The Battle of Austerlitz, also known as the Battle of the Three Emperors, was one of Napoleon's greatest victories, where
the French Empire effectively crushed the Third Coalition. On 2 December 1805 (20 November Old Style, 11 Frimaire An XIV, in the French Republican Calendar), a French army, commanded by Emperor
Napoleon I, decisively defeated a Russo-Austrian army, commanded by Tsar Alexander I and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, after nearly nine hours of difficult fighting. The battle took place near
Austerlitz (Slavkov u Brna) about 10 km (6 mi) south-east of Brno in Moravia, at that time in the Austrian Empire (present day Czech Republic). The battle was a tactical masterpiece of the same
stature as the ancient battles of Gaugamela and Cannae, in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC.
The French victory at Austerlitz effectively brought the Third Coalition to an end. On 26 December 1805, Austria and France signed the Treaty of Pressburg, which took Austria out of both the war and the Coalition, while it reinforced the earlier treaties of Campo Formio and of Lunéville between the two powers. The treaty confirmed the Austrian cession of lands in Italy and Bavaria to France, and in Germany to Napoleon's German allies, imposed an indemnity of 40 million francs on the defeated Habsburgs, and allowed the defeated Russian troops free passage, with their arms and equipment, through hostile territories and back to their home soil. Victory at Austerlitz also permitted the creation of the Confederation of the Rhine, a collection of German states intended as a buffer zone between France and central Europe.
As a direct consequence of these events, the Holy Roman Empire ceased to exist when, in 1806, Holy Roman Emperor Francis II abdicated the Imperial throne, keeping Francis I of Austria as his only official title. These achievements, however, did not establish a lasting peace on the continent. Prussian worries about growing French influence in Central Europe sparked the War of the Fourth Coalition in 1806.
In August 1805, Napoleon, Emperor of the French since December of the previous year, turned his army's sights from the English Channel to
the Rhine in order to deal with the new Austrian and Russian threats. On 25 September after great secrecy and feverish marching, 200,000 French troops began to cross the Rhine on a front of 260 km
(160 mi). Mack had gathered the greater part of the Austrian army at the fortress of Ulm in Swabia (modern day southern Germany).
Napoleon swung his forces southward and performed a wheeling movement that put the French at the Austrian rear. The Ulm Maneuver was well-executed and on 20 October Mack and 23,000 Austrian troops surrendered at Ulm, bringing the total number of Austrian prisoners in the campaign to 60,000. Although the spectacular victory was soured by the defeat of the Franco-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar the following day, French success on land continued as Vienna fell in November. The French gained 100,000 muskets, 500 cannon, and the intact bridges across the Danube.
Meanwhile, delays in the arrival of Russian troops prevented them from saving the Austrian field armies, so the Russians withdrew to the northeast to await reinforcements and link up with surviving Austrian units. Tsar Alexander I appointed general Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov to the commander-in-chief of the Russian and Austrian troops. On 9 September 1805, Kutuzov arrived at the battlefield to gather information. He quickly contacted Francis I of Austria and his courtiers to discuss planning and logistical matters. Under pressure from Kutuzov, the Austrians agreed to supply munitions and weapons in a timely and sufficient manner. Kutuzov also spotted shortcomings in the Austrian defense plan, which he called "very dogmatic". He objected to Austrian annexation of the land recently under Napoleon's control, because this would make the local people distrust the allied force. The Austrians rejected many of Kutuzov's proposals.
The French followed, but soon found themselves in an unenviable disposition: Prussian intentions were unknown and could be hostile, the Russian and Austrian armies now converged, and to add to Napoleon's challenges, the French lines of communication were extremely long and required strong garrisons to keep them open. Napoleon realized that to capitalize on the success at Ulm, he had to force the Allies to battle and defeat them. On the Russian side, Commander-in-chief Kutuzov also realized that; so instead of clinging to the "suicidal" Austrian defense plan, Kutuzov decided to retreat. He ordered Pyotr Bagration to command 600 troops to contain the French at Vienna, and instructed the Allied Army to accept Murat's ceasefire proposal so that the allied army could have more time to retreat. Napoleon soon realized Murat's mistakes and ordered him to pursue quickly; at that time the allied army had already retreated to Olmutz. According to Kutuzov's plan, the Allies would retreat further to the Carpathian region and "at Galicia, I will bury the French."
