Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Austerlitz

French at the Battle of Austerlitz
Battle of Austerlitz. Public Domain

The Battle of Austerlitz was the deciding engagement of the War of the Third Coalition (1805) during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).

Armies & Commanders

France

  • Napoleon
  • 65,000-75,000 men

Russia & Austria

  • Tsar Alexander I
  • Emperor Francis II
  • 73,000-85,000 men

Date

The Three Emperors clashed on December 2, 1805.

Background

With threats emerging from the Russia and Austria, Napoleon abandoned his ambitions to invade England during the summer of 1805 and turned to deal with these new adversaries.

Moving with speed and efficiency, 200,000 French troops departed their camps near Boulogne and began crossing the Rhine along a 160-mile front on September 25. Responding to the threat, Austrian General Karl Mack concentrated his army at the fortress of Ulm in Bavaria. Conducting a brilliant campaign of maneuver, Napoleon swung north and descended on the Austrian rear.

After winning a series of battles, Napoleon captured Mack and 23,000 men at Ulm on October 20. Though the victory was dampened by Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson's triumph at Trafalgar the next day, the Ulm Campaign effectively opened the way to Vienna which fell to French forces in November. To the northeast, a Russian field army under General Mikhail Illarionovich Golenischev-Kutusov had gathered and absorbed many of the remaining Austrian units. Moving towards the enemy, Napoleon sought to bring them to battle before his lines of communication were severed or Prussia entered the conflict.

Allied Plans

On December 1, the Russian and Austrian leadership met to decide their next move. While Tsar Alexander I wished to attack the French, Austrian Emperor Francis II and Kutuzov preferred to take a more defensive approach. Under pressure from their senior commanders, it was finally decided that an attack would be made against the French right (southern) flank which would open a path to Vienna.

Moving forward, they adopted a plan devised by Austrian Chief of Staff Franz von Weyrother which called for four columns to assault the French right.

The Allied plan played directly into Napoleon's hands. Anticipating that they would strike at his right, he thinned it to make it more alluring. Believing that this assault would weaken the Allied center, he planned on a massive counterattack in this area to shatter their lines, while Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout's III Corps came up from Vienna to support the right. Positioning Marshal Jean Lannes's V Corps near Santon Hill at the northern end of the line, Napoleon placed General Claude Legrand's men at the southern end, with Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult's IV Corps in the center.

The Three Emperors Clash

Around 8:00 AM on December 2, the first Allied columns began hitting the French right near the village of Telnitz. Taking the village, they threw the French back across Goldbach Stream. Regrouping, the French effort was reinvigorated by the arrival of Davout's corps. Moving to the attack, they recaptured Telnitz but were driven out by Allied cavalry. Further Allied attacks from the village were halted by French artillery. Slightly to the north, the next Allied column hit Sokolnitz and was repulsed by its defenders.

Bringing in artillery, General Count Louis de Langéron commenced a bombardment and his men succeeded in taking the village, while a third column assaulted the town's castle.

Storming forward, the French managed to retake to the village but soon lost it again. Fighting around Sokolnitz continued to rage throughout the day. Around 8:45 AM, believing that the Allied center had been sufficiently weakened, Napoleon summoned Soult to discuss an attack on the enemy lines atop Pratzen Heights. Stating that "One sharp blow and the war is over," he ordered the assault to move forward at 9:00 AM. Advancing through the morning fog, General Louis de Saint-Hilaire's division attacked up the heights. Reinforced with elements from their second and fourth columns, the Allies met the French assault and mounted a fierce defense.

  This initial French effort was thrown back after bitter fighting. Charging again, Saint-Hilaire's men finally succeeded in capturing the heights at bayonet point.

To their north, General Dominique Vandamme's division advanced his men against Staré Vinohrady (Old Vineyards). Employed a variety of infantry tactics, the division shattered the defenders and claimed the area. Moving his command post to St. Anthony's Chapel on the Pratzen Heights, Napoleon ordered Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte's I Corps into the battle on Vandamme's left. As the battle raged, the Allies decided to strike Vandamme's position with the Russian Imperial Guards cavalry. Storming forward, they had some success before Napoleon committed his own Heavy Guards cavalry to the fray. As the horsemen battled, General Jean-Baptiste Drouet's division deployed on the flank of the fighting. In addition to providing refuge for the French cavalry, fire from his men and the Guards' horse artillery forced the Russians to retreat from the area.

At the northern end of the battlefield, fighting began as Prince Liechtenstein led Allied cavalry against General François Kellermann's light cavalry. Under heavy pressure, Kellermann fell back behind General Marie-François Auguste de Caffarelli's division of Lannes' corps which blocked the Austrian advance. After the arrival of two additional mounted divisions allowed the French to finish off the cavalry, Lannes moved forward against Prince Pyotr Bagration's Russian infantry. After engaging in a hard fight, Lannes forced the Russians to retreat from the battlefield.

To complete the victory, Napoleon turned south where fighting was still raging around Telnitz and Sokolnitz. In an effort to drive the enemy from the field, he directed St. Hilaire's division and part of Davout's corps to launch a two-pronged attack on Sokolnitz. Enveloping the Allied position, the assault crushed the defenders and forced them to retreat. As their lines began to collapse all along the front, Allied troops started to flee the field.

In an attempt to slow the French pursuit General Michael von Kienmayer directed some of his cavalry to form a rearguard.  Mounting a desperate defense, they helped cover the Allied withdrawal (Map).

Battle of Austerlitz Aftermath:

One of Napoleon's greatest victories, Austerlitz effectively ended the War of the Third Coalition. Two days later, with their territory overrun and their armies destroyed, Austria made peace through the Treaty of Pressburg. In addition to territorial concessions, the Austrians were required to pay a war indemnity of 40 million francs. The remains of the Russian army withdrew east, while Napoleon's forces went into camp in southern Germany. Having taken much of Germany, Napoleon abolished the Holy Roman Empire and established the Confederation of the Rhine as a buffer state between France and Prussia. French losses at Austerlitz numbered 1,305 killed, 6,940 wounded, and 573 captured. Allied casualties were massive and included 15,000 killed and wounded, as well as 12,000 captured.