Volume II - Chapter 12



Tomorrow, there will probably be a pitched

 battle with the Russians. I have striven

 to prevent this, because blood will be

spilled in vain. I regret what it will

cost, and to no real purpose.

(Napoleon to Talleyrand, November 30, 1805)



Austria was no longer a real threat in the war after its surrender of Ulm. Only Russia still posed an immediate danger.


Napoleon did not receive the slightest response from the Austrian Emperor to his proposal for negotiating an end to the war. He therefore left Vienna and the Schönbrunn Palace on November 17 and headed for Znaïm on the borders of lower Austria and Moravia.


On November 20, he set up headquarters at Brünn, close to the battleground he had chosen.



Napoleon offers Russia an amicable settlement


Napoleon reacted just as he had previously toward Austria. He truly did not wish to embark upon a second battle without doing everything he could to prevent it.


We shall now witness the extraordinary spectacle of a man who had just annihilated a major Austrian army almost without a fight, taking the first step toward an amicable settlement with his second enemy, Russia.


“Imperial Headquarters, Brünn, November 25, 1805


“Sire, I am sending my aide-de-camp, General Savary, to present my compliments to Your Majesty upon your joining your army. I desire him to extend my respects to Your Majesty and to convey my desire for an opportunity to prove how much I strive for your friendship. I trust Your Majesty will receive my address with all the graciousness for which you are renowned and that you will consider me a man who desires above all to oblige.


“With this, I pray God keep you in his sacred care.”


We may notice that, contrary to protocol between sovereigns, Napoleon had not addressed the Tsar with the customary formula of “My Royal Brother,” but with the title “Sire,” like a simple vassal to his lord.


What motive lay behind this humility?


Savary, Napoleon’s “special envoy” did not neglect to record it in his Memoirs.

Summoned at dawn by Napoleon, Savary found him poring over his maps, the candles “burnt right down to the candlesticks.”


“Leave for Olmütz and give this letter to the Tsar of Russia. Tell him that when I learned he had joined his army, I sent you to give him my greetings.”

After reading the letter, Alexander conversed at length with Savary, in which it emerged that the Tsar could decide nothing without the agreement of the Emperor of Austria (who said the same of the Tsar) and that, although Napoleon’s message of peace did honour to the author, the draconian conditions that Napoleon had imposed on Austria were “unacceptable.”


According to Alexander of Russia, Austria should not be thus reduced.


Savary expressed it in more diplomatic terms, but realistically this meant that although Austria had declared war and deprived Napoleon of the potential benefit of invading England, without counting the enormous sums expended for nothing, nor those committed to the new campaign and, worse yet, the loss of life, a hard line was being presented that the party responsible for these calamities should be allowed the means to start them over very shortly.



Alexander I (1777-1825), Emperor of Russia (1801-1825). Aged 29 in 1805, the Tsar was seven years younger than Napoleon when he took titular command of Russian troops just before the battle of Austerlitz. Born in St Petersburg, he succeeded his father, Paul I, to the throne in 1801 aged twenty-five, and he was to reign as absolute monarch over 39,000,000 subjects until shortly before his death in 1825. Alexander was the grandson of Catherine the Great and he inherited her ambitious character and her faculty for duplicity. As a child, he was separated from his father by Catherine who ruled over his education with an iron hand preparing him for the throne later on. Torn between his grandmother and his father he learned to hide his feelings and opinions early on and all his life he was to remain a mystery even to his entourage. In 1801, he participated in the plot to assassinate his father and throughout the early part of his reign, he was surrounded and influenced by anglophile friends and counsellors. The most powerful man in Europe with Napoleon, there seemed to be no limits to his ambitions and although his attitude towards the French Emperor was often considered unstable, he was to be Napoleon’s greatest rival and most powerful enemy on the European continent for the next ten years. Before Austerlitz, however, he chose to ignore the wise advice of his older, more experienced generals and listened only to his young, hotheaded, aristocratic staff officers who led him to believe that Napoleon and the French army trembled at the prospect of the coming battle. (RR)



The Tsar’s discourteous reply to the “leader of the French Government”


Conversation between the Tsar of Russia and a mere general could be no more than brief.


