The Battle of Austerlitz: The Battle of the Three Emperors

Around midnight prior to the battle on 2 December 1805, French Marshal Davout arrived at Emperor Napoleon’s headquarters ahead of his corps. His advance guard was four hours behind him. His corps would cut it close, by minutes in some cases, but they had made it to the battle in time. Napoleon had just returned from visiting the campfires of his men and was elated to see him. Without Davout, the upcoming Battle of Austerlitz was a gamble; with Davout victory was all but assured. The Holy Roman Emperor Francis of Austria and Tsar Alexander of Russia were convinced Napoleon’s army was understrength, disorganized, and out maneuvered. All day, cavalry skirmished in order to identify enemy dispositions and they found that the French right was held by but a single division. That was exactly what Napoleon wanted them to see. He had no doubt the Allied emperors would force Marshal Kutuzov, the capable commander of the Allied armies, to attack the supposedly weakened French right.

Once the Allies attacked, the hard part was over. The French plan for the rest of the battle was simplicity itself: Davout would delay then block the Allies on the right, Lannes and Bernadotte would fix the Russians on the left, and Soult with the main effort would attack the weakened center and break the line. The Imperial Guard, in reserve, would handle any unexpected difficulties. After that, Murat with the cavalry would rout the Allies.

And that’s exactly what happened.

After some initial success on the French right, the Allies were surprised to find Davout’s III Corps steadily reinforcing the fortified village of Tellnitz and the stout walls of Sokowitz Castle. The Allies would go no further. When Soult’s 16,000 men stepped out of the late autumn Bohemian morning mist and advanced up the Pratzen Heights, the battle was essentially over. The Allied center was too weak, and their command and control too cumbersome to react.

It would just take some hard fighting, and about five hours, for the Allied emperors to realize it. The Russian Imperial Guard made a valiant counterattack in order to try and stop Soult, but it was in vain. By 4pm, the Allied army was routed. As the Allies routed in all directions, thousands of troops drowned when a French bombardment broke the ice on the Satschan ponds.

The Battle of Austerlitz is probably the only time in history a commander could legitimately say, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

The Battle of Austerlitz: The March of III Corps

On the night of 29 November 1805, Louis Davout, Marshal of France, commander of the La Grade Armee III Corps, and current occupier of Vienna, received a dispatch from Napoleon that he was abandoning the Pratzen Heights and Davout should prepare to hand over the city to the Austrians. But Davout knew it was bullshit, the letter was only in the event the courier was captured. It was just a week before when Napoleon chose the Pratzen Heights as the place where he was going to destroy the Austrian and Russian armies.

The Prince of Burgundy once said, “When a d’Avout is born, a sabre is unsheathed.” This was never so true as for Louis Nicholas Davout, who was the son of a minor aristocrat but survived the French Revolution despite his upbringing. He was almost universally disliked by everyone whom he worked with: his officers for his cold and aloof demeanor, his soldiers because of his uncompromising stance on readiness, training and discipline, and his peers because he was the youngest and most active of Napoleon’s marshals. Nevertheless, the “Iron Marshal” was respected by all for his reasoned tenacity, undisputed competence, and most importantly, Davout earned the absolute unquestioned trust of Napoleon.

That trust was not misplaced. It was not a question of whether III Corps would show up to the battle but when. Austerlitz was 80 miles away (eighty, eight – zero) and Napoleon planned to attack in two days. The planning factor for a march was 20 miles a day, and a forced march was 25 miles a day. Davout planned to do 40 miles a day for the next two days.

On the night of the 29th, he bade his officers to mingle with the crème of Viennese society so as to not rouse Austrian suspicions but stipulated that they needed to return by 0300 the next morning. At 0330 on 30 NOV 1805, the III Corps struck camp and, at dawn, began their march. With 68lb packs they marched for 32 hours over the next 48.

And then they immediately fought a battle in which they bore the brunt of the Allied attack.

The Battle of Austerlitz: Prelude

On the afternoon of 29 November 1805, a visibly distraught Emperor Napoleon I met the personal aide of Tsar Alexander I of Russia to hammer out the conditions of an armistice between the French, and the Allied Russian and Austrian armies. The day before Napoleon enthusiastically accepted the Russian offer for an armistice and pulled his armies off of the commanding Pratzen Heights. The aide reported Napoleon’s demeanor, and the Allied scouts reported the chaotic French withdrawal from the heights. These were seen as signs of French disorganization and weakness, so Tsar Alexander and Emperor Francis II of Austria decided to finish Napoleon off once and for all, especially since he had just 43,000 troops in the area and they had 86,000.

