Modern-day location – near the town of Slavkov u Brna, near Brno in the Czech Republic
Conflict – War of the Third Coalition, 1805-1806. (The Battle of Austerlitz was also known as The Battle of the Three Emperors.)
Forces engaged – Emperor Napoleon I of France with 73,000 men and 139 guns, versus Emperor Francis II of Austria and Tsar Alexander I of Russia with 85,000 men and 278 guns
The War of the Third Coalition followed Napoleon’s proclamation of himself as King of Italy in May 1805 by right of conquest. Predictably, this caused outrage among the surrounding powers, resulting in the formation of a military alliance- the ‘Third Coalition’- between Austria, Britain, Russia and Sweden.
Opposing armies in this era were almost identically equipped: smoothbore muskets and artillery had been perfected by the early eighteenth century and remained almost unchanged until half a century after Austerlitz. Infantrymen were equipped with solid, relatively reliable flintlock muskets, and issued with paper cartridges containing powder and ball to speed up reloading. The musket could be fitted with a bayonet for hand to hand fighting, or else gripped by the barrel and used as a club! The sabre was the weapon of the cavalry while the artillery of the day fired solid iron balls or case shot filled with musket balls for use at close range. Identical weapon systems meant that success in battle depended mostly on skill (and luck, of course…) rather than technology.
Napoleon launched the war of the Third Coalition by invading Austria. Outmanoeuvring General Mack’s army and forcing its surrender at Ulm in October, he occupied the Austrian capital Vienna and marched north, hoping to draw the main Austro-Russian army into battle on ground of his own choosing. Veteran Russian general Mikhail Kutuzov took the bait and, as the Allied army approached, Napoleon set his trap near the village of Austerlitz. He deliberately withdrew his troops from the dominant high ground of the Pratzen Heights, instead drawing up behind the banks of the Goldbach Brook, west of the high ground. Kutuzov’s army arrived late afternoon of December 1 and, as expected, occupied the Pratzen overnight.
At daybreak on December 2, the Allies launched a heavy assault against the apparently vulnerable and undermanned French right, which was under the command of Marshal Davout. The French were outnumbered four to one in this sector, but, with a steady trickle of reinforcements, they managed to hold their line. As the fighting continued, Kutuzov began to feed in more and more men drawn from his centre, progressively weakening his commanding position on the Pratzen.
At about 8 a.m., just as the winter sun began to break through the dense mist covering the battlefield, Napoleon threw a perfectly timed punch at the depleted Allied centre: he sent 20,000 men under Marshal Soult across the brook and up the grassy slopes of the Pratzen to drive the Allies off the high ground. Kutuzov counter-attacked immediately but Napoleon was ready and sent in his waiting reserve: the counter-blow was repulsed, the French advancing further forward across the plateau and cutting the reeling Allied army in half. Meanwhile, at the north end of the line, the French struck at the Allied right wing and drove them back after some hard fighting.
With the Pratzen now cleared, Soult wheeled to his right and drove downhill into the exposed rear of the Allied forces already engaged with Davout. A rout ensued with the Allied troops fleeing across a misty winter landscape of marshes and frozen lakes and ponds. In many places, the ice was broken up by French artillery fire and scores of men drowned. The entire Allied army collapsed in disorder and began to stream back eastwards over the fields and woods towards Austerlitz (now Slavkov) village.
The disproportionate casualties reflected the completeness of Napoleon’s victory: the French lost about 9,000 killed, wounded and taken prisoner while Allied casualties totalled 26,000, and 185 guns captured. Although Britain and Russia remained at war with France, Austria sued for peace immediately and the Third Coalition disintegrated. Safeguarded from invasion by the naval Battle of Trafalgar, fought about six weeks prior, Britain would continue to bankroll France’s opponents from afar. Yet for Austria and Russia, another decade of hard fighting and bitter defeats lay ahead.
Many experts consider Austerlitz to be Napoleon’s most overwhelming victory and a tactical masterpiece: the confident planning, the cool anticipation of his opponents’ actions and reactions, and the decisiveness of his command all underscore the level of his genius. It has also been suggested that at Austerlitz he reached his professional peak; although he was to win many more victories in his career, the delicacy and finesse of his generalship had begun to slip away. Future successes like Eylau (1807) and Wagram (1809), not to mention the extremely bloody Pyrrhic victory of Borodino in 1812, relied increasingly on bludgeoning brute force – crushing artillery bombardments and massed frontal cavalry charges – rather than fine timing and economy of losses. Notably, and perhaps inevitably, Napoleon’s opponents eventually learned from their defeats, beginning to imitate his methods and his innovations. Even a virtuoso like Bonaparte couldn’t stay at the top of his game for ever!
Eggenberger, D. – A Dictionary of Battles from 1479 BC to the Present – Allen & Unwin, 1967
Perrett, B. – The Battle Book – Brockhampton Press, 1992
Sweetman, J. – A Dictionary of European Land Battles – Spellmount, 2004
This article was written by Tim Barney, a Mirthy public speaker who specialises in military history and technology. Following a career in the IT industry, Tim has embraced the opportunity to pass on some of the fascinating facts and stories he has absorbed over the years.
This is the first article of the new series ‘Battle of the Month’, where Tim will be bringing a new battle to life each month. Watch this space!
Tim’s talks can be found at Mirthy Talk Catalogue | Military History.