The Pratzen heights: Austerlitz

Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz, by François Gérard

Between Brünn and Olmütz, where the allies were concentrating, Napoleon carefully reconnoitred the landscape and found, a few miles outside Brünn, the Pratzen plateau. He felt sure this would be where his troops would fight a great battle.

At Olmütz meanwhile, Kutuzov was greeted by both the Russian and Austrian Emperors. It was immediately apparent that the Tsar was primus inter pares and in command. The Austrian contingent was relatively small and undistinguished. The Habsburg Emperor felt it was beneath his dignity to oppose the will of the Tsar. The only Austrian to retain any influence over the military decisions was the ill-starred Austrian Chief of Staff, Weyrother, who had taken the place of the able Schmidt, killed by a musket ball at Dürnstein.

Unlike Schmidt, Weyrother lacked a firm grip on reality and, as we have already seen, had contributed significantly to the fiasco at Hohenlinden. The wiser counsels – Bagration, Kutuzov, Miloradovič and Dokhturov – favoured playing for time and if necessary wintering in the Carpathians to await re-inforcements, including the Archduke Charles, as well as the imminent declaration of war by the Prussians on the French.

But Tsar Alexander favoured a more dramatic response and Weyrother fell into line with typical Austrian Anpassungsfähigkeit (ability to fit in) and urged an advance on Brünn where the allies could menace Napoleon’s right flank and send him retreating through the trackless mountains above Krems far to the west.

Weyrother divided the 89,000 troops at the allies’ disposal into five columns but resolved to keep each column in close communication with the others, perhaps having learnt the dangers of excessive fragmentation at Hohenlinden. The Austrian contingent, 25,000 men including 3,000 cavalry, was commanded initially by Kolowrat but was transferred to Prince Liechtenstein. By the time battle was engaged, it had dwindled to twenty and a half battalions and forty-five squadrons of cavalry, amounting to 15,700 men.

From the beginning the allied deployment was plagued by inconsistency and woolly thinking on the part of the Austrian staff under Weyrother. Weyrother had planned to menace Napoleon’s right flank but, by the time the allied army began to concentrate, it was heavily configured against the French left flank. The need to correct this error took 48 hours partly because Weyrother had only the haziest idea as to where Napoleon’s right flank was.

In any event the Pratzen heights were to be critical to both sides’ thinking. For Weyrother and the Russians it was the key to the French right. For Napoleon it would be the bait to lure the Russians into a battle of annihilation. Austerlitz, as Napoleon told his marshals on the eve of the battle, was not to be ‘just an ordinary battle. … I prefer to abandon the ground to them and draw back my right. If they then dare to descend from the heights to take me in my flank, they will surely be beaten without hope of recovery.’

To persuade the ranks of green-coated Russians to descend the heights an elaborate and theatrical ‘retreat’ by Murat’s cavalry was staged. By mid-afternoon, the Russians indeed began to descend and Napoleon had a leisurely dinner of Grenadiermarsch (fried potatoes, noodles and onions), confident that his trap was about to be sprung. At dawn, he issued further instructions and the village of Tellnitz was cleared of a squadron of Austrian chevauxlegers. A thick fog concealed the movements of Napoleon’s army from the Russians on the heights. As the visitor to the battlefield can see today, the roads at the foot of the hill would be invisible from the heights in bad weather and Napoleon planned to take full advantage of his opponent’s ‘blindness’.

For his part, Weyrother did not discern the subtlety of his opponent’s thinking. An allied officer, Langeron described how the Austrian ‘came in with an immense map showing the area of Brünn and Austerlitz in the greatest precision and detail’. (The Austrian military cartographic institute set up by Maria Theresa was renowned for its maps.) As Langeron noted: ‘Weyrother read his dispositions to us in a loud voice and with a boastful manner which betrayed smug self-satisfaction.’ His audience of Russian generals was scarcely any better mentally prepared. Kutuzov had been drinking heavily for some days and was dozing half asleep in his chair. He and the other officers showed little interest in what the Austrian said.

Weyrother proposed a left flanking movement spearheaded by the Austrian contingent with a powerful mixed column under Kienmayer, who would force the lower Goldbach stream with five battalions supported by twenty squadrons of cavalry. Two strong Russian columns would then cross the Goldbach and begin a decisive attack on the French right. All the reports, concluded Weyrother, suggested the French were weary and suffering from poor morale, especially their cavalry. As Weyrother pointed out, the Austrian army knew every inch of the terrain as they had conducted exercises there in 1804. It is still subject to debate to what extent the Russians understood what the Austrian was proposing. As Weyrother’s orders were written in German, some time was needed to translate them into Russian.

