I do not wish to go to war, but I would

rather do it sooner than later.

(Napoleon to Talleyrand, early in 1805,

on learning that the monarchies refused

 to make peace with France)


Napoleon’s hopes of reaching a peaceful settlement were frustrated, and he was doubtless appalled at Tsar Alexander’s impropriety and the insulting behaviour of his emissary. From then on, he concentrated only on the battle that he had wished not to fight.

The battle was all the more crucial, vital even, both for Napoleon and the new French régime, given that he could not afford to lose it. After such a rapid and lofty ascent, all the courts of Europe and especially England were eager to see him fall, not to rise again.

It was not just military success that was at stake, but also political and economic survival. It was vital for the future of France. Napoleon knew that to lose this battle he was being forced into would mean the ruin of his efforts to rebuild the country over the last four years, and the collapse of its newfound prosperity.

In addition, defeat would inevitably be followed by invasion of France – it was, in fact, the Coalition plan – by the Russians and Austrians, and no doubt by the English also, eager to set foot, without risk, on the soil of their detested rival.

In other words, on the night before December 2, 1805, the responsibility that lay on the shoulders on a single man, Napoleon, was colossal.


The French forces are outnumbered

There was no place in the Emperor’s war strategies for chance, although that never excluded the unforeseen – “Everything can change from one moment to the next.”

“In war, nothing is gained except by design; if every detail is not meticulously planned, nothing will come of it.” [1]

He knew his position was risky; he could no longer get reinforcements from France, while his opponents were close to their respective territories and could call up reserves. The troops at his disposal were fewer in number: 71,000 men, including 22,000 cavalry, and only 139 cannon against 93,000 men, including 25,000 cavalry, supported by 278 pieces of artillery.

By contrast, his Russian and Austrian adversaries were puffed up with their certainty of winning; if the “Corsican” had gone to Tsar Alexander to seek peace with eager humility, it was because he knew full well that his army would not hold its ground against the elite of the Russian forces.

The Emperor passed the entire day of December 1 on horseback, carefully inspecting all his positions. It was not that he was unfamiliar with the terrain, having gone over and studied the ground repeatedly for over a week, but it was always his habit to look at, and inspect, and consider and weigh up every single detail.

He reviewed regiment after regiment, questioned the men, checked the artillery depots and batteries, and delivered his orders to the officers, section commanders and ordinary gunners. Then, he visited the ambulances and questioned the surgeons on how the wounded would be transported.


Sunday, 1 December 1805, the day before the battle Napoleon conducted a last reconnaissance, carefully studying the layout of the land and observing the enemy who had manoeuvred during the night and now occupied the famous height known as the Pratzen. Witnesses noted that Napoleon looked serene and confident as he saw the Russian army slowly but surely falling into the trap he had conceived.


Accurate calculations and false reports

That evening, in his bivouac that was as primitive with its bed of straw as the crib of any farm boy or the lowest of his grenadiers, Napoleon, compass in hand, calculated again and again the marching times, the distances to cover, the number of rounds the artillery could fire, the number of muskets, the munitions…

On the preceding days, he had visited woods, villages and valleys, and surveyed the land in every direction. He undertook a vigourous campaign of “psychological warfare” and sent agents, like his famous spy Charles-Louis Schulmeister, to spread false information, such as reports of the supposedly weak state of his army. Worst of all for a victorious army, there were cavalrymen who refused, under orders, to fight.

Unlike the ponderous strategy of Frederick the Great, whose golden rule was to concentrate the army in a compact mass ready to carry out their commander’s orders – but if the mass of troops was breached at any point, the battle was lost – Napoleon had initiated a flexible approach, which he was to employ once again, whereby his strategy was to allow the enemy partial success in one area of the battlefield in order to subsequently crush them with superior forces in a place selected for the decisive blow.

While Savary was trying to extract a promise from the Tsar to meet with Napoleon for peace negotiations, the Emperor had withdrawn Soult’s troops from the village of Austerlitz and surrounding country, and pulled out of the soon-to-be-famous Pratzen Plateau. This so-called “poker strategy” assumed that the enemy would not resist the temptation to seize these key positions – which they did not fail to do on December 1, with the enthusiastic blessing of the Emperor.

