Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz by François Gérard
One suspects that Bonaparte would have subscribed to the modern American adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” What he inherited, he improved and built upon, but he was disinclined to change a military apparatus that worked well for him. And he had reason for complacency. His record as a battle winner and conqueror, as a destroyer of armies and subjugator of governments, has never been equaled. Or rather, one has to go back to Alexander the Great to find comparable success. It may be useful at this stage to summarize his wars and campaigns, the coalitions that resisted him, and how he dealt with them.
The First Coalition of 1792-97 came into existence as a result of the French invasion of the Austrian Netherlands. The French government declared war against the Austrian emperor in his capacity of king of Hungary, hoping that Austria’s defensive treaties would not thereby be invoked. In fact the coalition was swiftly formed, involving Austria, Prussia, Britain (from 1793), Naples, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and various smaller states. The coalition was never cohesive, and in 1795 Tuscany, Prussia, Luxembourg, Sweden, and Spain defected, making separate peace treaties. Bonaparte came onto the scene in a leading role in 1797, and as a result of his Italian victories, he forced the Austrians to sign preliminary terms at Leoben on 17 April 1797, confirmed by the Treaty of Campo Formio in October.
Britain, which had won naval victories and taken French overseas possessions, refused French terms, continued the struggle, and tried to form the Second Coalition. Britain had already begun the system of financing coalition partners in Naples, and these were on offer from 1798 onward, the British naval victory against Bonaparte’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile providing further encouragement. Naples was the first to join Britain, followed by other Italian states and Austria (Prussia remaining benevolently neutral), and by Russia and Turkey, which took action against the French occupation of the Ionian Isles. But the Austrians lost the Italian campaign, Bonaparte marching the Reserve Army through the Saint Bernard Pass to take them in the rear and win the decisive Battle of Marengo (14 June 1800). In November, though detained himself in Paris to consolidate his political position, he directed a vigorous campaign against Austria in Germany, culminating in the victory of Hohenlinden (3 December). Austria made peace at the Treaty of Lunéville in February 1801. William Pitt, British prime minister and Bonaparte’s most vigorous and consistent opponent, resigned the same month. By now Portugal was Britain’s only ally, so the coalition was effectively dead, and Pitt’s successor, Henry Addington, made a preliminary peace at Amiens in October 1801. This was the only interruption in Britain’s war against France from 1793 to 1814.
Nor did it last long. Both Britain and France, mutually suspicious, refused to carry out the terms of the treaty. Each accused the other of bad faith. In February 1803, Bonaparte summoned Lord Whitworth, the British ambassador and an old-fashioned gentleman-diplomat, to a stormy interview. Whitworth was barely allowed to speak, and he judged the object of the meeting was “to frighten and to bully.” He reported that “such conduct in private life would be a strong presumption of weakness,” and that was the conclusion he drew from the tirade. He haughtily added that one expression Bonaparte used “was too trivial and vulgar to find a place in a dispatch, or anywhere but in the mouth of a hackney coach-man.” A month later, on 13 March, Bonaparte reenacted the scene at a public diplomatic reception in the Tuileries. Whitworth was a big, imposing man, and his mere size, self-control, and taciturnity infuriated Bonaparte. Going up to Whitworth, Bonaparte accused Britain, in a loud voice, which could be heard by all the guests, of planning war for another fifteen years. He then added, “The English don’t respect treaties. So we will cover them in mourning.” Then he left the room so fast that the flunkies did not have time to open the double doors, and he stood fuming for a second while they fiddled with the knobs.
This was the kind of violent outburst that Hitler was later to make his speciality, to terrify those he addressed and to spread fear among onlookers. But whereas Hitler’s rages were deliberate and rehearsed, Bonaparte sometimes lost his temper, and usually regretted it, as on this occasion. But it made little difference anyway. Britain and Bonaparte were again at war from May 1803, and it was during this period that a French invasion of Britain became a serious possibility. Flat-bottomed boats were collected in French Channel ports, soldiers encamped. The British took the threat with gravity and made intense preparations, including building a fortress in the Midlands in which it was planned to place the king and his government in the event of a French landing and occupation of London. But no detailed plans for transshipment of troops and an opposed landing have survived, and it is possible none were made. Bonaparte hated the idea of sea warfare and shuddered at the idea of participating in it. Yet for anyone else to lead the invasion would have invoked odious comparisons with Caesar’s invasion of Britain. Bonaparte talked specifically of what he would do in London, mentioning a seizure of the Bank of England and the appropriation of its fabulous gold reserves. But by comparison with the eagerness with which he seized on opportunities for land offensives on the largest scale, and the rapidity with which he executed them, his slow and hesitant approach to invading Britain is significant—his heart was never in it. And Nelson’s spectacular victory at Trafalgar on 21 October 1805 put an end to any possibility of invasion.
