The Battle of Austerlitz was one of the most decisive military engagements of the Napoleonic Wars. Fought nearby the modern day town of Brno in the Czech Republic, the fight saw a Austro-Russian army commanded by two emperors pitted against the Grande Armée of Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Emperor.
By the time the sun set on 2 December 1805 Napoleon had achieved a stunning victory, a victory so decisive that it would set the course of European history for a decade.
Here is how Napoleon saw through his tactical masterpiece.
Falling into Napoleon’s trap
As the sun rose on 2 December 1805, the Allied (Austro-Russian) situation was pretty chaotic. Their plan to attack Napoleon’s ‘retreating’ forces nearby the town of Austerlitz had only been thrashed out by their leaders in the early hours of the morning.
Orders had to be translated and delivered to units; some officers had stolen away to sleep in warm billets in nearby villages and the dense fog on that cold December morning had only led to further confusion. It was not a good start.
Napoleon had left his southern flank ostentatiously weak. He planned to lure the Allies into a bold move to the south, then in turn launch a massive attack at his enemy’s centre on the plateau, and destroy them. The Allies fell for it and the battle began in the south with an Allied attack against Napoleon’s right flank.
An Allied force advanced towards the villages that were dominated by Sokolnitz Castle. The French stationed within these settlements were outnumbered nearly two to one; they had torn off doors and anything they could burn to stay warm. Now this was to become a bloody battlefield.
Groups of men advanced in and out of banks of fog. Fighting was house to house; amid the chaos, the French were pushed back. Fortunately for them, help was at hand: reinforcements, who had marched virtually non-stop for days, arrived in the nick of time and stabilised the line.
The fighting was intense, but the French held their own. His right flank holding, now Napoleon could strike in the north.
Seizing the Pratzen Heights
At about 8 am the sun burned through the fog and at the top of the Pratzen Heights, the plateau where the Allied centre was situated became clear.
Napoleon had watched on as his enemy launched their attack on the south, weakening their centre. Meanwhile, his main strike force, 16,000 men, lay in wait down in the low ground below the hill – land still shrouded in fog and wood smoke. At 9 am Napoleon ordered them to advance.
He turned to Marshal Soult, who would command the assault, and said,
One sharp blow and the war is over.
The French attacked up the slope: skirmishers out in front to snipe at the enemy and break down their cohesion, followed by massed ranks of infantry, with gunners marching at the rear with their cannon. The infantry crashed into inexperienced Russian troops, triggering a rout that not even the Tsar was able to stop.
One Russian general, Kamensky, attempted to hold the line. He redirected crack troops to hold off the French and what followed was two horrific hours of battle. Musket balls tore through the ranks, cannon fired at close range. Both sides ran low on ammunition.
A giant bayonet charge by the French eventually decided the fight, with cannon hastily brought up in support. Kamensky was captured; many of his men were bayoneted as they fled or lay on the ground wounded. The Heights were Napoleon’s.
Cavalry clash in the north
As the French seized the all-important Heights in the centre of the battlefield, a savage battle was also raging to the north. In the south it was house-to-house fighting, in the centre it was lines of infantrymen firing at each other at point-blank range. But in the north, the battle was marked by a cavalry duel.
Charge after charge saw French and Russian men and horses thundering towards each other. They locked together, a swirling, thrusting mass, lances stabbing, sabres cleaving, pistols punching through breast plates, before separating, reorganising and charging again.
Once again, however, the French prevailed – working more effectively with their infantry and artillery than their counterparts.
Napoleon was in a dominant position, but the Allies had one final blow that they would land on the central plateau held by the French. Grand Duke Constantine, the Tsar’s brother, personally led 17 squadrons of the Russian Imperial Guard against the advancing French. These were the elite, sworn to protect the Tsar till death if necessary.
As the Russian horsemen charged, the French formed squares; men faced in all directions to protect from cavalry attack. They managed to beat off one squadron with a mighty musket volley but another crashed into the infantrymen, causing one square to disintegrate.
In a savage melee a French imperial standard, an eagle, was captured – torn from the hands of a French sergeant, who fell beneath a hail of blows. It was a Russian triumph. But it would be the only one that day.
Napoleon responded fast to this new threat. He rushed up infantry and cavalry. The French imperial guard now charged their Russian counterparts and these two elite forces merged into a chaotic mass of men and horses. Both sides fed in the very last of their reserves.
Slowly the French gained the upper hand. The Russians retreated, leaving the ground a churned up morass of mud, blood and the shattered bodies of men and horses.
The final throes of battle
The Allies were driven back in the north, annihilated in the centre. Napoleon now turned his attention south to turn a victory into a rout.
In the south there had been a savage stalemate since first light. The villages around Sokolnitz Castle were heaped high with dead. Now Allied commanders looked up to the heights and saw French troops streaming down to surround them. they were staring at defeat.
At 4 pm an icy rain fell and the skies darkened. Napoleon urged his troops to complete the rout of the Allied army but brave standby individual cavalry units gave groups of infantry the breathing space to escape.
The shattered remnant of the Austro-Russian army melted away into the dusk. The field of Austerlitz was indescribable. Up to 20,000 men were killed or wounded. The Austrian and Russian armies had been humbled. The Tsar fled the battlefield in tears.