Why did Napoleon win the Battle of Austerlitz?


Russian cavalry in action at Austerlitz

The Battle of Austerlitz, also known as the Three Emperors' Battle, was one of the most critical battles in European History. It was also Napoleon’s most significant victory. At the battle, Napoleon’s employed a brilliant strategy to defeat the Russian and the Austrian Empires' combined forces.

The triumph of the French stunned Europe and meant that they were masters of Europe for a brief period of time. This article will discuss the reasons for the French victory. This will include Napoleon's military genius, the French army's superiority, and poor Allied decision-making.

Background

After a string of brilliant victories, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France. By 1805, his armies had proven victorious in Germany, Spain, and Italy, and he was the most powerful man in Europe. This prompted the other powers in Europe to form the Third Coalition to defeat the French. This Coalition included England, Russia, Prussia, and Austria. The formation of this alliance caught Napoleon off guard. He had been planning for England's invasion and had amassed a large army in northern France, known as the Army of England.

However, he learned that Austria, Prussia, and the Russians were mobilizing and planned to attack the French and their allies. Napoleon abandoned his plans to invade England and decided to attack his enemies in the east before they could unite their forces. This was typical of Napoleon, who was always willing to go on the attack and believed that the key to success was never to let the enemy settle and attack them before they could attack the French.[1]

Napoleon at Austerlitz

Moving with great speed, he took his army of over 200,000 French and allied troops from their encampments near Boulogne and crossed into Germany on September the 25th. The army was divided into several corps. They were independent units with artillery attachments, and each corps commander had a great deal of autonomy in their decision making. The army also had two cavalry divisions of approximately 20,000. The Austrians, with their German allies, decided to meet Napoleon in Bavaria in Germany. They intended to slow down his army and defend Austria from a French invasion until the huge Russian army's arrival.

The Prussians, because of internal politics, had been very slow in mobilizing, and the Austrians were forced to meet Napoleon almost independently. The Austrian General Mack established a line of defense near Ulm in Bavaria. However, Napoleon’s army was swift, and after a feint attack, he was able to appear at the rear of the Austrian army and inflicted a decisive defeat on Mack. In this battle, the French captured Mack and some 23,000 of his men. Napoleon was free to march into Central Europe.[2]

In November of 1805, the French marched on Vienna and occupied it. The Austrian army knew it could not defeat Napoleon, so it retreated to an area in modern-day the Czech Republic, here they met the Russian army under General Kutsov. Here they waited for the Prussian army. Napoleon did not stay long in Vienna and marched forward to meet the allies before the Prussians joined them. He had swept aside all opposition, but he was faced with many problems. His men had marched across Europe and needed rest, while worryingly, his logistics were breaking down. His men were reliant up confiscating food from the locals. Then, the snows of winter were due, and the French army had not established any winter quarters. Napoleon was eager for a quick battle or would have to retreat because of the weather and a shortage of supplies.

The Preparations

Austerlitz battle scene

The Allies' leadership was divided.[3] The Austrian and the Russian Emperors were present at the battle and they had a great influence on the commanders. General Kutsov, the Russian commander in chief, correctly believed that Napoleon’s forces were running low on supplies. With the weather, his army would soon be in difficulties and then ready for an allied attack, possibly in the Spring. The Austrian Emperor agreed with his strategy.

The Tsar over-ruled General Kutuzov, and the Austrian Emperor were in a weak position after the defeat at Ulm and his capital loss. Napoleon wanted the allies to fight him in a battle, and he pretended to want peace negotiations.[4] He was not sincere and did not want peace. This fooled some of the allies and persuaded them that they should attack Napoleon immediately. The wily Kutuzov knew that it was a trap, and he counseled for a more cautious approach. He lost out, once again, and the allies agreed that once they made contact with the French army, they would stand and fight.[5]

The allies decided that they would stand and fight at Austerlitz's small village. Here they had secured some high ground and waited for the French to approach. The allies waited for Napoleon’s army with some 88,000 men. They were well supplied with cavalry and cannons. The majority of the forces were Russian.[6]. Both the Austrian and the Russian army was organized in a manner very similar to the eighteenth century. The main unit of organization was the regiment, and they were all commanded by aristocrats. Nearly all of the officers were aristocrats, and they maintained a strict discipline in their units, and physical punishment for even slight infringements were common.

The French arrived at Austerlitz with a force of approximately 72,000 men. This was smaller than the Russian and Austrians, but they were among the finest and most experienced soldiers in Europe, and they were highly motivated by their officers and Napoleon. Unlike the allies’ officers, they had all received their commission based on merit. The French officer corps was generally better than the allies, and this was a direct result of Napoleon’s reform and reorganization of the previously undisciplined French Revolutionary armies.[7]

Battle of Austerlitz

The two armies faced each other at Austerlitz on the 1st of December 1805. The allies attacked the French right. This was what Napoleon had expected. He had deliberately weakened it to entice the allies into an attack on this area. He ordered his right to hold on for as long as possible. The Allies initially made some headway, and they drove the French from a small hamlet. Still, the French right retreated in an orderly manner and inflicted heavy casualties on the Russians and the Austrians. The French artillery was very accurate and efficient, and it managed first to slow the allies and later stopped their attack on the right. A Corps under Davout then arrived and bolstered the right. Napoleon saw that the allies had weakened their center to attack his right.

Napoleon placed Lannes's V Corps at the northern end of the line, and Claude Legrand's Corpsmen at the southern end. He then placed Soult’s IV Corps in the center, and this strengthened it greatly. This was a very complex maneuver, but it was carried out efficiently and speedily thanks to the Grand Armee corps system's efficiency. Then Napoleon ordered a corps under Davout to attack his right flank, and this caught the allies by surprise, the Russian commander was drunk, and soon the allies were in full retreat in this sector[8].

