|Austerlitz: Napoleon Makes
His Own Luck
by Lonny L. Grout
Austerlitz was the battle that many historians have considered Napoleon's
masterpiece. Napoleon himself considered this his masterpiece. There is no
doubt that Austerlitz was a great victory for Napoleon, both strategically and
tactically. So, was it all the genius of Napoleon, or was it merely that luck
was on the side of Napoleon's army that day? While researching this question,
what came directly to my mind was a saying I once heard someone unknown say,
"you make our own luck." This described Napoleon at Austerlitz very well.
Napoleon clearly made his own luck.
The Battle of Austerlitz was fought on December 2, 1805 in the present day
Czech Republic. Austerlitz is also known as the battle of three emperors as it
pitted the emperors of France, Austria and Russia against one another. Russia
and Austria joined with Great Britain to form the third Coalition against
Napoleon in 1805. The Austrian Emperor was Francis I (not present on the
battlefield). The commander of the Austrian and Russian Forces was Czar
Alexander I, as the allied force was 70% Russian.
Napoleon clearly had the more professional Army compared to the Russians.
Aristocrats still held positions of high rank in the Russian Army, and beatings
were a common way of instilling discipline in Russian troops. Lower level
Russian officers were poorly trained, and the Russian army had difficulty
performing complex maneuvers in battle. The one good thing the Russian Army had
going for it was it had good artillery and very well trained artillery men.
The Austrian army had made reforms, but not very many compared to the French.
Austrian troops were still lacking in leadership. Austrian cavalry were
considered among the best in the world; however the detachment of many cavalry
units amongst various infantry units precluded any mass of power, and would not
be much of an impact on Austerlitz. The Russian and Austrian Armies still
primarily used the 18th century model. Napoleon, on the other hand had
previously made many reforms to modernize his army, which was his first of many
steps for setting himself up for success at Austerlitz.
The number of troops was fairly even for the battle. Napoleon had approximately
67,000 troops compared to Alexander's approximately 73,000 troops of combined
Austrian and Russian forces. The French numbers do not include the numbers from
the III Corps, which were not in the battle from the beginning. This was
approximately another 7,000 men.
As far as weaponry used in the battle, the most common infantry weapon was the
.69 caliber smoothbore musket. It was not very accurate, and because of this,
indirect hits caused many wounded. Because of the inaccuracy, combat was close,
which made bayonets and sabers receive common usage as well. The Cannon were
six, eight and twelve pound, and had a range of 600 to 1800 yards. These
provided the range and destructive power of both armies. The allied forces
had approximately 318 Cannon compared to the French 157. Although the allies
had the edge on the number of guns, it will become apparent that as the battle
unfolds, that Napoleon had organized and employed his troops better than did
Prior to meeting at Austerlitz, the French army under Napoleon had won a
victory against the Austrians at Ulm in September of 1805 and took Vienna in
November. Russian reinforcements came too late to save the Austrians, but the
ambitious young Czar Alexander I was determined to defeat Napoleon to obtain
glory for himself. Napoleon needed a victory, because despite the success at
Ulm, the French-Spanish fleet was defeated soon after. The only way to
capitalize on his past success was to defeat the Russian-Austrian army in a
decisive victory and crush the third coalition.
The next thing that Napoleon had done to assure his success was that he picked
the ground the battle was to take place on. It was November 21st that Napoleon
chose the ground that would become the battle of Austerlitz. He supposedly said
something to the effect of, "Study this ground well, it will be a field of
battle." No one knows for certain what he said as historians disagree to the
exact words. Strategically, the location itself had no value, other than
Napoleon liked the ground. It was the Pratzen Plateau that he liked the most.
It offered only a difference in elevation of 350 feet, from the valley below.
It was nearly 1000 feet at its highest point. The north end of the Plateau,
however, had a sharp drop, and the south end had several lakes, making it
difficult to access from the sides. To the north of the plateau was a plain,
which Napoleon thought was perfect for cavalry, elsewhere their movement would
be restricted. To the west was the Golbach River, which Napoleon planned to use
as a natural barrier.
Napaleon continued to create conditions for his success by doing something that
in my opinion is essential to leadership, but usually lacking – he instilled
inspiration in his troops. Napoleon declared to his troops on the eve of
The Russian Army is presenting itself before you in order to avenge the
Austrian Army of Ulm. These are the same battalions you defeated at Hollabrunn,
and which since then you have pursued steadily to this point. The positions we
occupy are strong, and as they advance to turn my right, they will expose their
flank to me. Soldiers, I shall direct your battalions myself, I will hold
myself far from the firing if, with your accustomed bravery, you carry disorder
and confusion into the ranks of the enemy. But if victory should for a moment
be uncertain, you shall see your Emperor expose himself to the first blows; for
victory shall know no hesitation during this day, when the honor of the French
infantry is at stake, which means so much to the honor of the whole nation.
