On this day in 1805 Napoleon won arguably his best battle and one that went a long way to convincing his enemies that he was invincible. It happened at Austerlitz.
In the summer of 1805 France was at war with the third Coalition between Britain, Austria and Russia. Whilst British eyes were on the seas and in particular concerned with Nelson and the battle of Trafalgar (which occurred in October 1805), Napoleon’s armies which had earlier massed along the channel coast threatening invasion of England were already marching east and into Austria. He caught Austria by surprise and surrounding one of its armies at Ulm he won a resounding victory. This was soon followed by the capture of Austria.
Soon though Russian armies began arriving and together with the Austrian forces these now outnumbered the French. The Prussians were making noises suggesting they might also join the war against Napoleon so he realized he needed a quick and decisive victory.
He managed to trick his enemies into believing that he was weak and that at the end of long suply lines was vulnerable. The ruse worked and the Austrians and Russians converged at ground Napoleon had chosen.
The essential elements of the battlefield were a central raised ground called the Pratzen heights and lakes and streams forming a barrier on the French right (allied left). The route to Vienna and Napoleon’s supplies were south (beyond that right wing). Napoleon decided to deliberately weaken that wing and to hide the bulk of his armies in the mist and fog covered dead ground beneath the Pratzen heights. Then he sent word to his best general – Davout – to march with all speed from Vienna. Davout had two days to cross 68 miles but napoleon was confident that Davout could achieve this. Assuming Davout could arrive Napoleon would have 72,000 men to fight 85,000 allies.
Just as the French leader hoped, the Allies attacked the weak French left wing. Napoleon allowed his enemy to become committed and then launched an assault by Marshall Soult on the center – right over the Pratzen heights. As the French attacked the sun broke through and boiled away the mist. The sight of 20,000 French attacking in dense columns up that hill and emerging from the fog must have been terrifying. The “sun of Austerlitz” went down in history as one of the memorable elements in the day.
The battle reached a critical point. With their center crumbling the Russian and Austrians committed the Russian guards division in a counter attack that require Napoleon to respond by deploying his Imperial Guard. The French guard won the day and the allies center was rent asunder. At this moment Davout had arrived and using these new men Napoleon moved against the over extended Allied left, routed them and drove them onto the Frozen lakes to their rear. It is unclear exactly what happened next. It is possible that the French opened fire on the ice plunging thousands to an icy grave. Other accounts had the French rescuing their enemies from the ice. IT suited the Czar to believe that the catastrophic losses to his armies were caused more by nature than enemy tactics and so he accepted the story of his armies drowning. After the battle the lakes were drained and actually not that many corpses were found so it is likely that the story of the frozen lakes claiming thousands is not fully true.
What is true is that outnumbered, Napoleon had defeated the enemy by guile and strategy. He has lost no more than 8000 dead or wounded to 25,000 allied losses or prisoners. The defeat knocked Austria out of the war and they made peace. Napoleon moved north to take on Prussia and pursue the retreating Russian armies.
Austerlitz became part of Napoleon’s legend and as much a great memory for Frenchmen to recall as Agincourt or Waterloo became for the British.