Napoleon’s ‘most perfect victory’:
The Battle of Austerlitz in his own words

On 2 December 1805, Napoleon led the outnumbered French army to his ‘most perfect victory’, near the small Moravian village of Austerlitz. Follow the key moments of the battle in Napoleon’s own words, drawn from an unpublished minute-by-minute narrative, illustrated by a map traced in the hand of his trusted aide-de-camp, General Henri-Gatien Bertrand. Prepare to march with the Grand Armée against the massed Austro-Russian armies on the day of Napoleon’s tactical masterpiece.

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Torchlit procession

On 1 December 1805, two huge armies faced each other across a low, wet valley. Far from home, Napoleon pretended to be terrified of the impending battle, but in fact, the Allied Russian and Austrian armies were marching into a carefully-laid trap. On the night before the battle, Napoleon made a last inspection of his troops.

At nine o’clock in the evening, on the eve of the anniversary of his coronation, the Emperor visited all the bivouacs of his army. By a spontaneous movement the soldiers decided to give him a torchlit procession; torches made from straw were immediately placed on thousands of poles and 80,000 men presented themselves before the Emperor, saluting him with acclamations.

Baron Louis Albert Bacler d’Albe (1761–1824)
Napoleon visiting the Bivouacs on the Eve of the Battle of Austerlitz,
1 December 1805
Château de Versailles, Photo credit: Bridgeman Images

‘The most beautiful evening of my life’

Baron Louis Albert Bacler d’Albe (1761–1824)
Napoleon visiting the Bivouacs on the Eve of the Battle of Austerlitz,
1 December 1805
Château de Versailles, Photo credit: Bridgeman Images

Napoleon was famous for his ability to survive on limited sleep. He slept for only three hours on the night before the battle.

As he entered his bivouac, which consisted of a poor cabin without a roof, prepared by the grenadiers, the Emperor said ‘This is the most beautiful evening of my life; but I regret to think thatI shall lose a good number of these fine men, I feel in the pain that it gives me that they are truly my children.’

Allied attack

The battle opened with the Austro-Russian left wing advancing from the Pratzen hills to attack Napoleon’s right — just as he had intended them to do.

The five divisions of the enemy army were coming down from the heights, at daybreak, and aiming between the village of Telnitz and the lake of Kobelnitz, with the intention of bearing on Turas and turning the entire right wing of the French army. The rest of the army was then to support this movement. Prince Bagration, the [Russian] Imperial Guard and Prince Lichtenstein’s cavalry were to pursue the left of the French army along the main Brünn road.


Antoine Charles Horace (Carle) Vernet (1758–1836)

Napoleon giving orders before the Battle of Austerlitz, 2 December 1805, 
Château de Versailles, 1808, Photo credit: Bridgeman Images

The sun rises on a fateful day

Napoleon was superstitious about dates, and the fact that battle was joined on the first anniversary of his coronation as emperor filled him with confidence. Having observed the cold, December conditions over the previous two days, he had calculated that the mists in the valley would conceal the massed French troops, ready to launch their surprise attack.

The various divisions of the army were placed in the valley bottom and could not be seen because of the smoke from the bivouacs and the usual mists around the marshes at sunrise. Soon the sun rose in its radiance. This anniversary of the Emperor’s coronation, where one of the greatest feats of arms of the age was to be accomplished, was one of the finest days of autumn; the darkness that still remained on the heights dissipated, and they seemed stripped of the immense quantity of people who had spent the night there and weakly guarded.

Robert Lefèvre (1755–1830)
Portrait of the Emperor Napoleon, full-length, in coronation robes, before his throne 
Sold for: £842,500, The Exceptional Sale, London, 9 July 2015

One sharp blow, and the war is over

Timing was everything. Napoleon needed to be sure that the main body of the Allied army had moved off the Pratzen heights before he launched Marshal Soult’s division at them. If Soult succeeded, he would split the enemy army in two.