By that time Pitt had returned to office in 1804 and immediately set about putting together the Third Coalition, centering around a Russian-Austrian alliance, the arrangement being completed on 9 August 1805. The British provided more than £12 million in subsidies and agreed with Sweden to land troops in northern Germany, and this led Prussia to join the coalition in the autumn. The central idea was an Austrian invasion of France supported by 250,000 Russian troops. But Bonaparte swiftly abandoned his English invasion plans and moved large quantities of troops (of what was now renamed the Grande Armée) into Italy and Germany. The speed with which he acted contrasted sharply with the sluggishness of Austrian and, still more, Russian movements. One Austrian army in Bavaria was surrounded at Ulm and surrendered on 20 October. Bonaparte himself took charge of the French troops now operating in Austria against the main armies of Russia and Austria, which had finally joined forces under the personal command of their two emperors. By a series of ruses, including skillful concealment of the strength of his army, Bonaparte succeeded in enticing the emperors to give him battle at Austerlitz on 2 December.
This famous battle, generally regarded as Bonaparte’s most brilliant victory, took place in atrocious winter conditions of cold, fog, frozen but treacherous ponds, snow, and ice, over rugged country that ranged from rocks to marsh. The combined Austrian and Russian strength was about 90,000 men, with 280 guns. Bonaparte had 73,000 men and 139 guns, but his ruses persuaded the Allied command that he had no more than 40,000. Believing they outnumbered Bonaparte by more than two to one, they were happy to see him take up a defensive position. He thus had the ground of his choosing, and it was well chosen. But although, contrary to his usual practice, he invited initial attack, he was prepared and able to launch both cavalry and infantry attacks of his own, and this was his response after the initial Russian and Austrian forward movements revealed an absence of determination and a confusion of plan.
The battle began at eight A.M., when it was still dark, and it was virtually over by early afternoon, with the Allied forces separated and retreating in different directions. Bonaparte triumphed for three reasons. First, he had complete unity of command. The senior Allied commander, M. I. Kutuzov, had in practice no chance to adopt and carry out a unified tactical plan, and authority was hopelessly divided between sovereigns and individual commanders, some of whom acted on their own initiative. Second, in the poor conditions, orders frequently miscarried or were misunderstood or disobeyed. Both sides were affected by this, but the French much less so, since Bonaparte knew exactly what he was doing and his only problem was getting his commanders to obey his orders quickly and in full. Although in the battle he destroyed both the armies facing him as fighting units, he proclaimed loudly after the event that if his generals had been more prompt, the Austrian-Russian forces would have been annihilated. As it was, the Allies lost 27,000, including prisoners, against French losses of 9,000, most of them wounded. Third, French units operated more efficiently. Their cavalry repeatedly attacked and dispersed superior numbers of Allied cavalry, and the artillery were persistently resourceful: informed that the Russians were trying to escape over frozen ponds, they quickly prepared red-hot shot and fired them into the ice, breaking it and causing 2,000 Russians to be drowned. The infantry of the lines were so effective that Bonaparte did not have to call on the Guard at all.
Austerlitz ended the Third Coalition, the Austrian emperor, who had had enough of active campaigning, suing for terms the very next day. The Peace of Pressburg was agreed to at the end of the month. Pitt (who, on hearing the news of Austerlitz, had despairingly cried: “Roll up the map of Europe—we shall not be needing it this many a long year!”) died early in 1806. But subsequent British peace feelers came to nothing, and the Fourth Coalition emerged after Prussia declared war in August 1806. Bonaparte was reluctant to go to war because he sensed weariness of the endless conflict in France, but once he gathered his 150,000-strong army and marched it into Germany, using forest cover to mask its strength, he behaved with characteristic decisiveness and resolution against an enemy that had no real war plan and whose armies, though totaling more than 200,000 men in all, were disjointed and uncoordinated. In a series of engagements, at Saalfeld (19 October), Jena and Auerstadt (14 October), and Lübeck (3 November), he broke up all Prussia’s main armies, inflicted 25,000 casualties, took 14,000 prisoners and 2,000 guns, and occupied the Prussian capital, Berlin. With Russian support and British subsidies, Prussia carried on the war through the winter, losing a ferocious encounter with the Grande Armée at Eylau on 8 February 1807 but inflicting heavy losses. The spring brought a respite, while both sides rebuilt their forces. Bonaparte, who had occupied Warsaw, raised a Polish army and called up a new intake of French conscripts a year early, thus raising his total forces to 600,000 men. In June he advanced toward the Prussian king in Königsberg, brought his army to battle at Friedland (14 June), and won a decisive victory, forcing both Prussia and Russia to sign a peace treaty at Tilsit (7 July). This once more left Britain as Bonaparte’s sole opponent.
