Austerlitz: Battle of Three Emperors
By Bill Bodden
January 2016

In the two years prior to 1805, France had a substantial portion of its armed forces camped on the Normandy coast preparing for an invasion of England. In August 1805 the Emperor Napoleon, having decided an invasion was impractical as long at British seapower remained dominant, turned his back on England for the time and marched instead toward continental Europe and the threat posed by the Third Coalition.

Flush with cash from reparations owed France from the campaigns of 1800, concluded by the Treaty of Amiens in late March 1802, and also from the sale of the Louisiana Territory to the fledgling United States, Napoleon gathered his forces and trained them well. By 1805 Le Grand Armee was the best-trained army in the world.

A series of diplomatic moves between France and England, namely French embargoes placed on British shipping, led to a declaration of war. Britain’s navy now blockaded French ports and began to agitate against the French in Europe, forming an alliance to oppose the armed might of the Emperor, still camped inconveniently close just across the English Channel.

Le Grande Armee at Boulogne, August 1804

At the same time, rumors reached Napoleon’s ear of a plot to restore the Bourbon family to the French throne. The main subject of these rumors was the duke of Enghien, living in exile in the neutral German state of Baden. Tired of years of plotting against himself and his family, Napoleon ordered the duke arrested, no matter that he was in another country altogether. The duke was arrested and repatriated to France, where he was tried, sentenced and executed. This was the final straw as far as the other monarchs of Europe were concerned. Seeing their own potential fate at the hands of Napoleon, they all too eagerly agreed to Britain’s plan.

This Alliance, the Third Coalition, was struck between Austria, Britain and Russia. Britain agreed to provide much of the cash up front to finance the war, as long as Russia and Austria came through with the manpower. The Third Coalition was an uneasy alliance at best; neither the Russians nor the Austrians completely trusted each other, being rivals in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, and this suspicion led to a lack of co-operation between the two empires at critical times.

Austria, still stinging from the loss of much of its Italian territory to the French after the Treaty of Amiens, had been reorganizing its armed forces. The Austrian Imperial Court was constantly embroiled in scheming and shifting allegiances; General Karl Mack was the darling of the faction that favored war, and managed to convince the Austrian Emperor Franz that, despite a military career where he was better known for being a solid staff officer and administrator rather than field commander, and his command of a disastrous campaign against the French in Italy only five years previously where his own troops turned on him, he was the one who could speed up military reforms and have the army ready to meet Napoleon in only a matter of months. Austria was also counting on support from neighboring countries, including Bavaria, despite the latter’s strong ties to France. These blindly optimistic ideas would cost Austria dearly before the year was over.

General Mack's Army

General Mack set to work organizing the Austrian Army for the coming campaign. In September 1805 he marched his army north into Bavaria expecting the Bavarians to join him; instead, having concluded a secret treaty with the French, the Bavarians withdrew north and west to buy time for the French army to arrive. Mack and the Austrians were dismayed, yet stayed in a relatively forward position in Bavaria in the fortress-city of Ulm, thinking themselves safe with a river between them and Napoleon.

It is argued that one of Napoleon’s great strengths as a military leader was his ability to move large masses of troops much more quickly than expected. In this advance he overran a number of smaller garrisons, meeting little resistance from an Austrian army demoralized by Mack’s poor planning and by their lack of adequate supplies, especially food. Bonaparte drove his men hard, and their sweat and toil paid off when they encircled Ulm and trapped roughly half of the entire Austrian northern army inside the city.

Except for a few early skirmishes with the vanguard of the French army, Mack had done little to keep himself informed as to what was transpiring in the world outside Ulm, and the French to caught him napping. Within Ulm the story was even worse than it appeared. Surrounded and with little food and less ammunition, the Austrians were in a very bad position indeed. Their only hope lay in the speedy arrival of the Russian army to break the siege and relieve them.

For their part, the Russians were doing the best they possibly could. Three Russian armies were on the march; General Benningson’s northern army marched across Prussia and into Austria near present-day Prague; General Kutusov, the overall commander of the Russian forces, marched straight through Austria; General Buxhowden’s army brought up the rear, positioned partway between the line of march of the other two forces so he could come to the aid of either Benningson or Kutusov if needed.

Having been on the move since August — setting off barely two weeks after Austria officially joined the Third Coalition — the Russians had covered hundreds of miles but were still many miles away. Winter was approaching, and the autumn rains were turning every road into a river of thick mud. Despite the army being largely on foot, progress was good, but the clock was ticking away on the Austrians trapped inside the walls of Ulm. By October 16 the Russians had covered over 600 miles but were still 160 miles away from Ulm — at least ten days’ march if the weather was good, and they would need a few days after arriving to regroup and organize themselves once they arrived. In the end, it was two weeks before they would reach the vicinity of Ulm; by then it was too late.

