Napoleon's 'most perfect victory': a detailed narrative of his tactical masterpiece, in which the outnumbered French Grande Armée comprehensively defeated the larger Russian and Austrian armies led by Emperors Alexander I and Francis II on the 'day of the three emperors'.
Apparently unpublished: Napoleon's definitive version, written in the early years of his final exile in Saint Helena.
'... NEVER WAS SUCH A FINE ARMY, NEVER SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY SETTLED IN LESS TIME ...'
The manuscript opens with a summary of the campaign preceding Austerlitz, including the lightning series of French manoeuvres between 6 and 20 October 1805 which culminated in the capture of an Austrian army at the Battle of Ulm, followed by the bloodless seizure of Vienna in November (ff.1-14). On the next page (f.22), we are already on the field of Austerlitz, appropriately accompanied by the first of Napoleon's autograph additions, noting the date of his arrival at the future battlefield, '7 frimaire' (i.e. 28 November according to the French revolutionary calendar still in use at this date), and his first sighting of the Allied army. After the preliminary manoeuvrings of the armies and the rather perfunctory attempts at a diplomatic solution, we reach, as Napoleon notes in autograph, the 'launch position on 30 November [9 frimaire]' (f.28). Here an autograph marginal addition records Napoleon's identification eight days previously of a potential alternative battlefield in the hills above Brünn, in case the Allies had attacked prematurely. In the event, Napoleon spends 30 November scouting the Austerlitz battlefield, in particular the crucial Pratzen heights, and a further autograph note records that 'he even advanced so far with a small escort that the pickets of his rearguard were charged by the Cossacks'. The day of 1 December (f.31) is spent by each army in reconnoitring, and it is at this point that Napoleon's tactical masterstroke takes shape: 'It was clear that the enemy wished to turn the right wing by the villages of Telnitz and Sokolnitz, and he could only accomplish this movement by occuping 4 leagues of ground, and by descending into the valley, leaving only a weak force to occupy the main heights. The Emperor therefore envisaged that by making a contrary movement to the enemy, by bringing together all his forces in order that his extreme right should be placed opposite the enemy's centre, he would easily capture the Pratzen heights, cut the army in two, throw the whole Russian left into the marshland ... [and] this army would be beaten almost without a fight, lost and annihilated, whatever brave efforts it made afterwards' (the crucial phrase concerning the positioning of his extreme right is added in Napoleon's hand). The manuscript then describes one of the legendary scenes of Austerlitz, his evening tour of his army, during which the enthusiastic troops spontaneously create a firelit procession for him with torches made from straw; and Napoleon recalls his response 'This is the most beautiful evening of my life; but I regret to think that I shall lose a good number of these fine men'. As the evening reaches midnight, Napoleon makes one of his last autograph additions, a bold marginal annotation recording the simple title 'Bataille d'Austerlitz / 11 frimaire' [The Battle of Austerlitz, 2 December'].
'Soon the sun rose in its radiance. This anniversary of the Emperor's coronation, on which one of the greatest feats of arms of the age was to be accomplished, was one of the finest days of autumn ... "How much time 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"'.
Napoleon's narrative then turns (f.40) to the day of the battle itself: the initial Allied attempts to turn the French right, the crucial French attack on the Pratzen heights through the mist, the bitter struggles for the heights, the cavalry clashes especially on the French left, and the effective splitting of the Allied army into two, enabling Napoleon to strike his decisive blow in the Allied left and drive it from the battlefield. The narrative is enriched with a number of picturesque incidents, including a vignette of a despairing young Russian officer who throws himself at Napoleon's feet crying 'I am unworthy to live ... I have lost my guns', to which Napoleon responds 'I admire your regrets, but by being defeated one does not cease to be numbered amongst the brave' (a marginal revision gives a second, completely different version of this gracious speech: 'I approve of your tears, but one may be beaten by my army and still have a claim to glory'). Throughout, Napoleon underlines the degree to which the outcome of the battle was never in doubt: '…never was such a fine army, never such a beautiful day settled in less time… The Emperor said “I have fought thirty battles like this one, but I have never seen one in which the outcome was so little in question”'. The events of 2 December close with the famous (though possibly exaggerated) episode in which the fleeing Russians attempt to escape over the frozen ponds at Satschan, whose ice is deliberately broken by the French artillery, causing many to drown: 'The sun was then concluding its path and its last rays reflected by the ice lit up this scene of horror and despair'. The manuscript continues with an extended tribute to the brilliance of individuals and units within the French army, and concludes with a brief account (ff.72-74) of the events of the succeeding two days, leading to the signature of an armistice.
THE LEGEND OF AUSTERLITZ
‘At Austerlitz Napoleon won his most perfect victory. The battle was to him what Gaugemela had been to Alexander, Cannae to Hannibal and Alesia to Julius Caesar. For the loss of 1,305 French dead and 6,940 wounded he had inflicted 11,000 Russian casualties and 4,000 Austrian, captured forty colours and taken 180 cannon’ (Frank McLynn. Napoleon (1997), p. 345). A crucial element of the legend of Austerlitz is that the date of the battle fell upon the first anniversary of Napoleon's coronation as emperor. It was in fact his first major battle since Marengo 5 1⁄2 years earlier, and marked the first full appearance of the Napoleonic Grande Armée, with its flexible corps system delivering Napoleon his key advantages of surprise, mobility and the seizure of the initiative. In spite of Napoleon's famously understated report to Josephine the next day ('Yesterday I beat the Russians and Austrians. I am a bit tired ...') the geopolitical consequences of Austerlitz were immeasurable, leading as it did to the formation of the Confederation of the Rhine, the destruction of the Holy Roman Empire and the expulsion of the Bourbons from the Kingdom of Naples: an impact summed up in the phrase attributed to William Pitt the Younger, 'Roll up that map of Europe. It will not be needed these ten years'. A number of aspects of the battle, in particular the 'sun of Austerlitz' and the date, 2 December, have become bywords in military history.
