Austerlitz: how Napoleon crushed the Austro-Russian army
It was a battle that proved to be one of the most decisive engagements of the Napoleonic Wars. Ian Castle investigates Napoleon’s crushing defeat of the Austro-Russian army, whose fate, he believes, was sealed even before the first musket shot rang out
The battle of Austerlitz is rightly hailed as one of the greatest clashes of the Napoleonic era. Yet more than 200 years on, it is often incorrectly portrayed as a battle in which Napoleon, as puppet-master, controlled the strategy of his opponent as well as that of his own army. A closer examination shows that the Austro-Russian allies were more than capable of sealing their own disastrous fate without needing anyone else to pull the strings.
On 20 November 1805 Emperor Napoleon rode into the Moravian city of Brünn (now Brno in the Czech Republic) at the head of a thousand cavalrymen of his Imperial Guard. An onlooker watching his dramatic arrival described him as “small and corpulent… his face was pale, his look bright and wistful”. From his headquarters in the city, Napoleon often appeared at the window, “where he – after he walked through the room – remained standing and observing the square”.
Indeed Napoleon had much to ponder as he gazed from the window. After three months of successful campaigning he had taken the surrender of an Austrian army at Ulm, cleared Bavaria of enemy troops, forced the Austrians to abandon Tirol and northern Italy and occupied Vienna as well as great tracts of Habsburg territory.
But the pursuit of General Kutuzov and his Russian army along the Danube valley had failed to corner the shrewd Russian commander and now, as autumn turned to winter, he found himself at the end of a long exposed line of communications. Having started the campaign with about 198,000 men, numerous detachments and garrisons along the way had reduced the available army encamped around Brünn to about 52,000. At Olmütz, about 45 miles north-east of Brünn, Kutuzov halted his retreat, relieved to be joined by another Russian army commanded by General Buxhöwden. He was further bolstered by the arrival of a small Austrian army commanded by Prince Johann Liechtenstein. The allies now mustered about 78,000 men.
Who were the key opponents at Austerlitz facing Napoleon in battle?
Tsar Alexander I, Emperor of Russia
Alexander succeeded his father, the unstable Paul I, to the throne in 1801 and took an enlightened view on political and social reform. However, he was vain and impressionable, surrounding himself with young, confident and arrogant aides. Convinced of the weakness of Napoleon’s position – and against Kutuzov’s advice – he ordered the army into battle at Austerlitz.
General Mikhail Kutuzov, Allied commander
Kutuzov enjoyed a distinguished military and diplomatic career in Russia. However, having fallen out of favour with Alexander in 1802, he remained virtually in exile until recalled to lead the army in 1805. He had grown portly, suffered from rheumatism and his twice-wounded right eye failed. However, he remained cunning, diplomatic and dogged; the best commander the army had.
Generalmajor Franz Freiherr von Weyrother, Allied chief-of-staff
Weyrother had served in the Austrian army for 30 years, being appointed Kutuzov’s chief-of–staff only within the previous fortnight. One officer considered him to be an officer “who did not want for talent” but one who “too easily abandoned his own opinions, to adopt those of other people”. Another officer considered that he carried “his self-esteem to appalling excess”.
How did Napoleon bring the Allies to battle at Austerlitz?
The problem facing Napoleon was his urgent need to bring this Austro-Russian army to battle. His greatest fear was that the allies would withdraw to the east, forcing him to extend his already precarious line of communications even further as the biting cold of an eastern European winter took hold.
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And it was a move such as this that Kutuzov, commander of this new combined army, advocated. Yet the final decision was no longer his to make. Tsar Alexander rode into Olmütz along with the reinforcements, determined to join his army at the front and lead it to victory. It was the Tsar who would decide the future direction of the army.
A council of war took place in Olmütz on 24 November, during which Kutuzov outlined his plan for a retreat towards the Carpathian mountains, leaving a wasteland in his wake to deter pursuit. By gaining time in this way he hoped to draw in General Bennigsen’s distant army to further boost his strength. Other officers put forward ideas for a withdrawal into Hungary or Bohemia to join forces with approaching allied formations. However, all supported a common theme: that of retreat.
The problem facing Napoleon was his urgent need to bring the Austro-Russian army to the battlefield
But the presence of the Tsar diluted the authority of these generals. Surrounded by his own circle of sycophantic advisors and would-be military experts, Tsar Alexander, without any military experience, willingly accepted their analysis that the French were over-extended and vulnerable. This, they advised him, was his best chance to cross swords with the man recognised as the greatest soldier of his age, and win. Flattered and entranced by what he heard, Alexander overruled Kutuzov and took the decision to fight. Such was the standing of the Tsar in Russian society that no one felt inclined to oppose his wishes. It was just the decision Napoleon desired.