General Mack, despairing of Russian salvation from the French, surrendered the entire army bottled up in Ulm, more than 25,000 men, as prisoners of war. General Jellacic’s column, another 8,000 Austrian troops, surrendered in the Tyrol valley in Austria, to the south of Mack’s position. General Werneck’s column to the north also surrendered. More than three-quarters of the northern Austrian army was already out of the way; those that were left (some cavalry had escaped capture at Ulm, and General Kienmayer’s eastern column was largely untouched) retreated east to join up with the advancing Russians. On October 25, 1805, only two weeks after initial contact with the French, the grand battle plan of the Third Coalition was in tatters.

Now Napoleon turned his attention to the approaching Russians. Archduke Charles, sent to keep a large part of Napoleon’s army busy in northern Italy at the outset of hostilities (and to keep him out of the way of General Mack, whom Charles considered unfit for command), marched north after a modest victory against the French at Caldiero in Italy with some 30,000 men, hoping to link up with the remnants of the northern army and the Russians. The going was slow, and his troops were in poor shape. Still, Charles did himself and Austria no favors by resting his troops for two whole days while the French closed in on the Austrian capital of Vienna.

On his way to Vienna after being released on parole by the French, the unfortunate General Mack informed the Russians of what had happened, then proceeded to the Austrian capital and his eventual court-martial. After receiving the news of the disaster at Ulm, Kutusov began to retreat from Napoleon, buying time for the rest of Russia’s armies to unite, and looking for good ground on which to challenge the French emperor.

Napoleon had his army swing north, sweeping through Vienna in an effort to have his easternmost divisions swing around behind the Russians, virtually encircling them. The French were aided in this pursuit by the Austrians themselves, who treated Napoleon more like a conquering hero than a hated enemy, even allowing French troops free and unimpeded access to bridges that could have been destroyed to slow his progress. The Austrians, it seems, were more afraid of their plundering allies than of the French. The Russians were behaving as if in enemy territory, looting as they passed.

The Russians continued to fall back, spending all of November skirmishing with the French and looking for a good position while waiting for the full strength of all three armies to converge. The remnants of the northern Austrian Army had linked up, and soon it began to turn for the showdown to come. On December 2, 1805, more than 140,000 men would contest the Moravian ground near the town of Austerlitz while the whole of Europe held its collective breath.

General Mack surrenders at Ulm. By Charles Thevenin.

Posturing and Negotiations

Napoleon had secretly scouted the area around Austerlitz some weeks earlier, and had chosen the area as the perfect place to spring his trap on the unsuspecting Allies. The Allies thought themselves in a quite good position as well, and had things gone as planned they may have been correct.

To the north, the Prussian government was watching developments with interest. Napoleon had offered Prussia the city-state of Hanover in exchange for Prussia’s neutrality in the conflict. Prussia had not officially accepted yet, and had secretly decided to join the Allies against the French after the end of 1805. Meanwhile, the Prussians watched and waited.

The Russian army was nominally under the overall command of Mikhail Kutusov, an able but cautious commander with over 40 years’ military experience leading troops into battle. In reality, Tsar Alexander, who had joined the army once it had reached close proximity with the enemy, was truly in charge. The Tsar, perfectly capable of drilling troops expertly but with no real combat command experience, was heavily influenced by a faction in the Russian Imperial Court who favored aggressive action. These fire-eaters, convinced that glory was a superior consideration to any other, convinced the Tsar to ignore Kutusov’s sound but drab battle plan, much to the detriment of the Allies’ chances for victory.

On November 29, French cavalry evacuated a small plateau, called the Pratzeberg Heights, which they had been holding east of the village of Austerlitz. It was a calculated move on Napoleon’s part, and the Allies took the bait, occupying those same heights in force only a few hours later. Napoleon sent a trusted aide to the Allies encampment under a flag of truce. He was to make opening overtures toward a cease-fire, by his very presence suggesting that the French were not prepared for battle. Secretly he was there to gather information.

It was painfully apparent that the Allied high command not only lacked unity but was filled with outright dissent. Russian Prince Dolgoruky returned with the aide to the French field headquarters and began to make demands of Napoleon himself as conditions for peace. Napoleon, meanwhile, made sure that the prince would see only what the French emperor had wanted him to see. When the meeting concluded he was even more confident that his plan was working perfectly. After seeing only cavalry around Napoleon’s camp, Prince Dolgoruky returned with news that the French were not only unprepared for battle, they were withdrawing.