Napoleon did not stay still. The French Emperor decided to make a psychological trap in order to lure the Allies out. Days before any fighting, Napoleon had given the impression to the Allies that his army was in a weak state and that he desired a negotiated peace. About 53,000 French troops - including Soult, Lannes and Murat's forces - were assigned to take possession of Austerlitz and the Olmutz road, occupying the enemy's attention. The Allied forces, numbering about 89,000, seemed to be far superior and would be tempted to attack an outnumbered French Army. However, the Allies didn't know that the reinforcements of Bernadotte, Mortier and Davout had already been within the supported distance, and could be called in need by forced marches from Iglau and Vienna respectively, raising the French forces to 75,000 troops, and reducing their inferiority in number.
Napoleon's lure did not stop at that. On 25 November, general Savary was sent to the Allied headquarters at Olmutz in order to secretly examine the Allied forces' situation and deliver Napoleon's message expressing his desire to avoid a battle. As expected, that expression was seen as a sure sign of weakness. When Francis I offered an armistice on the 27th, Napoleon expressed great enthusiasm in accepting it. On the same day, Napoleon ordered Soult to abandon both Austerlitz and the Pratzen Heights and also create an image of chaos during the retreat; that would make the enemies occupy the Heights. The next day (28 November), the French Emperor requested a personal interview with Alexander I and received a visit from the Tsar's most impetuous aide, Count Dolgorouki. The meeting was another part of the trap, as Napoleon intentionally expressed anxiety and hesitation to his opponents. Dolgorouki reported all of this to the Tsar as an additional indication of French weakness.
The plan was successful. Many of the Allied officers, including the Tsar's aides and the Austrian Chief of Staff Franz von Weyrother, strongly supported the idea of attacking immediately and appeared to be swaying Tsar Alexander's opinion. Kutuzov's idea was rejected, and the Allied forces soon fell into the trap that Napoleon had set.
Napoleon could muster some 72,000 men and 157 guns for the impending battle, although about 7,000 troops under Davout were still far to the south in the direction of Vienna. The Allies had about 85,000 soldiers, seventy percent of them Russian, and 318 guns. So, the French Army was inferior in number. At first, Napoleon was not totally confident of his victory. In a letter written to Minister of Foreign Affairs Talleyrand, Napoleon requested Talleyrand not tell anyone about the upcoming battle because he did not want to disturb Empress Joséphine. According to Frederick C. Schneid, the French Emperor worried more about how he could explain to Joséphine if the French Army was defeated.
The battle took place about six miles (ten kilometers) southeast of the town of Brno, between that town and Austerlitz (Czech: Slavkov u Brna) in what is now the Czech Republic. The northern part of the battlefield was dominated by the 700-foot (210-meter) Santon Hill and the 880-foot (270-meter) Zuran (Žuráň) Hill, both overlooking the vital Olomouc/Brno road, which was on an east/west axis. To the west of these two hills was the village of Bellowitz (Bedřichovice), and between them the Bosenitz (Roketnice) Stream went south to link up with the Goldbach (Říčka) Stream, the latter flowing by the villages of Kobelnitz (Kobylnice), Sokolnitz (Sokolnice), and Telnitz (Telnice). The centerpiece of the entire area was the Pratzen (Prace) Heights, a gently sloping hill about 35 to 40 feet (10 to 12 meters) in height. An aide noted that Napoleon repeatedly told his marshals, "Gentlemen, examine this ground carefully, it is going to be a battlefield; you will have a part to play upon it.
An Allied council met on 1 December to discuss proposals for the battle. Most of the Allied strategists had two fundamental ideas in mind: making contact with the enemy and securing the southern flank that held the communication line to Vienna. Although the Tsar and his immediate entourage pushed hard for a battle, Emperor Francis of Austria was more cautious and, as mentioned, he was seconded by Kutuzov, the Commander-in-chief of the Russians and the Allied troop. The pressure to fight from the Russian nobles and the Austrian commanders, however, was too strong, and the Allies adopted the plan of the Austrian Chief of Staff, Franz von Weyrother. This called for a main drive against the French right flank, which the Allies noticed was lightly guarded, and diversionary attacks against the French left. The Allies deployed most of their troops into four columns that would attack the French right. The Russian Imperial Guard was held in reserve while Russian troops under Bagration guarded the Allied right. The Russian Tsar rudely stripped the authority of Commander-in-chief M. I. Kutuzov and gave it to Franz von Weyrother. In the battle, Kutuzov could only command the IV Corps of the Allied army, although he was still the de jure commander because the Tsar was afraid to take over in case his favored plan failed.
