Austerlitz - 2nd December 1805
The Battle of Three Emperors
Monument to Napoleon Bonaparte above Boulogne - with his back to the English Channel
In August 1805 Napoleon Bonaparte turned his back on thoughts of invading England thanks to the Royal Navy’s control of the English Channel. He now looked east to face the Austrian and Russian armies of the Third Coalition, a pact between Russia, Austria and Sweden and funded with British gold. Two Russian armies were assembling, one in Poland under General Frederick Buxhouden, prior to Czar Alexander 1 taking over, and another further south ready to move into Austria under General Prince Kutuzov. Austria had three armies, one under Archduke Ferdinand with General Karl Mack, invading Bavaria, one under Archduke Charles in Italy and the other under Archduke John in the Tyrol.
In a masterpiece of detailed staff work Napoleon planned and moved 150,000 men of the Grande Armée from their camps and billets along the channel coast to the Rhine and then on to the Danube. They used seven different routes and outflanked the Austrians by avoiding the traditional approach through the Black Forest and up the Rhine. Once on the Danube they approached Vienna in a counter-offensive to an Austrian-Russo attack on France.
French intelligence identified the main threats as a joint Russian and Austrian advance up the Danube Valley towards Strasbourg and an attack in Lombardy by the Austrians. To reach France the Russians would have to advance from the Polish border to Vienna and on through Ulm in Bavaria; further than the Grande Armée had to march from Boulogne. The Austrian troops in northern Italy would march to Ulm, link up with the Russians and then advance into France under command of General Mack. The weakness in the Allied plan was the time gap between the Austrians and the Russians arriving in Ulm.
Napoleon intended to destroy the Allied forces piecemeal, first the Austrians at Ulm and then the Russians at Vienna, while his Marshal Masséna in Lombardy with just 50,000 men blocked Archduke Charles and the second Austrian army.
By 7th October Napoleon was in Donauwörth (see Marlborough's march to the Danube) on the Danube at the head of 150,000 men on an 80 mile front with the Austrian army unaware that it had been out manoeuvred and still expecting the French to arrive via the Basle pass. Operations began by crossing the Danube bridges and taking the Austrian garrisons by surprise.
The first engagement took place at Wertingen where a French cavalry charge with infantry in support defeated nine Austrian battalions in square formations and took 2,000 prisoners. There was heavy fighting for the French to establish a bridgehead across the Danube before the Austrians withdrew into Ulm. The city was then invested by the French who had to assault across the three Günzburg bridges to get to the Ulm fortress. It was hard combat and the Austrians put up a stout resistance until they were forced back.
No sign of the three bridges at Günzburg today
Ulm is much changed since 1805. A large fortress was built on the Michelsberg following the 1815 Treaty of Paris but it is possibly where Napoleon took the march past of General Mack's defeated Austrians.
The 'post-war' Fortress
The modern canalised Danube
During this action Napoleon was at Augsburg in case of an Austrian breakout towards Munich and because there were rumours that the Russians were near. Mack with 25,000 men was probing for possible exits and found a route on the north bank through the Michelsburg hills. On 11th October they met a French division of 6,000 men at Haslach on the north bank of the Danube. In a bluff that it was the vanguard of a greater force the 6,000 fought for over five hours and despite the odds drove the Austrians back into Ulm.
The French division was reinforced to close the gap north of Ulm but to do this the Danube had to be crossed back at Elchingen and the bridge, which was under covering fire from the Austrians guarding it, had to be repaired. Three men were killed by grapeshot for every plank which was put in place. After hard fighting through Elchingen they reached the plain and the dragoons charged the large Austrian squares, each made up of 2,000-3,000 men. The dragoons managed to break them, sabred them and drove them towards Haslach where the same division defeated them again. Two Austrian regiments were captured in a most successful battle after which Marshal Ney was made the Duke of Elchingen.