The Russians were therefore persuaded that Napoleon was, in fact, retreating because he had discovered he could not hold his own against them.


“You will see your Emperor face the fire in the front lines…”

Any Russians or Austrians who slipped into the French ranks could have seen that, far from yielding to dejection, the soldiers of the Grande Armée were actually in peak form.

This was especially true since the commanders had spent that same December 1 among their men reading out the proclamation that Napoleon had issued:


“The Russian army facing you intends to avenge the Austrian army at Ulm: they are the same battalions as you defeated at Hollabrünn and that you have relentlessly pursued until now…

“Soldiers, I shall lead your battalions myself: if you, with your usual bravery, wreak havoc and confusion on the enemy ranks, I shall stay far from their fire; but if at any time victory is uncertain, you will see your Emperor face the fire in the front lines, for victory cannot hesitate, on this day most of all when the honour of the French infantry is at stake, which is so vital to the honour of the Nation…

“This victory will conclude our campaign, and we can return to our winter quarters where we will be joined by the new armies that are being raised in France. Then, the peace that I shall make will be worthy of my people, of you, and of me.”


Plan of the battle of Austerlitz


The moving spectacle of the torches

One cannot retell a battle like Austerlitz; one must be content to admire the remarkable genius of Napoleon who planned and calculated it all, without aid or advice. Served only by his will and his rare intelligence, he conducted a flawless battle that was to result in an unparalleled victory.

“I could have written a book with everything that poured out of his brain during those 24 hours,” wrote Savary in a brief note, all the more eloquent for its brevity.

Let us, instead, talk of the enthusiasm of the Emperor’s soldiers, for the night before the battle he undertook to ride through the lines of troops, if not exactly to reassure himself, at least to take the measure of the courage he sensed bubbling through the ranks – was it not likely to be daunted by the tide of enemy forces? He knew that the engagement would be difficult to carry off. The Russians were brave and sound, and fought well.

Assuredly, the soldiers of his Grande Armée were a tower of strength and had faith in “their” Emperor, but all the same, the unequal numbers – a difference of some 20,000 men – remained worrisome.

How did the idea of the “Torchlight Parade” come about? Let us go to the account of an infantryman in the Guards, Jean-Baptiste Barrès:

“A little while after, the Emperor came to our bivouac to see us or to read a letter someone had just given him. A cavalryman took a fistful of straw and lit it to make it easier to read the letter. The Emperor went from our bivouac to another, and we followed him with burning torches to light his way. As his visit grew longer and went further, the number of torches increased. Men followed him, crying out “Long live the Emperor.” These cries of affection spread enthusiastically in all directions like wildfire. All the soldiers, sergeants and officers grabbed improvised torches so that in less than a quarter of an hour the whole Guard, all the grenadiers together did the same, the Fifth Corps on our left and ahead of us, the Fourth on our right, as well as the Third further off and in front, and lastly the First who were a half league behind. There were lights everywhere, a surge of enthusiasm that was so sudden that the Emperor must have been dazzled. It was a magnificent sight, tremendous…”


At 10 p.m., the night before the battle, Napoleon, accompanied by a few members of his staff started walking through the French encampment among the men, talking to them, saying that the next day was the anniversary of his coronation and that it had to be celebrated by an overwhelming victory. He was hailed by thousands of cries of, “Vive l’Empereur!” from all those who caught sight of him when suddenly one of the soldiers picked up a handful of straw which he twisted and lit, holding it up as a torch. Within minutes, all the others did the same – even the men who were too far away to understand what was going on – and the dark sky was suddenly illuminated by tens of thousands of torches as the men spontaneously sacrificed the straw which was all they had to sleep on. Not far away, behind enemy lines, the Tsar’s favourite aide-de-camp, prince Dolgorouki, is reported to have declared that the French were burning their encampment before fleeing.


“The greatest night of my life”

In this avenue of lights, to the spontaneously swelling sound of the emblematic song Veillons au salut de l’Empire [Safeguard the Empire], Napoleon saw an old grenadier coming towards him, who said to him in tones of respect that the brave veteran’s familiar tu form of address in no way diminished:

“Emperor [sic], I promise you, on behalf of the army’s grenadiers, you’ll only have to fight with your eyes tomorrow. And we’ll bring you the colours and cannons of the Russian army to celebrate the anniversary of your coronation!”

