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First Italian Campaign | The Egyptian Campaign | Second Italian Campaign | The Ulm-Austerlitz Campaign | The Prussian Campaign | The Peninsular War | The Austrian War | The Russian Campaign | From Lützen to Elba | The Waterloo Campaign

The Ulm-Austerlitz Campaign, 1805, continued

The battlefield he chose was near the village of Austerlitz, where the countryside was dominated by a gently sloping hill, the Pratzen Heights. "If I wanted to [stop] the enemy," Napoleon said, "it is there that I should post myself; but that would lead only to an ordinary battle, and I want decisive success."

Napoleon’s army controlled the Heights, but he would now sacrifice his commanding position in a daring gambit to lure the Russians to attack his right flank. With a thin line of soldiers on his right, he ordered his men to abandon the Heights, and watched as enemy forces occupied it.

Alexander I

Seventy thousand Russian soldiers, commanded by the Tsar Alexander I himself, stood ready to battle the French army. Just twenty-eight years old, the Tsar was eager to cover himself with glory by defeating the invincible Corsican upstart.

KERATRAUNT: Napoleon knows that the enemy is aware that he is in a difficult position. So he will exploit it like in judo - he will use a seeming weakness and turn it against the enemy. He will make the enemy believe he is afraid.

GARNIER: And that is where his genius reveals itself. He’s going to make the enemy think that he is weaker than he actually is to draw the enemy into an attack.

HORWARD: So the Russians figure, boy, we’ve got it made, we’ve got the best position, in the south. The French have very few troops. We can attack the south and roll up the whole French army.

Napoleon knew his man. The Tsar called a council of war, and argued for an immediate attack. Only Russian General Mikhail Kutuzov objected. Blind in one eye from a battle wound, the hard-drinking veteran was contemptuous of his Austrian allies and wary of Napoleon.

SOKHOLOV: He advised Alexander to wait. But Alexander found this unacceptable. He was a young Russian tsar. He had more men than Napoleon, and he couldn’t accept the idea that Napoleon had not been conquered. He was also surrounded by young soldiers from the most aristocratic families in Russia who said, "Napoleon must be crushed right away." They felt Napoleon was afraid of them and they should attack at once. The logic of their battle plan was correct, but they forgot who they were up against.

The night before the battle, Napoleon appeared a model of optimism and confidence. As he rode past his men, they shouted "Long Live the Emperor!" and waved flaming torches. It was December 2, 1805, the first anniversary of his coronation. Napoleon told an aide, "This is the finest evening of my life."

Daybreak came with an impenetrable fog. The top of the Pratzen Heights floated like an island above the sea of mist. From his command post on the Pratzen Heights, the Tsar, eager for battle, ordered the Allies down off the high ground toward the far end of Napoleon’s weak right flank, anchored in the little village of Telnitz. Napoleon had a surprise waiting for them.

He had summoned two divisions of soldiers from Vienna. They had covered the seventy miles in only two days. Napoleon had put reinforcements where they were least expected, and faster than anyone thought possible. His troops, exhausted after their long march from Vienna, struggled to hold on.

So far, Napoleon said, his enemy was behaving like they were conducting maneuvers on his orders. Napoleon had wanted the enemy to attack his "weak" right. He now had enough troops to defend it - and more than enough for his own plan: an attack on the Pratzen Heights, which was left with few defenders.

Napoleon watched from his command post above the battlefield — waiting to spring his trap. Hidden in the haze at the bottom of the valley below the Heights were two French divisions — 17,000 men. Napoleon gave the order to advance: "One sharp blow," he said, "and the war's over!"

The fog was so dense the French soldiers could barely see ten paces in front of them. As the sun began to rise, Napoleon’s army appeared out of the mist. On top of the Pratzen, the Tsar watched the French materialize out of the valley. "Finding themselves attacked, when they had thought that they were the attackers," Napoleon said, "they looked upon themselves as half-defeated."

By 9:30 am, the French controlled the Pratzen Heights, demolishing the center of the allied position. Napoleon swept across the battlefield and attacked the allies from behind. By five o’clock, Austerlitz was silent.

Nine thousand Frenchmen were killed or wounded, along with 16,000 Russians and Austrians. The Tsar and his army retreated. But the Austrian Emperor himself, Francis I, came to sue for peace. "A battle was fought today," Francis wrote his wife, "which did not turn out very well."

Austerlitz had raised Napoleon’s star to new heights. He had won his greatest victory, the victory of which he would always be the proudest. "Soldiers," he said. "I am pleased with you... You have decorated your eagles with an immortal glory... You will be greeted with joy, and it will be enough for you to say, 'I was at the battle of Austerlitz,' for people to reply, "There goes a brave man."

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