Pursuit to Vienna 26 October - 15 November 1805 - Map by Department of History, United States Military Academy
Mack surrendered on 19th October after 20,000 Austrian cavalry escaped in an attempt to join the Russians. Marshal Murat pursued them with the cavalry and over five days 18,000 men were killed or captured together with much treasure and equipment. The Austrians paraded before the victorious French where Napoleon gave a five hour diatribe as 27,000 prisoners marched past. The next day he issued a morale boosting proclamation to his own army - on what was to become Trafalgar Day.
The French advance now continued with Napoleon making a triumphal entry into Munich. In Italy Masséna gained a victory at Caldiero and prevented the Austrians leaving Italy. In the meantime the Czar was visiting Berlin where he charmed the Prussians into joining the Coalition in a secret treaty. The Grande Armée now marched east towards Vienna mostly along the southern bank of the Danube. They crossed the River Inn at the end of October to enter Upper Austria but the weather worsened, there were supply problems and morale dropped as the men became exhausted.
10,000 Austrians who also escaped from Ulm now joined 55,000 Russians under Kutuzov on the Danube’s north bank ready to link up with the Czar’s force approaching from the north-west. Francis I, the Austrian Emperor, could not accept Vienna being abandoned but the best he could achieve with Kutuzov was an agreement for maximum resistance en route to delay the French advance. The Austrians hoped this would buy enough time to enable all three forces, the Czar, Kutuzov and Archduke Charles to link up and save the city.
The French advanced rapidly down the Danube with forces on both banks and a flotilla on the river which could transfer 10,000 men across it in one hour. A request for an armistice to save Vienna was rebuffed. Heavy fighting took place at Amstetten where the French were seriously mauled with over 1,000 dead and the Russians increased their pace of withdrawal. On 8th November the Russians formed up to give battle but the French flotilla was not available to move reinforcements across the river so those on the north bank spent the night at the Abbey of Melk. To distract their guests from damaging the abbey the monks opened their cellars and a monumental drinking session ensued. Officers who were there spoke about it for the rest of their lives.
The Abbey at Melk
The cellars are no longer open to the public
Whilst Napoleon would have enjoyed a triumphal entry into Vienna he only had a weak division of 5,000 men pushing on along the north bank and now facing 40,000 Russians in formed squares. Despite a defiant French attack the Russians overwhelmed them and took the town of Dürnstein. It was retrieved as reinforcements came up and the Russians withdrew, worried that they were being outflanked. About 4,000 Russians died despite outnumbering the French by 8:1.
The monument to both the Russians and the French at Dürnstein
Dürnstein on the Danube
The castle where King Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned in 1192
Murat was now tasked with capturing the Danube bridge north of Vienna in a coup de main for the French to beat Kutuzov into Moravia to where the road from Krems meets the road to Olmütz. Together with Marshal Jean Lannes he fooled the Austrian commander and his men in a great bluff about a truce. French grenadiers disarmed the Austrian soldiers, took over their guns and the bridge was taken.
As this happened Napoleon rode into Vienna, assumed residence in the Chateau of Schrönbrunn and sent Murat to cut off Kutuzov’s withdrawal to Hollabrünn. The entry into Vienna was met impassively, a governor was appointed who enforced discipline and saw to it that the soldiers were billeted and fed properly. The headquarters’ officers lived in the chateau enjoying the heated rooms and double glazing. They also enjoyed the Imperial Palace of the Hofburg, the cathedral of Saint Stephen, the Magic Flute at the Court Theatre and a vaudeville show at the Kasperlet theatre. They commandeered 100,000 muskets, 2,000 artillery pieces and an immense supply of ammunition. The Austrians were impressed by how much wine the French drank.
Attempts by Murat's cavalry with Lannes' vanguard to cut off Kutuzov’s force to prevent it linking up with Buxhouden’s army failed despite a victory at Hollabrünn and capturing Brünn (the capital of Moravia) on 19th November. Notwithstanding all their other successes the French now faced a serious dilemma. Kutuzov’s force, the Austrians, and now Buxhouden’s force threatened a semi-circular envelopment of the Grande Armée. There was also trouble in France with plotting for Napoleon’s replacement, or his successor should he fall in battle, and news of Trafalgar arrived. Unperturbed, the Emperor got on with making plans to fight a decisive battle where he was whilst Marshals Massena and Marmont prevented Archdukes John and Charles reinforcing the Allies.
