Against this quintuple alliance France had the hesitant support of Hesse, Nassau, Baden, Bavaria, and Württemberg, and the cooperation of the Dutch and Spanish fleets. From all quarters of his realm Napoleon drew money and conscripts, and organized three armies: (1) the Army of the Rhine, under Davout, Murat, Soult, and Ney, to challenge the main Austrian force under General Mack; (2) the Army of Italy, under Masséna, to meet the westward thrust of an Austrian army under the Archduke Karl Ludwig; and (3) the Grande Armée of Napoleon, presently gathered about Boulogne, but capable of being suddenly turned upon Austria. His hope was that a quick capture of Vienna would compel Austria to sign a separate peace, immobilizing her Continental allies, and leaving England unaided and besieged.
The young Emperor had come to hate England as the bane of his life and the chief obstacle to his dreams; he called her “perfide Albion” and denounced British gold as the main source of France’s woes. Night and day, amid a hundred other projects, he planned the building of a navy that would end Britannia’s lordship of the seas. He poured funds and workers into naval arsenals like Toulon and Brest, and he tested a dozen captains to find an admiral who could lead the growing French Navy to victory. He thought he had found such a man in Louis de La Touche-Tréville, and strove to inspire him with the vision of a Britain invaded and overcome. “If we can be masters of the Channel for six hours we shall be masters of the world.”13 But La Touche-Tréville died in 1804, and Napoleon made the mistake of giving command of the French Navy to Pierre de Villeneuve.
Villeneuve had bungled his share in the Egyptian fiasco, and had given signs of both insubordination and timidity. He had no faith in the possibility of capturing control of the Channel for six hours, and he lingered in Paris until Napoleon ordered him to his post at Toulon. His instructions were subtle and complex: to lead his fleet out to sea, let Nelson pursue him with the main British flotilla, draw him on across the Atlantic to the West Indies, elude him among those islands, and return as swiftly as possible to the English Channel, where French, Dutch, and Spanish squadrons would join him in engaging the British vessels there long enough to let the French army, in its thousand boats, cross to England before Nelson could come back from the Caribbean. Villeneuve accomplished the first part of his task well: he lured Nelson to America, escaped him, and hurried back to Europe. But on reaching Spain he judged his ships and men to be in no condition to overcome the British guardians of the Channel; instead he sought the protection of a friendly harbor at Cádiz. Napoleon, frustrated in his plan, sent orders to Villeneuve to seek out Nelson’s fleet and risk everything in a desperate challenge to British control of the seas.
Then, in a flurry of decision, the Emperor turned away from the Channel, and wheeled a hundred thousand men around to march south and east to the Rhine and beyond. All France followed in anxious hope the course of this Grande Armée, now so named by Napoleon, and every town on its itinerary bade it Godspeed on its enterprise. In nearly every church the clergy called upon the youth of the nation to obey the call to the colors; they proved from Scripture that Napoleon was now under the direct guidance and protection of God;14 so soon had the Concordat come to fruit. Napoleon cooperated by arranging that twenty thousand carriages should be provided along the route to hurry and relieve the soldiers on their passage through France.15 He himself rode to Strasbourg with Josephine, who was now all anxiety and devotion; her fortunes too hung on every throw of the dice. He promised that within a few weeks he would be master of Vienna.16 At Strasbourg he left her in the care of Rémusat, and hurried on to the front.
His strategy, as usual, was to divide and conquer: to keep the Austrian armies from uniting; to destroy or immobilize the armed forces of Austria before the Russian horde whose aid they were expecting could arrive; and then to overwhelm the Russians in a victory that would compel his Continental enemies to at least a temporary peace. Despite gloomy days and dark nights of rain, mud, and snow, the Army of the Rhine carried out its share of the campaign with a thoroughness and dispatch that may serve as an illustration of how much Napoleon owed to his marshals. After a week of maneuvers General Mack’s 50,000 men found themselves, at Ulm, hemmed in on three sides by the artillery, cavalry, and infantry of Davout, Soult, Murat, and Ney, and denied retreat by the width of the Danube behind them. Starved for food, and short of ammunition, the besieged Austrians threatened mutiny unless they were allowed to surrender. Mack did so at last (October 17, 1805); 30,000 of his troops were taken prisoner and sent to France. It was one of the least costly and most thorough and effective victories in the history of war. Emperor Francis II, and some Austrian survivors from Ulm, fled north to join the oncoming Russians, while Napoleon entered Vienna (November 12) without resistance and without display.
His triumph was soon soured by news that Villeneuve, pursuant to instructions, had gone out to meet Nelson in what proved for both of them a duel to the death. Nelson won at Trafalgar (October 21, 1805), but was mortally wounded; Villeneuve lost, and killed himself. Napoleon somberly put aside all hope of contesting British control of the seas; no course to victory seemed open but to win so many battles on land that the Continental Powers would be forced to follow France in closing their markets to British goods until the merchants of England should compel their government to sue for peace.
Leaving General Mortier and fifteen thousand men to hold Vienna, he set out on November 17 to join his troops and prepare them to meet two Russian armies marching south, one under the resolute Kutuzov, the other under Czar Alexander himself. The Russian Bear met the French Eagle at Austerlitz, a village in Moravia, on December 2, 1805. Before the battle Napoleon issued a proclamation to his legions:
The Russian army appears before you to avenge the Austrian army of Ulm. … The positions which we occupy are formidable; while they are marching to turn my right, they will present their flank to me….
I shall myself direct your battalions. I shall keep out of the fire if, with your usual bravery, you throw disorder and confusion into the enemy’s ranks. But if the victory should be for a moment uncertain, you will see your emperor the foremost to expose himself to danger. For victory must not hang doubtful on this day most particularly, when the honor of the French infantry, which so deeply concerns the honor of the whole nation, is at stake…. It behooves us to conquer these hirelings of England, who are animated with such bitter hatred of our nation.….
This victory will put an end to the campaign, and we shall then be able to turn to our winter quarters, where we shall be joined by the new armies which are forming in France; and then the peace which I shall make will be worthy of my people, of you, and of myself.17
His first tactic was to capture a hill that would allow his artillery to rake the Russian infantry moving to flank his right. That hill was held by some of Kutuzov’s bravest men; they gave way, re-formed, fought again, and were finally overcome by Napoleon’s reserves. Soon the French artillery was decimating the Russians as they marched on the plain below; their center broke in terror and flight, dividing their army into disorganized halves faced at the one end by the infantry of Davout and Soult, at the other by the battalions of Lannes, Murat, and Bernadotte; and into the shattered center Napoleon sent his reserves to complete the rout. The 87,000 Russians and Austrians surrendered 20,000 prisoners and nearly all their artillery, and left 15,000 dead. Alexander and Francis fled with the remnants into Hungary, while their frightened ally, Frederick William III, humbly sued for peace.
In that holocaust the 73,000 French and their allies lost 8,000 dead or wounded. The exhausted survivors, long hardened to the sight of death, cheered their leader with wild enthusiasm. In a bulletin of December 3 he answered them with a promise that he would soon keep: “When all that is necessary for securing the happiness and prosperity of our country has been accomplished, I will lead you back to France. There you will be the object of my most tender solicitude. My people will welcome you with joy, and you will only have to say ‘I was at the battle of Austerlitz’ for people to exclaim, ‘Behold a hero.’ “18