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Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Austerlitz

Updated on June 8, 2012

Background

For all of his faults, it must be said that Napoleon’s campaign against the powers of the Third Coalition in the final months of 1805 was probably his greatest, and the famous battle of Austerlitz in the modern day Czech Republic was undoubtedly a masterpiece in Napoleonic military leadership. The Allies of the Third Coalition (Austria, Britain, Russia, Sweden and Naples) were supremely confident of a swift and decisive victory over what they regarded as an upstart army of brash peasants. The two main architects of the coalition were Britain’s Prime Minister, William Pitt and Russia’s Tsar Alexander I, between them, they created the largest coalition force ever assembled against the French, some 400,000 men on a broad front stretching from Naples in the Mediterranean to Hannover and Pomerania on the Baltic. Like all great military dictators, Napoleon was perhaps overly confident at times with his own abilities as a commander and tactician. But he was astute enough to understand that he could only prevail against the Coalition if he moved fast, struck hard and divided his enemy before the more ponderous Austrians were ready.

Napoleon had a grand total of 350,000 men under his command, but realistically only the 194,000 men that made up his Grande Armee could meet and defeat the coalition force in Central Europe, and they were currently positioned on the Channel coast, poised to invade Southern England.

The Campaign

On 8th September 1805, an invasion was launched, but not by whom you might think. Instead, it was an Austrian army under General Karl Mack who marched virtually unopposed into Bavaria, occupying Munich four days later. He then moved westwards and occupied Ulm and Ingolstadt in order to keep a sharp eye on the Black Forest; confident that Napoleon would attempt an invasion of southern Germany. Further north, a French attack against the Prussians was successfully blocked, or at least that was what Mack was led to believe. Surely, even Napoleon wouldn’t dare to anger the Prussians enough for them to join the Allies by violating their territorial integrity.

But Napoleon held no such fear, and so sent a force under Marshal Murat through the Black Forest to divert Mack’s attention, while he sent the rest of his Grand Armee d’Allemagne (Grand Army of Germany) through Franconia and northern Bavaria. Murat crossed the Rhine near Strasbourg between the 25th and 27th September while the rest of the army crossed the Neckar River on the 1st October, hoping to reach the Danube and cut Mack’s line of retreat eastwards. As yet Napoleon had no real idea where Mack’s main army was. He hoped that they were still at Ulm, because then he could move to cut off a possible line of retreat to Vienna.

Four days later, Mack had news that French troops had crossed the Anspach River on their way south towards Donauworth, where three days later the Austrians lost 600 men trying to hold their ground. As a result, Mack’s main army at Ulm was now effectively cut off and surrounded. The Austrians attempted to make Mack a scapegoat for the disaster, but the general was no fool, and he ordered his army to advance and break through towards Bohemia, cutting through the rather thin French lines. On the 11th October, he had one successful encounter with the enemy. But the attack wasn’t pressed home with the determination and conviction required, the reason was that the officers detested Mack as a foreigner and the men had generally lost faith in him and their officers.

Mack’s situation grew increasingly hopeless, as the French army gradually moved in, tightening the noose ever more around his neck. He realised that any further bloodshed was futile, and so on the 25th October, his army of 24,000 surrendered at Ulm. The misguided and brash decision to invade Bavaria had cost the Austrians 60,000 of their best troops.

It was no wonder that the French troops, whose casualties were trifling, were astounded with their own success, and also how their ruthless and swift advance had managed to spare them the prospect of a pitched battle against an enemy that was not to be underestimated. It was Ulm rather than the battle to follow at Austerlitz that showcased the most brilliant piece of Napoleonic leadership seen thus far. The French had successfully outmanoeuvred the enemy and forced them to capitulate without major casualties on either side.

The Allied Plan

According to the Allies half baked ‘grand strategy’ General Mack shouldn’t have advanced at all until the Russians arrived. The vanguard of the Russian expeditionary army, roughly 25,000 men reached Branau-am-Imm by the end of November, but the disaster at Ulm made any sort of advance redundant. The Russian Commander, General Mikhail Kutuzov was a cautious man, shrewd and experienced. He chose to retreat, but he only managed to escape through some very fast marching and his subordinate’s expert handling of the rearguard.

On the 11th November the last Austrian troops, some 11,000 left Vienna for the concentration area in Bohemia where the Allied armies by the end of the month numbered 80,000. The following day the bands of the Grande Armee entered the Imperial capital, playing catchy marching songs, while being watched by 240,000 extremely nervous souls. The Austrians chose not to set fire to their capital, which was a stark contrast to their fanatical allies who set fire to Moscow when the French entered in 1812, and then fought a bitter guerrilla war in the aftermath.

Upon his arrival in the Austrian capital, Napoleon had good reason to review his situation. He had lost 50,000 men during the campaign and had 85,000 men under the command of the Austrian Archduke Charles in Italy, ready and willing to strike against him. Also, the main Allied force was concentrated in Bohemia. All they had to do was simply co-ordinate their attacks and the little Corsican would have been crushed in the middle. However, there was little chance of this happening as the Archduke remained determined to stay defensive, as he distrusted the Russians, almost as much as he despised the French and had opposed the war right from the beginning. Charles’ reluctance to advance ensured that the Allies missed a golden opportunity to execute a pincer movement that would strike Napoleon in the rear.

