On August 26, 1805, a post chaise left the town of Mainz and rolled east toward the Rhine River. Inside the carriage sat a man, 6 English feet in height, with black corkscrew curls tumbling over his suit collar, dark flashing eyes and a black mustache. He had a handsome face, marred only by a scar on his lower jaw, the result of a bullet wound. In his hands he held a book by Marshal Charles Louis Auguste Fouquet, comte de Belle-Isle, describing the French campaign in Bohemia in 1742. On the man’s passports was the name Colonel de Beaumont.
Moving rapidly, the carriage traveled to Frankfurt, then turned southeast toward Offenbach and Wurzburg. It proceeded to the town of Bamberg on the Regnitz River. Carefully skirting the border of the Austrian empire, it followed the course of the Regnitz southward to Nuremberg. Turning east again, it rolled to the Danube, tracing that river’s course to Regensberg. There, it clattered across the Danube on the great stone bridge and continued to Passau. From there, the carriage turned west toward Munich, drove on to Ulm and through the Schwarzwald (Black Forest).
On September 10, the carriage rolled to a stop at Strasbourg, France, where Colonel de Beaumont reverted to his true identity: Joachim Murat, marshal of France, grand admiral of the empire, senator of France, governor of Paris, grand master of the cavalry…and brother-in-law of Napoleon I, emperor of the French. That same day, a succession of signal flags transmitted Murat’s coded report to Napoleon in Paris:
I have traveled to all of the points that your Majesty ordered me to visit….I hope to furnish the different information that you required, such as the distances, the localities, the positions, the nature and states of roads and resources that exist on the communications between the principal points. I have also made notes on the principal rivers as well as the approaches to Bohemia and the Tyrol….
There exists at Wels a corps of about 60,000 men; at Braunau on the Inn, one of from 10 to 12,000, and a camp has been set up there for 30,000;…already some Austrian soldiers have arrived at Salzburg; it is generally believed that they are going to occupy Bavaria….
Prince Charles is to be the commander in Italy, and the Emperor on the Rhine. Their principal objective is to act in Italy, which appears probable given the extraordinary preparations taking place in the Tyrol….On Lake Constance there are about 15,000 men. A great number of Russians are on the frontiers of Galacia, the number is said to be 80,000 men. General Weyrother is, it is said, to be going to guide them. Finally, everything in Austria has a warlike attitude….
In Paris, at the Palace of Saint Cloud, Murat’s observations were added to those from other sources. As Napoleon studied his situation map, the red and black pins that marked the positions of French forces and their rivals revealed that an overwhelming force was gathering against France.
Largely in reaction to First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte’s coronation as emperor on December 2, 1804, on August 9, 1805, Britain, Austria, Russia, the Netherlands, Sweden, Naples and a collection of German principalities formed a new alliance against France. This Third Coalition’s objective was to force France back inside its territorial boundaries of 1789, before the French Revolution. To achieve that, the coalition planned to put more than 400,000 men into the field, far more than Napoleon could muster, and strike France from two directions.
Austria’s best general, Field Marshal Archduke Charles of Hapsburg-Lorraine, would attack in northern Italy with 94,000 men, recapture Austria’s former possessions there, then advance into southern France. Meanwhile, Austrian Archduke Ferdinand D’Este, with Quartermaster-General Karl Freiherr Mack von Leiberich as his chief of staff and mentor, would advance with 72,000 men along the Danube to discourage the elector of Bavaria from joining Napoleon and to cover the approach of Austria’s Russian allies. By October 20, the first Russian army, 50,000 men under Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, would arrive, followed by another 50,000 men under Field Marshal Count Friedrich Wilhelm Büxhowden. The Russian armies would join Archduke Ferdinand and Mack for a combined invasion of northern France. To cover the two main offensives, an additional Russian force of 20,000 under General Count Levin
Bennigsen would protect the northern flank of the Danube offensive, while an additional Austrian force of 22,000 men under Archduke John would operate in the Tyrol.To distract French attention from the coalition’s main offensives, a force of 40,000 Russians, Swedes and British would advance through northern Germany into Holland, while 30,000 Russians and British would land in Naples, join with 36,000 Neapolitans and advance up the Italian Peninsula into northern Italy.