But Napoleon didn’t desperately need peace – he desperately needed a battle.

Napoleon’s actions were a ruse. He needed the Allies to attack. The biggest problem with his corps system was that they had to live off of the land. Foraging left a barren wasteland in the wake of the march and the only option was to move forward or starve. Unfortunately for Napoleon, the retreating Austrians stripped Vienna bare and Marshal Kutuzov was doing the same with his Russian armies to the north. If Kutuzov retreated further, which he planned to do, then Napoleon would have to abandon Vienna and return to friendly Bavaria. But Tsar Alexander smelled weakness, and overruled his commander. The combined Austrian and Russian armies would occupy the Pratzen Heights the next day and attack Napoleon the day after.

But Napoleon didn’t have 43,000 troops outside of the village of Austerlitz, he had 67,000.

It was enough.

The Council of Clermont

The early middle ages, and in particular the late 11th Century, was a difficult time for Europe and Christianity in general. In 1055, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy split politically, physically, linguistically, and theologically in the Great Schism, fracturing Christendom in its most trying era.

Islam had been on the march for the last 350 years and nearly 2/3 of Christendom had fallen to the sword of jihad. Most of the bishoprics of the great early Christian thinkers, such as St Ignatius of Antioch, St Clement of Alexandria, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Augustine of Hippo, were under Muslim occupation, not to mention the birthplace of Christ and the Holy City Jerusalem. Even the books of the Bible were a testament (Ha!) of how far Christianity had fallen to Islam: Galatea was recently conquered by the Seljuk Turks, and the travels in the old Roman Empire by John the Evangelist was a contemporary target list for Muslim corsairs, against whom the new(er) Byzantine Empire was powerless. In several instances, the Muslim tide lapped against the walls of their capital, Constantinople. But most disconcertingly, in 1071, the Byzantine Army, including the entire Varangian Guard, was smashed at the Battle of Manzikert, which left all of Anatolia open to conversion.

Furthermore, the remainder of Christendom was going through its own violent spasms, but internally. Feudalism was a decentralized system of power, protection, and production formed to adapt to the trials experienced by Europe during the Barbarian invasions after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and it had reached its natural limits. After Charlemagne divided the Carolingian Empire between his sons (the seminal event in European history), feudalism gave rise to a warrior class, the knights, that had little to do but fight amongst themselves. French, Italian, German, Polish, Hungarian, and Scandinavian lands were a patchwork of robber baronies and petty kingdoms that raided and warred upon each other. Among many other examples, Norman adventuring had conquered England in 1066, Southern Italy in the 1070s and were raiding Byzantine ports in the 1080s, all fellow Christians. A unifying force was needed before Western Civilization tore itself apart.

By the 1090s, Pope Urban II was the most powerful man in Europe. He instituted hard fought, if limited, reforms to Catholicism and the Papacy, and emerged from the struggle determined save Christendom from itself. An astute politician, he first put the Italian house in order and then turned to the rest of Europe. Taking note of the Norman conquest of the Emirate of Sicily and the campaigns of a Spanish warlord, El Cid, he began laying the groundwork for the unification of Christendom. In March 1095, he received a request from the Byzantine Emperor, Alexius I Komenos, for help against Seljuk Turks. It was exactly the impetus he needed (and might even bring Eastern Orthodoxy back into the Roman Catholic fold). He called for a Holy Synod in the city of Clermont, and requested that each bishop bring along the strongest lord in his diocese. More than 600 of the most influential men in Europe showed up.

On 27 November, 1095, Pope Urban II gave an emotional speech that appealed to the men’s sense of chivalry, piety, and most especially, greed. He called for a crusade to reconquer the Holy Lands in exchange for forgiveness of their sins. The response was much more than he dared hope for. To the cheering cries of “Deus Vult!”, “God’s Will!” the lords of the land departed Clermont to make ready for an immediate journey east.

What we would know as the First Crusade had begun.