Napoleon was hoping that the Allied forces would attack, and to encourage them, he deliberately weakened his right flank. On 28 November Napoleon met with his marshals at Imperial Headquarters, who informed him of their qualms about the forthcoming battle. He shrugged off their suggestion of retreat. Napoleon's plan envisioned that the Allies would throw many troops to envelop his right flank in order to cut the French communication line from Vienna. As a result, the Allies' center and left flank would be exposed and become vulnerable. To encourage them to do so, Napoleon abandoned the strategic position on the Pratzen Heights, faking the weakness of his forces and his own caution. Meanwhile, Napoleon's main force was to be concealed in a dead ground opposite the Heights. According to the plan, the French troops would attack and recapture the Pratzen Heights, then from the Heights they would launch a decisive assault to the center of the Allied army, cripple them, and encircle them from the rear.
"If the Russian force leaves the Pratzen Heights in order to go to the right side, they will certainly be defeated". (Napoleon)
The massive thrust through the Allied center was conducted by 16,000 troops of Soult's IV Corps. IV Corps' position was cloaked by dense
mist during the early stage of the battle; in fact how long the mist lasted was vital to Napoleon's plan: Soult's troops would become uncovered if the mist dissipated too soon, but if it lingered too
long, Napoleon would be unable to determine when the Allied troops had evacuated Pratzen Heights, preventing him from timing his attack properly.
Meanwhile, to support his weak right flank, Napoleon ordered Davout's III Corps to force march all the way from Vienna and join General Legrand's men, who held the extreme southern flank that would bear the heaviest part of the Allied attack. Davout's soldiers had 48 hours to march 110 km (68 mi). Their arrival was crucial in determining the success of the French plan. Indeed, the arrangement of Napoleon on the right flank was very risky as the French only had minimal troops garrisoning there. However, the reason why Napoleon could use such a risky plan was because Davout - the commander of III Corps - was one of Napoleon's best marshals, because the right flank's position was protected by a complicated system of streams and lakes and because the French had already settled upon a secondary line of retreat through Brunn. The Imperial Guard and Bernadotte's I Corps were held in reserve while the V Corps under Lannes guarded the northern sector of the battlefield, where the new communication line was located. By 1 December 1805, the French troops had been shifted in accordance with the Allied movement southward, as Napoleon expected.
The battle began at about 8 a.m. with the first allied column attacking the village of Telnitz, which was defended by the 3rd Line Regiment. This sector of the battlefield witnessed heavy action in the following moments as several ferocious Allied charges evicted the French from the town and forced them onto the other side of the Goldbach. The first men of Davout's corps arrived at this time and threw the Allies out of Telnitz before they too were attacked by hussars and reabandoned the town. Additional Allied attacks out of Telnitz were checked by French artillery. Allied columns started pouring against the French right, but not at the desired speed, so the French were mostly successful in curbing the attacks. Actually, the Allied deployments were mistaken and poorly timed: cavalry detachments under Liechtenstein on the Allied left flank had to be placed in the right flank and in the process they ran into and slowed down part of the second column of infantry that was advancing towards the French right. At the time, the planners thought this was a disaster, but later on it helped the Allies. Meanwhile, the leading elements of the second column were attacking the village of Sokolnitz, which was defended by the 26th Light Regiment and the Tirailleurs, French skirmishers. Initial Allied assaults proved unsuccessful and General Langeron ordered the bombardment of the village. This deadly barrage forced the French out, and at about the same time, the third column attacked the castle of Sokolnitz. The French, however, counterattacked and regained the village, only to be thrown out again. Conflict in this area ended temporarily when Friant's division (part of III Corps) retook the village. Sokolnitz was perhaps the most fought over area in the battlefield and would change hands several times as the day progressed. While the allied troops attacked the French's right flank, Kutuzov's IV Corp stopped at Pratzen height and stayed still. Just like Napoleon, Kutuzov realized the importance of Pratzen and decided to protect the position. But the young Tsar did not, so he expelled the IV Corp from Pratzen height. This act quickly pushed the Allied army into her grave.
