In military history, few commanders have played as skillfully as the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who manipulated both Emperor Francis II of Austria and Czar Alexander I of Russia at the Battle of Austerlitz.
In the months before the three emperors fought, the French had won battle after battle. Napoleon’s army had even occupied the Austrian capital of Vienna. But now, despite the French general’s maneuvering, two large Austrian and Russian armies had managed to unite. Napoleon’s position was less than ideal. He was far from anywhere friendly at the end of long supply lines. His army was too deep into Austria to be able to pull back safely. One defeat, and the entire French army would be lost. Napoleon Bonaparte knew he was in a dangerous position. He was also aware that the two emperors opposing him knew this as well. In fact he was counting on it.
On December 2, Napoleon began a plan that took advantage of the two emperors’ overconfidence. He not only had to win but also needed the battle to start soon. There was a good chance the Prussians would join the coalition against him within days. Only a decisive victory could keep them out of the war. The first step was to send his personal aide, a gentleman with the improbable name of Anne Jean Marie René Savary, to negotiate an armistice. While doing so, this officer carefully let it slip that the French morale was so bad that some of the army was unwilling to attack. This deception was supported by the allies’ being able to see that the French soldiers had begun to build field defenses and were all digging in. Then, just to guarantee that the Russians and Austrians were sure the French soldiers were on their last legs, Napoleon conceded the highest and central position of the battlefield, the Pratzen Heights, to the allies as well. All this just whetted the appetite of his opponents to destroy the seemingly vulnerable invaders.
So far as the allies could see, they had 85,000 soldiers to 65,000 for the French. They held the heights that overlooked the whole battlefield, and they were sure that their enemy’s morale was failing. All of the allied commanders were anxious to get on the attack and finish them off. The Austrian empire had recently been beaten in battle, had their capital captured, and been chased out of Italy. The normally cautious Austrians were more than anxious to even the score.
On the battlefield, Napoleon had set out irresistible bait. He had purposely weakened his right flank. Less than a corps was holding the right side of its position. This was the flank that protected the roads that led back to Vienna and then on to France. The emperors and their generals knew that if they could break through that thin line of defenders facing the left end of their army, it would force the surrender of the entire French army.
What the allies did not know was that Louis-Nicolas Davout, perhaps Napoleon’s best marshal, was fast marching his entire corps toward that flank. But this was not entirely a sucker move: If the allies could smash through Soult’s corps on the French right, then they could win the battle. Even the arrival of Davout would not repair the damage.
The Russian prince Bagration led a valiant attack on the French left in an effort to ensure no one there could go to assist the vulnerable French right. At the same time, massive columns of Austrians attacked on the far side of the battlefield. Badly outnumbered, the men of Legrand’s division held the French right valiantly. Fighting behind barricades, they drove off charge after charge with musket volleys. The sheer number of attacking Austrians pushed them back, but it still did not yet break their line. Many times it appeared that a few more regiments were all that was needed for the allies to break through. Soon all the reserves behind the main attack were used up. But victory seemed so close that the allied commanders began to send in men who had been holding the Pratzen Heights.
As desired, all of the allied commanders had fixed their attention on the weak French flank. None noticed that Bonaparte was feeding just enough new men into the thin, slowly retreating line to maintain it. More and more troops attacked. More and more moved off the central position to join in the attack on their left. In the French center, two corps sat.
On the allied right, Bagration and the French had fought each other to a standstill. On their left, it still appeared that just one more attack, a few more regiments, and the allies would have their victory. So more men were ordered off the central heights and joined the attack. And still the French soldiers in front of the Pratzen Heights just sat and did nothing. This most likely proved to the Russian and Austrian emperors that the French morale had failed. Although that wouldn’t have explained the dogged defense they were facing nearby. But confident there was no threat, more Russian and Austrian regiments moved off the heights. Still, the thin French line barely held on, always barely, but it held. It appeared they were ready to collapse under the weight of just one more assault. Between the fighting on both flanks, virtually all of the remaining allied divisions that had been on the Pratzen Heights since 9:00 AM were then marching up to behind the right side of the French line, where Soult’s corps was still holding on against overwhelming numbers.
Victory for the Austrians and Russians seemed so close and to them everything seemed to be going almost according to their plan. But in reality the battle was going exactly as Napoleon had devised from the beginning. Then it was time. Suddenly Bonaparte unleashed his fresh divisions against the few troops remaining on the Pratzen Heights. They easily smashed the center of the allies’ position. The combined Austrian and Russian army had been split. At the same time, Marshal Murat led the reserve cavalry against Bagration’s horsemen, while the French infantry joined in to force the Russian prince’s entire command away from the rest of the allied army.
The emperors of Russia and Austria and their generals had lost sight of what they were doing. By concentrating on accomplishing their original goal of breaking through the French right, they forgot the reason they wanted to do this was to win the battle. Trying too hard to win that tactical victory, they lost the battle. With virtually all of their men committed to attacking on the one flank, the Austrian and Russian generals had almost no one left to counterattack the French when they cut the joint army in half. The Russians threw what they could find at the French until they finally used their last reserve with no success. Finally, even the Russian Imperial Guard attacked in a glorious but doomed attempt to retake the heights. Then French cavalry rode that noble infantry unit down, and the battle was lost.
More French infantry went up the heights and then turned right. They took the same paths that the allied regiments had used to reinforce their attack. Coming down the heights, Napoleon’s infantry tore into the vulnerable side and rear of the allied regiments that were still attacking the French flank. The entire allied line was “rolled up,” even while the newly arrived Davout attacked through Soult’s exhausted defenders. Within minutes, two-thirds of the allied army was routed. Bagration, seeing all was lost, managed to make a fighting retreat while Napoleon concentrated on the destruction of the thousands of panicky allied soldiers.
French casualties were under 7,000 killed and wounded with few captured. The Austrian and Russian armies had 15,000 killed and wounded and another 12,000 captured. The French also captured 180 cannons. Many of those who did escape were in no condition to fight again anytime soon. The Russian army did not stop its withdrawal until it was all the way back in Russia. The Austrian army was in worse shape and had nowhere to go. Peace, on Napoleon’s terms, followed within weeks.
“Soldiers! I am content with you,” the emperor stated in his Victory Bulletin. To show just how grateful he was, Napoleon personally adopted the children of every French soldier killed at Austerlitz. This included providing them with schools, homes, and the money to support them.
The allied army commanded by the two emperors started the battle with superior numbers and a strong position on the central heights. But they allowed themselves to be duped and led by Napoleon into doing what he wanted. The result of their mistake was a triumphant Napoleon Bonaparte able to rampage through Europe for another decade. The French emperor had taken a great chance. Had he lost this battle while so deep inside Austria, there is no question Napoleon would have become a prisoner and likely been executed. The Grande Armée would have been destroyed. But two emperors, and all of their generals, danced to a French tune at Austerlitz. It took another ten years and hundreds of thousands of deaths before Napoleon did meet his Waterloo.