Everyone in Europe, including Paris, knew the situation for the French was bad. The failures to cut off Kutuzov at Krems and Hollabrünn and to drive him south were serious. The Russians should have been trapped and isolated from their lines of communication but these were now open through Olmütz and secure for resupply or withdrawal. Pursuit by the French now could easily result in overstretch and with the forces massing against him Europe believed Napoleon to be trapped.
As you approach Austerlitz from Brünn today you are greeted with a bizarre sight. It is the local cement works:
The first thing to do is to reconcile the names normally used to describe this battle with their Czech equivalents. These are listed in the Afterword section at the bottom of this page.
Napoleon’s forces were now concentrated around Brünn in the triangle formed by the road east to Olmütz and the road south to Vienna and bounded by the Goldbach stream and its north-eastern tributary. The Russians and Austrians gathered at Olmütz with their headquarters at Austerlitz in the chateau of the Counts of Kaunitz.
1800 hours 1 December - Map by Department of History, United States Military Academy
Napoleon studied the ground carefully and set about creating a trap to provoke the Allies into offensive action. His mission was to obtain and win a decisive battle. He rightly anticipated that Kutuzov believed the French army was at the Allies' mercy and they could block a withdrawal to Vienna by attacking the French right.
Napoleon had been on the Pratzen Plateau and noted all the high points in the area including the Mountains of Moravia to the north as a possible a boundary for his extreme left. The plateau runs north-south and is not mountainous but undulating ground rising about 350 feet. A knoll to its north on the Brünn-Olmütz road, the Santon, was prepared as a defensive position facing a large plain to its east, good going for cavalry. The west side of the Pratzen is a gentle slope with the Goldbach stream at its foot, easily fordable, running through a string of villages on the edge of the Plain of Turas. The east side has more of a drop and to the south there were some frozen lakes.
A compressed diagram of part of the battlefield showing the northern end of the Pratzen Plateau. A tributary of the Goldbach runs south through Jirikovice. The distance between there and Blažovice is about a mile; the battlefield was about 6 miles north-south over the plateau
After elaborate troop manoeuvres and deceptive emissary exchanges Napoleon's trap was ready. At 1600 hours on 1st December his headquarters was a short distance from the Brünn-Olmütz road at Zuran. He was pleased to watch the Russians deploy on the Pratzen plateau and to know that Marshal Davout was marching north to reinforce his right; the Allies were marching into his trap.
The chapel on the Santon's summit
Looking south-east from the Santon across the northern plain with the Brünn-Olmütz road running
right to left across the centre-ground. Zuran is off to the right
The distant Mountains of Moravia from the Santon
Site of Napoleon's initial headquarters at Zuran
Model of the battlefield
The Pratzen Plateau, the key feature, is on the skyline
Napoleon's address to his army on the eve of the battle
Whilst Napoleon gave the Allies an impression of an army timidly closing up together he had divisions marching in from 60 miles away at Vienna and from 40 miles away at Iglau.
The Allies took their decision to attack the French and encircle them. Their plan was to descend south-west from the Pratzen Plateau and attack the French in the villages to the west along the Goldbach. Another corps would attack the Santon in the north and then the whole army would join in the pursuit as the French fled towards Brünn.
Napoleon conducted his last recce on the eve of the battle and appreciating where the Allied attack would arrive he planned to exploit the gap which would open in the Allies’ position on the plateau as they moved off.
0900 hours 2 December - Map by Department of History, United States Military Academy
The battle essentially took place between 0700 and 1500 hours on 2nd December and only Napoleon and his corps commanders appreciated how his plan would be executed.
The Allied left moved off about 0600 hours to descend from the plateau in thick mist and smoke from their camp fires. As they did so the mist provided cover for Marshal Soult's corps to move forward ready to exploit the gap which became apparent when the mists began to clear about 0800 hours. Firing was heard from the south as 40,000 Russians attacked 8,000 French defenders in the villages where fierce fighting now began to rage to and fro.
