied troops off the Pratzen Heights to commit to the attack on Davout’s units. Kutuzov once again protested the shifting of units from the Pratzen, but the Tsar’s word was law. At the same time, a sharp fight had erupted to the north, as French Generals Lannes and Murat fought a similar holding action against Russian cavalry under Prince Bagration. It seemed like the Allies were about to crush both the French flanks and possibly surround Napoleon’s army. Could this be the end for Napoleon Bonaparte? Was his reign about to end a year after it had begun?
The Battle of Austerlitz, though, has gone down in history for a reason: it was one of the most perfectly planned and executed battles in human history. Because everything had unfolded just as Napoleon intended. The Allied attack, the occupation of the Pratzen, the focus on the southern flank – all of it was about to play into his hands. When the last large Russian units left the Pratzen, Napoleon sighed in relief, because his moment had come. Only 45 minutes after the battle had begun, Napoleon ordered Marshal Soult’s 20,000-man IV Corps to come out from its concealed position and assault the Pratzen Heights. He told Soult, “One sharp blow and the war is over.” By allowing the Allies to take the Pratzen, Napoleon had only let them keep it temporarily; he intended to turn it into the chopping block on which they would split.
Soult’s troops rushed forward under cover of a dense fog, long columns of hungry, cold, tired, but invigorated French soldiers. As they climbed the massive hill, the fog suddenly parted as the sun burst through the clouds. It was the “Sun of Austerlitz,” suddenly casting light as Napoleon’s infantry crested the key terrain of the battle. The mist was ripped apart, and the Allies were stunned to see 20,000 men scaling the Pratzen, bayonets fixed, teeth bared and screaming “Long Live the Emperor!”
The battle for the Pratzen was fierce. Surprised, the Austrians and Russians nevertheless fought like lions, throwing back the first couple of French assaults. Napoleon’s troops would not be denied, however, and by bayonet and musket volley they finally overthrew the Allied forces and ascended the Pratzen Heights. Napoleon himself arrived to direct the fight on the Pratzen – just in time, since the Russian Imperial Guard soon came up to try and reclaim the key terrain. The battle seesawed back and forth for almost an hour, with both sides committing more and more troops to the melee, until Napoleon’s own Imperial Guard and additional infantry reinforcements drove back the Russians. The frosty ground was thick with the bodies of three empires, but Napoleon held the Pratzen.
The French seizure of the Pratzen occurred only an hour into the battle, but once they held it the outcome was assured. By taking the heights Napoleon had split the Allied army in two, and sent forces out to both flanks to finish the fight. To the north, the French cavalry had driven off their Russian counterparts. To the south, Davout had not only held his own but actually counterattacked. The Russian general in this sector, Friedrich von Buxhowden, was totally drunk and unable to respond to this turn of fortune. Nearly surrounded, his Russian units disintegrated into a panic-stricken retreat.
The whole Allied army began to fall apart, routing in every direction and closely pursued by French cavalry. One of the most famous episodes in the retreat came when panicked Russian units tried to cross a series of frozen ponds on the southern end of the battlefield. The French artillery shattered the ice, and many men drowned in the freezing water, with many artillery pieces going down with them. This dramatic event ended the Battle of Austerlitz. The Allies had lost 36,000 men, almost 40% of their entire army, and what was left was in no condition to fight.
To recap: Napoleon had launched a sweeping campaign across Europe that ended up with 60,000 men captured without even a major battle. THEN, with an army at the end of its rope and seriously outnumbered, he had not just defeated but ruined one of the most powerful armies in the world at the Battle of Austerlitz in one of the most brilliant battles ever planned. It was a tactical masterpiece, and the whole world knew it. He had gone from famous general to THE general, the great general, the man who could turn the world upside down in the eyes of Europe. Napoleon stood astride Europe like a giant.
It was one of the most brilliant and sweeping victories in human history. Napoleon’s triumph electrified all of Europe, sending Paris into ecstatic celebration and the Allied capitals into dismal gloom. The Austrian Emperor, his capital occupied and his army totally defeated, made a humiliating peace with Napoleon that would result in the end of the Holy Roman Empire. British Prime Minister William Pitt, upon hearing the news, pointed to a map of Europe and told his Cabinet, “Roll up that map. We won’t need it for another ten years.”
But the most enduring quote came from Russian Tsar Alexander I, who came away from Austerlitz with a deep fear and respect for this little Frenchman. All he had to say was “We are babes in the hands of a giant.”