In the face of these multinational threats, Napoleon realized that his immediate project — a cross-Channel invasion of England — was now impossible. As a result of the military intelligence gathered by Murat and others, however, he had complete knowledge of the coalition’s plan. His response would be a preemptive strike into central Europe. He would try to destroy the army under Ferdinand and Mack before the Russians could arrive, then crush the Russians in turn. Meanwhile, Marshal André Masséna, with 50,000 men, would tie down Archduke Charles’ army in Italy. Marshal Guillaume Marie-Anne Brune, with 30,000 men, would forestall the coalition advance into Holland, and Général de Division Laurent Gouvion St. Cyr, with 18,000, would march on Naples to prevent any coalition advance there.
The instrument for Napoleon’s offensive against Ferdinand and Mack stood at Boulogne on the English Channel. His Grande Armée, 180,000-strong, highly trained, well armed and mobile, was ready for action.
The Grande Armée was divided into seven corps, each commanded by a marshal of France. Jean Baptiste Bernadotte commanded the I Corps; Auguste-Fredéric-Louis Marmont, the II Corps; Louis-Nicholas Davout, the III Corps; Jean-Baptiste de Dieu Soult, the IV Corps; Jean Lannes, the V Corps; Michel Ney, the VI Corps; and Pierre Franois Charles Augereau, the VII Corps. Joachim Murat commanded the Cavalry Reserve. The seven corps, Cavalry Reserve and Imperial Guard under Napoleon’s own hand totaled 145,000 infantry and 38,000 cavalry; to this would be added 25,000 Bavarian allies.
On August 27, the Grande Armée broke camp and marched east. Bernadotte’s I Corps, stationed at Hanover, headed for Wurzburg to collect the Bavarians, while the other six corps converged on the Rhine. Napoleon believed that ‘The force of an army…is the sum of its mass multiplied by its speed.’ The distance from Boulogne to the Rhine is 450 miles, and each soldier covered it on foot, carrying his knapsack and musket, a total of 65 to 75 pounds. The price was high. Jean Roch Coignet, a private in the Foot Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard, recalled: ‘Never was there such a terrible march. We had not a moment for sleep, marching by platoon all day and all night, and at last holding onto each other to prevent falling. Those who fell could not be awakened. Some fell into the ditches. Blows with the flat of the sabre had no effect upon them. The music played, the drums beat a charge; nothing got the better of sleep….’
On September 26, the ‘torrents’ of the Grande Armée crossed the Rhine. The march continued into Germany until after wheeling to the south on October 6, the army found itself in line along the Danube from Ulm to Ingolstadt. Napoleon’s army was now farther east than the unsuspecting army of Ferdinand and Mack, which had imprudently advanced along the Danube to Ulm in Bavaria. By the time the Austrians realized what was happening and struck north to attack the French, it was too late. The Austrian army was encircled, driven into Ulm and surrounded. On October 20, Mack and 27,000 surviving Austrian soldiers laid down their arms. Ferdinand, with 6,000 cavalry, managed to escape. As the French soldiers marched away from Ulm they sang:
As if he was a pinch of tabac./blockquote>
But where were the Russians? In a staggering display of administrative ineptitude, the Allied staffs had failed to recognize that while the Austrians followed the Gregorian calendar, the Russians still employed the older Julian calendar. In 1805 the difference was 12 days. So while the Austrians expected the Russian army to arrive on October 20, the Russians did not expect to join the Austrians until November 1.
With the coalition Danube army eliminated, Napoleon was free to turn against Kutuzov’s Russian army, now approaching from the east. The French emperor’s strategy was to try to force it south to cut its communications with Russia, but his attempts failed. Although Murat’s cavalry seized the Danube bridges at Vienna on November 13, the wily Kutuzov managed to evade the French advance and escape.
Napoleon was forced to pursue. On November 20, he arrived at Brünn, a small town 80 miles north of Vienna and 125 miles east of Prague. To the west of the town, he found Kutuzov, who had now been joined by Büxhowden and a scratch Austrian force under Field Marshal Jean-Joseph, Prince of Liechtenstein. Napoleon, with 60,000 men at hand now faced Kutuzov with 73,000. Moreover, Kutuzov expected another Russian force under Lt. Gen. Magnus Gustav Essen to arrive from Poland shortly, and Archduke Ferdinand, having gathered up 10,000 Austrian troops in Bohemia, was ready to push eastward to support Kutuzov. What was worse for the French, on October 30, Archduke Charles had attacked Masséna at Caldiero, then skillfully extricated his powerful army from Italy and disappeared into the Alps. There, he had combined his army with Archduke John’s, and the two brothers were now moving north.
