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The Battle of Austerlitz: Napoleon’s Greatest Victory

Andrew is an avid reader who enjoys researching and discussing history with others.

 François Gérard-  La bataille d'Austerlitz

François Gérard- La bataille d'Austerlitz

Napoleon Bonaparte rose like a meteor to become the Emperor of France. It was a career that no one could have predicted when the young Bonaparte joined the French army in the 1780s. The Revolution and the endless wars of the post-Revolutionary period cleared the way for a poor Corsican aristocrat to become the ruler of the greatest power on the Continent. After ten years of bloody conflict, France subdued most of her rivals, and peace returned to Europe in 1801. In early 1802 Napoleon made peace with Britain, the most stubborn and dangerous enemy of France.

Unfortunately, this peace was not to last. Mutual distrust and conflict of interests led to the disintegration of the Treaty of Amiens in 1803. For the moment, Britain was alone and isolated, but the tireless work of Prime Minister William Pitt, French diplomatic mistakes and lingering resentments about previous defeats allowed the birth of a new coalition, the Third one since 1792, whose sole purpose was to defeat and contain France.

The War of the Third Coalition

In late 1804 Britain was joined by Sweden. In 1805 other powers such as Russia, Austria and Naples joined the alliance. Austria and Russia were by far the most powerful land powers of the alliance, so the plan was for their armies to advance and defeat Napoleon.

At the time, Napoleon was at the Channel. He had an army of around 200,000 men stationed there and was eagerly awaiting the time when he could finally launch his invasion against Perfidious Albion. It was not until late August that Napoleon finally realised the danger he was facing and called for the invasion of Britain.

He ordered his troops to move towards the Rhine in the greatest of secrecy. To throw his enemies off-balance, he was not travelling with the troops for quite a time but rather was in Paris visiting operas and theatres. How could he lead an army from Paris after all?

His Austrian enemies completely misread his intentions also. Napoleon made his name in Italy. It was his main theatre of the war during both the First and Second Coalition Wars, so the Austrians positioned their best commander Archduke Charles and their largest army (95,000 men) in Italy. Germany was seen by them as a secondary theatre, and they only positioned there an army of 72,000 men under the de facto command of general Mack.

Poor communications also hindered the war effort of the Russo-Austrian alliance. The Russians had to march through Eastern Europe to reach their Austrian allies in Germany, a long and arduous task.

Contrary to the expectations of the Austrians, Napoleon had no intention of making Italy the main theatre of the war. He stationed there only 50,000 soldiers under the capable Massena, while Marshal Saint Cyr would march on Naples.

The main force was concentrated against Mack. Napoleon ordered Murat to lure the Austrians west by launching attacks from the Black Forest, fooling them into believing that the French were coming from that direction.

If misreading Napoleon’s intentions was not bad enough on its own, Napoleon’s army was also in a much better state than his Austrian or Russian enemies’.

During the peace between the Second and Third Coalition Wars, Napoleon re-organized his army along the lines Corps system. Practically, this meant that his army was broken down into several mini armies( each had infantry, cavalry and artillery) led by a Marshall.

The mini armies were small enough to feed themselves by gathering supplies from the local population, which allowed Napoleon to ditch the slow-moving supply wagons. The extra speed his army gained allowed the scattered Corps to force march up to 50 kilometres a day, which allowed the scattered mini armies to concentrate against any enemy in a very short time when needed.

Contrary to the lightning speed at which Napoleon’s army was travelling, his enemies still relied on the slow-moving convoy system.

Murat’s faint had the effect Napoleon hoped. Mack advanced straight into his trap. While Mack marched westwards, most of Napoleon’s Marshalls moved behind the back of the Austrians and encircled them. By the time Mack realised what was going on, it was too late.

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Several Austrians managed to break out from the encirclement, but most of the army was trapped. Their Russian allies under the command of General Kutuzov were still far away, so Mack had no option but to surrender.

Without even fighting a major battle, Napoleon neutralised 60,000 Austrians in less than a month.

