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.”

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