1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Austerlitz

AUSTERLITZ (Czech Slavkov), a town of Austria, in Moravia, 15 m. E.S.E. of Brünn by rail. Pop. (1900) 3145, mostly Czech. It contains a magnificent palace belonging to the prince of Kaunitz-Rietberg, and a beautiful church.

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The great battle in which the French under Napoleon I. defeated the Austrians and Russians on the 2nd of December 1805, was fought in the country to the west of Austerlitz, the position of Napoleon’s left wing being almost equi-distant from Brünn and from Austerlitz. The wooded hills to the northward throw out to the south and south-west long spurs, between which are the low valleys of several rivers and brooks. The scene of the most important fighting was the Pratzen plateau. The famous “lakes” in the southern part of the field were artificial ponds, which have long since been drained. On the west or Brünn side of the Goldbach is another and lower ridge, which formed in the battle the first position of the French right and centre. On the other wing is the mass of hills from which the spurs and streams descend: here the Olmütz-Brünn road passes. The road from Brünn to Vienna, Napoleon’s presumed line of retreat, runs in a southerly direction, and near the village of Raigern (3 m. west of Mönitz) is very close to the extreme right of the French position, a fact which had a great influence on the course of the battle. (The course of events which led to the action is described under Napoleonic Campaigns.) Napoleon, falling back before the advance of the allied Austrians and Russians from Olmütz, bivouacked west of the Goldbach, whilst the allies, holding, near Austerlitz, the junction of the roads from Olmütz and from Hungary, formed up in the valleys east of the Pratzen heights. The cavalry of both sides remained inactive, Napoleon’s by express order, the enemy’s seemingly from mere negligence, since they had 177 squadrons at their disposal. Napoleon, having determined to fight, as usual called up every available battalion; the splendid III. corps of Davout only arrived upon the field after a heavy march, late on the night of December 1st. The plan of the allies was to attack Napoleon’s right, and to cut him off from Vienna, and their advanced guard began, before dark on the 1st of December, to skirmish towards Telnitz. At that moment Napoleon was in the midst of his troops, thousands of whom had made their bivouac-straw into torches in his honour. The glare of these seemed to the allies to betoken the familiar device of lighting fires previous to a retreat, and thus confirmed them in the impression which Napoleon’s calculated timidity had given. Thus encouraged, those who desired an immediate battle soon gained the upper hand in the councils of the tsar and the emperor Francis. The attack orders for the 2nd of December (drawn up by the Austrian general Weyrother, and explained by him to a council of superior officers, of whom some were hostile, the greater part indifferent, and the chief Russian member, General Kutusov, asleep) gave the five columns and the reserve, into which the Austro-Russian army was organized, the following tasks: the first and second (Russians) to move south-westward behind the Pratzen ridge towards Telnitz and Sokolnitz; the third (Russian) to cross the southern end of the plateau, and come into line on the right of the first two; the fourth (Austrians and Russians under Kolowrat) on the right of the third to advance towards Kobelnitz. An Austrian advanced guard preceded the 1st and 2nd columns. Farther still on the right the 5th column (cavalry under Prince John of Liechtenstein) was to hold the northern part of the plateau, south of the Brünn-Olmütz road; across the road itself was the corps of Prince Bagration, and in rear of Liechtenstein’s corps was the reserve (Russians under the grand-duke Constantine). Thus, the farther the four main columns penetrated into the French right wing, the wider would the gap become between Bagration and Kolowrat, and Liechtenstein’s squadrons could not form a serious obstacle to a heavy attack of Napoleon’s centre. The whole plan was based upon defective information and preconceived ideas; it has gone down to history as a classical example of bad generalship, and its author Weyrother, who was perhaps nothing worse than a pedant, as a charlatan.

