Battle of Austerlitz, 1805

Alexander I and Mikhail Kutusov versus Napoleon Bonaparte: A French army under Bonaparte feigns weakness against an Allied army under Alexander and Kutusov. Can Kutusov overcome the Allied command’s dysfunctional overconfidence and somehow prevent Bonaparte from attaining the glorious, decisive victory he seeks? Also known as the Battle of Three Emperors.
Despite being known as the preeminent decisive victory, Austerlitz had little to no lasting impact. The Russians joined the Fourth Coalition against Bonaparte the very next year and it took only four years for Austria to recover and seriously threaten La Grande Armée as part of the Fifth Coalition. If anything, as Horne argues, Austerlitz was
too complete a victory. As with Hitler in 1940, or, in more recent times, with the Arab-Israeli Six Day War of 1967, the defeated were too humiliated, the victor given too great a sense of superiority for the long term future to consolidate the victory. If Austerlitz raised Napoleon to the pinnacle of his success, it also turned his head and filled it with the delusion that no force, or combination of forces could now stop him conquering the world. (1979: 175).
Austerlitz also taught the Allies more than it did the French. Kutusov, who had argued for drawing Bonaparte deeper into Eastern Europe while the Allies grew stronger on all fronts, was vindicated by Austerlitz and would be largely permitted to execute such a strategy when France invaded Russia in 1812. By 1813, the Allies knew to simply avoid battle with Bonaparte himself and defeat his subordinates until overwhelming superior force could be brought against him.
Bonaparte remarked after the battle that it was as if both armies were marching under his command. This comment is difficult to dispute as the Allies had done exactly what he had hoped and expected them to do. They did not even do it well: the plan was not given to subordinates in proper time, and called for too many troops to wait behind the Goldbach crossings than be used as any sort of reserve. Even if the Allied plan had gone well and had forced its way across the Goldbach and swung north, the terrain did not favour such an attack north. Furthermore, such a position did not seem advisable considering Davout’s corps was advancing north, putting the Allied main attack force between two French forces.
While this battle turned out to be Bonaparte’s masterpiece, I would argue that it was more of a near-run affair than it appears in hindsight. For example, the timing of the French main attack was thrown off considerably by Lichtenstein’s mistaken deployment; his disruptive shift to the north delayed the Allied rear columns from advancing off the Pratzen Heights. This meant that the Pratzen Heights were a lot less empty than Bonaparte had hoped, and the exhausted, raw recruits that were there defended it more fiercely than anyone could have expected. Bernadotte, tasked with supporting Soult’s attack and occupying the Pratzen Heights, did not perform particularly well; his maneuvers lacked the speed and initiative of the typical French corps commander in La Grande Armée. Constantine’s aggressive attacks on Soult’s left wing division at Stary Vinogrady achieved some success at a critical point in the battle. Had Kutusov been able to keep back some Allied units from Buxhowden’s main attack in reserve and exploit Contantine’s success, the battle could have had gone quite differently. The Allied units were slow to react and even slower to maneuver, but had Soult’s attack been disrupted more effectively, Allied subordinates on the left may have been able to redeploy some of their forces from the jammed Goldbach crossings to meet Soult’s attack frontally.
I decided to use Castle’s estimates for the numbers on each side for the usual reasons: they are the most recent and detailed (2005: 217-225). Castle’s work is also important in dispelling the legend of the lakes, which he devotes a chapter to (2005: 192-201). The image of Allied soldiers fleeing across the Satschan Pond only to have French artillery fire upon them, breaking the ice beneath them, is a prominent symbol of Bonaparte’s total victory. However, similar to the Battle of the Ice in 1242, this image is largely propaganda. Bonaparte exclaimed in the official bulletin that 20,000 Allied solders must have drowned although only a few human corpses were found when the lake was drained. Estimates of Allied drowned actually range from 200-2,000.
This animation is noteworthy because it marks the most recent upgrade to the animation format. Among these improvements, I have removed the blurry satellite map at the beginning and replaced it with a map depicting political boundaries at the time of battle for a better historical context. I have added a terrain slide to describe the battlespace before showing each side’s deployments. I have added the symbol guide to the animation itself, showing only relevant symbols used. The most important upgrade is to the format itself which is now more universally playable and easier to view.
– Jonathan Webb
Works Consulted
Castle, Ian. Austerlitz: Napoleon and the Eagles of Europe. Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2005.
Chandler, David. The Campaigns of Napoleon. New York: MacMillan, 1966.
Duffy, Christopher. Austerlitz 1805. London: Archon, 1977.
Esposito, Vincent J. and John Robert Elting. A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars. New York: Praeger, 1965.
Horne, Alistair. Napoleon: Master of Europe 1805-1807. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1979.
Alexander I:
Allied guns:
Allied soldiers:
French soldiers:
French guns:
Map of Europe:
Mikhail Kutusov:
Napoleon Bonaparte:


Readers Comments (2)

  1. Brilliant animation sir, when i was looking at the progress of the battle, i wondered what if the russian can see the defend on Pratenz Height actually slowed down the french and the army of Buxhowden can swing back to attack the rear of french army that’s attacking the heights.After all, the russian have number superiority and would likely stop french at the goldbach river just like the french did. If they can destroy the french army that’s attacking the heights, the main bulk of the russian army can then swing back north and attack french from two direction. The battle was lost for the Russian the moment the lost the heights thus seperate the entire force.

    • Nick: thanks for the comment, it seems like the animation made you think a bit. You are correct, the moment the French seized the Pratzen Heights, the Russians were done as there was no way they were going to dislodge them. The maneuver you are describing could have really complicated Napoleon’s plan, especially since Bernadotte was slow to come up and actually occupy the heights. However, The allied army was far from capable from carrying out such a maneuver immediately and under fire. It was not even capable of carrying out the much simpler, planned maneuver. Redeploying committed forces jammed along the Goldbach crossings turning them 180 degrees and marching across the battlefield in a timely manner to envelop the French force along the heights was just not something the allied army could do. In other words, the time it took for the allied army to complete its decision cycle (also known as the observe-orient-decide-act or OODA loop) was way too long to react to events on the battlefield at a high level.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks (1)

  1. Art Of Battle Animated – ART WABU

Comments are closed.