Sometimes called "Battle of the Three Emperors", Austerlitz is the most famous battle of Napoleon Bonaparte, probably the most famous too - at least in its time. A crushing victory won on the anniversary of his coronation as Emperor of the French, it erased the naval disaster at Trafalgar and enabled the war of the Third Coalition to be concluded favorably. Napoleon never created, among his marshals, a duke or prince of Austerlitz: it was his personal victory, and a formidable instrument of legitimacy to his power. The next day, the emperor addressed his army: “ Soldiers, I am happy with you ... It will suffice for you to say: I was at the battle of Austerlitz, for an answer: Here is a brave man! »
The Austerlitz battlefield
Let us recall a few figures which would allow us to situate itladderfirst of all: Austerlitz was a commitment ofa big half-dozen hours, putting a few160,000 men (about75,000 French, opposed to60,000 Russians and25,000 Austrians) on a battlefield not exceeding, like most of those of the time,150 km². In barely a quarter of a day, it cost the victors9,000 killed, wounded and prisoners, and to the vanquished,27.000. Even victory is written in letters of blood, with1,300 killed and 7,000 wounded on the French side.
The Austerlitz battlefield is located about ten kilometers south-east of Brünn, capital of Moravia then an Austrian province, in 1805 it was a rural area, situated between the wooded slopes of the Moravian hills and the marshy course of the Schwarzawa. After capturing the main Austrian army at Ulm five weeks earlier, Napoleon had been brought to this region, located north of Vienna, by the pursuit of what remained of the emperor's forces Francis II of the Holy Empire. The latter had in fact given up defending his capital to go to meet his Russian counterpart. Alexander I, the other main animator of the coalition who, at the instigation ofEngland, was formed against Napoleonic France.
On the evening of December 1, 1805, the French army positions south-east of Brünn presented an unusual spectacle. In the center and on the left, on the road which connects Brünn to Olmutz, the French are present in force, because it is from there that one awaits the arrival of the Austro-Russian army. But further south, the right wing of the French army is completely bare, and very stretched. This is problematic to say the least, because if the Allies manage to break it down, they will be able to cut off the Brünn-Vienna route, isolating the rest of the Grand Army from its supply lines. Napoleon is perfectly aware of this, and has just recalled the Marshal's III Corps Davout, which arrives from Vienna by forced march.
In reality, this gross tactical error is perfectly deliberate on the part of the Emperor of the French. It's a trap : he wants to invite his enemies to attack his right wing. Engaging along the swamps that border the southern edge of the battlefield, these will then present their own right flank to it, leaving them vulnerable to attack from the French center. This feint, repeatedly celebrated as the supreme expression of Napoleon I's military genius, is well known.
What is a little less is the intoxication campaign which encompasses it. Because ever since he occupied Vienna, the French Emperor has conscientiously tried to make the Allies believe that he is weaker than he really is. Having left Davout's 7,000 men in Vienna, far from the rest of the army, is also part of this more general logic. A strategic choice largely dictated by circumstances, moreover. Until then neutral, the Prussians began to be agitated; if they did join the coalition, they would pose a serious threat to supply lines that have become inordinately stretched. And then, autumn is already very late and winter is just around the corner. If he does not achieve a decisive victory quickly, Napoleon will be forced to wait until the following spring to prevail, with the risk of losing the initiative and seeing his enemies strengthen.
He is therefore doing everything possible to incite the Austro-Russians to attack him. And his plan ends up working: Tsar Alexander and most of his generals are eager to do battle, despite the cautionary advice given by Emperor Francis and the Russian Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, yet theoretically the commander-in-chief. They will be completely deceived by the trap set by their adversary, their plan of attack aimed, as expected by Napoleon, on the French right wing. The Austrian-Russian left wing will march on the village of Telnitz in four columns preceded by an avant-garde, between the swamps and the Pratzen plateau.
The sun of Austerlitz: the battle of the three emperors
Back to the satellite image. Let’s find Telnitz: it’s today Telnice, a village north-west of Satcany and north-east of Menen. In the early morning of December 2, 1805, its garrison was provided by the only 3rd line infantry regiment. A little further north, we find Sokolnice. This is Sokolnitz, another objective of the attack, defended only by the 26th Light Infantry Regiment. The castle around which the French unit was deployed is still there. Let's zoom in further: it is to the north-east of the village, now enlarged by a few housing estates and industries.