Napoleon, on the other hand, with the exact knowledge of the powers of his men, which was the secret of his generalship, entrusted nearly half of his line of battle to a division (Legrand’s) of Soult’s corps, which was to be supported by Davout, some of whose brigades had marched, from Vienna, 90 m. in forty-eight hours. But the ground which this thin line was to hold against three columns of the enemy was marshy and densely intersected by obstacles, and the III. corps was the best in the Grande Armée, while its leader was perhaps the ablest of all Napoleon’s marshals. The rest of the army formed in the centre and left. “Whilst they march to turn my right,” said Napoleon in the inspiriting proclamation which he issued on the eve of the battle, “they present me their flank,” and the great counterstroke was to be delivered against the Pratzen heights by the French centre. This was composed of Soult’s corps, with Bernadotte’s in second line. On the left, around the hill called by the French the Santon (which was fortified) was Lannes’ corps, supported by the cavalry reserve under Murat. The general reserve consisted of the Guard and Oudinot’s grenadiers. The attack of the allies was begun by the first three columns, which moved down from their bivouacs behind the Pratzen plateau before dawn on the 2nd, towards Telnitz and Sokolnitz. The Austrian advanced guard engaged at daybreak, and the French in Telnitz made a vigorous defence; both parties were reinforced, and Legrand drew upon himself, in fulfilling his mission, the whole weight of the allied attack. The contest was long and doubtful, but the Russians gradually drove back Legrand and a part of Davout’s corps; numerous attacks both of infantry and cavalry were made, and by the successive arrival of reinforcements each side in turn received fresh impetus. Finally, at about 10 a.m., the allies were in possession of the villages on the Goldbach from Sokolnitz southwards, and Davout’s line of battle had reformed more than a mile to rearward, still, however, maintaining touch with the French centre on the Goldbach at Kobelnitz. Between the two lines the fighting continued almost to the close of the battle. With 12,500 men of all arms the Marshal held in front of him over 40,000 of the enemy.

In the centre, the defective arrangements of the allied staff had delayed the 4th column (Kolowrat), the line of march of which was crossed by Liechtenstein’s cavalry moving in the opposite direction. The objective of this column was Kobelnitz, and the two emperors and Kutusov accompanied it. The delay had, however, opened a gap between Kolowrat and the 3rd column on his left; and towards this gap, and the denuded Pratzen plateau, Napoleon sent forward St Hilaire’s division of Soult’s corps for the decisive attack. Kutusov was pursuing this march to the south-west when he was surprised by the swift advance of Soult’s men on the plateau itself. Napoleon had here double the force of the allies; Kutusov, however, displayed great energy, changed front to his right and called up his reserves. The French did not win the plateau without a severe struggle. St Hilaire’s (the right centre) division was fiercely engaged by Kolowrat’s column, General Miloradovich opposed the left centre attack under Vandamme, but the French leaders were two of the best fighting generals in their army. The rearmost troops of the Russian 2nd column, not yet committed to the fight on the Goldbach, made a bold counter stroke against St Hilaire’s right flank, but were repulsed, and Soult now turned to relieve the pressure on Davout by attacking Sokolnitz. The Russians in Sokolnitz surrendered, an opportune cavalry charge further discomfited the allied left, and the Pratzen plateau was now in full possession of the French. Even the Russian Guard failed to shake Vandamme’s hold. In the meanwhile Lannes and Murat had been engaged in the defence of the Santon. Here the allied leaders displayed the greatest vigour, but they were unable to drive back the French. The cavalry charges in this quarter are celebrated in the history of the mounted arm; and Kellermann, the hero of Marengo, won fresh laurels against the cavalry of Liechtenstein’s command. The French not only held their ground, but steadily advanced and eventually forced back the allies on Austerlitz, thereby barring their retreat on Olmütz. The last serious attempt of the allies in the centre led to some of the hardest fighting of the day; the Russian Imperial Guard under the grand-duke Constantine pressed closely upon St Hilaire and Vandamme on the plateau, and only gave way when the French Guard and the Grenadiers came into action. After the “Chevalier Guards” had been routed by Marshal Bessières and the Guard cavalry, the allies had no more hope of victory; orders had already been sent to Buxhöwden, who commanded the three columns engaged against Davout, to retreat on Austerlitz. No further attempt was made on the plateau, which was held by the French from Pratzen to the Olmütz road. The allied army was cut in two, and the last confused struggle of the three Russian columns on the Goldbach was one for liberty only. The fighting in Telnitz was perhaps the hardest of the whole battle, but the inevitable retreat, every part of which was now under the fire of the French on the plateau, was terribly costly. Soult now barred the way to Austerlitz, and the allies turned southward towards Satschan. As they retreated, the ice of the Satschan pond was broken up by the French artillery, and many of the fugitives were drowned. In the twelve hours from 7 a.m. to nightfall, the 65,000 French troops had lost 6800 men, or about 10%; the allies (82,500 engaged) had 12,200 killed and wounded, and left in the enemy’s hands 15,000 prisoners (many wounded) and 133 guns.