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“Passing in front of several regiments in battle array, the Emperor said, ‘Soldiers! We must end this battle with a thunderclap that will confound the arrogance of our enemies;’ and instantly their hats waving at the ends of their bayonets and their shouts of “Vive l’Empereur!’ gave the actual signal for the battle to begin…”
– Bulletin of the Grande Armee, Dec. 2, 1805
Napoleon’s Greatest Victory
With this stirring description of his address to his army, Napoleon informed the world of his greatest victory in the Battle of Austerlitz which took place on today’s date, December 2, in 1805. It was something very rare in military history – a complete and total defeat of one army over another, with the defeated army retiring from the field in disorder. It would set the standard for victory, one which Napoleon himself would invoke time and again in the future. It would cement his reputation as a military genius forever, a reputation which would serve him well in the future, scaring many a foe from taking the field against him. And yet, it happened in the shadow of a defeat far away, some months before which Napoleon seems barely to have even noted. But it was one which would seal Napoleon’s fate a full decade before the Battle of Waterloo would drive him to St. Helena.
Napoleon’s Invasion of England?
Napoleon had taken the European scene by storm. By arising seemingly out of nowhere from the ashes of the French Revolution, this once obscure captain of artillery had risen from giving the mob the “Whiff of Grapeshot” which had preserved the Government of the Directory to complete mastery of the French government. By 1802, he had proclaimed himself “First Consul” of the French Republic, and on December 1 of that year placed a facsimile of the Crown of Charlemagne
upon his own head (above), side- stepping the Pope and pro- claiming himself “Emperor of the French”. He had driven the armies of his enemies from the European continent, and he had camped his armies on the shores of the English Channel to prepare them for an invasion of England. He needed only to gain mastery of the Channel long enough for his army to get across. Towards that end he dispatched Admiral Villeneuve to combine his naval forces with those of the Spanish to defeat the British navy, or at least to keep it busy while he got across the channel and onto England.
The Grand Armee’s Road to Austerlitz
Whether or not he really intended to follow through with this ambitious plan is not known, and will likely remain one of history’s great mysteries. What is known is that in late August he wheeled his armies to the southeast and having designated them the “Grande Armee”, marched them to meet the armies of “the Third Coalition” (the third group of nations to combine with the intention of defeating Napoleon)consisting primarily of England, Austria and Russia. A combined Russian/Austrian force was marching into Moravia (a region of central Europe which now comprises the eastern portion of the Czsech Republic), and Napoleon, who had little patience with or understanding of the complexities of Naval warfare decided to go with his strength, and fight his enemies on land.
Czar Alexander I and Kutuzov
Having completely outmaneuvered the Austrians at the Battle of Ulm and bagged 25,000 of their men under the command of General Von Mack, Napoleon then marched into the Austrian capitol of Vienna, taking the city and driving the Austrian Emperor Francis out to
join his armies. Napoleon’s army now faced the Austro-Russian force near the village of Austerlitz. It was a battle which the Allied armies were supremely confident of winning. In fact they had been joined by Russian Czar, Alexander I,and between them, he and the Austrian Emperor had overruled the advice of the wily old veteran commander of the Russian forces, General Mikhail Kutuzov (above). In one of many scenes from this story which Tolstoy would later depict in his epic novel “War and Peace” at the council of war held the night before the battle Kutuzov, knowing that his views would be ignored, appeared to sleep through the meeting.
The Pratzen Heights
The French forces faced the Austro-Russian army across a valley separating them on the cold and foggy morning of December 2, the day after the one year anniversary of Napoleon’s self-crowning as Emperor. The Allied army occupied the commanding position of the Pratzen Heights which overlooked the entire battlefield. Napoleon had placed an
apparently weaker force on the southern end of his position in hopes of drawing the Allied force into moving their main attack force to that position. The ruse worked like a charm. Anxious to attack a French force that seemed to be withdrawing, the Czar ordered his forces to the southern end of the battle line. He apparently did not realize that in so doing, he was evacuating the center of his own very strong position. Kutuzov did realize this, and tried to hold up the move until the French plan became more clear. “Come General! We are not on the parade ground where everyone must be in place!” the Czar said to him dismissively. The Allies marched right into Napoleon’s trap.