Unsurprisingly, the execution of Weyrother’s plan left a lot to be desired. While Kienmayer’s battalions of barely 3,000 men, drawn from far from undistinguished regiments, was soon engaged, the Russian columns collided with each other. Liechtenstein’s cavalry milled about aimlessly without orders until the Prince ploughed a route through the Russian infantry to reach the point where he assumed he was supposed to be. As the Russian columns became mixed up with each other, Weyrother watched from a hill, his face increasingly anxious. He felt he could hear the French below, but neither he nor anyone else on the hill could see them.

Meanwhile below, Kienmayer’s Szekler infantry was bravely storming the village of Tellnitz only to be cut down by well dug in French voltigeurs. Five times they stormed across the Goldbach only to be driven back. Eventually the elite 7th Jaeger reinforced them and drove the French out. But Kienmayer’s skirmish was a sideshow. A strong French force advanced under the cover of the mist on to the Pratzen heights to emerge in what Napoleon would later refer to as the golden sun of Austerlitz.

Towards nine in the morning a fierce battle developed along most of the front. As the French retook part of Tellnitz they began fanning out. An Austrian regiment of Hessen-Homburg hussars under Oberst Mohr charged them with devastating effect and Kienmayer was able to reoccupy the village. Mohr mistook the French 108th regiment for Bavarians, whom the hussars hated; few Frenchmen escaped.

The hapless French survivors of the 108th attempted to flee to the north only to come under murderous fire from their own side, a French light infantry regiment. Tellnitz was now safely in Austrian hands and two regiments of Austrian cavalry passed through it to take up attacking positions to the west. Further to the east, the village of Sokolnitz was engulfed in flames as Russian artillery bombarded it at close range. An hour later Sokolnitz had been occupied by the Russians, who had engaged the best part of 5,000 men to clear the village of a single regiment. However, the arrival of two French brigades sent the Russians back into the north-western corner of the village from where they repeatedly failed to drive the French out. Some 33,000 Russian and Austrian troops were now bogged down, attempting to put the Goldbach and its villages well behind them.

Meanwhile on the Pratzen heights, the French under Ste-Hilaire and Vandamme had collided with the fourth Austro-Russian column delayed by the usual deployment problems, the chief of which was Liechtenstein’s improvised passage through their ranks. The surprise and shock of seeing the French, who seemed to appear from the fog below, galvanised the senior Russian officers. Suddenly the allied position had become immensely perilous as the rear of their three most advanced columns was about to be threatened by the unexpected appearance of the French on the heights. With commendable speed the fourth allied column recognised the danger and deployed, splitting into two. At the same time, the second allied column, which still had not reached the plain of the Goldbach, halted and, seeing what was happening on the heights behind them, reversed front and marched back up the heights against the right flank of Ste-Hilaire’s breakthrough.

Major Frierenberger’s guns

Meanwhile from the east a mass of unidentified regiments was advancing towards Ste-Hilaire. In the mist it was difficult to make out who they were. As they approached an officer called out from 300 yards in barely audible French: ‘Don’t shoot. We are Bavarians.’ At first the Frenchman appeared satisfied by this but an enterprising officer as a precaution reordered his line to fire on the newly arrived troops if they proved hostile. As he climbed forward to reconnoitre at close range, he recognised the white Austrian uniforms. Although at first the troops appeared rather unpromising – the French account noted a number of invalids – the brigade which had emerged under General Rottermund contained 3,000 men, recognisable by their orange facings, of the elite Salzburg ‘House’ regiment, tough mountain fighters who with their Styrian counterparts would become some of the most highly decorated units in the Austrian army. Supported by a Russian brigade, the Austrians stormed the heights at the point of the bayonet. Weyrother watching from nearby had his horse shot from beneath him. But the French held on to the Pratzenberg, counter-attacking with the bayonet and slaughtering the wounded. Slowly the Russians fell back. Langeron’s attempts to reinforce them from the plain below ran into a withering crossfire. At the little hamlet that is now called Stare Vinohrady, the Salzburgers fought stubbornly until attacked by two and a half brigades from three sides, but the allied fourth column on the Pratzen had ceased to exist. As the French poured in their fire from every side, the allies began to break into disorder.

Further to the north, attempts by Hohenlohe to deploy cavalry floundered on the clay and vines of Stare Vinohrady. Time and again the allied cavalry counter-attacks were poorly coordinated. The Austrian artillery showed its traditional professionalism when a Major Frierenberger arrived with a battery of 12 guns from Olmütz.

These guns from Olmütz reached Rausnitz at the moment when fugitives came pouring back to confirm the frightful news of the various disasters experienced by the army. The commander, although he had no real covering force, positioned the battery on the most advantageous site on some high ground to the right of Welloschowitz. The army he faced was a victorious one. Undaunted, the Austrian battery opened up in its turn against the main battery of the French and their leading troops. The Austrians fired their guns with such skill that they compelled the French to pull back their batteries in a matter of minutes. Some of the French pieces were silenced and the advance of the whole French left wing ground to a halt.