Napoleon was in trouble, and he knew it. The Grande Armée was deep in enemy territory, his immediate force was heavily outnumbered and huge coalition reinforcements were on the way. Moreover, Prussia, impressed by Third Coalition successes, was showing great interest in joining it. To win the war, all Kutuzov had to do was avoid battle.
Napoleon calculated, however, that even if Prussia decided to join the coalition against him, it would not be able to put an army into the field for at least a month. The same was true for Archduke Charles’ army, whose progress from Italy would be slowed by the forces of Masséna, Ney and Marmont. All Napoleon had to do was to crush Kutuzov’s army before those coalition reinforcements arrived. And if Kutuzov was unwilling to engage him, he would have to trick Kutuzov into attacking him.
Napoleon’s plan would be aided considerably by the arrival at Kutuzov’s headquarters of Austrian Emperor Francis II and Russian Tsar Alexander I. The inexperienced tsar was accompanied by a retinue of young officers eager to show their contempt for the French army. While Kutuzov counseled waiting until overwhelming reinforcements arrived, Alexander capitulated to the pressure of his aides and the vision of becoming the ‘new St. George of Europe crushing the dragon.’ Now without influence, a chagrined Kutuzov mentally abdicated his command.
Napoleon was confident that the Allies, with their numerical superiority, would be tempted to attack him. To encourage their belief in the weakness of the Grande Armée, on November 21, he ordered Soult and Lannes to occupy the Pratzen heights and the village of Austerlitz, which was temptingly close to the Allied positions, and then to retire in feigned confusion, to simulate the beginning of a retreat. He followed this up with diplomatic action. On November 28 and again on the 29th, he sent a message to the tsar to ask for an armistice and a personal interview.
Alexander ignored napoleon’s request, sending only his chief aide-de-camp, General-Adjutant Prince Piotr Dolgorukov. If the French emperor wanted peace, Dolgorukov demanded, he must give up Italy immediately; if he continued the war, Belgium, Savoy and Piedmont would be added to the price. Général de Division Anne-Jean-Marie-Rene Savary, one of Napoleon’s aides-de-camp, recorded that ‘The conversation began immediately and quickly became animated; it appeared that Dolgorukov had failed to display the tact required for his mission, for the Emperor addressed him brusquely: `If that is what you would have me concede, go and report to your Emperor Alexander that I would not have counted on his good disposition; that I would not have compromised my army; that I would not have depended on his sense of justice to obtain terms; if he wishes it, we will fight, I wash my hands of it.’ ‘
Dolgorukov reported that the French army was on the verge of dissolution and Napoleon would do anything to avoid a battle. A jubilant Austro-Russian army made ready to attack.
Napoleon concentrated the Grande Armée in a triangle formed by the villages of Puntowitz, Bosenitz and Lattein between the village of Austerlitz, occupied by the Austro-Russians, and the town of Brünn, occupied by the French. His front formed the arc of a circle, facing southeast toward the enemy. From north to south stood Lannes’ V Corps, the Imperial Guard, Général de Division Nicholas-Charles Oudinot’s Combined Grenadier Division, Murat’s Cavalry Reserve and Soult’s IV Corps — 60,000 soldiers in all.
Anchoring the north end of the French position was a prominent hill that rose 900 feet above the plain, named the Santon. From the Santon the French line extended about four miles south along the Goldbach stream, which flowed through a valley of marshes, stagnant watercourses and ponds. From north to south the Goldbach was lined by a series of hamlets with wide, muddy streets and single-story thatched houses. The most important of these were Sokolnitz and, 900 yards to the south, Telnitz, which marked the extreme left of the French line. Beyond Telnitz the Goldbach terminated in a series of wide, shallow ponds. The Goldbach and ponds were covered with melting ice, and their muddy banks were slippery. The Allies occupied a line east of the French positions, running north to south to the east of the Goldbach and centered on the Pratzen plateau, which the French had abandoned to them.