The Allies successively attacked the two villages from seven in the morning. The weather is cold and wet, and the battlefield is drowned in gray. One can easily imagine how the march approached the general's men Buxhövden, charged with directing the attack on the French right wing, must have been disagreeable. It was all the more difficult as it was particularly poorly coordinated. The allied army did not have the rigorous organization in corps, divisions and brigades of the French army, it was still dark when he left and to top it off, Buxhövden was simply drunk. The return of the 5,000 cavaliers of the general Liechtenstein, which were to remain in reserve, even caused a traffic jam on the southern slopes of the Pratzen plateau.
So instead of attacking their objectives all together, the vanguard and the four coalition columns did so one after the other, allowing the French to sustain the initial attack. But very quickly, the weight of numbers will make the difference, and the French are thrown out of Telnitz. They then fall back to the other side of a stream, the Goldbach, which can hardly be seen on the satellite image: it is the thin line of trees that runs north-west of Telnice and south-east of Sokolnice. However, the French right wing was not broken through: Davout's III Corps arrived just in time to counterattack and retake Telnitz. He was later thrown back by a charge of hussars, but the support of the artillery enabled him to recover along the Goldbach.
The timely arrival of Davout's men, however exhausted after having traveled 110 kilometers in two days, allows the other defenders (General Louis Friant's division) to concentrate on Sokolnitz, from which the French, after a good initial resistance, had been driven out by the artillery of the Russian column commanded by, ironically, a French emigrant spent in the service of the Tsar, Count Andrault de Langeron. Several times, Sokolnitz changes hands, before a final attack allows the Russians to win, around nine o'clock. The situation is then critical for the outnumbered French, but they will not have to suffer another attack: theepicenter of the Battle of Austerlitz has suddenly moved.
The attack on the Pratzen plateau
From Sokolnice, let's head to Prace, to North-east. In 1805, it was Pratzen, the small village that gave its name to the gently sloping plateau on which it was built, an eminence that dominated the surrounding valleys for about 40 meters. Seen from the sky, today, it is barely if we can guess the slope, only marked, in places, by the bends of the small country roads. With his usual tactical flair, Napoleon understood and announced even before the battle that it would be the key to victory. Having "hooked up" the Austro-Russians at Telnitz and Sokolnitz, he launched around nine o'clock the two most powerful divisions of Marshal's IV Corps. Soult, those of Vandamme and Saint-Hilaire. As the 16,000 French infantrymen ascend the small valley that can still be seen winding just west of Prace today, the morning mist is finally tearing apart. The " sun of Austerlitz »Wrote his legend there.
Incidentally, it allows the commanders of the last two Austro-Russian columns, Kollowrat and Przybyszewski, to realize with unspeakable surprise the threat hanging over them. Delayed by the "traffic jam" caused by the Liechtenstein error, they were attacked from the flank by the French, who charged them with bayonets. Taken by surprise, the Allies try to resist but after a few minutes of body to body brutally, they lose their footing and flee in disorder towards the east. At half past nine, Soult firmly held the Pratzen plateau and had his artillery. This is where the commemorative monument of the battle - marked Mohyla Miru in the satellite image, just south of Prace.
The Allies finally realize the importance of Pratzen, but it is too late: their marching wing is now almost isolated from the rest of the army, which runs the risk of being wiped out. Now let's "zoom out" the aerial view: a glance is enough to understand that from up there the French guns can bombard the sea at will. road (now numbered " 416 ") Which runs from Austerlitz to Telnitz and Sokolnitz. Behind it, the swamps, of which we can hardly guess nowadays than the winding course of the Litava, form a death trap.
Koutouzov then tries to regain control by a pincer counterattack: while forces detached from the Telnitz / Sokolnitz front will attack from the south, the heavy cavalry of Liechtenstein and the Russian Imperial Guard will attempt to bypass the left of Soult's corps, now in an advanced position. A situation which did not escape Napoleon, the emperor sending in return the army corps of Bernadotte and the cavalry of Murat to cover Soult's left flank. This is the decisive moment of the battle: if the French manage to hold Pratzen, nothing and no one will be able to wrest victory from them.
