Napoleon's Finest Battle

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1805: The French emperor left his mark on history in the battle of Austerlitz.

By John Dellinger

Two hundred years ago, the diminutive figure of Napoléon Bonaparte cast a giant shadow across Europe. His genius as a military commander and his bold manipulation of French politics propelled him to emperor of France in 1804, and his ambition to extend French control over all of Europe took France into war with the other great European military powers of the day England, Austria, Russia, and Prussia.

During this time, the British navy stood tall, decisively defeating the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar. But on land, the combined Russian and Austrian forces were no match for Napoléons troops. On Dec. 2, 1805, Napoléon proved it when he won a decisive victory near the village of Austerlitz, in what is now Czechoslovakia. Some, including Napoléon, say this was Napoléons finest battle, overcoming superior numbers and displaying tactical skills that are being studied even today.

A year before the battle of Austerlitz, France was well into the Napoléon-ordered massive undertaking of building an invasion fleet to land troops on English shores. The project, which involved amassing muskets, artillery, horses, supplies, and 150,000 troops, had nearly bankrupted the French treasury. Ignoring naval objections that small, flat-bottomed craft would be swamped, as well as pounded, by the British navy, Napoléon decided to go ahead with the project. But, it ultimately was scrapped in favor of a land engagement with the Austrians and Russians, who were gathering in north central Europe for a presumed attack on France.

Probably relieved to have a way to save face from what was shaping up to be a disastrous channel crossing, Napoléon sent his channel troops and other units, known as the Grande Armée, north. He departed later to join them near the Rhine, hoping to hide his intention of attacking the allies before they attacked him.

Napoléons rapid troop movement in the fall of 1805 was designed to prevent the Russian and Austrian armies from linking up. In this, he was partially successful. After some of his corps fought several battles, Napoléon trapped an overeager Gen. Freiherr Karl Mack von Leiberich at the town of Ulm. The Austrian general, who failed to coordinate effectively with his Russian ally, thought he could engage his troops in battle against Napoléon while the Russians smashed into Napoléon from a different direction. But his ally did not arrive in time. On Oct. 20, 1805, 26 days later, Mack and his troops numbering around 45,000 surrendered to Napoléon.

Napoléons forces advanced toward Vienna; allied forces skirmished with the French and gave battle in various places but ended up withdrawing. Napoléons troops reached the outskirts of Vienna on Nov. 12, 1805. The Austrians had declared Vienna an open city to spare its destruction, enabling Napoléon to occupy it. He then advanced beyond the town of Brünn, where he studied the land and formulated a plan for a major engagement that would become known as the battle of Austerlitz.

The battle plan
Key geographical features in this area were Goldbach Creek in the south, which became Bosenitz Creek further north; a road running between the towns of Brünn and Austerlitz; a plateau called Pratzen Heights on the east side of the Goldbach-Bosenitz creeks; Santon Hill to the north of the road and east of the creeks; and two large ponds east of the creeks and several miles south of Pratzen Heights. Napoléon had his forces occupy the plateau and spread out along the creeks and also placed troops along Santon Hill by the road. Then he waited patiently as Russian and Austrian forces converged on the area to the east of Austerlitz.

As with most battles of that era, troop strength estimates and casualty figures vary, but it is clear that Naopléon was outnumbered by the allies. Some experts say Napoléon had 67,500 men; the combined Russian and Austrian forces numbered 85,700. Napoléon had 139 artillery pieces; the allies had 278. Napoléons cavalry numbered fewer than 8,000, giving the allies a 3-1 advantage in mounted soldiers.

As Austrian and Russian forces continued to gather in the days preceding Dec. 2, Napoléon withdrew his troops from Pratzen Heights, giving the allies the impression that he was preparing to retreat. Then, using the creeks to draw his line of defense, he left his right flank weak and concentrated his main forces in the area across from Pratzen Heights and to the north. Napoléons troops spontaneously lit torches to commemorate the emperors coronation a year before. Because retreating armies burned whatever they did not take to keep it from the enemy, this served as another indication to the allies watching from Pratzen Heights that the French were going to retreat at dawn.

The French troops enthusiasm for their emperor partly may have been inspired by a proclamation Napoléon instructed company commanders to read to the men the night before the battle:

Soldiers, the Russian army is before you, come to avenge the Austrians at Ulm. These are the same battalions that you beat at Hollabrunn, and the same which you have constantly pursued without respite until now. The positions that we occupy are formidable; and, while the enemy are marching to tummy right, they will present their flank.

Soldiers, I shall direct your battalions in person. I shall keep out of range if you succeed, with your usual bravery in throwing the enemy lines into disorder and confusion. But if victory should at any time seem doubtful, you will see your emperor exposing himself in the front line. We cannot afford to let victory slip from our grasp on a day like this when the honor of the French infantry and whole nation is at stake.