General-Feldwachtmeister Franz Ritter von Weyrother, chief of staff for the Austro-Russian army, and another favorite of the tsar’s, drew up the battle plan. Weyrother announced his plan to general officers at a staff meeting held at a house near Austerlitz early on December 2. Lieutenant General Count Alexandre-Louis Andrault de Langéron described the scene:
At one o’clock in the morning, when we were all assembled, General Weyrother arrived, and on a large table spread out an immense map, very precise and detailed, showing the area of Brünn and Austerlitz, then read out his dispositions in a loud voice and with an air that announced a conviction of his self-importance and our incapacity. He resembled a professor reading a lesson to young scholars: perhaps we were scholars, but he was far from being a good professor. Kutuzov, who was sitting in a chair half asleep when we arrived at his house, was completely asleep by the time we departed. Büxhowden stood listening but certainly understood nothing. Miloradovich said nothing. Przhebishevsky kept in the background, and only Dokhturov examined the map with interest.
Weyrother’s grandiose plan envisioned five columns of coalition soldiers, 41,000 men, sweeping down on the French right flank to cut their communications with Vienna and roll up Napoleon’s army from south to north. The columns, numbered I to V, would be respectively commanded by: General Dmitry S. Dokhturov, 13,000 (including an advance guard of 5,000 under Feldmarschall-Leutnant Michael Freiherr von Kienmayer); General Langéron, 10,000; Lt. Gen. Ignaty Y. Przhebishevsky, 6,000; Lt. Gen. Mikhail A. Miloradovich, 12,000; and Feldmarschall-Leutnant Liechtenstein, 5,000. Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Prince Piotr Bagration, with 12,000 men, would draw the attention of the French left wing. Finally, Grand Duke Constantin Pavlovich, Tsar Alexander’s brother, with 8,500, would remain in reserve with the Russian Imperial Guard. Weyrother was confident that his plan would destroy Napoleon’s army to win the battle, the campaign and the war.
The extreme right flank of the French line was held by Général de Division Claude Juste-Alexandre-Louis comte de Legrand’s division of Soult’s IV Corps. At dawn on December 2, Legrand’s soldiers could hear the sound of marching columns through the thick morning mist that covered the battlefield. With only 2,400 men, his division was about to face an onslaught by more than 30,000 Allied soldiers.
At 8:30 a.m. Dokhturov’s I Column rolled forward to attack Telnitz. Austrian General-Feldwachtmeister Carl Freiherr Stutterheim described the attack: ‘Twice the Austrians were repulsed; and twice they again advanced to the foot of the hill, which it was necessary to carry, in order to arrive at the village….Two Austrian battalions…charged the enemy with impetuosity, attacked the village, gained possession of it and were followed by the remainder [of the column]. The French, on the approach of such superior numbers, evacuated the defile, and drew up on the further side [of the Goldbach] in order of battle.’
To the north, Langéron’s II Column, reinforced by Przhebishevsky’s III Column, swarmed forward to attack the village of Sokolnitz. ‘The French,’ recorded Langéron, ‘defended themselves doggedly along the length of the stream and to the left of Sokolnitz. The 8th chasseurs and the regiments of Wibourg and Perm suffered a great deal, but at last, these three regiments and the column of Przhebishevsky carried the village and the French were forced to retire….’
By early morning the coalition forces had pushed the French out of Sokolnitz and Telnitz and were bending back the right flank of the French army. Columns IV and V, under Miloradovich and Liechtenstein, were marching across the Pratzen plateau and down onto the French right. The Austro-Russian left wing under Bagration was advancing to pin down the French left wing. Liechtenstein’s cavalry was spreading out to fill the widening gap between the Allied center and right. Thus far, all was going according to Weyrother’s plan.
About this time, according to Corporal Elzéar Blaze of the French 108th Régiment de Ligne, a captured French officer was brought before Tsar Alexander for interrogation.
‘Of which army corps are you?’ the tsar asked.
‘The third,’ the Frenchman replied.
‘Marshal Davout’s corps?’
‘That can’t be true — that corps is in Vienna.’
‘It was there yesterday; today, it’s here.’
It was true. After a forced march of 80 miles, covered in just 50 hours, Davout’s III Corps had arrived to support the French right flank. The coalition attacks through Telnitz and Sokolnitz, slowed, then faltered.
Meanwhile, in the fog-filled valley below the Pratzen plateau, Napoleon stood quietly, gazing intently toward the plateau. Concealed by the low heights behind him stood the mass of his cavalry, Oudinot’s Grenadier Division and the Imperial Guard. With them, too, stood the soldiers of Bernadotte’s I Corps, 11,000-strong, who had force-marched from Iglau during the night. Napoleon now had 75,000 men and 157 guns to face the Allies’ 73,000 men and 318 guns.