Lest, under pretext of bearing away the wounded, the ranks shall be thinned,
let every man be well imbued with this thought: that we must defeat these
hirelings of England, who are animated by so great a hatred of our nation. This
victory will end the campaign and we shall be able to resume our winter
quarters, where we shall be joined by the new armies that are forming in
France, and then the peace I shall make will be worthy of my people, of you and
Here Napoleon shows his great skills at motivational speech. He appeals to
soldiers' sense of pride and nationalism, as Napoleon was known to do. He
promises great things to include greater armies and peace if victory is
The inspiration that Napoleon instilled in his men was something that they
showed. At nightfall on December 1, Napoleon decided to visit the bivouac sites
personally. The men lit torches and cheered him as he passed. Some did so to
celebrate the anniversary of his coronation (December 2, 1804). An old
grenadier at the precession stepped out of the ranks and said to him, "Sire,
you will not have to take any chances with your person. I promise you in the
name of the grenadiers of the army that you won't have to fight with anything
except your eyes and that we will bring you the flags and the guns of the
Russian army to celebrate your coronation tomorrow."
On the morning of the battle, December 2, 1805, Napoleon once again spoke to
his troops: "Soldiers! We must end this battle with a thunderclap, that will
confound the arrogance of our enemies."
The Allied troops adopted a plan to attack Napoleon's Right Flank which they
noticed was lightly protected. They put most of their troops into four columns
to hit Napoleon's right flank, leaving few troops to protect their other flank.
The Russian Imperial Guard was left in reserve.
Napoleon had left a trap for the Austrian and Russian forces that confronted
him. His plan was to make his right flank appear weak. Napoleon had given the
illusion of being in a weakened state for several days. When the enemy attacked
on that flank, they would expose their right flank, and Napoleon would attack
from that side. Napoleon also figured that the allies would use so many troops
in their attack that they would weaken their center. Napoleon had used
deception in the true fashion of Sun Tzu to create what could be either a great
success or a great disaster. This part of the plan was actually the greatest
amount of risk that Napoleon took. However, it appeared to be a calculated
risk. He was showing that he knew his enemy better than his enemy knew him.
This act, more than any other set the conditions for luck to favor his army.
When the battle began Napoleon could barely contain his glee when he noticed
that his foe had fallen for the bait and was attacking his flank as he wished.
His calculated risk had paid off and everything would go right for Napoleon's
forces after that. It was at 8:00 AM that the allied forces attacked the
French. The allies poured several forces against the French right attacking the
village of Telnitz. The French forces were initially thrown out of the town;
however, this is when Davout's III Corps showed up. Napoleon had ordered
Davout, one of his must capable commanders, to make a forced march from Vienna
to join the battle and reinforce the weak Southern (right) flank where Napoleon
had counted on the bulk of the allied attack to be. Davout's Corps of about
7,000 men made the march of approximately 70 miles (110 km) in 48 hours.
Davout's troops were successful in throwing the allies out of Telnitz, and the
French were able to check further allied attempts with artillery.
The Allied answer was to continue to keep pouring the bulk of Russian forces
against the French right flank. Meanwhile, the Allied Austrian troops attacked
the left flank. The allied commanders did not realize that they were walking
into a trap. They most likely thought that Napoleon was attempting to reinforce
his weak flank. Some of the luck that was not of Napoleon's making was the poor
manner in which the allies committed their troops against the southern flank.
They did so slowly, and piecemeal. The deployments were poorly timed, and
seemed to be poorly planned. Again, even this type of luck could be
explained by Napoleon's understanding that he was dealing with an inferior
competitors. Although this type of over-confidant and almost arrogant thinking
would serve him well at Austerlitz, it may have been an experience that would
make him arrogantly feel as though he was invincible.
At 08:45 AM, Napoleon judged that the allied center was now sufficiently weak
and after shortly conferring with Marshals, General Soult (who would lead the
attack); he ordered an attack directly on the enemy's center on the Pratzen
Heights. "One sharp blow and the war is over," he stated, showing his
optimism that events were going very much to his liking.
Even the weather was on the side of Napoleon that morning. As his men advanced
up the heights, they were initially concealed from view by low lying fog.
Eventually the fog was lifted by the rising of the sun, which only encouraged
the French forces to move quicker. The weather was a bit of luck that
Napoleon really could not count on. It may have been that he understood what
the weather would be like due to the time of year and prior observations of the
area before the battle. However, if this was specifically part of Napoleon's
planning, I at least could not find anything that indicated that anyone knew
that it was.