Under the pretext of carrying the wounded, let no one leave the ranks, and let everyone be convinced that we must beat these hirelings of England, who are animated with such a bitter hatred against our nation.

This victory will finish the campaign, and we shall be able to take up our winter quarters, where we shall be joined by new armies forming in France; and then the peace which I shall make will be worthy of my people, of you, and of myself.

As Napoléon toured the blazing campfires and was cheered by his men, a grenadier of the Imperial Guard stepped up to Napoléon:

Sire, you will not have to expose yourself. I promise you, on behalf of the grenadiers of the army you will have to fight only with your eyes. Tomorrow we are going to bring you the flags and the artillery of the Russian army as a present for the anniversary of your coronation.

In the heat of battle
Napoléons plan worked perfectly. When the sun came up on Dec. 2, his heavy concentration of troops across from Pratzen Heights and to the north was concealed by a heavy fog. A haze of smoke from the campfires the night before also hung in the air.

The allies reduced their troop strength on Pratzen Heights to bolster the forces that would hit the right, turn the flank, and then roll up the French line. What about the allies weakened center? After all, Napoléon had voluntarily evacuated the plateau. Was it reasonable to think he would attack there?

As the fog continued to evaporate in the morning sunshine, Napoléon watched the denuding of allied troops on Pratzen Heights. When he judged the moment to be right, he ordered Gen. Nicolas-Jean de Dieu Soult to have French troops walk in formation toward Pratzen Heights. Their comrades in arms had already been engaged in battles for quite some time along the 7- to 8-mile front. A frantic allied command was soon trying to shift troops back to an endangered Pratzen Heights.

After numerous hard-fought battles in all sectors, the allied Army was split in two. Allied troops tried to retake the high ground, but Napoléon positioned cannons on the plateau and rained fire on them.

Battles continued fiercely up and down the line. Cavalry clashes, infantry charges and repulsions, withering musket fire that decimated advancing lines of men and massed defenders, screams of pain, frightened neighing of horses as they and their blood-soaked masters fell in the heat of battle, flesh ripped open and cast aside all were under a canopy of bright sunshine.

Napoléon reinforced his right flank, where French troops held heroically. Allied forces there were cut off from other allied forces and desperately tried to escape. As 5,000 or more soldiers fled in the vicinity of the frozen ponds in the south, French cannon balls targeted Satchon Pond, drowning perhaps 2,000 allied soldiers in the icy water. By afternoon, the French had won decisively with 27,000 allied casualties (11,000 dead) compared with 8,000 French casualties (1,300 dead).

Napoléons battle plan used deception, concealment, surprise, and flexibility. He feigned retreat, attacked in force where unexpected, split his opponents force in two, and then overpowered each flank. This was generalship at its best.

In a proclamation to his soldiers after the battle, Napoléon expressed his feelings about their performance: Soldiers, I am pleased with you! You have this day at Austerlitz realized all I expected of your bravery. ... In less than four hours, you have cut to shreds and routed an army of 100,000 men, commanded by the emperors of Russia and Austria. The enemy that escaped your bayonets have drowned in the lakes. ... Soldiers, when I have accomplished everything that is necessary for the happiness and prosperity of your land, I shall lead you back to France. There you will be the objects of my most tender care. My people will greet you with joy, and it will be enough for you to say I was at the battle of Austerlitz, and they will reply There stands a hero!"

According to eyewitnesses, Napoléon was in direct command during the battle, planning every detail, issuing orders, urging his troops to victory an active commander, doing everything within his power to impose his will on the battlefield, the professional soldier. Emperor Francis of Austria and Czar Alexander of Russia played lesser roles, and they and their generals were no match for Napoléon.

The emperors downfall
Austerlitz was the high point of Napoléons military career. With an army that had demonstrated its superiority on the battlefield, he was able to bring other nations directly under his control or force compliance with his wishes. Napoléon even sprinkled crowns on the heads of his relatives, giving them European kingdoms to rule, which made Europeans more resentful of him.

An independent-thinking Russia ultimately would not acquiesce to Napoléons Continental System. In an effort to retain his influence over Europe, Napoléon invaded Russia in 1812. Leading his Grande Armée of more than a half million into Russia, he boasted to his troops, Are we no longer the soldiers of Austerlitz?

At Austerlitz, Napoléon set a trap by appearing to retreat, then waited patiently to spring the trap on the Russians and Austrians. At Moscow, it was the Russians who set the trap and waited. Napoléon tarried five weeks in the city the Russians had vacated, awaiting Czar Alexanders formal surrender. It never came.

The French set out for home in weather that was initially mild. Russian cavalry, like wolves, nipped at the retreating French army. Austerlitz was far away, and Napoléon had not learned the lesson of his own genius there. Changing weather was the final blow as the Grande Armée became corpses in the snow. Had Napoléon remembered Austerlitz better, he might not have returned in defeat, his army destroyed.