The Battle of Blackstocks

After the failure to capture Colonel Francis Marion in Ox Swamp the week before, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton and his Loyalists of the British Legion, reinforced by the 1st battalion of the 71st Regiment of Foot (Fraser’s Highlanders), headed into the South Carolina backcountry to find and defeat Brigadier General Thomas Sumter. Sumter’s large force of Patriots threatened the loyalist stronghold at Ninety Six. Sumter’s men had recently defeated Major James Wemyss and his 63rd Regiment of British regulars at the Battle of Fishdam Ford, and Tarleton mounted them and incorporated the remnants into his British Legion to ride with the dragoons. Tarleton attempted to surprise Sumter, who was on his way to Ninety Six, and got within a day’s march undetected. However a deserter from the 63rd, who had probably never ridden a horse before, informed Sumter of the imminent danger about midnight on 20 November 1780.

In the predawn hours, Sumter moved to Blackstock’s Plantation on the Tyger River. The plantation’s buildings were on a sharp hill above a pasture over which any attack must come. Sumter placed his barely trained militia, most of whom had just recently joined him, among the buildings and fences. Blackstock was a strong position that gave Sumter’s raw militia confidence against the coming attack by the Legion’s dragoons, the Highlanders of the 71st, and the 63rd’s regulars.

About 4 pm, Tarleton was informed that Sumter was at Blackstock’s Farm, and immediately set off with all of his mounted troops to surprise Sumter. It probably would have worked because even though Sumter’s men were assigned positions that morning, by late afternoon the untrained militia were scattered about the farm buildings, many not within easy reach of their positions. Sumter’s officers would have had a hard time reorganizing the men if 350 British horsemen charged down the lane while they were lounging about. Fortunately, a small patrol spotted Tarleton’s imminent approach and fired a shot which warned Sumter’s main position. When Tarleton arrived at the edge of the pasture, he saw that surprise was lost and dismounted the regulars.

Sumter was concerned that Tarleton was waiting for artillery, which would play havoc with his militia, so he decided to force the battle. He sent forward a strong skirmish line of Georgia riflemen and South Carolina volunteers to harass Tarleton as he formed, with orders to gradually withdraw in the face of any advance. The 63rd took up Sumter’s challenge and pushed the riflemen and volunteers back at bayonet point. As the dragoons of the British Legion watched the regulars advance as if they were at a show, 100 South Carolina mounted riflemen under Col. Edward Lacey snuck on the 63rd rapt audience and launched a volley from the woods into their flank. Though the Legion chased them away, they took casualties they could ill afford. About that same time, the 63rd’s sweep of the skirmishers approached too closely to the hill and Carolina riflemen checked their advance with witheringly accurate fire from the barn. The sharpshooters killed or wounded most of the 63rd’s remaining officers, including its commander Major John Money. Despite the fire, Tarleton rode in to save Money and barely escaped with Money’s body draped over his saddle. With his friend dying, Tarleton desperately charged Sumter’s position with every mounted man remaining under his command in a last attempt to salvage the battle. Tarleton’s charge barely made it up the lane before he was attacked by militiamen from the reverse slope screaming Indian war whoops. With his horse shot out from under him, Tarleton withdrew from the battlefield when his men could no longer charge because the lane was blocked by dead and dying men and horses felled by the deadly fire from the top of the hill. Tarleton fell back about two miles to reorganize and attack again in the morning with his Highlanders and Legion light infantry.

The Battle of Blackstocks was a great patriot victory against one of the most dreaded loyalist commanders of the American Revolution. However, Sumter was one of the very few casualties the Americans suffered. Sumter was shot in the chest with five balls of buckshot, and a sixth lodged next to his spine. Sumter turned command over to Georgia militia Col. John Twiggs. That night after policing the battlefield of anything useful the British left behind, Twiggs, in the fashion of Washington, kept the campfires burning and slipped across the Tyger River. When Tarleton returned in the morning, he found the farm abandoned. Unfortunately for the Patriots, what Tarleton couldn’t do on the 20th, Twiggs did on the 21st. Without Sumter, the militia disbanded, just as it did after the victory at King’s Mountain. Sumter spent the winter recovering from his wounds. Any attempt to capture Ninety Six would have to wait until spring.