In the centre Soult's corps of 20,000 men, fortified by a triple issue of brandy (about half a pint), attacked. One objective was taken in 20 minutes and the second in 30 minutes as Russians and Austrians were driven off towards Austerlitz. There was still no contact in the north and Napoleon now reinforced his right. Two villages in the south were taken by the Russians but as the French reinforcements arrived they were forced back and over the Goldbach with 35,000 Allies being prevented from reaching the Plain of Turas by 10,000 French troops.
The valley used by Soult's corps to approach the Pratzen Plateau
Marshal Soult's approach march was said to have been conducted in parade ground order over the frozen ground.
When it is warm and wet the heavy soil soon clings thickly to boots and shoes.
The Goldbach stream - north
The battlefield is well illustrated with display boards.
The Goldbach stream - south
The battle in the north started about 0930 hours. The Russian commander, General Prince Pyotr Bagration, furious at having no orders, no news and in ignorance of the attack on the Pratzen, advanced. Marshal Lannes also moved off having heard the guns on the Pratzen and knowing what it meant. 12,000 men advanced in parade order, several battalions in line followed by others supporting them in compact columns and with cavalry on his right. Opposite them 82 squadrons of Russian and Austrian cavalry under Prince Johann von Liechtenstein prepared to block the French division. The action started in three movements:
1. A checking action by Russian cavalry which was stopped at 100 yards when French infantry fire dropped about a quarter of the Allied horses and men. The Russians withdrew and three more charges also failed.
2. A French cavalry counter-attack which ended in close mounted hand-to-hand combat.
3. A fresh advance by Lannes with two compact masses of infantry treading over the dead and wounded men and horses. Bagration used his artillery to kill 400 Frenchmen in three minutes but Lannes’ artillery counter-bombarded and moved faster than the Russian guns could move between salvos.
This artillery duel continued until 1030 hours when both sides resumed the assault. Bagration tried to take the Santon but a firm defence only allowed him forward 400-500 yards. Lannes linked up with Murat’s cavalry to attack Blaziowitz where Russian infantry held them until a French bayonet charge overwhelmed the Russians and a corps of cavalry was routed, 500 prisoners, 5 guns and the village were taken.
To stop Lannes now getting between the Allied right and centre Bagration and Liechtenstein committed all their cavalry to push back the French left. The Allies had 6,000 to Murat’s 3,000. As the French cavalry division emerged from Blaziowitz 40 Austrian squadrons attacked. Three charges were stopped before the French heavy cavalry reserve arrived and 1,000 horses charged against twice as many Russians and Austrians.
The carabineers leading this charge smashed through the Allies’ first line and reached the second line which, well trained, opened up to let the now disordered squadrons through. The French next came face to face with Russian hussars, dragoons and Austrian cuirassiers. There was a massive momentary check before the French cuirassiers arrived as well and together, they all hit the Allies . In five minutes the Allied cavalry was in confusion.
With good cavalry tactics the Allied officers outrode their fleeing troops and rallied them on a suitable piece of ground to re-form their defence together with their artillery. The French found themselves surrounded on three sides by Allied cavalry but they held their line and brought down a quarter of the Austrian hussars. The infantry then opened their lines to let their cuirassiers through and the cavalry battle was back on. A similar sequence took place again until the ground was covered with bodies, three Russians or Austrians to every Frenchman.
By midday Bagration was isolated from the Allied main body and French infantry advanced to seize and hold the ground. French professionalism and training outshone the poorly trained young Russians and despite Bagration making good use of his accurate artillery Murat was able to report that they had thrown him back towards Olmütz. Bagration retreated with his corps.
The last action in the north occurred about 1300 hours. Bagration knew what had happened in the centre and had orders to hold the road to Olmütz at all costs to enable withdrawing troops to reassemble there. He decided attack was the best form of defence and launched his right unsuccessfully against the division at the Santon. The opportunity to destroy the Russians totally by encircling them was missed but eventually they were beaten and they fled with French cavalry pursuing them to the Moravian foothills. By 1500 hours the French had the whole of the cavalry plain and straddled the road to Olmütz. Murat suspended the pursuit and called a halt.