‘How long do you need,’ said the Emperor to Marshal Soult, ‘to reach the Pratzen heights with your divisions?’ ‘Less than 20 minutes,’ replied the Marshal. ‘In that case,’ said the Emperor, ‘let us wait another quarter of an hour.’ The Emperor gave the signal, and Prince Murat and marshals Bernadotte, Lannes and Soult galloped away: it was around half-past eight. The Emperor said as he passed before the harnasses of several regiments, ‘Soldiers, we must finish this campaign with a thunderbolt which will confound the pride of our enemies.’ And immediately their hats on the ends of their bayonets and their cries of ‘Long live the Emperor’ were the real signal for battle.

A TRUE BATTLE
OF THE GIANTS

The Emperor Napoleon’s hat worn during the campaign of 1807 
Attributed to Poupart & Co., c.1806
Sold for: £386,500, The Exceptional Sale, London, 9 July 2015

This was the decisive manoeuvre of the battle, and the moment Napoleon had been planning for.

The skirmishers of Vandamme and St Hilaire’s divisions began to fire. In a moment these divisions began to climb the heights, in column, their weapons in their hands. Prince Murat’s cavalry set off; the left commanded by Marshal Lannes moved forward. An incredible cannonade began along the whole line: 200 cannons and nearly 200,000 men made an astounding noise. It was a true battle of the giants. 

THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE

By the time the Russian commander, General Kutusov, realised what was happening, it was too late.

The enemy noticed this movement towards their centre and reinforced the heights with all available forces, without respect of divisional rank or column. General Kutusov, commanding the centre, advanced with all his reserves: a feeble and vain resource. This army, surprised in a flanking manoeuvre, thinking it was attacking and finding itself attacked, looked upon itself as already half-beaten.

Jean Antoine Simeon Fort (1793–1861)
The Battle of Austerlitz, 2 December 1805, Ten O’Clock 
Château de Versailles, 1835, Photo credit: Bridgeman Images

INDUCE FEAR AND DISORDER

Napoleon I (1769-1821), Emperor of the French
'Bataille d'Austerlitz' [the Battle of Austerlitz].
Partly Autograph Manuscript Dictated to General Henri-gatien Bertrand and Corrected by Napoleon, Saint Helena, [C. 1816-1818].
Estimate: £250,000–350,000

Napoleon’s calculation had succeeded: the French had captured the Pratzen heights.

Kutusov hardly had the time to put the 4th column into action, to send a few battalions into the village of Pratzen and to make some disposition with his cavalry before the 10th light infantry of General St Hilaire, ignoring the village, crossed the stream and marched straight on the heights… at 150 paces the 10th opened fire, drove back the enemy and took the position. The enemy evacuated the village of Pratzen, was pursued, and disorder and fear spread throughout their ranks. 

A BRILLIANT CHARGE

On the French left, the fighting was fierce, until the tide was turned by the brilliant French cavalry commander, Prince Murat.

On the left, the village of Blasowitz had been captured after a lively resistance; whilst the 17th regiment was escorting the 1,200 prisoners made in the village, a corps of enemy cavalry broke cover onto their right flank; General Debilly immediately formed the 61st into battalion squares behind the 17th; the movement was executed so quickly that the enemy cavalry found itself engaged between these two regiments and crushed by their joined fire. This cavalry, in the confusion caused by its defeat, trying to push through, sabred theAustrians whom they no longer recognised. Prince Murat could not believe they were Russians; seeing this fighting, he thought them a Bavarian corps and ceased fire; but soon he realised his mistake, advanced the 1st division of heavy cavalry under the orders of General Nansouty, and never was seen such a brilliant charge.

‘REMEMBER THE DAY’S ORDER’ 

The death of French general Jean-Marie Valhubert during the Battle of Austerlitz, 2 December 1805, © Tallandier / Bridgeman Images

One of the most famous individual acts of courage was that of the 41-year old French general Jean-Marie Valhubert.

General Valhubert had his thigh blown off by a cannonball: four soldiers moved forward to lift him up. ‘Remember the day’s order,’ he said in a voice of thunder, ‘and close ranks; if you return as victors they will pick me up after the battle, and if you are beaten I attach no further value to life.’ 