Napoleon accomplished one of the key elements of warfare, as the Russian troops
and commanders were genuinely surprised to see so many French troops coming up
the slopes at them. The allied troops thought they were on the offensive, and
were not expecting an attack of any magnitude. The Russian troops and some
inexperienced Austrian troops very nobly held their ground at the initial
onslaught of experienced French troops. They even repelled the firs wave. The
fighting became very fierce, and bayonets were used. After approximately one
hour, the French did succeed in driving the Russians and Austrians off the
Pratzen Heights. This attack was the key to Napoleon's plan and he did not
want to leave it up to chance. He utilized some his best troops, 16,000 men of
Soult's IV Corps.
The battle was now going greatly in the favor of the French. The Russian's had
no choice but to deploy their reserve, the Imperial Guard under Grande Duke
Constantine, Alexander's brother. Constantine counter-attacked in a hard
stroke, and had some small initial success, forcing the loss of the only French
standard in the battle. Napoleon countered by committing his own heavy cavalry,
and when a division of the I Corps on the French left flank also attacked, the
Russians were driven black. Artillery was finally loosed on the Russian troops,
and they finally broke, with the French pursuing. The center was now broken
through and Napoleon had accomplished breaking the allied army in half.
The northern part of the battlefield was also receiving heavy fighting at this
point. The Russians were achieving some success until Napoleon deployed
elements of his reserve force, V Corps against the combined Russian cavalry and
infantry force. The Russian commander was an experienced general, Bagration,
who put up a long a fierce fight. However, without any support or
reinforcements, he was finally forced from the field when the entire V Corps
was committed under Lannes. In this part of the battlefield, the French did not
pursue their foe.
Napoleon could now focus his attention to the southern part of the battlefield
where he initially laid his trap. There was heavy fighting there over not only
Telnitz, but also over the castle of Sokolnitz. Eventually the French achieved
a breakthrough here as well, and the allies retreated. One of the greatest
credits to the allies that day was the O'Reilly Light Cavalry, which were used
to cover the allied retreat. This light cavalry unit was able to defeat five of
six French cavalry regiments that were thrown at them before they were forced
to retreat as well. This act showed that although the French had better
troops overall, there were good troops that belonged to the allies too. It was
how the troops were deployed that led to Napoleon's success. It was a
combination of well planned execution by Napoleon, and poor execution by his
The Allied army was now in a complete rout as panic set in and they fled the
battlefield in all possible directions. This is when one of the most infamous
acts by Napoleon occurred. The Russians that retreated to the south did so over
the top of frozen ponds. Napoleon directed his artillery to fire not at the
men, but at the ice, causing it to break and sending several men to cold watery
graves. Austerlitz may be regarded as Napoleon's greatest triumph, but this act
is often considered as one of Napoleon's cruelest acts of war. This act of
Napoleon's showed that despite the fact he already had the victory, he wanted
to assure that it was a great and decisive victory. He wanted to leave no doubt
in the hearts of his enemies.
There was no doubt that a decisive victory was exactly what Napoleon had
thought that he had achieved that day. He wrote the following to Josephine
after the battle:
Yesterday, after several days' maneuvering, I fought a decisive battle. I
routed the allied army under the personal command of the Emperors of Russia and
Germany. The strength of their army was 80,000 Russians and 30,000 Austrians. I
took nearly 40,000 of them prisoner, including 20 or so Russian Generals, 40
flags, 100 guns, and all the standards of the Russian Imperial Guard. The whole
army covered itself in glory. The enemy had left 12 or 15,000 men on the field
of battle. I don't even know my loses yet, but estimate them at 8 or 900
killed, and twice as many wounded…the two emperors are in a pretty bad
Napoleon did exaggerate a bit about the numbers in re-telling his great
triumph. Although the exact numbers are unknown, the allied casualties were
approximately 27,000 out of 73,000 (not 110,000); which amounted to about 37%.
The French casualties were approximately 9,000 out of 67,000 which amounted to
approximately 13%. The French also captured approximately 180 guns and 50
standards. This was still a very decisive victory despite any exaggerations
It was not just Napoleon who thought that it was a great victory. His opponent,
Tsar Alexander I succeeded the victory to Napoleon by stating, "We are babies
in the hands of giants." Perhaps this is the only thing he could say after
suffering such a terrible defeat. Yet, in saying this, Alexander was likely
implying that it would take great effort to beat Napoleon.
The results of the strategic victory occurred almost immediately as a truce was
signed with Austria on 4 December and a peace treaty was signed 22 days later.