A simple memorial to the French artillery commander in the north at the Santon
In the centre on the Pratzen a two hour counter-attack took place. Napoleon had expected the Pratzen to be clear by now but there were still Allied troops on it and there was intense fighting before the ground was secured. At the end of the morning Napoleon was on the Plateau when his formations were subject to another counter-attack, this time by six cavalry squadrons of the élite Russian Imperial Guard with artillery in support. 1,000 horsemen charged and French squares were broken, an Eagle captured and 200 men sabred. The Russians then came on again with infantry and more cavalry but by this time French infantry, cavalry and artillery had reinforced the position. It was held under Napoleon’s direct command.
The western side of the Pratzen Plateau
In the south the Allies had taken two villages by 0930 hours and were establishing defensive positions. As the French reinforcements came up their cavalry vanguard mauled the Allies and the displaced French infantry re-formed west of the two villages. The main body arrived at 1000 hours and immediately charged into the villages capturing guns and flags and clearing houses at bayonet point to force the Russians back across the Goldbach.
They fought for over two hours and only held the southern tip of one village but 35,000 Allies were prevented from deploying onto the Turas Plain by 10,000 French. Just before midday the Russian offensive slackened and their efforts decreased. Despite having 10,000 men available who had not been engaged in the fight the Russian attack faltered. Their commander was too drunk to control the battle.
Napoleon now looked to the lakes in the south where firing continued and where he could re-deploy nearly 30,000 men to trap the remaining Allied force. In the villages the Russians considered their escape routes as the French prepared to attack. At 1530 hours French cavalry moved in and the villages were taken. The commander of the first Allied column saw an escape route using a dyke between the two lakes by which at least half his men should be able to get away safely. At 1630 hours Napoleon learnt that Bagration was escaping to Olmütz and seeing his victory being reduced he became determined to stop more Russians from getting away.
Troops were now seen using the dyke between the lakes whilst those who had been left were milling about with no idea of where to go. Similarly abandoned, the gunners hitched up the remaining guns and took them on to the frozen lake. At first the ice held and 5,000 troops followed them until it cracked and men, horses and guns found themselves waist deep in icy water and treacherous mud.
Everyone in the French camp thought they were mad and would drown as Napoleon declared “Not one of them will escape”. He then gave the order to a battery of twelve guns to open fire with red hot ball shot.
By 1700 hours night fell, it was raining hard, firing ceased and the defeated Allies were withdrawing. Allied losses were approximately 27,000 whilst the French suffered 1305 killed, 6,940 wounded and 573 prisoners. The figures are unreliable and in his bulletin Napoleon claimed that 20,000 men drowned in Lake Satschen.
The memorial on the Pratzen Plateau to all combatants
The Cairn of Peace chapel
The memorial was built in 1912 and is known as The Cairn of Peace. It is on the highest point of the battle where Emperor Francis of Austria and Czar Alexander of Russia were at the start of the battle. Inside the memorial is an impressive chapel and a ceremony is held every year at the end of November or beginning of December to commemorate all the victims of the battle. The chapel has unusual acoustics with the effect of a whispering gallery.
There is a Battlefield Centre on the site which has an excellent multi-media presentation of the battle given in Czech, English, German, French and Russian.
After the battle an armistice was signed in Slavkov Castle. This grand chateau was the family residence of the distinguished Kaunitz family for four hundred years. Tours are available but unfortunately photography is not allowed inside the building.
The chateau in Slavkov u Brna/Austerlitz
The photographs in this section were taken in April 2010 when the weather and visibility were disappointingly poor and volcanic ash from Iceland cast its shadow over Europe. The prominent feature of the battlefield, the Pratzen, is heavily wooded with limited vehicular access. The infamous lakes have long disappeared and the Goldbach stream runs in a well tended channel. The area is not overdeveloped although the villages have slightly more than the "30 chimneys" they had 200 years ago.