From the decisive moment to the quarry
From eleven a.m., heavy infantry and cavalry fighting began in the valleys that we still see today north of Prace, between Jirikovice and Blazovice. The soldiers of the two camps climb at a run, each on their side, the slopes of the plateau. While Murat gains the upper hand over the allied cavalry, Bernadotte has a lot to do with the Russian Guard. After pushing back and pursuing the infantry, he must retreat against his cavalry. At this crucial moment, it's his own Keep that the Emperor of the French called in, and his Mamluks would finally get the better of Tsar Alexander's regiment of knights-guards.
Before noon, the fate of the battle is sealed. Kutuzov has no more reservations: Bagration, which was supposed to launch diversionary attacks to attract the attention of the French away from their right wing, is now heavily engaged by Lannes’s corps and Murat’s cavalry. Despite this, he retreats fighting and in good order along the Brünn-Olmutz road, now numbered " 430 "On the satellite image and coupled with a highway (the" 1 "), and through which Tsar Alexander, Emperor Francis and their staff will leave the battlefield around one o'clock, all hope being lost. Only Kutuzov will remain, trying to save what may still be.
South of the battlefield, the situation is indeed no better for the Allies. The forces tasked with retaking the Pratzen plateau were no more successful than those of the northern "pincer". Even before meeting the French, they clashed with their comrades, late in the attack on Telnitz and Sokolnitz or escaped from the Pratzen battle, in a reissue of the previous traffic jam. Those which were not subsequently cut down by the grape shot that Soult's cannons vomited with redoubled blows were broken by the salvos of muskets of the French infantry. One failure is enough to persuade the Austro-Russians that they were wasting their time - and their men - in vain.
At around 2 p.m., Napoleon was able to complete his triumph by ordering Soult to advance towards the south, in order to crush the last remnants of the allied left wing while cutting his last drivable retreat - the one which is today the " route 416 ". This is the quarry: the vanguard has already been all but wiped out in the fighting around Telnitz, and the two remaining columns, under Andrault de Langeron and Dokhtorov, have been severely crushed. After an hour and a half, they are nothing more than a disorganized mass of fugitives who try to escape by their ultimate means of salvation: the frozen swamps and ponds.
Several thousand of them will remain in French hands. after Austerlitz Others will have a much less enviable fate. It was during this debacle that a famous, but controversial, episode about the frozen pond of Satschan, the ancient shores of which can still be seen today around Satcany. Pounded by French artillery, the ice gave way, engulfing several dozen cannons and the horses to which they were harnessed.
As for the number of drowned soldiers, it is unknown but seems to have been greatly exaggerated thereafter, going up to several thousand according to some. The French, who drained the pond a few days later to recover the cannons - they, along with the other pieces captured that day, would provide the bronze which today constitutes the Vendôme column, in Paris - apparently found only a handful of corpses there, although it is not known whether others had not been recovered and buried previously.
Consequences of the Battle of Austerlitz
On the evening of December 2, 1805, the last major coalition army practically ceased to exist. The anniversary of his coronationNapoleon I knew another: that of his genius as a strategist and tactician, who enabled him to have and win at Austerlitz the decisive battle he sought. Less than a month later, on December 26, the treaty of pressburg will seal the end of the Third Coalition's war. A humiliating peace, which will earn Francis II the loss of territories, a colossal war indemnity, and the title of Germanic Emperor, a "Confederation of the Rhine" allied with the French born from the ashes of a now defunct Holy Empire.
But this peace carried within it the seeds of the following two coalitions : that of 1806, Prussia hampered by the French seizure of Germany joining Russia and England; then that of 1809, with an Austria which will try, in vain, to take its revenge.
- By Jacques Garnier, and Jean Tulard, Austerlitz: December 2, 1805. Editions Fayard, 2005.
- By Pierre Miquel, Austerlitz. Albin Michel, 2005.
- Historical Atlas of the Napoleonic Epic. Seine, 2009.
- Austerlitz by Abel Gance, DVD, Studio canal, 2008.