Austria agreed to recognize French territory, pay 40 million Francs in war
indemnities, and Venice was given to the Kingdom of Italy. Austria was
effectively taken out of the war. The third coalition was ended. Yet, the
victory did not have the total strategic impact that Napoleon thought it
should. In 1806, Prussia would declare war on France as they felt that France
was challenging their power as the main influence in central Europe. Napoleon
had believed that the blow at Austerlitz would achieve a complete end to the
war. Instead the ultimate impact would be to make another enemy out of a major
Napoleon had nothing but praise for his troops after the battle as he stated:
Soldiers, I am pleased with you! You have, on this day of Austerlitz,
justified all that I looked for from your fearlessness. You have adorned your
eagles with an everlasting glory. An army of 100,000 men, under the command of
the Emperors of Russia and Austria, has been, within less than four hours, cut
to pieces or disbanded. Those which escaped your blades are drowned in the
lakes. Forty battle flags, the standard of the Russian imperial guard, 120
artillery pieces, twenty generals, and more than 30,000 prisoners, are the
results of this day for all time renowned. This infantry so vaunted, and in
numbers superior, could not resist you, and henceforth you have no rivals from
which to fear. Thus, in two months, this third coalition has been vanquished
and disbanded. Peace cannot be far away; but, as I promised my people before
crossing the Rhine, I shall make only that peace that will give guaranties to
us and rewards to our allies.
Soldiers, when the French people placed the imperial crown upon my head, I
entrusted myself to you to keep it forever in those rays of glory which alone
make it worthy in my eyes. But at that same moment, our enemies thought to
destroy and dishonour it! And this crown of iron, conquered with the blood of
so many Frenchmen, they wanted to compel me to place it upon the head of our
most cruel enemies!
Rash and senseless endeavor, which, upon the very anniversary of the crowning
of your Emperor, you have dashed and confounded. You have taught them that it
is easier to defy and to threaten us, than to defeat us!
Soldiers, when all that is necessary to assure the happiness and prosperity of
your fatherland has been accomplished, I shall bring you back to France. There,
you will be object of my most tender care. My people shall greet your return
with joy, and it will be enough for you to say "I was at the Battle of
Austerlitz," that the reply shall be, "Here is a brave man".
Napoleon again shows his flair for speech giving and his It also shows his
tendency for exaggeration. He said 100,000 foe here, and by the time he wrote
Josephine that number would be 110,000. However, it also showed how happy the
inspirational leader was with his troops. It also shows how excited he was with
his great victory. Napoleon showed how pleased he was with his troops too, by
giving two million gold francs to the higher officers, 200 francs each to all
the soldiers, and large pensions to the widows of the fallen in battle. What
was strange was that Napoleon had never given a title of nobility to any of his
commanders which was customary following a great victory. This behavior shows
that Napoleon considered Austerlitz too much of a personal victory to share it
with anyone else. More evidence that Napoleon believed that he set the
conditions for success on that day.
Austerlitz was a decisive and great victory for Napoleon, there is no doubt.
Despite the fact that many things went right for the French army on that day,
almost all that went right were conditions that were made by Napoleon. These
actions included preparing his army to be a serious fighting force, long before
the battle occurred; continually inspiring his troops; choosing the terrain on
which to fight; using deception to lure the enemy into a trap; and then
employing his troops wisely. It showed that Napoleon understood his enemy. The
downfall of Austerlitz would be that many historians consider that it was after
Austerlitz that Napoleon started to lose touch with reality and would became
arrogant and cocky. That after Austerlitz, French foreign policy became
personally Napoleonic. It would also give his enemies insight into what
determination it would take to defeat him. Despite these drawbacks, the battle
itself was a triumph for Napoleon. He had created all the conditions to make
his own luck, and luck did indeed reward him well with a victory that could be
justifiably called his greatest masterpiece.
Footnotes and Works Cited
Copyright © 2007 Lonny L. Grout.
Written by Lonny L. Grout. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Lonny L. Grout at:
About the author:
Lonny Grout has a BA in history from Excelsior College, and is pursuing a Masters of Military Studies in Land Warfare from AMU. He is an intelligence analyst on active duty in the National Guard (AGR), and has 19 years of military service. He was editor in chief in the 90s of a local periodical, The Eclectic Review, and has written articles for history and intelligence journals. Tours he has served include Bosnia and Iraq. He is a recipient of the MICA Knowlton Award for excellence in Military Intelligence, and was inducted as an Outstanding Young American (OYA 1999 edition). In addition to studying military history, he enjoys writing and fishing. He lives on a small farm in Idaho with his wife, Laura, and six children.
Published online: 4/29/2007.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.