The gallant Austrian artillery major had not only enabled Bagration’s units to escape total destruction, he had successfully blocked the road to Hungary. Frierenberger’s actions were but a glimpse of success in an otherwise grim landscape. In an epic cavalry engagement the Russian Chevalier Garde, resplendent in dazzling white uniforms, had been annihilated by Napoleon’s Guard cavalry, putting paid to the Russian reserve’s attempts to retake the Pratzen heights. With the heights secured, Napoleon attacked the rear of the first three allied columns as they battled along the Goldbach below. A giant pincer movement was about to destroy a good third of the allied army. At Tellnitz, the Austro-Russian force which had been in non-stop action for nearly eight hours began to organise a fighting withdrawal. It had screened the retreat of the remnants of two Russian columns and it was high time to fall back. The Austrian cavalry formed the rearguard and the O’Reilly Chevauxlegers, perhaps the finest light horse the Habsburgs possessed, repeatedly charged the pursuing French cavalry and deployed a battery of horse artillery to good effect, keeping at bay an entire division of dragoons under General Boye. Napoleon, having seen this, was furious at the Austrian cavalry’s superior quality. He ordered a hapless aide-de-camp to go and ‘tell that general of my dragoons that he is no f— good’.

‘A battle has been fought …’

Kienmayer had conducted a model withdrawal without losing a single gun. But as the sun shone through the mist nothing could disguise the scale of the defeat. The Austrians and Russians now rallied on the road to Hungary. Though reinforcements were arriving, notably Merveldt, it was clear to both Emperors that this coalition war was over. Francis with his characteristic detachment sent a message to his wife saying simply, ‘A battle has been fought … It has not turned out well.’

Francis knew it was time to see what terms he could secure from the French Emperor. Liechtenstein was sent to arrange the preliminaries, and at two in the afternoon on 4 December, a carriage escorted by a squadron of lancers and a squadron of hussars came into sight on the road to Hungary. The Austrian cavalry halted 200 paces behind while the carriage continued, stopping only where Napoleon was waiting in front of a hastily prepared fire. The door of the carriage opened and out stepped, immaculate in white and red beneath an enormous greatcoat, the Austrian Emperor. With all the breeding of his House he gazed impassively as Napoleon made to embrace him. Not by a flicker did he betray for a second his emotions. The Frenchman may have crowned himself an Emperor but in every inch of his demeanour the Austrian Kaiser demonstrated that, galling though the aftermath of a lost battle might be, the Habsburgs were above such petty humiliations. Prince Liechtenstein attempted to break the ice but it was Francis himself who thawed the atmosphere with a few polite superficialities designed to put the Corsican upstart at his ease. Eyewitnesses noted Francis’s solemn bearing. Though only 36 years old, Francis appeared a generation older, his hat balanced on the back of his head, carrying a stick and incapable of the slightest spontaneous movement, so it seemed to the French.

The chill in the air soon dissipated, and within twenty minutes the sounds of laughter could be heard. Francis had won an armistice for himself and it would take effect within 24 hours. The hard-pressed Russian and Austrian troops could withdraw unmolested.

Austrian dead numbered about 600, considerably less than those of their Russian allies, many of whom appeared to have lost their lives as wounded men bayoneted by the French towards the end of the battle. Another 1,700 Austrians ended up as prisoners but, on the whole, the army’s discipline had held throughout the day, in contrast to their Russian allies.

By 1400 hours, the Allied army had been dangerously separated. Napoleon now had the option to strike at one of the wings, and he chose the Allied left since other enemy sectors had already been cleared or were conducting fighting retreats

But Weyrother’s planning had proved another example of disastrous Austrian staff-work. Once again allied columns, as at Hohenlinden, had been too far apart to offer each other practical support. Once again, as the battle developed in a way different from Weyrother’s calculations, Austrian staff-work had proved incapable of adapting. The Russian generals lost each other in an orgy of blame but on the whole the collective Austrian view appears to have taken its cue from the Kaiser’s low-key response. The Austrian units had fought well, in some cases exceptionally well, but the battle itself had ‘not gone very well’.

The diplomatic consequences were to prove demanding for the Habsburg Emperor and his empire. Venetia, Friuli, Dalmatia and Istria went to the arriviste ‘Kingdom’ of Italy, while Tyrol and the Vorarlberg were handed over to the detested Bavarians. The spineless leaders of the German states were rewarded for their craven behaviour and elevated to such portentous titles as Grand Duke or, in the case of Bavaria and Württemberg, King. Kaiser Franz lost more than 2.5 million of his subjects and his family’s traditional hegemony in Germany and Italy. It was not in the nature of the House of Austria to regard these calamities as anything more than a temporary setback. In four years the sword would be taken up again and this time at the head of the Austrian army there would be one of the outstanding soldiers of the age.