Tricks of War

The campaign now moved into its second phase; Napoleon only had around 50,000 men available to him by the time he entered Brno on the 23rd November. The weather was bitterly cold; Napoleon had a habit of examining the ground carefully in order to find the ideal spot to do battle. He found his ideal spot around the Pratzen Heights, towards the small town of Austerlitz. At this juncture, he turned to his officers and said: ‘Gentlemen, examine the ground carefully. It is going to be a battlefield: you will have a part to play upon it.’

It was here that Napoleon decided to ruse the Allies into making a premature attack by having Marshal’s Soult and Lannes occupy the Pratzen Heights, Wischau and Austerlitz. He then met Count Dologoruki, the Tsar’s ADC (Aide-de-camp) and feigned anxiety and gave the impression that he lacked confidence. All part of an elaborate plan to lure the Allies into a false sense of confidence, he wanted them to believe that his position was weak, and also wanted to create the impression that he wished to avoid battle. On the 30th November, Napoleon ordered Soult to withdraw his troops in some haste from Pratzen and Austerlitz, effectively baiting the Allies into attacking.

The following day, Generals Bernadotte and Davout joined the Grande Armee; the latter had completed a gruelling nonstop march from Vienna. Now the two belligerents were evenly matched, with the Allies only enjoying a slight advantage, 85,000 to 73,000. Despite there still being a deficiency, the French were in buoyant mood, they oozed confidence, largely through their qualitative superiority and the presence of their newly crowned Emperor.

The Allies had decided to attack the French right flank with the bulk of their army and crush it, while General Bagration in the north attacked along the Olmutz-Brunn road. Around 60,000 troops were ordered to leave the Pratzen Heights, take the villages of Telnitz and Sokolnitz and then join up at Kobelnitz; the idea was to force the French into a line stretching from Turas to Pantowitz. Then a force of 24,000 men would strike at the hinge of the French line a Pantowitz, if successful, then the French would be routed, and victory would be theirs to savour.

Preparing for Battle

A painting showing the French troops bivouacking    on the eve of battle.
A painting showing the French troops bivouacking on the eve of battle. | Source

Strategic Map

This map highlights the situation in the Battle at 9 am.
This map highlights the situation in the Battle at 9 am. | Source

Images of the Battle

Russian and French troops fight for control of a French standard at Austerlitz
Russian and French troops fight for control of a French standard at Austerlitz | Source
In this painting, the Tsar's Cavalry Guard successfully capture a French standard.
In this painting, the Tsar's Cavalry Guard successfully capture a French standard. | Source

The Battle Begins

On the morning of the battle, a low lying winter mist cloaked the field, which played havoc with the Allies original plan. The Russian General Langeron pointed out that the Allied offensive would leave the key to the whole battlefield- the Pratzen Heights completely undefended. During the night, Napoleon had learned the Allies were on the move, he dismissed their plans relayed to him by his spymaster as amateurish and doomed to failure. At 5 am, he assembled his council of war, and elected to leave Legrand and Davout with 18,600 men to secure the left, while he and the bulk of the army (65,000 men) secured the right flank.

Meanwhile, in the Allies camp, the Tsar Alexander I was having breakfast with Francis II, the Holy Roman Emperor at the height of Stary Vinohardy. At the same time the Tsar was giving Kutuzov a severe dressing down for not moving his troops more quickly. Unbowed, the general replied that he needed all the units to be in line before he could make any sort of advance, which they finally did at 6 am. At the nearby village of Telnitz, the Austrian advance guard ran into heavy fire from the elite Corsican Legion- appropriately nicknamed the ‘Emperor’s cousins.’ For about an hour, a fierce battle was fought around the small village until the French retreated.

The retreat of the French opened the door for the realisation of the Allied plan, but General Doctorov and his force of 13,600 men spurned the opportunity by electing to await Langeron’s Corps which had encountered delays due to confusion over troop movement atop the Pratzen Heights. The delay in the Allied attack allowed the French to reform and during the hours immediately after dawn some 10,000 Frenchman managed to counter the advance of a Russian and Austrian force five times their number.

A Feature Length Documentary on Austerlitz from the BBC

The Pratzen Heights

Napoleon had set up his field HQ on the nearby Zarlan Heights. At 8:45 am he gazed down through his telescope at the Allies marching south, abandoning the crucial Pratzen Heights- a hillock that dominated the area for miles around. Napoleon enquired as to how long it would take Soult’s men- concealed at the bottom of the hill to march up and seize the heights. Soult confidently declared that it would only take 20 minutes. So Napoleon waited until the very last of the Allied force had left Pratzen before giving the order to advance.

Despite the French observing almost complete silence as they carefully advanced up the slope, their movement was spotted by a Russian officer, who promptly informed Kutuzov. The general then ordered his firebrand deputy Miloradovich to retake the heights, but it was too late, despite valiantly attempting to dislodge the French from the village of Pratzen. By 11 am, the height was in Soult's control despite several determined efforts by the Russians to take it back. Both Kutuzov and the Tsar were almost killed by the heavy, relentless French artillery fire.

