The Battle of Austerlitz - December 1805, Napoleon Bonaparte
The Battle of Austerlitz
The Battle of Austerlitz brought end to the third anti-French coalition, the military pillars of which were Russia and Austria, with financial backing from England. It belongs among the bloodiest battles of the Czech lands' entire history. The Allies were lead by the Austrian Emperor Francis I. and the Russian Tzar Alexandr I. Against them stood the 36-year-old Emperor of the French, Italian King, and the mediator of the Swiss confederation, Napoleon I. Bonaparte.
Russo-Austrian army had 90,000 men, out of which, however, only 15,000 were natives of the Habsburk Monarchy. The chief commander of the coalition was 60-year-old Russian general M.I. Goleniscev-Kutuzov. The staff work, on the request of the Tzar, was performed by Austrian officers. Major general Franz von Weyrother worked out the operational plans of the battle. Due to their immoderate selfconfidence and unsufficient reconnaissance the Allies presumed that Napoleon is rounding his troops around Brno and will accept defensive role in the battle. According to their plans the right wing of the French army was to be attacked and, through a joint effort of the center and the right wing of the Allies' troops, all the Franch units were to be surrounded in the area South-East from Brno. To fulfil this task the army was divided into vanguard, five columns, independent Bagration's corp on the right wing and reserve troops, consisiting of the Russian Imperial Guard.
Napoleon's tactics was based on the knowledge, gathered through advanced reconnaissance, of the Allies' position, on the exact psychological estimate of enemy's scheme, on new tactical elements, and, last but not least, on the outstanding abilities of his young officers.
French army, which also comprised an Italian guard and several Bavarian corps, and whose 75,000 soldiers and officers were well outnumbered by the Allies, took up a 7.5-mile-long operational line between the fortified Santon hill on the North, and the village of Telnice on the South. Almost half of the French army were concentrated near Pratecka hills. Seven French marshals accompanied three army corps, reserve cavallery and the guard.
According to the Gregorian calendar, the battle took place on Monday, December 2, 1805. Russians, using the Julian calendar, dated the battle November 20, 1805. The victorious French, using the revolutionary calendar dating from 1793, fought the battle on the 11th of Frimair in the year XIV.
After minor squirmishes during the night, three Allies columns with the Austrian vanguard attacked, after seven o'clock in the morning, the French positions on the line between the villages Sokolnice and Telnice and conquered both villages before ten o'clock. Hidden by thick fog, the French corps I and IV headed towards Pratecke hills and, just after eleven o'clock, began to endanger the rear of the Allies army in the Golden Stream Valley. Around eight o'clock, Bagration launched an attack along the Olomouc road against the Santon hill and conquered the village of Tvarozna. One of the French divisions managed to penetrate into a three-mile-wide gap between the Allies' right wing and their position on Pratecke hills. The success of the French army's centre was thus expanded to its left wing. Bagration was forced to retreat. Neither the cavalry attacks between the villages of Holubice and Kruh, nor the futile attempt by the Russian guard to defeat the French on Stare Vinohrady hill brought any reversal to the fate of the battle.
The break-through of the centre of the Russo-Austrian army jeopardized the rear of the columns which were gathered around the villages of Sokolnice and Telnice. A tardy effort to retreat from the battle line through the Litava valley and later around the Zatcansky pond ment a loss of canons and a capture of sveral thousands of the Allies' men. The battle ended just after four o'clock by the total defeat of the Allies after nine hours of furious fighting.
The Allies lost 40% of the total of all their troops. The French lost 12 % of soldiers who actually took part in the battle. In about 25 mass graves 18,000 of men from all the three armies were buried. Having signed the armistice on December 6, 1806, at the Slavkov (Austerlitz) chateau the peace treaty was signed in Bratislava on December 26. Austria had to cede 66,000 square kilometers of its territory and thus lost three million of it inhabitants and one seventh of its national product. It also had to pay 40 million florins of war reparation. The Battle of Austerlitz (which took place exactly on the first anniversary of Napoleon's coronation) confirmed Napoleon's position in Europe and brought end to the thousand-year-old Holy Roman Empire.
Introduction: It was before dawn on December 2, 1805--the first anniversary of Napoleon's coronation as supreme ruler. The armies of three emperors--Napoleon I of France, Francis I of Austria and Tsar Alexander I of Russia--would meet in the day that followed
Dawn: The Allied Assault
At the break of day, the vanguard (or lead elements) of the allied 1st Column burst upon the French encampments in the southwest corner of the battlefield.
Soon after 7:00 in the morning, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Columns--three of the four stationed on the Pratzen Plateau--descended into the valley next to Golden Creek. Though one division of Napoleon's IV Corps resisted heavily, the French faced a much superior force and gave way. By 10:00 AM, the allies had nearly broken through enemy lines--and might have, had not the French III Corps arrived just in time to salvage the situation.