Marshall Soult’s Corps Closes the Trap
As soon as the Allied force had moved off of the Pratzen Heights, Napoleon ordered Marshall Soult’s Corps which had been waiting in the valley below under the cover of the fog to advance. Suddenly the sun burst through the fog to reveal the advancing bayonets of Soult’s troops moving up the hill. This was the famous “Sun of Austerlitz”. Kutuzov who had been suspecting just such a move tried furiously to react. Riding around with a handkerchief to his face to cover a wound that he had sustained, the old General tried to bring some of his forces back. But it was too late.
Marshall Davout’s Corps Arrives
The Allied army soon discovered that the French had only been appearing to with- draw to the South. Suddenly, the thin French line was reinforced by Marshall Davout’s Corps which Napoleon had ordered up to the scene of the battle. Now instead of attacking the fleeing French, the Allies found themselves facing a full Corps in front of them, and Marshall Soult’s Corps in their rear. Davout’s timely arrival provided an anvil upon which Marshall Soult’s artillery proceeded to smash the Allies to bits. The French guns began to pound the Allies mercilessly, as they tried to escape across the frozen Sachsen pond. Contemporary illustrations show the Allies being drowned beneath the ice by the thousands as the French artillery began raining down upon them, breaking the ice beneath their feet. The battle turned into a rout.
The French who began the day with an army of some 73,000 men suffered approximately 7,000 casualties. The Allies suffered twice that number of losses. And worse yet, they had fled the battle in disorder. The Czar wound up the day crying beneath a tree. Kutuzov picked up the pieces of the Russian forces and withdrew back into Russia. The Czar, unable to bear the reminder of his signal failure banished the old man to a command in the southern reaches of the empire. The Austrian Emperor would soon meet with Napoleon and sue for peace. More fighting between the French and the Prussians would occur, but eventually the Czar would embrace Napoleon at their meeting on a barge in the middle of the Niemann River near Tilsit, and sign an alliance with him. But Napoleon soon began to over-reach himself. He would impose a “Continental System” to block English trade with the European continent. Such an embargo was bound to fail, and in the end Napoleon made the supreme error of invading Russia to knock them out of the war. It would prove to be his doom. Kutuzov would be recalled and lead the Russians in chasing the remnants of the frozen French army out of Russia about seven years hence.
Trafalgar Spells Napoleon’s Doom
But he finished the day at Austerlitz at the top of his game as a general; Austerlitz was his masterpiece. Owen Connelly has said that it was only luck that would allow Marshall Davout show up in time to seal the Allied fate on the southern end of the line. And there has been much to disprove the image of thousands of Allied troops drowning beneath the ice of the Sachsen Pond. But the fact is that the French completely smashed the Austrians and the Russians that day. And Napoleon would for years after invoke “the sun of Austerlitz” as a talisman of success. But it was all for naught. Some months before Austerlitz, at the Battle of Trafalgar a diminutive little man with one eye and one arm – Sir Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, would at the head of the British fleet sailing on board his flagship H.M.S. Victory, smash the combined Franco/Spanish fleet and insure British control of the seas for over one hundred years. In the opinion of this writer, THIS sealed Napoleon’s fate ten years before his final land defeat at Waterloo. Because Britain could never be subdued – because she would always be there to oppose Napoleon in the field as with Spain and Waterloo, or to finance those who would – the Russians, the Austrians and the Prussians – Napoleon was doomed to lose in the end.
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“The Age of Napoleon” by Christopher Herold Horizon Magzine & American Heritage Publ.Co., New York, 1963.
“Blundering to Glory: Naploeon’s Military Campaigns” – Owen Connelly Rowman & Littlefield Publ. Inc., New York, 1995.