By now the Tsar was growing ever more desperate, so he sent his brother, the Grand Duke Constantine and his 8000 Imperial Guards into the fray. These troops had been personally handpicked, and were all impressively tall, a deliberate psychological ploy. They advanced on the Pratzen Heights and broke through the first French line but the heavy musket and artillery fire proved too much. The attack did have an effect since many of the French troops broke and fled at the Russian onslaught. The desperate stampede that ensued almost engulfed Napoleon’s HQ.

By two in the afternoon, there was nothing left of the Russian army’s original central position and what remained of the Allied resistance was disjointed and totally disorganised. In the streets of the nearby village of Sokolnitz, the dead, dying and screaming wounded lay in heaps. Davout gave an order which destroyed his previously good reputation, the order was that no Allied prisoners or wounded were to be spared. However, many did manage to escape the deplorable French butchery that followed.

The Two Adversaries Meet

Napoleon meets the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II at the conclusion of the battle.
Napoleon meets the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II at the conclusion of the battle. | Source

Aftermath

As the snow began to fall, the battle ended, with the victorious French too exhausted to pursue the fleeing Allied troops. Napoleon had dealt a massive blow to the Third Coalition that left Austria a crushed nation and Russia utterly humiliated. Only Britain had managed to achieve any kind of success against Napoleon by successfully decimating the French Navy at Trafalgar and thus ending Napoleon’s dreams of invasion once and for all. But the reality was that now Britain was alone, shorn of its continental allies. The French had lost 9000 men- a mere 12 per cent of its army, while the Allies had lost three times that number, roughly a third of their entire army.

Napoleon’s army was also left in possession of the battlefield. Austerlitz would prove ultimately to be the zenith of his militaristic might, but it wasn’t enough to lead to peace, on Napoleon’s terms at least. It was only after a further two years of bitter fighting against Prussia and Russia that peace was finally forced. In July 1807, both Allied powers were forced to sue for peace with France at Tilsit.

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    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 5 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      What a well put together page! You're easily one of the better content producers on this site.

      What a waste it all seems! So many times so many tyrants and so many armies led to so many dead...and for what?

      Dreams....just dreams - the ego of some man, and the willingness of poor persons to die for them...hoping for a bit of a better life.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      It's very difficult to keep track of who's doing what when everyone seems to have his own army. You do a great job of tying it all together. Voted up and interesting.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks very much Wesman, I agree with you; Napoleon was just one of a long list warmongering tyrants that harboured dreams of world domination. Sadly, even in the 21st century, those sort of people still exist somewhere in the world.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks very much Harald, really appreciate it; as it took me quite a while to research and put this hub together.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      What amazes me most about warfare in the old days, is how these armies were even able to find each other in the vastness of Central Europe. They didn't have modern communications, such as spy satellites etc. The sadness really, is that they did manage to meet.

      Thanks James, again, for another top class hub.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Christopher, it does seem remarkable doesn't it. But I suppose that's what scouts and exploring officers were paid to do. I agree with you, it is a great shame that they did. Thanks once again, always appreciated.

    • Seeker7 profile image

      Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

      Wow! For me, this can be a complicated subject to get my head around. But your wonderful article is so easy to follow, while remaining a fascinating and totally absorbing read! I think although Napoleon was a tyrant and not really likeable, there is still something very intriguing about this man.

      Voted up interesting + awesome!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Seeker, I agree with you, and found the same thing when writing about Julius Caesar- an utterly vile man, but still intriguing at the same time. Really glad you liked it. Thanks for popping by.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 5 years ago from Nepal

      Napoleon is one of my favorite historical characters.

      Thanks for sharing this history lesson.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      No problem Vinaya, thanks very much for dropping by.

    • Jason Marovich profile image

      Jason Marovich 5 years ago from United States

      Intriguing look at the politics during the Napoleonic Wars, and I'm an admirer of the battlefield tactics and strategies employed by Napoleon and the French. I assume his concepts are still taught in military academies today. I enjoyed your article, and I'll be sure to read more, as this is a subject in which I lack knowledge, ironic considering my interest in war gaming.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Jason, thanks for stopping by. I've been fascinated by the Napoleonic era ever since I read Bernard Cornwell's 'Sharpe' books. I'm not sure whether his tactics are still taught, but I wouldn't be surprised if they were. When you say 'war gaming' am I right to assume that its computer games, or is it something else? Just curious.

    • Jason Marovich profile image

      Jason Marovich 5 years ago from United States

      Today, yeah, it's computer games. But my interest in war gaming stemmed from Dungeons and Dragons and moved through board games like Risk and Axis and Allies. Oh, my, the hours my friends and I spent playing that last.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Cool, I used to play a game 'Ultimate Risk' on the PC, that was pretty cool, as you had the option of playing the classic game or an expanded game, with huge maps of Europe, Africa etc. I once conquered Europe as the red's and also conquered North America as the blue's. Never managed to secure world domination though.

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