Napoleon asked Soult, ‘How much time do you require to crown that summit?’ ‘Ten minutes,’ answered the marshal. ‘Then go,’ said the emperor, ‘but you can wait another quarter of an hour, and it will be time enough then!’
At 9 a.m. two divisions of Soult’s IV Corps marched forward. Supported on their left by Bernadotte’s I Corps, the French columns climbed the slopes of the plateau and emerged from the fog. The astonished Russians fought to hold back the French attack. Kutuzov tried to call back the rear of Miloradovich’s column, but few units could be turned around in time. The French pushed over the Pratzen, and the coalition troops fell back in confusion toward Austerlitz.
At 10:30 Kutuzov counterattacked the Pratzen. Soult stopped his line from collapsing by skillful deployment of his corps artillery. At 1 p.m. a new Russian attack swept in as its Imperial Guard Cavalry under Grand Duke Constantin Pavlovich stormed up from Austerlitz. Soult was in the middle of the fire. One of his officers was wounded; a ball struck the horse of his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Auguste Petit, breaking its halter. Unable to resist this new attack, some of Soult’s exhausted troops broke and abandoned the summit. Napoleon ordered Général de Brigade Jean Rapp to lead the French Imperial Guard cavalry against the Russian attack. ‘[I]t was not until I came within gun-shot of the scene of action,’ recorded Rapp, ‘that I discovered the disaster. The enemy’s cavalry was in the midst of our square, and was sabering our troops. A little further back we discerned masses of infantry and cavalry forming the reserve. The enemy relinquished the attack, and turned to meet me….We rushed on the artillery, which was taken. The cavalry, who awaited us, was repulsed by the same shock; they fled in disorder, and we, as well as the enemy, trampled over the bodies of our troops, whose squares had been penetrated…all was confusion; we fought man to man. Finally, the intrepidity of our troops triumphed over every obstacle.’ Although wounded twice, Rapp himself captured Prince Nikolai G. Repnin-Volkonsky, colonel of the Russian Chevalier-gardes.
Meanwhile, on the french left, Lannes’ V Corps attacked Bagration to prevent the Russian from joining the struggle in the center. Lannes’ advance was stubbornly contested by Bagration and Liechtenstein, but Murat led his heavy cavalry in a charge that overwhelmed the Russian force. Bagration began a measured withdrawal from the battlefield.
Calling the remainder of the Imperial Guard to the Pratzen plateau, Napoleon ordered it and Soult’s survivors to swing south along the heights to envelop the Austro-Russian left. ‘We charged like lightning,’ wrote Thomas-Robert Bugeaud, a Velite Grenadier in the French Imperial Guard, ‘and the carnage was horrible. The balls whistled. The air groaned with the noise of cannon and power threatening voices, closely followed by death. Very soon the enemy’s phalanx was shaken and thrown into disorder; at last we overthrew them entirely.’
By 3:30 p.m., French guns and infantry were firing from the Pratzen into the massed enemy below. The only possible Austro-Russian escape route lay over the frozen ponds at their backs. The coalition soldiers tried to flee over the ice, but it broke under the French bombardment, and the retreat became a rout. Sometime after 4 p.m. the guns fell silent; the Battle of Austerlitz was over.
The coalition forces had lost a staggering 29,000 men dead, wounded or captured, along with most of their guns and equipment. The Grande Armée had suffered fewer than 8,300 dead or wounded and some 600 prisoners. Recorded Langéron: ‘The fact is that neither the regiments, nor the commanders, nor the generals had the necessary experience to resist the veteran warriors of Napoleon, that it was a great error to confront them and an even greater error to believe that we had only to present ourselves to defeat them.’
Three days after the battle, Emperor Francis II, disgusted with Tsar Alexander and his Russians, signed an armistice with France. Alexander, disgusted with Francis II and his Austrians, limped away to the east. The Third Coalition collapsed. On December 26, 1805, France signed the Peace of Pressburg with Austria. By the treaty Austria lost Venice, Istria and Dalmatia to France, and the Austrian Tyrol to Bavaria. Napoleon I, emperor of the French, 10 years before an unknown French general, was on his way to becoming master of Europe.
This article was written by James W. Shosenberg and originally published in the December 2005 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!