The task of drawing up the plan of campaign fell to Generalmajor Franz Weyrother, one of the few Austrian officers to command some respect at Russian headquarters. The advance was to commence the following day. And in fact if the army had moved quickly and brought Napoleon to battle before he could increase the strength of his army a different result may have ensued, but it would be another eight days before the two armies clashed at Austerlitz.
Many senior Russian officers felt sure that the arrival of the Tsar would “inspire great enthusiasm in his soldiers”, but they were wrong. The army was tired and indiscipline rife. As Alexander rode among his soldiers they received him with “coldness and dull silence”. A French émigré officer who was serving in the Russian army, Alexandre-Louis Langeron, saw this reaction and wrote that the Russian soldier “often judges men and events extremely well”.
The allied advance should have begun on 25 November but plans immediately suffered a setback. An Austrian officer, Generalmajor Stutterheim, explaining the delay, wrote that “it was necessary to take two days’ provisions; and these provisions could not arrive ’till the day after. When that day came, some of the generals had not sufficiently studied their dispositions; and thus, another day was lost”. The army finally began to move on the morning of 27 November; confusion and dissension marched with it.
Tsar Alexander overruled Kutuzov and took the decision to fight… no one felt inclined to oppose his wishes
As the allied army completed its prolonged preparations, the situation at French headquarters was very different. On 21 November, the day after his arrival at Brünn, Napoleon rode out to study the ground east of the city. A tract of land running south of the Brünn-Olmütz road, lying to the west of the town of Austerlitz (now Slavkov), attracted his attention and he rode over every inch of it, calculating distances between high points, following streams and inspecting villages. At the end of his reconnaissance he turned to his staff and confidently predicted, “Gentlemen, examine the ground well. You will have a part to act on it”. Napoleon had selected his battlefield, but it would be many days before the sound of battle engulfed it.
Still unsure if the allies would fight, Napoleon sent an emissary, General Savary – an expert in intelligence work – to meet the Tsar, intending to give an impression of uneasiness in the French camp and engender over-confidence among the allies. But his concerns were unfounded. By the time Savary arrived the decision to attack had already been made.
How did the battle of Austerlitz begin?
The Austro-Russian army began the advance along the Brünn-Olmütz road in five numbered columns, shielded by an advance guard. The exact position of the French was uncertain, but Weyrother believed that if an engagement took place along the road he would have the opportunity to outflank the French left. Initial march discipline was poor with wagons forcing their way into the formations and the army ending the first day extended along eight miles of the road. The following day the leading allied units surprised French outposts near the town of Wischau.
A cavalry battle ensued from which the French fell back as numbers against them rapidly increased.
It was exactly the news Napoleon wanted to hear; the allies had abandoned their retreat. Immediately he instructed all advanced units to fall back to the selected battlefield and despatched orders summoning the outlying formations of the Marshals Bernadotte and Davout to make all haste, advising them that a great battle was about to take place on 29 or 30 November. In this he greatly over-estimated the cohesion and organisation of his opponents.
The lack of resistance met by the allied army as it advanced convinced Weyrother that the French were intent on falling back on Brünn before turning south towards Vienna. Therefore on 29 November he changed the alignment of the army, ordering it to deploy to the left of the Brünn-Olmütz road, putting it in a position to threaten the Vienna road. This change became hugely complex as not only did Weyrother reposition the columns but he also ordered their renumbering and transferred column commanders and individual regiments between formations. The realignment took two days to complete by which time the army only managed to push on for about ten miles. It was now clear to Napoleon that his prediction of the battle taking place by 30 November was over-optimistic and so he took the opportunity to observe the leaden approach of the Austro-Russian army from the vantage point of the Pratzen plateau. It seemed evident to him, by the direction of the allied advance, that they planned to mass against his right flank, aiming to force him from the line of retreat back to Vienna.
How did Napoleon plan for Austerlitz?
Now battle appeared imminent, Napoleon thought it essential that the confrontation proved a climactic one, one from which the allies could not withdraw and re-group to prolong the campaign.
As such he announced his intention of withdrawing all troops from the Pratzen plateau, the dominant feature of the battlefield and leaving it to the allies. Then, with the allies appearing intent on massing against his right, he would present a weakened flank hoping to tempt them to abandon the plateau in turn. At that point he planned to launch a rapid counter-thrust at the plateau from his main army concentration on the left of the line. By appearing in the rear of his opponents he hoped to cut off their retreat and decisively crush them.
Later that evening, 30 November, Napoleon received the welcome news that Bernadotte and Davout were fast approaching the battlefield, boosting his army to about 74,000 men, an increase of 40 per cent since the allies commenced their advance.