The struggle then switched to Spain, which had been a reluctant French ally, had lost its fleet at Trafalgar—Admiral Nelson’s decisive victory over the combined French and Spanish navies on 21 October 1805—and was becoming increasingly nationalist and anti-French. In March 1808, Bonaparte decided on direct invasion and occupation, but a popular rising in Madrid in May began a struggle, in which a British army joined, and which proved increasingly costly for the French. Thus encouraged, Austria, which had stayed out of the Fourth Coalition but had been rearming, decided to go to war against France on 8 February 1809. This is called the war of the Fifth Coalition, though Russia (nominally a French ally) and Prussia did not join it. Large-scale maneuvering in the spring culminated on 22 May in the Battle of Aspern, which was costly and indecisive for the French and is often counted as Bonaparte’s first major defeat. However, he reestablished his reputation with a major victory at Wagram on 6 July. On 12 July the Austrian forces signed an armistice, translated into the Treaty of Schönbrun in October 1809. This ended the Fifth Coalition.
So far all the coalitions had failed. Bonaparte’s strategy of lightning wars, aimed at bringing his opponents one by one to a large-scale battle, destroying their army, and occupying their capital, then imposing a punitive peace, was a highly successful formula. It directed Bonaparte’s great qualities—speed of action, decisiveness, risk taking, and wonderful leadership, together with iron will and courage—with absolute precision to the attaining of his objects. Of course, it could not have succeeded without the corresponding weaknesses of his enemies—lethargy, indecisiveness, and weak, divided leadership, together with a lack of will to see the struggle through, and often blatant cowardice. Their conduct was brilliantly summed up by a British journalist, Leigh Hunt, editor of the Examiner, a radical journal that, though fundamentally patriotic and pro-British, was by no means unsympathetic to the French Revolutionary spirit. In his Autobiography, he wrote of Austria, Prussia, and Russia (and the lesser Allies) that it was precisely their pygmy behavior that made Bonaparte seem such a giant.
It is a melancholy period for the potentates of the earth when they fancy themselves obliged to resort to the shabbiest measures of the feeble; siding against a friend with the enemy; joining in accusations against him at the latter’s dictation; believed by nobody on either side; returning to the friend, and retreating from him, according to the fortunes of war; secretly hoping that the friend will excuse them by reason of the pauper’s plea, necessity; and at no time able to give better apologies for their conduct than those “mysterious ordinations of Providence” which are the last refuge of the destitute in morals. . . . Yet this is what the allies of England were in the habit of doing through the whole contest of England with France. When England succeeded in getting up a coalition against Napoleon, they denounced him for his ambition, and set out to fight him. When the coalition was broken by his armies, they turned round at his bidding, denounced England, and joined him in fighting against their ally. And this was the round of their history: a coalition and tergiversation alternately; now a speech and a fight against Bonaparte, who beat them; then a speech and a fight against England, who bought them off; then again a speech and a fight against Bonaparte, who beat them again; and then as before a speech and a fight against England, who again bought them off. Meanwhile they took everything they could get, whether from enemy or friend, seizing with no less greediness whatever bits of territory Bonaparte threw to them for their meanness, then pocketing the millions of Pitt, for which we are paying to this day.
Thus from 1799 to the end of 1809, Bonaparte seemed invincible and strode the landmass of Europe like a colossus. But his position and future were still insecure—he needed a further large-scale triumph. Once his military resources became overstretched, as they did from 1809 onward, and his capacity to deliver set-battle victories ended, as it did from 1810, the coalitions that his overreaching ambition and pride raised against him became far more formidable. The Sixth Coalition was brought into being by Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia in 1812, and it worked with increasing resources and success until the defeated emperor abdicated in April 1814, followed by the victorious allied Treaty of Paris. This sent Bonaparte to Elba as a petty ruler, while the Bourbon king, younger brother of the executed Louis XVI, was restored to the old throne as King Louis XVIII. The great powers then gathered in Vienna to devise a lasting settlement of European frontiers, and they were still in congress when Bonaparte escaped from Elba and returned to France. Their reaction to his audacity was swift and purposeful and produced what is sometimes called the Seventh Coalition, an amalgam of all the powers that had ever opposed Bonapartism, and that led directly to Bonaparte’s total overthrow at Waterloo.
But that is to anticipate events. What is clear from the story of the seven coalitions is that Bonaparte remained, from start to finish, a military man. As such, he enjoyed extraordinary success. Where he failed was as a politician, and still more as an international statesman. His failure was so complete that it eventually involved his military ruin, too.