The success of the Ulm campaign that neutralised the Austrian army in Germany was somewhat overshadowed by the disaster the combined Franco-Spanish fleet suffered at the Battle of Trafalgar. Under the command of their legendary Admiral Nelson, the Royal Navy smashed their enemies and crippled all French attempts to dominate the high seas.

Before this defeat, Napoleon was constantly planning to end the British dominance of the seas, but he seemingly gave up on defeating the Royal Navy after it. He instead tried to destroy Britain’s economy by Establishing the Continental System.

When Kutuzov got news of the disaster Mack had suffered, he ordered a hasty retreat. Kutuzov clashed with his Austrian allies about the best course of action they should take. Kutuzov wanted to draw away the French further east, while the Austrians wanted to defend their empire.

In the end, the Russian view prevailed. Their combined armies retread over the Danube and destroyed most of its bridges. One crucial bridge was captured intact by Marshall Murat and Marshall Lannes. They cheerfully greeted the defenders, feigning that an armistice was agreed, only to capture it while the stunned Austrians were confused.

Napoleon captured Vienna and moved over the Danube in mid-November, but his position was getting weaker also. The French inability to overtake and destroy Kutuzov allowed the wily old general to join the rest of the Russian army coming from the East. The newly united Russians and the remnants of the Austrian forces were more than strong enough to take the fight to Napoleon.

By mid-November, Napoleon’s troops were also getting tired. In late August, they were stationed near the channel, and in two and a half months, they crossed through France, Germany, and Austria into the modern-day Czech Republic. The supply lines of the French were growing ever longer, forcing Napoleon to leave more and more men behind to keep it safe.

Austria still had a substantial army under the command of Archduke Charles, while the intentions of Prussia were unclear at best, outright hostile at worst.

Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. The Battle of Austerlitz was fought exactly one years after Napoleon's coronation?
    • Yes
    • No

Answer Key

  1. Yes

The Battle of Austerlitz

Napoleon knew that he needed to score a decisive defeat to end the war.

To tempt his enemies into giving battle, he made them believe that he was weak and worried. All through late November, Napoleon feigned weakness and asked his enemies to agree to a ceasefire. His bluff worked perfectly.

The young Tsar was urged on by most of the army’s leadership to take the fight to Napoleon and destroy the upstart Corsican once and for all. The more cautious voices of General Kutuzov, who wanted to draw the French further east, and Austrian Emperor Francis I were overwhelmed.

Napoleon was stationing his armies in a carefully selected battleground near Austerlitz. To feign further weakness, he ordered his troops to abandon the favourable high ground as if they were abandoning the sight. He also deployed his troops with an intentionally weakened right flank, intending to tempt his enemies to attack it.

In the end, all of Napoleon’s mind games played off exactly the way he intended them to. Like a world-class poker player, he bluffed weakness to tempt his enemies to fall right into his trap.

The allies believed that they outnumbered Napoleon by around 20,000 men, while in reality, Napoleon had reserves nearby who, if it came to a battle, would have been able to join him.

When the battle began, the allies attacked Napoleon’s weakened flank. As Napoleon expected, forces from the allied centre were diverted to join the attack on his weakened flank. The morning fog concealed Napoleon’s troops, who were just waiting for such an opportunity. When he saw that the allied centre was weakened, Napoleon ordered an attack against it.

By pushing back the allied centre, the allied army was cut in half. Fierce fighting on the French left flank also resulted in a similar outcome. Within a few hours, both the allied centre and right were in retreat, leaving their isolated left flank trapped. It was at this moment Napoleon had sprung his trap and turned on the trapped enemies.

The battle ended in a decisive French victory. At the cost of 8,500 casualties, Napoleon caused his enemies 36,000, crippling their ability to fight him.

The Austrian emperor was forced to make peace with Napoleon and conceded further territories in Italy and Dalmatia, while the defeated and demoralized Russians retreated home.

Source

Chandler, David G. (1973). The Campaigns of Napoleon. Scribner.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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