Napoleon's first account of Austerlitz was in the Bulletins de la Grande Armée published in the days following the battle. He was keen however to produce a more monumental version, and in 1806 he entrusted his chief-of-staff, Marshal Berthier, with writing an official report similar to those he had produced for the Egypt campaign and the Battle of Marengo: this version, which is referred to in at least two marginal notes in the present manuscript (e.g. 'voir ma relation à Berthier', f.51), had reached the proof stage by 1810, but was not to be published until some decades after Napoleon's death. The project of writing the definitive account of his greatest battle therefore represented unfinished business for Napoleon, even after his final abdication in 1815.
The present manuscript is a product of the sustained period of literary work undertaken by Napoleon in the early years of his exile on the remote Atlantic island of Saint Helena, in which he attempted to mould his own posthumous reputation in a series of autobiographical texts, including separate accounts of his principal campaigns. It was typical for these narratives to undergo a prolonged process of drafting, re-copying and re-drafting (up to five drafts exist for his memoir of the Egyptian campaign). The use of the third person for himself is also characteristic: his self-description as 'the Emperor' is given some poignancy by the refusal of the British authorities on Saint Helena to accord him any title other than 'General Bonaparte'. Napoleon was assisted by a variety of amanuenses amongst his miniature court in exile, but it is appropriate that one of the main hands in the present manuscript should be that of Henri-Gatien Bertrand (1773-1844, latterly Napoleon's grand maréchal du palais), who had been present at Austerlitz as one of his aides-de-camp; the other principal copyist is Louis-Joseph Marchand (1791-1876), Napoleon's premier valet de chambre. At his death in 1821, Napoleon considered only the accounts of his campaigns in Italy and Egypt as finished; but in the years up to 1830 a variety of texts were published in two multi-volume publications under the titles Recueil des pièces authentiques sur le captif de Sainte-Hélène and Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de France sous le règne de Napoléon. A mass of unpublished material remained in the hands of Bertrand, whose descendants handed over some to the commission for the publication of the Correspondance de Napoléon under Napoleon III, and presented a few other bundles to Prince Victor Napoleon. The great majority however remained in the Bertrand family archives until dispersed at a series of auctions at Drouot in the 1970s and 1980s: the present manuscript was reportedly acquired at one of the earliest of these.
312 x 207mm (a few leaves cut down), rectos only, the pages divided into two columns with the primary text on the right and additions and emendations on left; the main manuscript foliated 1-74 (no leaves numbered 15-21 or 59, but text continuous; 11 leaves marked 'bis' or unfoliated, a number of these attached with pins), in a wrapper with title 'Bataille d'Austerlitz'. The separate transcription on 13 pages, 310 x 200mm, comprising a page-by-page fair copy of ff.43-54 (including 49 bis and cancelled passages), in a single gathering, unwatermarked paper, stitched with black thread, title page 'Bataille d'Austerlitz'. The notes for maps and tables, 16 unnumbered leaves, various sizes, in a separate wrapper with the title 'Austerlitz'. The map in pen and ink over pencil, on tracing paper, 348 x 510mm (remnants of blue and red wax wafers in four places at margins).
The principal manuscript is a composite of two drafts. The earlier of the two is in the hand of Louis-Joseph Marchand, comprising the main text from f.22 onwards: this appears to be a fair copy, presumably from a preceding draft now lost, and its foliation and section numbering (only sections 4 and 5 are now indicated) indicate that it was originally more extensive; Napoleon's autograph annotations are all to this draft. The Marchand draft was then radically revised in Bertrand's hand, replacing the opening section on the Ulm campaign with an with an abbreviated version (cut from 21 pages to 14) and making frequent additions thereafter either in the margins or on inserted leaves: the pages in Bertrand's hand are then subject to further extensive revision. Annotations on ff.43 and 51 which cross-reference to Napoleon's 1806 account of the battle to Marshal Berthier indicate that a further draft was envisaged. This complex compositional process is reflected in a dozen or more different paper stocks, usually of Dutch or French origin: the most common watermarks are 'VAN DER LEY' and 'PRO PATRIA'/Maid of Dort, both of Dutch origin. The leaves primarily in Bertrand's hand are those numbered 1-14, 28bis, an unnumbered leaf after 29, 36-38, 38bis, 44-46, 48-49, 49bis, 54bis, 2 unnumbered after 56, 57bis, 73 and 2 unnumbered following 73. Those in Marchand's hand are numbered ff.22-35, 39-43, 47, 50-58, 60-72 and 74.
The main narrative was to have been accompanied by a series of maps and tables showing the composition of the respective armies and their manoeuvres before and during the battle: these are the subject of the 16 leaves of notes in Bertrand's hand, and are also referred to (including in Napoleon's autograph annotations) in the body of the text. Only the single map of the battlefield of Austerlitz survives with the manuscript: this is on tracing paper, in ink over an initial pencil draft, probably in the hand of Bertrand.
We are grateful to François Houdecek of the Fondation Napoléon for his help in confirming the attributions of the different hands.