Napoleon with his troops on the eve of battle. Painting by Louis-François, Baron Lejeune.
Exactly a year to the day after Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor of France, the climactic battle of the 1805 campaign took place near Austerlitz in Moravia (now in the Czech Republic). It was the culmination of Napoleon’s first campaign as Emperor and saw his army, nurtured in the training camps along the English Channel coast for two years, prove its mastery on the battlefield. Many consider Austerlitz the greatest of Napoleon’s victories.
After the capitulation of Freiherr Mack’s Austrian army at Ulm in October 1805, General Mikhail Kutuzov’s Russian army turned back from the Austro-Bavarian border, retracing its steps eastward. Kutuzov evaded the French pursuit before joining a concentration of the Allied army at Olmütz, just over 100 miles north of Vienna, late in November. Napoleon ended his pursuit at Brünn.
Napoleon’s position appeared weak, with only four formations close to Brünn: the Imperial Guard, Marshal Joachim Murat’s Cavalry Reserve, and IV and V Corps of marshals Nicolas Soult and Jean Lannes. However, this was misleading. Both Marshal Jean-Baptiste-Jules Bernadotte’s I Corps and Marshal Louis Davout’s III Corps were capable of joining Napoleon by forced marches.
On 21 November, Napoleon pushed Soult beyond Austerlitz and, following in his wake, focused on an area dominated by a long plateau above the village of Pratze, about 4 miles west of Austerlitz. This, Napoleon felt, was a battlefield where he could achieve a decisive result.
At Allied headquarters the discussion was on whether to fight or withdraw and await the arrival of reinforcements. Kutuzov advocated withdrawal, but the appearance of Tsar Alexander I at the front reduced his authority. Alexander was convinced this was his chance to personally lead Russia to victory over Napoleon and an apparently weak French army, far from home and at the end of an extended line of communications. Although the Austrian emperor, Francis I, was also present, the Russians had cared little for Austrian opinion since the capitulation at Ulm. On 27 November, the Allied army moved forward.
Napoleon, concerned about his vulnerable communications, needed a decisive victory to bring the campaign to a swift end. Determined to lure the Allies to battle, he encouraged an impression of weakness, sending an aide to Allied headquarters ostensibly to discuss peace. Meanwhile, his advanced troops withdrew westward, giving up the strength of the Pratzen plateau, further adding to Russian confidence. At the same time, orders were issued for Bernadotte and Davout to march.
Napoleon’s chosen position extended from a steep fortified hill, known to his men as the Santon, just north of the Brünn-Olmütz road, southward through the villages of Jirzikowitz and Puntowitz, and along the Goldbach stream through Kobelnitz and Sokolnitz to Telnitz, a distance of about 7 miles. Lannes’s V Corps formed the left of the army, anchored on the Santon. To his right, two of Soult’s infantry divisions, under generals Dominique Vandamme and Louis St. Hilaire, respectively, stood behind Jirzikowitz and Puntowitz, leaving the three brigades of General Claude Legrand’s division to cover the remaining 3 miles of the front line. The position suggested an overwhelming weakness on the French right. Bernadotte’s I Corps maneuvered into a position in support behind Vandamme who, with St. Hilaire, was to provide the spearhead of the army; Murat’s Cavalry Reserve was positioned to operate between Lannes and Soult. An army reserve formed of the Imperial Guard and General Nicolas Oudinot’s Reserve Grenadiers stood close to headquarters on Zuran hill. Napoleon’s plan was to tempt the Allies to throw their weight against his weak right, then occupy them with Davout’s arriving III Corps, while his strong left attacked and drove a wedge into the rear of their army.
The task of drawing up the Allied battle plan fell to the one Austrian staff officer still respected by the Russians, Kutuzov’s chief of staff, Generalmajor Franz Freiherr von Weyrother. Analyzing the limited knowledge he possessed of the French dispositions, Weyrother conceived the idea of a massive sweep by the Allied left and center through the weak right of the French position. As the French fell back before this onslaught, the Allied right would add its weight to the attack. Together, these thrusts would push the French north, away from their line of communications, or back on Brünn. This was exactly what Napoleon hoped for.
The Allies moved into position late on 1 December. Michael Freiherr von Kienmayer’s Advance Guard of I Column took up a position close to the village of Augezd on the southern or left flank, with the main body of I Column, commanded by Dmitry Dokhturov, established at the southern end of the Pratzen plateau. Next in line came II Column under Louis Langeron, then III Column with Ignatii Yakovlevich Przhebishevsky at its head. General Fedor Buxhöwden held overall command of the three columns. The IV Column formed in the rear of III Column, directed by Johann Karl Graf Kolowrat-Krakowsky and General Mikhail Miloradovich. The main cavalry force was designated V Column. On the northern flank, Prince Peter Bagration’s Army Advance Guard lay across the Brünn-Olmütz road, while the Imperial Guard, the only reserve, occupied high ground not far from Allied headquarters in Krzenowitz. Such was Allied confidence concerning the weakness of the French position that no reserve was allocated to their left. The plan was aggressive, designed to hit the French with as much force as possible, preventing any escape.
The freezing night of 1-2 December passed and, as the Allies struggled to form their columns in the thick mist that shrouded the plateau, Napoleon issued final orders to his corps commanders. They were to wait until the Allies were committed to the attack. Soult remained at headquarters, ensuring Napoleon could directly order his divisions forward.
Kienmayer’s Advance Guard of I Column, the Allied extreme left, opened the battle by advancing on the village of Telnitz. The French defenders, from Legrand’s division of IV Corps, held the buildings tenaciously, and it was only after the main body of Dokhturov’s I Column arrived an hour later and joined the attack that the French infantry fell back on their cavalry and artillery support. With Telnitz captured, Kienmayer’s orders were to push on. However, Buxhöwden ordered him to halt. The plan called for the columns to advance together, but there was no sign of II Column, which should have been advancing on Dokhturov’s right flank.
Confusion on the plateau delayed the start of II Column, but finally a brigade appeared, marching down the slope toward the Goldbach, although it veered to the right and came up against the village of Sokolnitz. Legrand’s men, alerted by the attack on Telnitz, were ready. Langeron halted, ordering his artillery to bombard the village while he waited for his second brigade and the arrival of III Column.
As the bombardment continued, Przhebishevsky’s III Column made a belated appearance. Finding Langeron further to the right than expected, III Column drew up opposite Sokolnitz castle, a large country house north of the village, defended by more of Legrand’s determined men. Przhebishevsky immediately ordered an attack, and the castle changed hands three times before the French defenders finally fell back. At the same time, Langeron, still missing his second brigade, launched a successful attack against Sokolnitz village. As the Russians consolidated, fighting flared up again at Telnitz.