Augezd = Ūjezd u Brna
Austerlitz = Slavkov u Brna
Blaziowitz = Blažovice
Girzikowitz = Jirikovice
Kobelnitz = Kobylnice
Krzenowitz = Křenovice
Lake Satschen = Žatčany (no lake)
Moenitz = Menin
Pratzen = Prace
Puntowitz = Ponëtovice
Schlapanitz = Ŝlapanice
Sokolnitz = Sokolnice
Telnitz = Telnic
Principal sources were:
Burton, Reginald George, (1912) From Boulogne to Austerlitz: Napoleon’s Campaign of 1805, George Allen & Company Ltd., Kessinger Publishing Legacy Reprints.
Chandler, David (1998) A Guide to the Battlefields of Europe, Wordsworth Editions.
Manceron, Claude; translated by George Unwin, (1966) Austerlitz, Blackfriars Press Ltd., Leicester.
An English casualty of Austerlitz was William Pitt the Younger when news of the battle caused a further setback to his health and he died in January 1806 aged 45.
Some might ask if Napoleon’s successes in battle were mainly due to his enemies’ weaknesses. It is an easy charge to make but it can be a compliment to a victorious commander who identified those weaknesses and won by exploiting them. Napoleon’s genius as a military commander was acknowledged by his contemporaries Von Clausewitz and Wellington whilst Montgomery described him as “one of the greatest of the captains”. There are few detractors and most modern biographers offer little but respect for his qualities and professional skills on the field of battle. Nevertheless it is more than battlefield skills which determines military success. Other factors with potential for weakness include international policies and politics as well as the strategy, leadership and determination of the military leaders. There are also their armies’ relative strengths, morale, junior leadership, tactical doctrine, recruitment and training, weapons and equipment, communications and logistics.
Napoleon at 20 had been commissioned for four years by the start of the French Revolution. He soon found himself in battle and achieving early success as a direct result of his personal qualities, knowledge and abilities. He had a penetrating intelligence, a magnetic personality, drive, energy and a retentive mind. He matured early, studied obsessively and was to develop his professional skills to become a master of strategy with an excellent eye for ground and ruthlessness in battle. Napoleon was a tough and hardy man of the ilk that claim eating and sleeping are signs of weakness. He was also a self-publicist with a permanent eye to the main chance.
His leadership skills and boldness in battle were first demonstrated at the siege of Toulon in 1793 where, despite being wounded, he captured a key fort and rendered the Royal Navy’s blockade unsustainable. His success stemmed from penning a political paper which earned him a senior post whilst his deeds earned him promotion to brigadier-general. Two years later in Paris Director Paul Barras put him in charge of suppressing a royalist uprising in which 1,400 rebels were killed. About 400 died when Napoleon used cannons at point blank range in his notorious “whiff of grapeshot” action. This episode earned him promotion to Général de Division and command of the Army of the Interior. At 26 years old he was a most astute young man.
The monarchs of Europe attempted to contain and prevent the French revolution spilling over into their territories in a series of coalitions. Whilst coalitions are successful when there is clarity and unity of purpose they can be drawn apart where national interests diverge. Over the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars from 1792 to 1815 there were seven coalitions whose composition and effectiveness in fighting France in this timeframe varied considerably. Britain, Austria, Russia, Prussia, Sweden plus some smaller states of Italy and the obsolescent Holy Roman Empire all allied themselves in diverse combinations. Britain remained at war with France throughout except for a brief period following the Treaty of Amiens and, most importantly, the Royal Navy kept command of the seas throughout the wars.
The objective of these coalitions started with restoration of the French monarchy but soon included the overthrow of Napoleon. Their weaknesses before final success was achieved are demonstrated by their sheer number, varying compositions and waxing and waning according to the opportunities, aims, and even the whims of the respective national leaders. At times some countries switched sides whilst other countries joined to fight alongside coalition members. British funds supported many of the coalition members but their weaknesses often gave Napoleon advantages which, as a commander and later as a statesman, he was able to exploit.