Having tricked the Allies into consuming an entire day with fruitless negotiations, Napoleon had purchased sufficient time for his army to form up where he needed them, and for his outlying divisions to make their way to the battle site.

On the morning of December 2, the Allies started forward, convinced they would be pursuing the French army as it retreated. Having spent the night in freezing cold, they were ready for a fight. They immediately discovered their error as several French infantry divisions met them and held firm.

As the battle of Austerlitz began in earnest, the majority of the battlefield was shrouded with a thick fog. In the center of the French line stood Marshal Soult’s IV Corps, some 22,000 men in total. His Corps hidden in a deep depression by the fog, Soult’s advance towards the Pratzeberg Heights at 9 A.M. was a shock that nearly unnerved the Allies forces.

Bataille d'Austerlitz, by François Pascal Simon Gérard.

Rout from the Heights

On the Allies’ extreme left, the Austrian infantry had begun to advance, probing the French positions. After a brief initial success they were thrown back by the timely arrival of several battalions’ worth of French infantry, beginning a see-saw struggle for tactically important structures at the south end of the battlefield. Napoleon was presenting his forces in strength on the Allies’ right, appearing to leave his own right weak and vulnerable.

The Allies were convinced by this showing, and began to concentrate a large portion of their troops from the center to the south, hoping to break through the weak left and sweep these broken forces north, encircling the entire French army. Unknown to the Allies, Marshal Davout had come up from the southwest with a fraction of the III Corps, some 4,000 infantry and cavalry, as an advance force to bolster the supposedly weak French left.

In the north, marshals Murat and Lannes were trusted with keeping the Allied Fifth Column pinned down. With the exodus of the troops from the center to assault the French right to the south, General Bagration’s column was virtually isolated. Lannes sent two regents forward to begin the encirclement, but they ran into stubborn resistance from a small group of Russian infantry. This resistance bought enough time for Bagration to extricate himself, but not before a tremendous artillery exchange, and a running duel between of the Russian Imperial Guard cavalry and Murat’s cavalry reserve.

In the center, Soult’s massive Corps now began an advance up the Pratzeburg Heights, filling the gap left by the Allies’ move against the French right. This advance by Soult was intended to split the Allied forces in half, and would provide the French the opportunity to overwhelm the Allies piece by piece, starting with the northernmost wing and rolling south along the plateau.

Marshal Bernadotte had arrived during the night with his I Corps, and was held in reserve in the rear of the French lines; his troops were hidden from the Allies’ view behind a line of hills along with several battalions of French grenadiers.

In panic the Allies sent forces to reinforce the Pratzeburg Heights, but to little avail; Napoleon’s forces had driven off most of the force left there held against the reinforcements until Bernadotte’s corps and the grenadiers were sent to help. The battle was turning into a rout. Emperors Francis of Austria and Alexander of Russia both quit the field.

The French moved to the south of the heights, in a perfect position to bombard those troops of the Allies that had so recently enjoyed that same view. Attempting to escape the encircling French army, the First and Second Columns of the Allies found themselves in a tight spot; due to French pursuit, they had a large portion of their retreat rout blocked by a frozen lake. As the troops began to cross the ice, French bombardment followed, further panicking the retreating troops and driving them into the frozen lake in droves. The ice was not thick enough to support the weight of all those men, horses and artillery pieces. It gave way. A few hundred men sank to a frigid, watery grave. Many others scrambled to shore, but in their terror and confusion many wound up prisoners of war, and very few artillery pieces crossed the ice unscathed. Napoleon had achieved what is arguably his most brilliant victory.

In the aftermath of Austerlitz, the Russians retreated back across the frontier to their homeland, leaving the Austrians and French to sort things out. Austrian Emperor Francis applied to Napoleon for an armistice, and before the end of the month had signed the Treaty of Pressburg, ceding significant portions of the once-proud Holy Roman Empire to French control. These lands would be used to form the Confederation of the Rhine, a series of small, sovereign Germanic States loyal to Napoleon, acting as a buffer zone to separate the French from Prussia and Austria. These nations and city-states would contribute significant forces to Napoleon’s future war efforts, even fighting with the French during the Russian Campaign of 1812.

The Austerlitz Campaign could not have gone better for the French, while the Allies were left with the felling that they couldn’t do anything right. A large indemnity would hamper the Austrian economy for years to come and keep the French coffers well-stocked.

With the struggle over so quickly, Prussia, which had planned to enter the war on the Allies’ side after the first of the year, decided instead to accept Napoleon’s offer of the city of Hanover and related territories in exchange for their neutrality. Now Britain was alone in opposing the ambitious Bonaparte — although rumblings from Prussia in 1806 would lead to another decisive campaign, and the humbling of another great European power.

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