At about 8:45 a.m., satisfied at the weakness in the enemy center, Napoleon asked Soult how long it would take for his men to reach the Pratzen Heights, to which the Marshal replied, "Less than twenty minutes, sire." About 15 minutes later, Napoleon ordered the attack, adding, "One sharp blow and the war is over." A dense fog helped to cloud the advance of St. Hilaire's division, but as they went up the slope the legendary 'Sun of Austerlitz' ripped the mist apart and encouraged them forward. Russian soldiers and commanders on top of the heights were stunned to see so many French troops coming towards them. Allied commanders moved some of the delayed detachments of the fourth column into this bitter struggle. Over an hour of fighting destroyed much of this unit. The other men from the second column, mostly inexperienced Austrians, also participated in the struggle and swung the numbers against one of the best fighting forces in the French army, eventually forcing them to withdraw down the slopes. However, gripped by desperation, St. Hilaire's men struck hard once more and bayoneted the Allies out of the heights. To the north, General Vandamme's division attacked an area called Staré Vinohrady ("Old Vineyards") and, through talented skirmishing and deadly volleys, broke several Allied battalions. The battle had firmly turned in France's favour, but it was far from over. Napoleon ordered Bernadotte's I Corps to support Vandamme's left and moved his own command center from Žuráň Hill to St. Anthony's Chapel on the Pratzen Heights. The difficult position of the Allies was confirmed by the decision to send in the Russian Imperial Guard; Grand Duke Constantine, Tsar Alexander's brother, commanded the Guard and counterattacked in Vandamme's section of the field, forcing a bloody effort and the only loss of a French standard in the battle (a battalion of the 4th Line Regiment was defeated). Sensing trouble, Napoleon ordered his own heavy Guard cavalry forward. These men pulverized their Russian counterparts, but with both sides pouring in large masses of cavalry, no victory was clear. The Russians had a numerical advantage but soon the tide swung as Drouet's Division, the 2nd of Bernadotte's I Corps, deployed on the flank of the action and allowed French cavalry to seek refuge behind their lines. The horse artillery of the Guard also inflicted heavy casualties on the Russian cavalry and fusiliers. The Russians broke and many died as they were pursued by the reinvigorated French cavalry for about a quarter of a mile. The casualties of the Russians in Pratzen included Kutuzov (severely wounded) and his son-in-law Ferdinand von Tiesenhausen (KIA).
"I was... under fierce and continuous canister fire... Many soldiers, now incessantly engaged in battle from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., had no cartridges left. I could do nothing but retreat..." (Lieutenant General Przhebishevsky)
Meanwhile, the northernmost part of the battlefield was also witnessing heavy fighting. Prince Liechtenstein's heavy cavalry began to assault Kellerman's lighter cavalry forces after eventually arriving at the correct position in the field. The fighting initially went well for the French, but Kellerman's forces took cover behind General Caffarelli's infantry division once it became clear Russian numbers were too great. Caffarelli's men halted the Russian assaults and permitted Murat to send two cuirassier divisions (one commanded by d'Hautpoul and the other one by Nansouty) into the fray to finish off the Russian cavalry for good. The ensuing mêlée was bitter and long, but the French ultimately prevailed. Lannes then led his V Corps against Bagration's men and after hard fighting managed to drive the skilled Russian commander off the field. He wanted to pursue, but Murat, who was in control of this sector in the battlefield, was against the idea. Napoleon's focus now shifted towards the southern end of the battlefield where the French and the Allies were still fighting over Sokolnitz and Telnitz. In an effective double-pronged assault, St. Hilaire's division and part of Davout's III Corps smashed through the enemy at Sokolnitz and persuaded the commanders of the first two columns, Generals Kienmayer and Langeron, to flee as fast as they could. Buxhowden, the commander of the Allied left and the man responsible for leading the attack, was completely drunk and fled as well. Kienmayer covered his withdrawal with the O'Reilly light cavalry, who gallantly managed to defeat five of six French cavalry regiments before they too had to retreat. General panic now seized the Allied army and it abandoned the field in all possible directions. A famous episode occurred during this retreat: Russian forces that had been defeated by the French right withdrew south towards Vienna via the Satschan frozen ponds. French artillery pounded towards the men, and the ice was broken due to the bombardment. The men drowned in the cold ponds, dozens of Russian artillery pieces going down with them. Estimates of how many guns were captured differ: there may have been as few as 38 or more than 100. Sources also differ about casualties, with figures ranging between 200 and 2,000 dead. Many drowning Russians were saved by their victorious foes. However, local evidence, only later made public, suggests that Napoleon's account of the catastrophe may have been totally invented; on the emperor's instructions the lakes were drained a few days after the battle and the corpses of only two or three men, with some 150 horses, were found.
Austerlitz and the preceding campaign profoundly altered the nature of European politics. In three months, the French had occupied Vienna, destroyed two armies, and humbled the Austrian Empire. These events sharply contrast with the rigid power structures of the 18th century. Austerlitz set the stage for a near-decade of French domination of the European continent, but one of its more immediate effects was to goad Prussia into war in 1806.