The battle of Austerlitz

Battle-of-Austerlitz                                                        Map of the Battle of Austerlitz

Anyone living at the beginning of the nineteenth century might have thought that the battle of Trafalgar, fought in October 1805 would be enough to topple Napoleon Bonaparte from his imperial pretensions and intensely Corsican gut-feeling that he should rule the world, starting with all Europe. But Trafalgar as we know was a sea battle, a crucial one too, but it did not take place between armies on land. Austerlitz, however, did, and it was Bonaparte’s greatest victory, planned almost as if on a model of the battlefield though – that field was in his brain.

The conflict was Russia’s and Austria’s against the French; it was December, 1805, only two months after Trafalgar. The Austrians had been shocked by the Corsican’s making himself king of Italy, and had joined Russia in the third coalition of the Napoleonic Wars (q.v.). Incidentally it saved England, for Napoleon had a vast army encamped at Boulogne, just across the Channel from Dover, with which he intended to invade and occupy. He would probably have succeeded.

Instead, Bonaparte moved his armies across to Germany and the Danube: the French outflanked the Austrian general Mack at Ulm and caused him to surrender, along with thirty thousand soldiers! The Corsican then took Vienna with few losses and moved northwards into what was then Moravia – later Czechoslovakia. Here the Austrians and Russians had joined forces. Napoleon knew his lines of communication with France were over-long and unwieldy, that winter approached, and that, worse, Prussia might join in on the side of the coalition. He needed a battle, and quickly.

His masterly brain told him to pretend weakness where there was none; to ask for an armistice which he had every intention of breaking; to withdraw his soldiers from the Pratzen Heights and the small town of Austerlitz where they waited in good order and plentiful supplies. He exposed what appeared to be a feeble right flank. These ruses worked. The Czar Alexander I of Russia commanded 85,000 allied troops, and knew the French could muster no more than 73,000. He ordered an assault on the supposedly weak French right flank. It was a royal mistake.

When sufficient allied troops had been drawn from those Pratzen Heights and into the attack, Napoleon stormed up the Heights and took them, enabling him to sweep down on the flank and rear of the allied right wing. It was, as I have said, very like it appears to the naked eye in the vast model of the battle to be seen at the British Military Museum in London. It was a set-piece victory; Austria and Russia suffered 27,000 casualties including eleven thousand taken prisoner. The French lost 8,500 men.

On the day after the battle Austria wisely sued for peace and at Pressburg (now Bratislava) was made to give up the great majority of her possessions in Italy and Germany.

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