'The Emperor has discovered a new way of waging war, he makes use of our legs instead of our bayonets' - French soldier, 1805
With Napoleonís Grand Army bored and restless in camp at Boulogne, the French unable to gain control of the English Channel thanks to Admiral Villeneuveís bumbling as commander of the Franco-Spanish fleet, in the spring of 1805 the Third Coalition took form with Britain, Austria, Russia, Sweden and some German states ready to resume the war with France.
It was decided that a concerted invasion would put the upstart Emperor of the French in his place and so plans were made to attack Italy and Bavaria. The only problem was that the Napoleon had anticipated his enemies and had secretly, and very quickly, marched the Grand Army into Germany across both the Rhine and the Danube, coming between Austria's General Karl Mack and both his own supply lines and the rest of the Austrian army and their Russian allies, forcing Mack to surrender his entire army at Ulm. In addition to these plans, Eugene and Marshal Massena were keeping an eye on Italy.
With Lord Horatio Nelson's stunning victory over Admiral Villeneuve's Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar still very much on his mind, Napoleon set off for Vienna where he captured the enemy capital and forced Russia's General Mikhail Kutuzov into two rearguard actions at Durrenstein and Hollabrunn.
In Italy, Marshal Massena defeated Archduke Charles at Caldiero, forcing him out of that country. Napoleon, meanwhile, left Schonbrunn palace behind to prove once again that he was the master of strategic foresight, marching the Grand Army into Moravia and tempting the Russian and Austrian armies, led by their emperors, into attacking him approximately 70 miles north of Vienna on carefully selected ground near the village of Austerlitz.
Accutely aware of his worsening economic conditions in France, concerned about his army slowly shrinking in Austria a thousand miles from their home bases with supply and communication lines badly overextended, and having been alerted in Brunn to Prussiaís plan to mobilize nearly 200,000 men, Napoleon sensed a real urgency to end the campaign quickly.
To consummate the grand deception he was carefully nurturing, one which largely depended on the overconfidence and predictability of his enemies, Napoleon feigned weakness, suggesting a truce and briefly parleying with the Russian prince Dolgoruki, having no intention whatsoever of actually offering or accepting anything. The princeís presumptuousness was answered by Napoleon who said 'If you were on the heights of Montmartre, I would answer such impertinence only by cannon balls!' Napoleon the student of history knew his enemies all too well.
The battlefield Napoleon had chosen was dominated by a gently sloping hill called the Pratzen Heights. Always keeping in mind the master strategy, Napoleon said, 'If I wanted to stop the enemy, it is there that I should post myself. But that would lead only to an ordinary battle and I want decisive success.' The plan was complicated, and yet simple: Entice the Austro-Russian army onto the abandoned heights of Pratzen, lure them into attacking a deliberately weakened right wing, and when they have sufficiently then weakened their own center at Pratzen, strike hard with two divisions carefully concealed in the fog below.
Napoleonís gamble was elaborate, bold and vulnerable to simple things like change in climate...the fog playing a pivotal role in the deception of perceived French weakness...or the failure of expected reinforcements to arrive, and it was already at least to some degree suspected by the savvy Kutuzov, who almost singularly among the allied army was smart enough to remember who it was they were up against. If successful, Austerlitz would rival the most brilliant military victories in all history.
On the evening of 1 December 1805, the eve of the first anniversary of his coronation as emperor, Napoleon strode his armyís encampment, the nighttime sky illuminated by the torches of tens of thousands of eager Frenchmen ready to do their masterís bidding. Said Napoleon to his aides, 'this is the finest evening of my life.' Planning several moves ahead, Napoleon as the chessmaster was ready to dictate his enemyís moves.
On the following morning, keeping in mind Massena was on the march up from northern Italy to his assistance with his 25,000 men, Napoleon deliberately weakened his right flank in order to convince the allies into believing that this is where he was vulnerable, thus deceiving them into making the ill-fated decision to weaken their center and concentrate the bulk of their effort against his right which was anchored near the village of Telnitz.
The morning of 2 December 1805 saw the first part of Napoleonís master plan succeed. Under the command of Alexander Langeron (Prince Pyotr Bagration commanded the right), the Russians fell for Napoleonís ruse in the center and began descending Pratzen heading straight for the French right which was anchored in Telnitz. Coiled like a viper waiting for the right moment to strike the death blow, the confident Napoleon had his famous proclamation to the army read as he walked among the eager shouts of 'Vive L'Empereur!':
'Soldiers, the Russian army is marching against us seeking vengeance for the Austrian defeat at Ulm. These are the same battalions that we conquered at Hollabrunn and that we have been persistently following up to this point. Our position is very strong, and when they march against our battalions, I wish to attack them from the flank. While they pass my right wing, they will expose their flank to me.
Soldiers, I will lead your battalions myself. However, I will stand aside from the line of fire, granted that you, by your customary courage can propagate pandemonium and chaos amongst the ranks of the enemy. If, however, victory is jeopardized, even for a brief moment, then you will find your emperor in the most menacing of positions - victory must not be squandered today, since the honor of the French infantry, which is the pride of the entire French nation, is at stake. No one can abandon his rank for the purpose of removing the injured.