Map: Initial Assault Victory. The time covered here is from dawn to about 7:00 AM. Shown here is the assault that began the battle. Three of the allied columns followed the vanguard into battle against the southern portion of the IV Corps. The French troops were forced to retreat, and were not saved until later in the day--with the arrival of reinforcements. NOTE: unit sizes are proportional to their troop strengths.
Napoleon's 'Lion Leap' Through the Fog
At about 7:45 AM, just after the allied columns started in motion down the slopes of the plateau, Napoleon executed an extraordinary maneuver known now as the "lion leap": the rest of the IV Corps surged through the morning's thick fog and assailed the right flank of the Allied advance.
His troops emerging from the haze and the sun rising over Austerlitz, Napoleon beheld his army at the pinnacle of its success and glory.
Though startled by the unexpected--and unseen--appearance of French forces, the Allies recovered sufficiently to organize a defense. The 4th Column, still on the plateau, began marching into the valley; and elements of the 2nd Column were sent back from the front to defend the hilltop.
Illustration: The Lion Leap. As the 4th Column was advancing to engage the southern detachment of the IV Corps, Napoleon used the rest of that corps to make a devastating flanking assault
The allied reinforcements were defeated after a bitter fight. Now, the French assault on the flank received fresh reserves of its own, as the I Corps joined the divisions of the IV Corps. Napoleon now established his command post on the peak of Pratzen Plateau to observe the destruction of the Austrian and Russian armies.
The situation for the allied columns in the Golden Creek valley deteriorated: they were now pinned down by French forces from two sides. In one last bold but fruitless attempt at relief, the Russian Imperial Guard charged up the plateau but was turned back. Avoiding total ruin, the allied troops retreated to the south.
Map: Leaping to Victory. This map shows the battle's course from about 7:45 AM through the rest of the day. Soon after the 4th Column advanced onto the Pratzen Plateau, the northern elements of the IV Corps pushed through the fog and surprised the flank of the allied advance. Then, Napoleon's Imperial Guard and I Corps joined the attack. A futile assault by the tsar's Guard later in the day was turned back. The defeated allied troops were forced to withdraw to the south. NOTE: unit sizes are proportional to their troop strengths.
The thin cordon of French riflemen on Zlaty potok, in spite of all the advantages of the terrain, would not have been able to hold their positions against the attack of more than fifty thousand men coming down into the valley from Prace Hill. In order to ensure that the front was not breached, it was crucial that the reinforcements, Marshal Davout's Third Corp, arrive in time. The Third Corp were hurrying to the battlefield from Vienna and according to the plan should have arrived in the early morning hours. At the last possible moment, Davout arrived and prevented a catastrophe.
The first clashes between the French and the Austrian vanguard under Kienmayer broke out before dawn near the village of Telnice. Kienmayer's corp began to march from near Ujezd, and before arriving in Telnice, ran in to the French picket-line. Thus the flames of battle were first lit in the southernmost corner of the battlefield. At that moment when Kienmayer was already fiercely engaged in the struggle for Telnice, the four columns were only just preparing to go down into the valley from the hill-top. Sometime after seven o'clock, Dokhturov's First Column went down the hill, followed Langeron's Second and Przybyszewski's Third Columns. As they went behind the wall of the pheasantry at the chateau of Sokolnice, they were welcomed by heavy fire from Legrand's infantry division. During the course of the battle, ownership of the chateau and pheasantry changed hands several times. Heavy fighting also took place for the village of Sokolnice, as well as for the nearby village of Telnice. It seemed that the Russian columns would break through the French lines, when shortly before ten o'clock, Friant's divison of Davout's corp arrived on the scene. This division arrived after an exhausting, two day march and immediately entered the battle. Thus, the Allied columns along Zlaty potok did not break through.
Only as this play unfolded and the attention of the Allies, including the Allied commander Kutuzov, who was watching the battle with both emperors from the Old Vineyard, was focused on Zlaty potok, could Napoleon give the command to launch the main attack from the Olomouc Road. The two remaining divisions of Soult's corp, Saint-Hilaire's and Vandamme's were waiting below Zuran Hill, in vicinity of Blazovice and Jirikovice, to begin a maneuver, which was later called the "lion's leap". These two divisions were to act as a wedge in the flank of the unsuspecting enemy. Coincidentally, the surprise of the Allies was even greater. That morning, a thick fog hung over the landscape, covering, until the last possible moment, the core of the French forces in the valley. When, shortly after seven o'clock, the first three Russian columns began to move, no one remotely suspected the danger threatening from the right. But when Soult's infantry appeared out of the fog, there was not time to change the orders and instructions. The whole mass of the three columns was on the march towards the valley and no one was able to stop them. The first units encountered Legrand's riflemen, supported by Margaron's light cavalry, near Sokolnice and Telnice.