FIGHTING FOR
THE BEST POSITIONS

By noon, Napoleon was master of the field.

It was already noon. Marshal Bernadotte had occupied the centre position. The Rivaud division was on the recaptured heights, the Drouot division was manoeuvring on the left. The Emperor with his faithful companion of war Marshal Berthier, his first aide-de-camp General Junot and all his staff was in reserve with the ten battalions of the Guards and General Oudinot’s ten battalions of grenadiers.

Attributed to Carle Vernet (1758–1836)
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte I at Austerlitz
Sold for: £3,000, Interiors, London, 14 June 2017

ALL WERE
IN OUR POWER

François Pascal Simon Baron Gerard (1770–1837)
The Battle of Austerlitz, 2 December 1805, detail of General Rapp and Governor of Dantzig presenting the defeated Prince Repnin to Napoleon Bonaparte
Château de Versailles, 1805, Photo credit: Bridgeman Images

Napoleon then moved his command centre up to the Pratzen heights, where the captured Russian general Prince Repnin-Volkonsky was presented to him.

Covered with his blood and that of the enemy, General Rapp came to give the Emperor the details of the action and presented to him Prince Repnin, commander of the knights of the Russian Imperial Guard, and some of the most distinguished prisoners. One of them, an artillery officer, threw himself forward from his horse and invoked death. ‘I am unworthy to live,’ he cried, ‘I have lost my guns.’ ‘Young man,’ replied the Emperor kindly, ‘I admire your regrets, but by being defeated one does not cease to be numbered amongst the brave.’ It was scarcely one o’clock, and already the fighting had ceased in the centre and on the left, and all the heights of Pratzen… were in our power.

‘BRING IT TO AN END’

The Allied army was decisively split in two. Napoleon now concentrated his forces on annihilating the Russian left wing.

It was two o’clock when the Emperor arrived with the Guards and the grenadier reserves on the heights above Augezd. He left Oudinot’s grenadiers on the Pratzen heights ,occupied the St Antoine heights with the Guards, had Marshal Soult’s corps march to complete the destruction of the enemy’s left wing and had him supported by the cavalry and half the infantry of the Guards. Ordering Marshal Berthier to move to the right wing, he said ‘See what the meaning is of this cannonade and musket fire, and bring it to an end.’

A lock of mane taken from Napoleon’s favourite White Charger, c.1815–30
Sold for: £6,875, The Exceptional Sale, London, 9 July 2015

NO WAY OUT

Jean Antoine Simeon Fort (1793–1861)
The Battle of Austerlitz, 2 December 1805, Four O’Clock
Château de Versailles, Photo credit: Bridgeman Images

As the sun set on this December day, the Allied defeat was swiftly turning into a panic-stricken rout.

The Emperor sent some squadrons and the Guards artillery on the enemy’s right flank to drive them between the lakes. The enemy wanted to hasten their retreat, but they only had the dam between the lakes to manage it… surrounded on all sides, the enemy soon presented a terrible sight. They hoped to escape on the frozen lakes: several thousand men, 36 cannon, a great quantity of carts, caissons and horses took to the ice on the lakes. The 24 artillery pieces of the Guards broke the ice and poured death upon them. Entire columns were swallowed up. From the middle of the immense lakes rose the cries of thousands of men who were beyond help… helpless, with no way out, blasted by the Guards artillery, these terror-struck wretches threw themselves on the ice and almost all met their end there. The sun was just then concluding its path and its last rays reflected by the ice lit up this scene of horror and despair.

A GRAND VICTORY

Joseph Chinard (1756–1813)
A tinted plaster bust of Napoleon Bonaparte as First Consul, 1801
Sold for: US$149,000, Revolution, New York, 13 April 2016

Napoleon’s ‘most perfect victory’ was complete: the Allies had lost 36,000 out of an army of 89,000, the French only 9,000 out of 66,000. The Russian Tsar Alexander commented: ‘We are babies in the hands of a giant.’

Thus ended this memorable day, which the soldiers like to call the anniversary day, which others have called the day of the three emperors, and which Napoleon designated with the name of the Battle of Austerlitz.

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