The Raid on Coventry

After their loss in the Battle of Britain, Luftwaffe generally stopped large daylight bombing raids. However, they still continued “The Blitz” on London and other British cities at night. Ostensibly to destroy industry, but like the Royal Air Force nighttime bombing raids, doing damage to residential and commercial areas much more often than not. On the night of 14 November 1940, the largest Luftwaffe raid to date hit the British city of Coventry.

Just after supper, fifteen modified He-111 bombers, using special radio navigation equipment, dropped marker flares for the follow on bombers. Coventry was thought to be a poor nighttime target for bombers due to the surrounding terrain so it lacked adequate barrage balloons and anti aircraft guns. But the pathfinding bombers mitigated this. Soon after, the first wave of Luftwaffe bombers dropped high explosive bombs and naval mines with parachutes (the shock of landing would simulate the strike of a ship, and because they didn’t make a crater their explosions went generally outward instead of generally upward). These were intended to destroy the water mains, the telephone exchanges, and overwhelm and slow down the first responders, particularly firefighters. The next wave dropped phosphorus and magnesium incendiaries to start large fires which were intended to spread. The next wave dropped antipersonnel bombs to kill any fire fighters that made through the rubble caused by the first wave. In all, 515 German bombers made several sorties through the night against Coventry.

About 2 am on the morning of 15 November, a firestorm developed in the city center. Most of the civilian deaths from the raid came about because this conflagration consumed the oxygen out of the air raid shelters. When the all clear sounded the next morning, 1/3 of Coventry was leveled, and 1/3 more of its buildings were damaged. Civilian casualties were considered “light” as most citizens left the city at night after earlier raids.

The Luftwaffe Raid on Coventry had a number of firsts: it was the first bombing raid to use pathfinder aircraft, the first to use incendiaries, and the first to use “block busting” bombs. The Luftwaffe would continue to bomb British cities for the next two years but would never be able to mass on one like they did on Coventry for various reasons. But Raid on Coventry did set several precedents, precedents that the RAF, and eventually the US Eighth Air Force, would mimic hundreds of times against German cities.

History: The Overlooked Military Discipline

History: The Overlooked Military Discipline

Soldiers want to learn. As a case in point, during a break in a mission when I was a platoon leader, I made a casual reference to the fight on Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg. Several of my Soldiers asked why it was important, which led to me drawing out a map of the battle on an MRE box and talking through the various maneuvers. At one point I looked up, and was surprised to see the majority of the platoon crowding around to see the map. Being engineers, they quickly grasped how important terrain was in the battle and how the human terrain can be manipulated by good leaders. This was a learning point for me, that history is useful at all levels.

Teaching Army history does not have to be for staff officers at War College only; it can, and should, exist throughout all formations, at every rank. Soldiers want to learn and want to be trained; it is up to the leaders to bring them the training that they deserve. If a private in the Marine Corps can talk knowledgeably about Belleau Wood (and they can, ask one), there is no reason a private in the Army cannot talk about Bastogne. If nothing else, let’s do this to be better than the Marines.

The Chase to Ox Swamp

Lord Cornwallis dispatched Banastre Tarleton and his British Legion to chase down Francis Marion and secure his lines of communication to Charleston. Tarleton was eager to finally have his chance at Marion, who had defeated every Loyalist commander he came across. Tarleton learned that Marion had a camp on Jack’s Creek, so he headed to the Widow Richardson’s farm nearby. Mrs. Richardson was the widow of a brigadier general of South Carolina militia and the mother of a paroled militia officer. Tarleton figured he could force Marion’s location from them. When the interrogation failed, Tarleton set a trap. His men built large bon fires, which Tarleton assumed would attract Marion. He was right.

When Marion’s men reported the bonfires on the night of 7 November, 1780, Marion, close by, began infiltrating his men into position to attack what looked like another small militia encampment. Fortunately, Widow Richardson’s son snuck away from the farm and warned Marion of the size Tarleton’s ambush, and his two hidden cannon. Marion immediately withdrew to the safety of his camp at Richbourg’s Mill on Jack’s Creek. However, in the confusion, one of the loyalists Marion captured at Tearcoat Swamp escaped and made his way to Tarleton.