While Napoleon carefully planned the coming battle, the situation at allied headquarters was chaotic. Although nominally commander of the Austro-Russian army, Kutuzov found himself increasingly side-lined by Alexander, who, bearing a long-standing mistrust of his army commander, turned to Weyrother for military direction. The Tsar’s youthful entourage took to ridiculing the aged general behind his back, an indiscretion also directed against senior Austrian officers, further damaging the unity of command.
On 1 December Weyrother issued orders for a further change in the composition of the allied columns. This delayed any forward movement until the early afternoon, leaving little time to move into position before darkness descended at about 4pm. A colonel of a Russian artillery battery, Alexei Ermolov, sums up the disorganisation of the allied ranks:
“The columns were colliding and penetrating each other, from which resulted disorder… The armies broke up and intermixed and it was not easy for them to find their allocated positions in the dark. Columns of infantry, consisting of a large number of regiments, did not have a single person from the cavalry, so there was nothing to help them find out what was going on ahead, or to know where the nearest columns, appointed for assistance, were and what they were doing.”
Having ascended the steep eastern slopes of the Pratzen plateau, the exhausted allied soldiers settled down to grab what rest they could on a freezing cold night. Opposing them lay a French army of which at least two-thirds were well-rested, having spent the last 11 days on or around the battlefield waiting for the appearance of the allied army.
At about 1am on the morning of 2 December the senior officers of the Austro-Russian army congregated for their final briefing. Weyrother explained his plan of battle to them – in German – then waited patiently while a Russian staff officer, Major Toll, translated each section into Russian, the language spoken by 80 per cent of the combined army. Again dissension at headquarters is clear, for Langeron, one of those present, recalled that Weyrother “read us the arrangements in a raised voice and with a conceited air which was designed to show us his deep-seated belief in his own merit and in our inability”.
Due to the disruption caused by Weyrother’s latest changes, the majority of the assembled officers had been unable to observe the battlefield in daylight. Now their orders required them to commence their advance later that morning, at 7am, an hour before sunrise. The battlefield would be unknown territory. The meeting drew to a close at about 3am and only at this point could Toll begin to make a written copy of Weyrother’s orders in Russian. Not until he finished could the assembled adjutants make copies to distribute to their commands. As a result some officers did not receive orders until after the battle had begun.
One officer, Colonel Ermolov, remained baffled. The orders, he explained, ran for several pages and were “filled with difficult names of villages, lakes, rivers, valleys, and elevations and it was so complicated either to understand or remember them… I have to admit that after I listened to this disposition I had as little comprehension of it as if I was not aware of its existence; the only thing I understood was that we were supposed to attack the enemy in the morning”.
What advantages did Napoleon have at Austerlitz?
And so in the early hours of a cold and foggy 2 December 1805, the soldiers of the Austro-Russian army shook themselves awake, massaged life into their frozen limbs, and prepared to descend from the Pratzen plateau. The main thrust of the army focused on the French right flank, as Weyrother had planned and Napoleon surmised.
However, confusion and delay did not end there. Units that had lost their way in the dark or camped out of position overnight blundered into those preparing to march, causing anger and frustration. Even when the attacks did get underway, less than dynamic local leadership meant the allies did not press their early advantage against the French right before Napoleon launched his assault on the high ground in their rear. There, on the plateau, French troops encountered unexpected resistance but eventually won control, and after eight hours’ fighting they inflicted a crushing defeat on the Austro-Russian army, bringing the campaign to a sudden and dramatic conclusion.
There can be no doubt that the allies’ decision to face Napoleon at Austerlitz was a grave mistake
There can be no doubt that the allies’ decision to face Napoleon at Austerlitz was a mistake. Without Alexander’s intervention Kutuzov would have continued to retreat, and by the middle of December it is possible that 170,000 allied soldiers could have congregated in Hungary.
But this decision, combined with a disjointed command structure and a painfully slow advance – one that allowed Napoleon time to unravel their strategy and increase the strength of his army – sealed the fate of the Austro-Russian army even before the first musket shot rang out. Contrary to the myths that have grown up around the battle, Napoleon did not impose his will upon the allies. They were already intent on a course of action which he observed and effectively countered.
As the French army celebrated their great success, Napoleon, ever a man with a sense of drama, could reflect with great pleasure that his victory had fallen on a special day – for it marked the first anniversary of his coronation as Emperor of the French.
This article was first published in the Napoleonic Wars Collectors' Edition, produced by BBC History Magazine
Ian Castle has made an extensive study of the Austrian army’s campaigns against Napoleon
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