More moved than he wished to betray, Napoleon murmured to the marshals who had accompanied him on this night patrol:

“This is the greatest night of my life, and I hate to think that tomorrow we will lose so many of these brave fellows.”

It is said that Dolgorouki, watching the illuminations, remarked:

“The French are burning their bivouacs to cover their flight,” a remark that is quite in character for that arrogant and shallow “whipper-snapper.”

If we are not to describe the battle, let us at least summarize the Emperor’s battle plan.

By deliberately weakening the French right flank (Davout and his Third Corps), the Emperor wished to tempt the Allies to force him south by cutting off his route to Vienna. This assumed that the enemy would remove its entire centre, now concentrated on the Pratzen Plateau. It was at this moment, and only then, that Napoleon would launch his decisive attack.


Monday, 2 December. At daybreak, a cold, wet fog masked the enemy and the French army waited in deadly silence for the allies to commit themselves. At 7.30 a.m., as reports flooded in, Napoleon called his corps commanders to distribute his last orders before the onset of the battle. Aged between 36 and 42, Marshals Lannes, Soult, Bessières, Murat and Bernadotte were all to play a prominent role in the victory that was to be theirs before the day was over. Within a few hours, the French army totalling 71.000 men with 139 pieces of artillery were to triumph over 93.000 allies with 278 guns in one of the most famous battles in history.

On the morning of the 2nd, at around six o’clock, a thick fog enveloped the plain, conveniently covering the French regiments massed at the foot of the plateau.

About an hour later, brilliant sunlight, also to become famous, bathed the heights of the plateau, silhouetting the Russian troops, without however dispersing the fog that covered the plain.

Enticed by the weakness of Davout’s troops who held the two villages of Telnitz and Sokolnitz, the Allies launched their first assault against them, just as the Emperor had predicted. The 9,000 men at Davout’s disposal then held off the thrust of 40,000 Coalition troops, while obeying the orders that their commander had received to gradually yield and entice the Russians to make their move.

When he saw that the plateau was sufficiently cleared, Napoleon sent in Soult (the Fourth Corps) to attack, and after three hours of intense fighting, they drove out almost all the Coalition forces. This allowed Napoleon to move there to direct the battle himself.


8.30 a.m. The fog had lifted and the sun shone now enabling Napoleon to observe the battle that was raging on the Pratzen. With perfect timing – which was crucial for his plan - Napoleon launched Soult’s IV corps into the thick of the battle.


The Russian Guard crushed

The Russians sent in the Imperial Russian Guard to retake the ground at any cost. This elite corps, whose officers were drawn from the greatest families in Russia, was the pride of the nation. Under attack from these fresh troops, the French soldiers, exhausted from fighting all morning, at first surged back towards the slopes.

However, there was still the cavalry of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard to reckon with.

Under the baton of Marshal Bessières, the combined horseguards, mamelukes and chasseurs fell on the Russians and cut them to pieces in hand-to-hand fighting of incredible brutality. In a short while, the Russian rout was complete. The cavalry guards, the ultimate pride of the force, were devastated and their commander, Prince Repnin, was wounded and taken prisoner.

At the foot of the plateau, the some 40,000 Russians who were trying to overwhelm Davout’s resistance, found themselves caught in a cross fire following the loss of this position. It signaled an utter rout, with entire divisions laying down their arms.

On the Russian right, things were going no better; harried by the Fifth Corps of Marshal Lannes, and hounded by Murat’s reserve cavalry, the army corps of Prince Bagration was three-quarters wiped out, but unfortunately their commander managed to escape with the survivors.


A little after one o’clock, General Rapp (1772-1821), aide-de-camp to Napoleon, leading one of the decisive cavalry charges against the Chevaliers Gardes, the most prestigious regiment in the Russian army. At the head of a squadron of Mameluks, two squadrons of Chasseurs and a squadron of Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard, Rapp arrived just in time to save the infantry of the I corps who had already suffered much damage from Russian cavalry. The brilliant charge and the hard, bloody fighting that followed was too much for the Russians, all of them noblemen, who were finally routed and fled in utter disarray leaving their flags, standards and baggage in the hands of the French. The colonel, Prince Repnine, was taken prisoner and the regiment suffered 30 per cent casualties. Alexander I and the Emperor of Austria, Francis I, witnessed the disaster from a small hill nearby.