On the morning of 8 November 1780, the Loyalist informed Tarleton of Marion’s whereabouts, and Tarleton took off in the chase with his Green Dragoons, with the light infantry to follow as fast as possible. With no chance in a stand up fight against the British Legion, Marion’s men desperately stayed just ahead of their pursuers. Marion’s rear guard under Major John James fought a series of valiant delaying actions as Marion’s men rode hard into the swamps at the head of Jack’s Creek and then down the Pocotaligo River. For nine hours, Tarleton chased Marion through the swampy thickets of the South Carolina wilderness. Marion headed for Benbow’s Ferry on the Black River, where he planned to turn and ambush Tarleton. Tarleton never got there.

As dusk was rapidly approaching that evening, Tarleton’s British Legion came to the end of a trail, one that Marion was on just minutes before, beyond which was the watery morass of Ox Swamp. Not wishing to get lost in the darkness of the swamp, Tarleton called off the chase. He said to his exhausted and battered troops, “Come my boys! Let us go back and we will find the Gamecock [Sumter]. But as for this damned old fox, the devil himself could not catch him!”

Tarleton’s moniker stuck – Francis Marion would go down in history as the “Swamp Fox”.

The Battle of Fishdam Ford

After the Loyalist defeat at King’s Mountain in October of 1780, Lord Cornwallis attempted to salvage the situation in South Carolina by quickly defeating its two most prominent militia leaders, Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter. He dispatched his most trusted subordinate Banastre Tarleton to kill or capture Marion and Sumter. Tarleton could only go after one at a time and chose Marion. Marion operated in a much smaller area, and routed some Loyalists at Tearcoat Swamp at the end of October. This left Major James Wemyss and his 63rd Regiment of British regulars to parry Sumter in the backcountry. Wemyss, with loyalist militia, his regulars, and some of the dragoons of the British Legion, was tasked with guarding the mills along the Broad River upon which Cornwallis relied upon to feed his army.

Major James Wemyss was the second most hated man in South Carolina in 1780. Though Tarleton is remembered for his ruthlessness and brutality in the Southern Theater of the American Revolution, Wemyss was no less so. In September of 1780, when Cornwallis and Tarelton were in Charlotte and Ferguson was unsuccessfully attempting to secure the Carolina back country, Wemyss was securing Cornwallis’ lines of communication back to Charleston on the coast. Wemyss did so by torching a 75 mile long by 15 mile wide swath along the Peedee, He fired 80 houses and plantations, including a church, imprisoned the families of patriot soldiers and militiamen, threatened the children of known patriot commanders, and he “gifted” captured slaves to Loyalists. In early November 1780, a patrol reported Sumter’s camp at Fishdam Ford on the Broad River, named for a prehistoric Indian fish weir. On the 8th Wemyss moved out to attack. About midnight on the 9th Wemyss arrived outside Fishdam Ford, and his scouts reported the Patriots’ fires high and bedded down for the night. Wemyss decided to immediately attack despite Cornwallis specifically ordering him not to conduct operations at night.

Wemyss would have been completely surprised had newly promoted Brigadier General Thomas Sumter’s subordinates listened to him. Sumter was convinced the British and Loyalists would not conduct a night attack, probably because he knew of Cornwallis’ order forbidding it. Colonels Thomas Taylor and Richard Winn weren’t so sure. While Sumter lounged in his tent that evening and eventually turned in for the night, Taylor and Winn pushed out extra pickets, rehearsed alerts where their men moved from their bed rolls to formation, and even had their men sleep next to their loaded muskets and rifles. Taylor specifically built up his campfires, then deliberately had his men sleep away from them in the woods. The men grumbled, but the preparations paid off.

When the first picket fired at the approaching British and Loyalists, the only Patriot who acted surprised was Sumter. Half-dressed and barely awake, Sumter took off for the riverbank, assuming he had been surprised and defeated just as he had at Fishing Creek in August, where only his quick escape and nimbleness in the saddle prevented his capture. Sumter’s men, however, were prepared.

