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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

1805 Austerlitz

Goetz, Robert. 1805, Austerlitz: Napoleon and the Destruction of the Third Coalition. London: Greenhill; Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2005. 368 pages. ISBN# 1853676446. Hardcover. $44.95/25.

1805: Austerlitz

Our efforts are those of men prone to disaster;
our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We just begin to get somewhere,
begin to gather a little strength,
grow almost bold and hopeful,
when something always comes up to stop us;
Achilles leaps out of the trench in front of us
and terrifies us with his violent shouting.

--"Trojans" by C.P. Cavafy

Robert Goetz has produced a new history of the War of the Third Coalition, focusing in particular on the battle of Austerlitz. Though balanced in its approach, Goetz promises to give us the Russian and Austrian side of the story. He defends his choice to give the "Allied version" of the campaign by pointing out the prior emphasis in books on Austerlitz on the "French version." This is a decision that readers who are well-versed in the campaign would probably welcome.

Goetz has given us a military history of the campaign so there are no in-depth discussions of the political and diplomatic aspects of the Third Coalition, except as is necessary to give a coherent picture of events. And as well focusing, as the title states, on Austerlitz, Goetz does not ignore events elsewherein Italy, in Naples, in north Germany, in Hanover, in the Tyrol. This serves to place the events of Austerlitz in their wider perspective. What Goetz gives us is a step-by-step account of one of Napoleon's greatest campaigns. Where Owen Connelly sees "blundering to glory," Goetz sees Napoleon's strategy as "characteristically dynamic and flexible."

Since 2005 is the bicentennial of both Austerlitz and Trafalgar it is natural to see these decisive battles commemorated in books. A search of WorldCat, a comprehensive bibliographic resource, shows 1805: Austerlitz is one of only four books on Austerlitz published so far in 2005, while close to fifty books have appeared on Trafalgar. Compared to the output of new and reprinted works on Waterloo, the Peninsula campaigns, or the 1812 campaign against Russia, any new work on the War of the Third Coalition is more than welcome. The lack of interest in events outside of these three well-trod topics is perhaps understandable, but the Austerlitz campaign has more than its share of dramatic eventsthe capture of Mack's army virtually entirely by maneuvering, the ruse by Murat and Lannes to take the Tabor bridge over the Danube, Napoleon's torchlight procession on the night before the battle, and the sun of Austerlitz breaking through the fog on the day of battle.

The main body of the book is divided one-third on the planning for the campaign and the events leading up to the battle of Austerlitz, and two-thirds on a detailed, hour-by-hour description of the battle itself. A brief description of the breakdown of the Peace of Amiens, with as even-handed an account as one is likely to find in such a short space (blame for the renewal of hostilities is apportioned on both sides), sets the political background. Though Goetz lays out the grievances on both sides, it was ultimately France's predominance in Europe that brought about war (of the annexation of the Ligurian Republic the Allies opined that "the past conduct of Genoa, or any of the other States, [do not] give them any claim, either of justice or liberality" from the Allies).

Goetz also presents a succinct overview of the opposing forces. According to Goetz, while the Austrians and Russians were, on paper, seemingly formidable, they were, respectively, "disorganized and demoralized" and "overconfident and lacking in training or relevant experience." The French on the other hand had ended the wars of the Revolution with an army with an inconsistent track record, somewhat neglected by the Directory and under-strength. Napoleon, on taking power, reorganized the army, building upon an officer pool brimming with talent, and put it through intensive training in the camp at Boulogne. The French army was, Goetz states, "perhaps even the finest infantry fielded throughout the wars of 1792-1815" and "constituted a well-led and well-trained force." These were the instruments the two sides had to work with.

In 1803 Russia refused a treaty with Britain stating "it is not for us alone to leap into the flames to save Hanover." But the rise of Prince Czartoryski to the Russian foreign ministry saw the beginnings of a more aggressive Russian foreign policy. By November 1804 a Russo-Austrian agreement obliged Russia "to obtain from the court of Londonsubsidies alike for the opening of the campaign and annually for the whole duration of the war."

Though couched in high minded rhetoric at least one recent writer, Steven Englund, has proposed that Britain and Russia shared a mutual greed and cynicismthey "bartered whole lands and peoples as they talked alliance" In secret articles, it was proposed that, "The High Contracting Parties are agreed that it enters into the aim of the present Concert to procure for Holland and for Switzerland, according to circumstances, suitable enlargements, such as the former Austrian Low Countries in whole or in part for the first and Geneva and Savoy for the second. They likewise agree that the arrangements which shall be made as the result of the war shall include in favor of Austria an augmentation of territory, such as is stipulated for it by its convention with the Emperor of all the Russias, and in favor of other States which may co-operate in the aim of the present Concert acquisitions proportioned to their efforts for the common cause and compatible with the equilibrium of Europe."