The Tsar held out his reply to Savary (who noted “the address was underneath”) and said:


“Here is my reply. The address is not in the form that your master has since assumed. I attach no importance to such trivial matters [!] but these are the rules of etiquette, and I shall be happy to change as soon as he gives me the opportunity.”


On the envelope appeared the words already used by the English in their reply to the peace overtures from Napoleon to George III at the beginning of 1805:


“To the leader of the French government.”


It was a breach of the normal courtesies prevailing in diplomatic relations between heads of state that was all the more serious for the reply having been placed in the hands of a subordinate.


The Emperor read Alexander’s reply:


“I am most grateful to receive the letter of which General Savary was the bearer and I hasten to express my thanks. I have no other desire than to see an honest peace reestablished in Europe on a fair basis.


“At the same time, I wish to oblige you. Please be assured of my highest regards.



It was a courteous letter and of no particular interest, setting aside the wording of the address, but the tone ill suited a correspondence from sovereign to sovereign, especially when the addressee, despite being flush with victory, had just made overtures of peace, albeit in veiled terms.


Since Savary had explained that the Tsar’s entourage was composed of insignificant, rash and arrogant young men who “exuded battle lust,” Napoleon, who, alas, would always be somewhat taken in by the man who was to become a (false) friend two years hence, swallowed the deliberate insult – for such it was – and passing over it, he summoned Savary again:


“Take a bugler and arrange to return to the Tsar of Russia. Say to him that I propose we meet tomorrow between our two armies at an hour that suits him, and that hostilities will of course be suspended for a period of twenty-four hours.”


Might this desire not to come to blows be motivated by a fear of confronting the Russian army?


That would show scant knowledge of Napoleon, since for over a week he had been studying his battle terrain (should he be left no other choice) not only on maps, but also on the very ground itself, which he would only pretend to leave to his enemies the better to destroy them.


Then, why all this prevarication, or at least what seems such on the face of it?


The few lines that Napoleon wrote to Talleyrand, quoted in the epigraph, should be read carefully. We repeat them here because they are vital for understanding the true personality of a man who has been and continues to be presented as a warlord driven by bloodlust for fresh conquest.


“Tomorrow, there will probably be a pitched battle with the Russians. I have striven to prevent this, because blood will be spilled in vain. Do not talk of the battle, for it will worry my wife too much. Do not be alarmed; my position is strong; I regret what it will cost me, and to no real purpose.”



Austerlitz, in Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic) situated some 45 kilometres south of Brünn. Hitherto unknown, the name of Austerlitz was destined to become eternally famous after 2 December 1805.



Alexander refuses Napoleon’s generous offer


The Emperor, who had no doubt of victory, also knew that success could only be achieved at the cost of thousands of lives, yet it would not change the situation one whit. He still needed to humble Austria to protect France from its assaults.


As for Russia, Napoleon would ask nothing since he expected nothing.


In other words, were the battle to take place, Napoleon would be no further ahead on the night after the fighting than on the eve. Except that there would be the mangled bodies of the dead and wounded, the victims of his opponents’ obstinacy.


Savary communicated Napoleon’s proposals word for word.


Constrained by arrogant belief in his divine right, the Tsar refused the generous offer he had received.


As the latest of a long line of sovereigns – although let us not forget that, on orders from England, he had permitted the assassination of his father, Nicholas I, for the heinous crime of wanting a rapprochement with Consular France, and had appointed his assassins to the highest positions – how could the Tsar converse with a man he regarded as a soldier of fortune, raised to emperor by the will of the people?


The People! What an aberration in tsarist Russia!


Faced with a brother sovereign, and not from some tin-pot, little German state but a great nation, who was proposing talks at his convenience regarding place, time and size of delegation, the Tsar took the most humiliating decision possible. He sent a mere aide-de-camp to parley with Napoleon.


“I shall send with you,” he said to Savary, “a man who has my complete confidence. I shall give him a mission to your master; see to it that he meets him. The reply he brings me will determine my decision, and you will do yourself particular honour by helping to arrange all this. He is Prince Dolgorouki, my principal aide-de-camp. He is the man in whom I place the most confidence, and the only one to whom I can entrust this mission.”


