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19th Century Articles
The French vs. German Strategy of Warfare 1871
Invention of Counterinsurgency
Alfred Thayer Mahan: Advocate for Seapower
Americans in the Boer War
Marching to Timbuktu
Charge of the Polish Light Horse at Somosierra
The War between Norway and Sweden 1808
Gonzales: Crucible of Texas Revolution
Sheridan's Southern Plains Campaign
Milvern Harrell: Dawson Massacre
Mexican American War
Giuseppe Garibaldi
Solferino: Slaughter and Rebirth
Battle of Lundy's Lane
Battle of Paris
Stephen Douglas and Popular Sovereignty
Napoleon's Campaign Of 1809
Capture of USS President
The Fenian Raids
Military History of War of 1812
Austerlitz: Napoleon Makes His Own Luck
The Failures at Spion Kop
Combatants in Black Hawk War
Tunisian Army in Crimean War
Giuseppe Garibaldi
The Mitrailleuse
The Grande Armee of 1812 in Russia
The French Campaign of 1859
The French Intervention in Mexico
The Master's Misstep
Trafalgar Remembered
Rorke's Drift

Lonny Grout Articles
Indecisiveness of Battles
Bear River Massacre
Austerlitz: Napoleon Makes His Own Luck
MacArthur's Failures in the Philippines

Recommended Reading

Austerlitz: Napoleon and the Eagles of Europe

1805: Austerlitz: Napoleon and the Destruction of the Third Coalition

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Austerlitz: Napoleon Makes His Own Luck
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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] The allied forces had approximately 318 Cannon compared to the French 157.[6] 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 his foe.

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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10]

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 battle:

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 of me.[11]

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 obtained.

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."[12]

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."[13]

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.[14]

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.[15] 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.[16]

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.[17] 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,"[18] 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.[19] 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.[20] 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.[21] 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.[22]

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.[23] 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 foe.

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.[24] 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 position.[25]

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.[26] This was still a very decisive victory despite any exaggerations by Napoleon.

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."[27] 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 European nation.[28]

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".[29]

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.[30] 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.[31] 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.

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Footnotes and Works Cited

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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.
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