Let the thought of conquering the mercenaries of England, soaked with such great hatred for our nation, guide each and every one of you. This victory will close our crusade and then we shall withdraw to our winter camps, to await the fresh troops who will be arriving from France. It is then that we shall establish a peace worthy of my nation, you and I'.
Napoleon's battle plan was as brilliant in its execution as it was in its conception, for the Austro-Russian army did exactly what he thought they would in fact do. As he said, 'It was as though the enemy were conducting maneuvers on my orders'.
Napoleon watched carefully from his command post on Zuran Hill as the allies gradually committed more and more of their forces to the slugfest at Telnitz, continually reducing their presence on the Pratzen Heights while attempting to execute their massive flanking maneuver on Napoleonís right, to the south, their own goal being to cut off Napoleonís expected retreat to Vienna leading them into a complete disaster.
As Gen. Friantís tired division made its arrival after a long forced march in time to help Marshal Davout continue wearing down the Russians at Telnitz, the divisions of Saint-Hilaire and Vandamme remained hidden in Napoleonís beloved fog, the allies showing no indication throughout the battle that they were ever aware of their presence basically right in front of them. When asked how long it would take for these troops to occupy the Pratzen Heights, Soult replied, 'less than 20 minutes, sire.' By nine o'clock, the bulk of Buxhoeveden's army was engaged or well in motion.
As Napoleon told Soult, 'One sharp blow and the war is over.' He then turned to his staff officers and said, 'The enemy is more numerous than ourselves. They expect to attack and vanquish me. No, it's more not only to beat us but cut us off from Vienna and round up the French army! They think I am a novice! Well, they'll come to regret it. Come on! Let us put an end to this campaign with a crash of thunder that will stun the enemy!'
Single-mindedly determined to turn Napoleon's right, the allies continued to weaken the forces in their center at Pratzen. But with the talented Davout and his III Corps putting up a dogged defense in Telnitz, and the French beginning to receive Massena's reinforcements by early afternoon, the French right held. And then came the moment when Napoleon reminded his enemies why they couldnít beat him in Italy.
With French forces in the center momentarily in retreat, Marshal Bessieres ordered the Imperial Guard Horse Grenadiers forward to counterattack the Russian Guards under Prince Repnin. After a desperate, close-run struggle, the Russian Guard was sent reeling in retreat. Now came the moment...Napoleon ordered Soult and his two fresh divisions of infantry to attack the now-weakened allied center on the Pratzen Heights.
The blow was lethal. By three o'clock, the Austro-Russian army was perfectly split in two, and Napoleon moved up with his reseves, once again locating his command post on the heights of Pratzen. The French army then proceeded to sweep down upon both enemy flanks from behind in strength, catching the Russians on the right from behind on Satschen Pond, where many drowned after French cannon had deliberately loosened the thin ice.
'Many fine ladies will weep tomorrow in St. Petersburg' - Napoleon
By 4pm, the allies had lost 27,000 men compared with only 9,000 French casualties. Emperor Francis briefly wavered and then met with Napoleon to offer Austriaís surrender, eventually ceding parts of Germany and Italy to France while the Russians retreated back to their homeland.
When Englandís Prime Minister William Pitt heard of Napoleon's brilliant and decisive victory at Austerlitz, he remarked: `Roll up that map. It will not be wanted for ten years.' Napoleon had taken his biggest step yet on the road to becoming Master of Europe. Ever the master propagandist, Napoleon spoke to his warriors in the familiar way in the Order of the Day following the battle:
'Soldiers, I am pleased with you! You have on this day of Austerlitz justified all that I had expected from your courage and you have crowned your eagles with an immortal glory. In less than 4 hours an army of 100,000 men commanded by the Emperors of Russia and Austria has been cut down or scattered. Such enemy as escaped your bayonets have drowned in the lakes.
Forty colors, the standards of the Russian Imperial Guard, 120 pieces of artillery, 20 generals and over 30,000 prisoners are the result of this day, to be forever celebrated. That such vaunted infantry so superior in numbers could not resist your charge proves henceforth you have no longer any rivals to fear. Thus in 2 months this Third Coalition has been overthrown and dissolved. Peace cannot now be far away.
Soldiers, when everything necessary for the happiness and prosperity of the motherland has been accomplished I will lead you back to France. There you will be the object of my most tender solicitude. My people will greet you with joy and it will suffice for you to say, 'I was at the battle of Austerlitz' for them to reply, 'there goes a brave man!'
For his own part, and to his everlasting credit, Tsar Alexander acknowledged the significance of Napoleon's victory, sending this message through the French lines prior to his retreat from Austria:
'Tell your master that I am going away. Tell him that he has performed miracles and that the battle has increased my admiration for him. That he is a man predestined by Heaven. That it will require a hundred years for my army to equal his.'