General Savary (1774-1833) served as one of the Emperor’s aides-de-camp in 1805 and Napoleon entrusted him with the difficult mission of arranging a meeting for him with the Tsar before the battle. Unsuccessful in his mission although he visited the Tsar twice at his headquarters at Olmütz, he made the most of his comings and goings behind enemy lines to observe the disposition of Russian troops. He was later to be created Duke of Rovigo (1808) and he became Minister of the Police in 1810.


On his return to the French camp, Savary left the Russian at the French outposts and went directly to the Emperor. He found him among the infantry bivouacs.


Let us again hear out what Savary has to say, since everything he writes is important for understanding this affair.


“His desire for peace went so deep that, without giving me the chance to finish, he mounted his horse and rode off personally to the main guard; his escort was hard pressed to keep up with him. He dismounted, dismissed everyone and walked along the road alone with Prince Dolgorouki.”


There is no doubt that the Emperor rushed to this meeting because he believed the man was only Alexander’s messenger come to settle some point of protocol.


It cannot have been long before his eyes were opened to the truth and he realized the contempt with which he was being treated, for all those present at the talks from a distance soon heard the conversation become heated; then they saw the Emperor dismiss Dolgorouki.



Unacceptable proposals


What had taken place?


The truth only emerged after the Austro-Russian disaster had been perpetrated on the battlefield of Austerlitz.


The Bulletin of the Grande Armée reported that the Russian officer “cut everything short with an insolence that could scarcely be imagined,” that he was “utterly ignorant of European interests and the situation on the Continent. In short, he was a callow mouthpiece for England. Our readers will appreciate what the Emperor must have endured when they learn that, at the close of the exchange, it was proposed that he cede Belgium and bestow the Iron Crown [of Italy] upon France’s most implacable foe.”


In brief, what Dolgorouki had proposed to the Emperor was nothing less than to penalize France (provoked into war and victorious) to the advantage of Austria (warmonger but defeated) by requiring the retrocession, without compensation, of the conquests by the Republic.


Let us set aside the Bulletin for a moment – it is supposed to have a “poor reputation” and could be accused of having deliberately exaggerated the facts to incite the soldiers of the Grande Armée – and look instead at the record of his enemies.


The first is a French royalist, the Comte de Langeron, fighting, as befitted a royalist, in the Russian ranks against Napoleon:


“Dolgorouki found the Emperor of France near Wischau, at the outposts. He personally told me that after arriving at the first enemy bivouac, he saw a short figure emerge from a ditch, very grimy and badly dressed [and for good reason since the Emperor had slept on the straw among his foot soldiers] and that he was astonished to be informed that this was Napoleon, whom he did not yet know. He spoke to him, and they had a fairly long conversation. Dolgorouki, being of an audacious nature [!], was rather cavalier in his treatment of Napoleon, who nevertheless assumed an extremely moderate and even timid tone, which first deceived Dolgorouki and later Tsar Alexander, when he heard his aide-de-camp’s report. They were both persuaded that Napoleon was terrified of an attack on our part and would withdraw as soon as we advanced. Dolgorouki presented unacceptable proposals to Napoleon. They were rejected and he returned to Olmütz, announcing to one and all that Napoleon was trembling.”


What Dolgorouki, that “insolent young whippersnapper” as the Emperor called him, had assumed was anxiety – “He must have taken my extreme mildness as a sign of terror, [and] he spoke to me as he might have spoken to a boyar whom he wanted to banish to Siberia,” wrote Napoleon to the King of Württemberg – was, in fact, a sincere wish to avoid a clash of arms, not out of fear, but rather from a genuine desire to prevent a bloodbath.


Another of Napoleon’s enemies, the Savoy politician, Joseph Comte de Maistre, is equally clear on the subject, and his presumably painful admission confirms the Emperor’s good will:


“Prince Dolgorouki told Napoleon that his master could not imagine what possible purpose the proposed interview could serve. It is for peace, said Bonaparte, and I cannot conceive why your master does not wish to come to terms with me. I ask only to see him and present him with a blank sheet signed “Napoleon,” on which he himself may inscribe the terms of peace.”