By five o’clock in the evening, the battle was over.

The Austro-Russian army was crushed and sustained losses of some 40,000 men (including 15,000 killed and the rest wounded or taken prisoner), 45 regimental colours and 185 pieces of artillery that may be admired today (together with several hundred others) at the site of the historic Place Vendôme in Paris, but in the form of a superb bronze column known as the “Column of the Grande Armée,” surmounted by a statue of the Emperor.

The losses suffered by the Grande Armée? Fewer than 1,500 dead and 4,000 wounded. This says everything for Napoleon’s intelligence in conducting the first battle that Austria and Russia, on London’s orders, had imposed on the young French Empire.

Between 1 and 4 p.m., Napoleon observed the last stages of the battle from the southern end of the Pratzen at the Chapel St. Antonin. It was from here that he saw the Austro-Russian army begin to retreat and here, too, that Marshal Alexander Berthier, his chief of staff, wrote to Talleyrand, the minister of Foreign Affairs, “I announce, Sir, the most famous battle ever won by the Emperor Napoleon…”


A note written in pitched battle

The Emperor was so sure of victory that even before the battle was over, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff of the Grande Armée, Marshal Berthier, doubtless on Napoleon’s orders, had dictated the following note, written in a telegraphic style that was unusual in correspondence of the time, addressed to the Minister for External Affairs, Talleyrand:

“On the battlefield of Austerlitz, half-past one o’clock in the afternoon, 11th Frimaire, Year XIV, anniversary of the Emperor’s coronation.

“Sir: I inform you of the most illustrious battle won by the Emperor Napoleon [underlined]. The Emperors of Russia, Austria and France in contention; the Russian and Austrian armies destroyed; the Guard of the Emperor of France charged the Guard of the Emperor of Russia, captured the colonel, one third of the officers, all the artillery, and cut the rest to pieces. On this battlefield covered with dead, I dismount to report this resounding victory. The cannon still rumble, pursuing the last shreds of the enemy armies. The Emperor, who was present everywhere and who gave the orders himself for the charges that brought victory, is well. Our losses are slight.”


General Jean Rapp with blood flowing from a head wound immediately after his charge against the Chevaliers Gardes, bringing Prince Repnine to Napoleon, together with the colours and standards captured from the enemy. Shortly after, Napoleon generously set the Russian prince free with a message for the Tsar, “Tell your Emperor that if he had listened to my proposals and accepted a meeting between our front lines, I would have granted his gracious will.” The battle was now over with casualties in the Grande Armée amounting to approximately 8,000 whereas the Austro-Russian army had lost some 29,000 men.

More than just a victory, the Battle of Austerlitz was a great rebuff for the two monarchies, which is to say, two of the most backward feudal powers, and it raised high and wide the standard of Liberty, the Rights of Man and the Emancipation of Peoples.

Given that England had not yet “recouped its investment” but left the Austrians and Russians with their dead and wounded, this was one more reason for it to continue the fight. And the risk – need it be said? – would be to the lives of others.

[1] We are astonished to note that, according to some professors of Napoleonic history, the Emperor’s strategy owes more to poker than to chess. In the Marmotton Library of Boulogne-sur-Seine, one may consult an album published in 1963 entitled A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars compiled for the Department of Military Art and Engineering – The United States Military Academy, West Point. In this work illustrated with sketches worthy of an expert, and rightly so, one may read the following: “The battles, campaigns and military theories of Napoleon have been studied by the cadets of the United States Military Academy since at least 1817. Even today, the Emperor [with a capital “E”] remains the perfect example of a great military leader who is eminently worthy of study…” Who would have dared imagine that, since 1817, the future military leaders of the United Stated passed several years at West Point Military Academy studying… poker with Napoleon? In the same vein, we recall that during a French television program devoted to the Empire, one of the guests stated with the utmost seriousness (but based on what authority?) that Austerlitz was a failed battle … in which luck secured the famous victory. The same professor who was present did not take up the point. No comment!