Around 8:45 AM, believing that the Allied center had been sufficiently weakened, Napoleon summoned Soult to discuss an attack on the enemy lines at the Pratzen Heights. Napoleon believed that ‘one sharp blow’ at this point could bring him victory. The Corps under Soult was thrown back after brave Russian resistance. However, Saint-Hillaire swept the Russians from the heights, which meant that the allies center had been broken [9]. A French cavalry attack was driven back on the left by the excellent Austrian cavalry. However, the center and the right of the Allied army was in full flight. The French, sensing a total victory, charged after the fleeing troops' many Russian troops drowned in a marsh as they attempted to flee. The Austrian cavalry mounted an almost suicidal attack on the advancing French Corps, which may have saved the allies from complete annihilation.

Aftermath of the Battle of Austerlitz

The French were the clear winners of the battle. It ended all Austrian resistance and ended the War of the Third Coalition. The French had lost about 1300 killed and 6000 wounded. The allies suffered much heavier losses. They lost 15,000 men, and thousands more are captured. Austerlitz was perhaps, in many ways, Napoleon's greatest victory.[10]

After his victory, he forced Austria to sign a humiliating Treaty, and the Russians were forced to retreat. Napoleon had a free hand in Germany and dissolved the Holy Roman Empire and established the Rhine Confederation in its place, a French puppet. Without the threat from Austria and Russia, the French were able to concentrate on the Prussians and defeated them decisively at Jena's battle. Napoleon was almost the complete master of Europe. However, many believe that the victory was not as decisive as it first appeared, as the Austrians were able to wage war against Napoleon in 1807, and the Russians were far from defeated. Furthermore, the English had defeated the French at Trafalgar, which meant that they had complete control of the seas.[11] The English as a result, were determined to continue the fight against Napoleon, even after the battle. Nonetheless, the French had established supremacy in Europe that had not been seen since the days of the Romans.

Why did Napoleon Win?

There were several reasons as to why the French won at Austerlitz. One of them was Napoleon’s military genius. He had cleverly convinced his enemies that he was weaker than he was by his insincere proposal for peace negotiations. This fooled the Tsar and encouraged him to stand and fight. This played into Bonaparte's hands.[12] Then the French strategy and tactics during the battle were brilliant. Napoleon predicted where and when the allies would attack and then attacked them at their weakest point. This meant that he and his troops could rout a huge army in less than a day’s fighting. Another reason for the French victory was the French army's superior organization. The corps system was flexible and could react to any changes on the battlefield.[13]

The French officers were also much better than the allies, who only had their position because of their birth and were often incompetent. The average French soldier at Austerlitz was a battle-hardened veteran who was inspired by the ideals of the Revolution. The French cannon was superior to the allies, but not much so. One of the main reasons Napoleon was able to defeat Austria Russia's combined armies was fighting in an eighteenth-century manner. Their organization, tactics, and strategy were outmoded, according to a German observer of the battle.[14] The French had changed the nature of warfare, and the Allies did not recognize this.

Furthermore, the Tsar interfered with his commander’s decisions, and many Generals only agreed with his tactics out of respect for his Royal Person. This meant that the great Russian General Kutsov was sidelined. He had proposed different tactics, and this was to draw Napoleon further into eastern Europe, to weaken him before the allies would destroy him. This was actually what Kutsov would do when Napoleon invaded Russian in 1813. The Tsar’s failure to listen to his most experienced soldier contributed to his disastrous defeat. Another reason for the French's victory was the failure of the Prussians to send their army on time. They could have helped to turn the tide of the battle if they had been present.[15]

Conclusions

Austerlitz was a great victory. However, it was not the decisive victory that it has often been portrayed. Napoleon was able to inflict a defeat on the Coalition. Napoleon won because he duped the allies into thinking that he wanted negotiations, which prompted them to seek a battle, which he had expected and wanted. The allies perhaps should have avoided a battle and allowed Napoleon’s army to suffer from an overextended supply line in winter. During the actual battle, Napoleon’s strategy worked very well. His strategy and tactics were superb. Then his army was superior to the allies, except their cavalry. His units were well-led, motivated, and flexible, while the allies were using led by often incompetent officers and poorly organized. These factors all allowed Napoleon to defeat a slightly larger army and establish French supremacy in much of Europe.[16]

Reference

  1. David G. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon.(Longman, N.Y., 2000) p. 407
  2. Chandler, p. 401
  3. Fisher, Todd & Fremont-Barnes Gregory, The Napoleonic Wars: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (Pelican, London, 1987), p. 33
  4. Fischer and Fremont-Barnes, p. 137
  5. Chandler, p. 411
  6. Abbott, John, Life of Napoleon Bonaparte. Kessinger Publishing, London, 2005, 349
  7. Abbot, p. 124
  8. Chandler, p. 415
  9. Chandler, p. 411
  10. Lyons, Martyn, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Legacy of the French Revolution. St. Martin's Press London, 1994, p. 345
  11. Schroeder, Paul W. The Transformation of European Politics, 1763–1848, (Longman, NY, 1996), p. 518
  12. Chandler, p. 409
  13. Stutterheim, Karl. A Detailed Account of the Battle of Austerlitz. Pine-Coffin, John (trans.) (London: Thomas Goddard, 1807) p. 46
  14. Stutterhein, p. 19
  15. Chandler, p. 409
  16. Abbot, p. 376

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