This same Joseph de Maistre added:


“Some people interpreted these activities of Buonaparte [this spelling was the insulting “signature” usually employed by royalists when discussing Napoleon] as a trap to provoke the Russian Tsar to some hasty action, or at least to have the pleasure of publishing in the French papers that the Emperor of Russia had gone to the French. I believe Buonaparte’s intention was to take advantage of the interview if it had been granted. What could be more natural? But I also believe that it would have been less difficult than imagined on certain conditions that we might have proposed to him. I do not doubt for a moment that he would have gone personally to the Tsar of Russia, or that he would willingly have gone halfway.”


That was precisely what the Emperor was to say on the day after December 2, 1805, when generously permitting Prince Repnine to depart for his camp after being taken prisoner with his horse-guards:


Tell your Tsar that if he had listened to my proposals and accepted a meeting between our front lines, I would have granted his gracious will. [such flattery is hard to emulate] He could have told me his plans for bringing calm to Europe and I would have accepted.”


But knowing what was at stake, the English government had, since mid-1804, poured two million pounds into the coffers of Russia and Austria to induce them to enter the war against France, and at the close of the same year, the London merchants were relieved of another five million pounds to finance the Coalition.


Europe had to shed its blood to promote the financial prosperity of England, which paid its mercenaries to ensure that peace would never be established.



Austria and Russia on the brink of “mass suicide”


In the end, the Emperor briskly dismissed Dolgorouki, appalled by the arrogance of the shallow but dangerous Russian, whose false report on Napoleon’s alleged fear would mislead the Tsar: “The presence of Dolgorouki, whose fiery passions influenced Alexander’s mood, played no small part in inflaming the Tsar,” wrote Prince Czartoryski, the Russian High Chancellor.


“If this is all you have to say, report to Tsar Alexander that this is not what I was expecting when I asked to see him; I would only have shown him my army and I would have relied on his fairness for the terms. If he wishes to fight, he shall have his way. I wash my hands of it.”


« Uh ! Uh ! It’s not going to be like that at all, we’ll skin ‘em alive”, grunted a veteran when Napoleon told him that the Russians thought they were going to gobble up the French.

Even after Napoleon became Emperor, his soldiers often spoke to him as if he was still a young general in the Republican army and Napoleon always tolerated and even encouraged a certain amount of free speech especially from his veterans and from the soldiers in his élite troop, the Imperial Guard.


In very ill humour, the Emperor returned to the French camp, and one of the aides-de-camp of the general staff, Captain Count Philippe de Ségur, saw him slashing with his crop at the clods of earth along the road. Spotting a sentry with his rifle propped between his legs in a position that could hardly be described as conforming to military standards and calmly stuffing his pipe, the Emperor said :


“Those bastards think they’re just going to gobble us up!”


Whereupon the trooper calmly replied:


“Uh, uh! It’s not going to be like that at all, we’ll skin ’em alive.”


The witness records that this calm and modest assurance of one of his soldiers was enough to bring back the smile to Napoleon’s face, and mounting his horse, he returned to the imperial headquarters. There was no hint of luxury; just a simple fire lit near his carriage.



Napoleon’s encampment at Austerlitz. Between 28 November and 6 December when he returned to Brünn, despite rain, sleet and icy cold weather the Emperor slept in or near his carriage surrounded by his Grande Armée. Working day and night and constantly on the move, he barely managed to snatch more than a few hours sleep from time to time in the days that preceded and followed the battle. (RR)


According to a contemporary report, the Russians and what remained of the Austrians (who ought to have learned some humility) were so bloated with pride at the notion of making “Buonaparte” eat the dust, that full of confidence they rushed into “a mass suicide.”


This collective suicide, which would be recorded in the annals of history as occurring on December 2, 1805, and was to bear the name of the Battle of Austerlitz, constituted a generous if entirely involuntary gift from the courts of Austria and Russia to Napoleon on the first anniversary of his coronation.