Greenhill Books: Napoleonic Library

Extracts from 1805: Austerlitz

By Robert Goetz

1805: Austerlitz  Cover

Pages 223 - 226

While the Guards regrouped after overwhelming the 4th Line, Constantine observed the two battalions of the 24th Light approaching from the south toward the head of his column and ordered his cavalry to drive them off as well to clear the route to Krenowitz. As they neared the Russian column, Colonel Pourailly inexplicably ordered his battalions to deploy in line instead of in square, despite the presence of the considerable body of Russian cavalry. Yankovich, having reformed his five squadrons of Life Guard Horse, ordered them forward and struck the 24th Light on their left. GL Kologrivov of the Life Guard Hussars observed Pourailly's men deploying and ordered his hussars, who were at the head of Constantine's column, to charge their right. Struck from both sides by the Life Guard Hussars and Life Guard Horse, the 24th Light broke and ran, abandoning an eagle that, unseen, was trampled under the hooves of the Russian cavalry.*

The action between the Russian Guard cavalry and the infantry of Vandamme's division had occurred in the folds of ground that characterized the landscape and was thus out of sight of Napoleon from his command post. The sounds of fierce fighting were obvious enough, however, and caused some concern on the Stare Vinohrady, as Segur related:

On this side, the action in the hollow was hidden from [Napoleon]. The sound of its tumult was becoming so threatening, that, withdrawing his glance from the decisive attack that was going to take place in front, and seeing behind him a black mass of moving troops, he exclaimed: "What! Can those be the Russians?"

Segur quickly verified that the column approaching the Stare Vinohrady from the west was in fact a brigade of Oudinot's grenadiers marching from the heights toward Kobelnitz. The story emphasizes the confusion and uncertainty caused at Napoleon's headquarters by the unexpected arrival of Constantine's men on the heights, even amidst a stunning French victory.

The routing of the 4th Line and 24th Light occurred a short distance to the east of the French headquarters, and the routed French battalions almost passed through the imperial headquarters in their flight. "The unfortunate fellows were quite distracted with fear and could listen to nothing; in reply to our reproaches for thus deserting the field of battle and their Emperor they shouted mechanically ‘Vive l'Empereur!' while they fled faster than ever," recalled Segur. Napoleon dismissed them with a scornful gesture, saying "Let them go,… and then sent one of his aides-de-camp, General Rapp, to bring up the Imperial Guard Cavalry.

Rapp galloped off to Marshal Bessières, who stood with the Guard cavalry a short distance from the Stare Vinohrady, to deliver Napoleon's orders to throw back the Russians. Bessières had already been alerted, however, as related by one of his aides-de-camp:

The Marshal was standing with the other officers mentioned in front of the chasseurs and grenadiers of the Guard. The ground before him rose to a height that cut off our distant view. He was on his way to investigate, as was his custom, when he noticed some infantry running rapidly down the slope and constantly looking back. Then he said "Laville, we are going to have a cavalry engagement.… . . . The evening after the battle I asked him how he had guessed so opportunely that a cavalry engagement was imminent. He replied: "Because the retreating soldiers kept looking back. When infantry retires before infantry they never turn their heads"

Bessières deployed the Guard cavalry in three lines. In the first line, Bessières placed the first two squadrons of the Chasseurs à Cheval of the Guard under the command of Colonel-en-Second Morland and gave Rapp the honor of commanding the company of Mamelukes on their right. The 3rd and 4th Squadrons of the Chasseurs à Cheval along with the 5th Squadron (velités) of the Grenadiers à Cheval formed the second line under the command of GdB Dahlmann. Bessières himself with the first four squadrons of the Grenadiers à Cheval brought up the rear.

As the French Imperial Guard cavalry advanced, Drouet's division was also reacting to the sounds of battle on the northeastern corner of the heights. The division had already passed between Pratze and the Stare Vinohrady and was approaching the Pratzeberg when Drouet redirected his division to the northeast to meet this new threat.

My division was ordered to join [Soult's Corps]. But during my march, the Emperor learned that the Russian reserve, composed of the Guard infantry and cavalry, had made an attack on our center, and had overthrown a brigade of infantry from Vandamme's division and strongly shaken the Chasseurs of the Imperial Guard, whose colonel was later killed. This circumstance changed the plans made by the Emperor. He directed my division to support the center. To arrive earlier at the threatened point, I crossed a marsh [probably an area on the heights where the ground had been churned into mud by the earlier fighting] and I formed my division in column by half battalions (keeping advancing all the while).

Drouet sent out a cloud of skirmishers from the 27th Light and a battery of eight guns in advance of his division. Behind them followed GdB Frère with the remainder of the three battalions of the 27th Light on the right and GdB Werle with the six battalions of the 94th and 95th Line on the left adjacent to the Imperial Guard cavalry. Drouet's infantry advanced on a course to intercept Constantine's column before it reached Krenowitz.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2005

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