Witnesses report that the command to attack Prace Hill was given after a brief meeting between the French emperor and the commanders of the nearest corps. This happened around half past seven, when Napoleon proposed a question to Marshal Soult, who was standing nearby: "Marshal, how much time do you need to get your forces to the top of Prace Hill?" Soult answered: "Twenty minutes is more than enough time, Sir." As Napoleon listened to the answer, he was observing with binoculars the blurry, barely distinguishable movements of the Allied forces on top of the hill. "All right, we can wait another quarter of an hour," concluded Napoleon. During this quarter of an hour, Napoleon wanted to make sure that the enemy was actually coming down to Zlaty potok. He was waiting until his formations on the march would become looser and more spread out and therefore the attack on the flank would have a greater impact and a greater level of surprise.
At that moment, when Napoleon was standing with his marshals on top of Zuran Hill, the firey red ball of the sun leapt above the eastern horizon beyond Holubice and continued to rise through the foggy haze. This winter sun over Austerlitz would soon burn off the remnants of the fog above the battlefield and become legendary. Beginning on this day, Napoleon associated the sun with his success and the glory of his armies. It was his Austerlitz sun, "le Soleil d'Austerlitz", which would warm Napoleon with its favor for the next ten years. The same sun which he would hope for in vain on that June morning, ten years later, on the wet plain of Waterloo. The same sun which he would remember with great sentimentality during his exile on the island of St. Helena.
The precious experience of seeing the sun rise above Austerlitz was, however, immediately interrupted by the call of duty. " Gentlemen, in half an hour, the whole front will be on fire" said Napoleon as he outlined the last variant of his battle plan, because, contrary to his original supposition, the enemy attack was heading more to the south, towards Sokolnice and Telnice. This is why a courier sent to look for Marshal Davout was bearing instructions for him to reinforce the French front at that point. Each of the marshals then set off from Zuran in the direction of his own corp. It was only then that Napoleon gave the command to Marshal Soult to start the attack. "Let us finish this war with a thunderbolt!" The floodgates opened and a rush of blue uniforms began to move towards the foot of Prace Hill.
The French attack on the hill-top was not as easy as some French historians have tried to suggest. In spite of the surprise in the Allied columns caused by Soult's attack, a defense was quickly organized and the French faced determined resistance. The fact that the French appeared near Prace was a surprise to the Allied commanders, however their reaction was not one of chaos. The Allied Fourth Column, composed of Austrian and Russian regiments, was just about to descend to Zlaty potok when the French appeared on their flank. General Kutuzov, who, together with the two emperors, was observing the attack of this column, ordered them to form up and turn to face the arrival of this unexpected danger. He gave an order to occupy the village of Prace and the slopes around it. Soon, reinforcements from Langeron's Second Column arrived. The spearhead of this column had already encountered the French in front of Solkonice. When General Langeron heard shooting behind him, he, quite surprised, returned from Sokolnice to the hill-top to find out what was happening. He took stock of the situation and when he saw the enemy at the rear, he turned one of his brigades (under General Kamenskij ) in that direction and ordered it to defend the hill-top. A desperate fight lasting several hours broke out here. The soldiers were fighting mostly with bayonets and as a result casulties on both sides were heavy. The Russians defended themselves with great courage. Accounts have been preserved which indicate that captured Russian soldiers threw themselves on their conquerers with only their bare hands and were able to disarm their French guards. This made the French, who were used to observing certain rules of combat, so outraged that they almost stopped taking prisoners and instead mercilessly slaughtered entire Russian units. The poet Dyenis Davydov, a witness of the Napoleonic Wars wrote:
"The hatred of the French for the Russians and the Russians for the French began at exactly this moment. Both armies began the habit of stripping off the last piece of clothing from their prisoners, taking their boots and allowing them to die from hunger, exhaustion, cold or beatings. The commanders did not specifically order such actions, but neither did they punish anyone for them."
It was early afternoon. The heart of the Allied army, which had been involved in combat along Zlaty potok, near the villages of Telnice, Sokolnice, Kobylnice, was now under fire from two sides. In front was Davout's corp and at the rear were two divisions of Soult's Fourth Corp, coming down from the hill-top which they had only shortly before occupied. Behind them, the reserve, the First Corp of Marshal Bernadotte, was advancing.
At the same time, east of Prace, around the Old Vineyard, the most spectacular part of the battle was taking place. Napoleon, together with Soult's units, moved his headquarters from Zuran Hill to the top of Prace Hill. He located his headquarters on approximately the same spot, where General Kutuzov and the two emperors had stood only two hours earlier. Napoleon was accompanied by his Imperial Guard, over 5000 elite soldiers, who were the flower of the French army and enjoyed the Emperor's special favor.