Winn and Taylor’s men formed up along a fence at the edge of the wood line just outside of the firelight. Upon receiving fire from the pickets, Wemyss immediately charged with his dragoons and ordered the infantry to follow up as fast as they could. As soon as the horsemen entered the circle of firelight, the Patriots unleashed a devastating volley which brought down at least twenty dragoons, including Wemyss. Command of the British and Loyalists fell to a lieutenant in the 63rd who ordered a bayonet assault with the remaining dismounted dragoons and the regular infantry. But they too met the same fate as the previous charge as soon as they entered the fire light. (As anyone who has been to CTC can tell you: never follow the blinking yellow lights.) Nevertheless, the 63rd decided to make a fight of it. With the bayonet assault stymied by the fence, the 63rd reformed and traded volleys with the Patriots in the woods. The British seemed to have the upper hand until the patriot companies from Col. Edward Lacey’s outlying camp converged on the fire fight and began firing into the flank of British formation. The Battle of Fishdam Ford lasted only twenty minutes before the British and Loyalists broke.

The Patriots, satisfied in a job well done, went back to sleep.

About two hours after sun rise, Sumter returned to find the captured British and loyalist wounded around the camp fires, guarded only by one of his sergeants major. Sumter paroled the prisoners, including Wemyss, and told them to spread the tale of the British defeat. Despite fleeing at first contact and not participating in the Battle of Fishdam Ford in any capacity whatsoever, Sumter declared he had won a great victory over not just Loyalists, but British regulars. Sumter’s command swelled to over a thousand once the news of the victory spread through the countryside.

Though Sumter had a slightly toxic and abrasive leadership style, his subordinates for the most part didn’t seem to mind, or didn’t mind enough to not fight for him. Some of his subordinate regimental commanders came and went when they wanted, but Sumter stalwarts such as Taylor and Winn stayed with him throughout the war. They managed and mitigated Sumter’s peculiar leadership style, and recognized that despite his flaws, Sumter’s charisma and energy were necessary to continue the fight for South Carolina. Lacey, Taylor, and Winn fully credited Sumter with the victory at Fishdam Ford, even though the victory was through their and their men’s efforts alone.

Cornwallis was furious with Wemyss’ loss at Fishdam Ford. First Ferguson and now Wemyss – Cornwallis was running out of trusted and competent subordinates. He recalled Banastre Tarleton from his hunt for Francis Marion in the swamps along the Santee River to defeat Sumter. Cornwallis feared Sumter would seize Ninety Six, one of the few remaining loyalist strongholds in the south. Cornwallis would never be able to subdue the South without Ninety Six. Finally, the Battle of Fishdam Ford and the unsuccessful attempts to capture Marion forced Cornwallis to withdraw his main army from North Carolina back into South Carolina to secure enough supplies to feed his men through the winter. The sodden British camp at Winnsborough during the winter of 1780 has been compared in misery to Washington’s camp at Valley Forge three years earlier in 1777.

The Raid on Taranto

The Italian build up at Sidi Barranni was proceeding slowly but steadily, and by early December the Italians would be prepared for a final push into Egypt. The British needed to slow the supplies that were ferried from Italy to North Africa, but the Italian Navy, the Regina Marina, had a significant firepower superiority in the Mediterranean. On the heel of the Italian boot at the naval base of Taranto, the Regina Maria had a fleet of six battleships, sixteen cruisers and thirteen destroyers. The Italian naval threat forced the British Mediterranean Fleet to inefficiently operate en masse against the Italian supply lines linking North Africa and Italy.

On the afternoon of 11 November, 1940, a naval task force under Rear Admiral Lumley Lyster, Britain’s foremost carrier tactician, quietly approached Taranto. Lumley had just one aircraft carrier, and four cruisers and five destroyers. At dusk, Lumley launched his obsolete Swordfish torpedo bombers from the HMS Illustrious. Two hours later around about 10 pm, 21 Swordfish biplanes screamed out of the flare lit darkness, and struck the Italian battleship row. They sunk one battleship, severely damaged two others and damaged two heavy cruisers for the loss of just a single plane. The Raid on Taranto shocked the Italians. In the space of one hour, the Regina Marina went from a dangerous threat to the British Navy in the Mediterranean to a fleet-in-being which would rarely leave port for the rest of the war.

The Japanese naval attaché in Berlin, Lieutenant Commander Takeshi Naito, flew down to Taranto and documented the raid. Naito passed on the information to his friend, carrier pilot Commander Mitsuo Fushida. Fushida went on to plan and lead the aerial attack on Pearl Harbor just over a year later