The authority and abilities of the National leaders and their military commanders, which in the continental countries often included themselves, varied considerably. In the War of the First Coalition a French army was fighting Austria and Piedmont when Napoleon took command in 1796. The Austrian commander-in-chief, Johann Beaulieu, was 71 and his replacement, Count Wurmser, was 72. In the War of the Second Coalition, Napoleon re-assumed command in Italy and defeated the 71 year old General Michael von Melas at Marengo. These old commanders were distinguished generals of the 18th century; their weakness lay in being accustomed to set piece slogging matches rather than fighting fast moving engagements against a flexible enemy under the command of the young and determined Napoleon who was hungry for victory.
Such old commanders are not always axiomatic with weaknesses and the strengths of field forces need comparing with regard to manpower, weapons, equipment, logistics and, vitally, morale. In the Italian campaign the Austrians and Piedmont forces outnumbered the French by up to 60,000 to 43,000 men yet in Napoleon’s battles he usually managed to achieve a local superiority of numbers. This becomes more impressive when non-nuclear offensive operations today call commanders to have a superiority of 3:1 whereas Napoleon won with rarely more than about 1¼:1. To win with this small superiority depends upon the strategy and tactics adopted by the commander together with training, weaponry and sense of purpose of the troops. Weapons remained fairly evenly balanced between combatants although some advantages were gained by improvements and developments such as the rifle, shrapnel, rockets and communications.
Napoleon brought all these elements together through his own drive and enthusiasm, attention to detail and careful planning. He set his mark upon a sub-standard French army and demonstrated his skills as a senior commander. His immediate improvements, modern tactics, use of voltigeurs, artillery firepower, speed of movement, ready supplies and raised morale, inter alia, led to a successful campaign with victory in 18 battles and numerous smaller engagements. There is no doubt that success was due to Napoleon’s practical application of the Principles of War, namely his concentration of force, economy of effort, maintenance of morale, offensive action and flexibility. He was also to prove particularly skilled at using ground and deception plans. He brought modern tactics to the battlefield and exposed the inadequacies and the weaknesses of his opposing forces.
From Italy Napoleon led a major military and scientific expedition to Egypt with high hopes for future developments exploiting a potential invasion of British India. His initial success in the field against the Mamelukes proved an easy victory followed by the occupation of Cairo. The adventure was halted when he lost his fleet to Nelson at Aboukir Bay, attempted to break out of the trap through Syria and was halted by the Turks and the swashbuckling English Admiral Sidney Smith at Acre. Napoleon’s next personal triumph came when he escaped to France and became the First Consul in a new French constitution in the coup of 18th Brumaire. France was under attack by the Second Coalition and Napoleon was the man to lead France. The second Italian campaign ended with his success at the battle of Marengo and the Treaty of Lunéville in February 1801 for which he took full credit.
Napoleon’s successful military career was now approaching its peak just as his political career was about to accelerate. In December 1804 he became emperor and a year later events had him defeating the forces of the Third Coalition in battle at Austerlitz. The whole campaign demonstrated Napoleon at his military best with the march from Boulogne, his victories en route and his deception at Austerlitz where the approaching Russo-Austrian armies believed he was cornered. There was a demonstrable weakness in the Allies’ Council of War on the eve of battle where the Russian and Austrian emperors were not in control and the Russian Commander in Chief, Prince Kutuzov, sulked and was drunk. General Weirother, the Austrian Chief of Staff produced the Allied plan of attack but of the several generals present only Count de Langeron, a French émigré divisional commander, queried it and warned of Napoleon’s capabilities. This weakness in command, coupled with individual incompetence, let the Allies down and led to Napoleon’s greatest military triumph by exploiting their difficulties, mistakes and incompetence.
At Austerlitz Napoleon’s deception and operational plans were masterful, he reacted as a successful commander would when opportunities emerged from an enemy’s mistakes, e.g. taking advantage of confusion in Russo-Austrian deployments on and from the Pratzen in the early stages and brutally destroying Russian troops as they fled. Weaknesses do not necessarily lie solely with a commander but sometimes with subordinates, spans of command, the training and fitness of troops or the disadvantages of ground and weather where and when he is forced into battle. The Allies suffered all these and thus accusations and adverse criticism arises.