Though Russia opposed giving any substantial additional territorial rewards to Austria (or Prussia, if it could be induced to join the Coalition). "It was not to be expected," a Russia note informed the British, "that his Imperial Majesty should exhaust his own resources in rendering over-powerful the only two great States whose frontiers were in contact with his own empire." Finally Britain and Russia "agreed to work for a restoration of the frontiers [of France] of 1791 and of the Bourbons," in Donald Sutherland's opinion "a more thorough defeat on France and imposing a more drastic alteration of her government than [had been proposed] ten years earlier." By 9 August 1805 Great Britain, Russia, Austria, Sweden and some of the German states were all members of the coalition. Austria and Russia were to provide the armies to defeat the French, while the British provided the gold to pay them.

Goetz doesn't elaborate on the situation of Bavaria, which was perilously placed between the Scylla of France and the Charybdis of Austria. Though included as part of the Second Coalition against France, the Bavarian Elector stated that one of his goals had to be "to avoid seeing my state become a province of Austria." The War of the Second Coalition in Germany had been largely fought on Bavarian territory and after Hohenlinden the French had occupied Bavaria. In the peace negotiations that followed Austria offered to share in the dismembering of its erstwhile Bavarian ally. Bavaria was in consequence the first of the Imperial princes to conclude a treaty with consular France.

In 1805 Bavarian foreign minister Montgelas recommended that his country ally itself with France and the Elector feigning illness retired to Nymphenburg Palace to avoid having to declare his allegiance one way or the other. Montgelas also became "ill" and retired to his own home, leaving Bavaria with an alibi for its non-action, while a secret treaty was agreed upon with France on 25 August. France on its part promised to respect Bavaria's territorial integrity and to guarantee territorial enhancements after a victory. France also agreed to send an army to protect Bavaria against Austrian invasion. Bavaria in turn was to recognize the French frontiers in Germany and Italy and provide troops to support the French in the forthcoming war. On 5 September the Austrians surrounded the Elector's palace at Nymphenburg and present an ultimatum demanding the "subordination of the Bavarian army to Austrian command." On 28 September, when Bernadotte's troops reached Wuerzburg the Franco-Bavarian alliance became a reality.

Napoleon crossed the Rhine in September and the Danube in October 1805. The French march into Germany, the linking up with the Bavarian army, the surrounding of the "unfortunate Mack" at Ulm and his surrender of ninety-six battalions of infantry and twenty-six squadrons of cavalry (many without firing a shot) are all dealt with expeditiously. Gen. Mack had argued, erroneously as it turned out, that it would take the Russians 64 days to affect a junction with the Austrians while it would take the French 69 days to arrive at the war zone. The Austrian command assured the emperor that "everything has been calculated so that Napoleon cannot appear before we have been joined by our allies" But Napoleon operated with a different clock than the Allies. Following Mack's defeat, Napoleon pursued the retreating Allies, hoping to bring them to a decisive battle. As they fell back, the Allies were able to unite their scattered forces. Prussia, though still stalling and indecisive, was now part of the anti-French coalition. The Allies were now, they believed, in a position to turn the tables on Napoleon and destroy him. But pride goeth before the fall.

When it comes to the battle of Austerlitz itself the balance between the French side and the Allied side of the story comes back onto an even scale as Goetz lets participants from both sides get their say and the Allies are largely reacting to the moves of the French. The Allies, like Cavafy's Trojans, turn out to be prone to disaster again and again despite all their misguided hopes. The Allied plan was predicated on the dubious proposition that Napoleon would either do nothing in response to the Allied advance or flee in terror. Instead the found Napoleon at the top of his game. By noon the "Battle of the Three Emperors" was all but lost by the Allies. By three o'clock the Allies were fleeing the battlefield, the Allies' "high hopes of the morning had been entirely replaced by demoralization." The winter's early sunset and the fatigue of the French troops was all that saved many of the survivors of the battle.

Goetz dismisses as a myth the familiar story of 20,000 men destroyed when the ice on the frozen Satchan pond broke beneath the retreating Russians. Official documents and the testimony of the locals has shown that the numbers reportedly drowned in the frozen Satchan pond were hugely inflated for propaganda purposes in Napoleon's bulletin after the battle. When the pond had been drained after the battle, only twenty-eight to thirty cannon, one hundred and fifty horses and the remains of two to three men were reportedly discovered. Ian Castle reports that around two hundred men drowned in the shallow pond, the bodies retrieved by their comrades or the French. It is also claimed that no human remains have subsequently been discovered where the pond had been, while bones have been discovered elsewhere on the battlefield, nor have weapons come to light in the former pond bed. On the other hand, reputedly the Russian generals involved in the battle never denied the incident at the time and Tsar Alexander accepted the story as true. Gen. Stutterheim wrote "many of the fugitives betook themselves to the lake, which was frozen over, but not sufficiently so to prevent many from perishing in it."

Tsar Alexander spent the night after the battle as Cavafy's Trojans would have, depressed and ill. One observer claimed to have found him weeping under a tree. Napoleon for his part walked the battlefield comforting the wounded and offering them brandy from his canteen. His escort stripped the greatcoat from the corpse of the Russians to cover the wounded. When the butcher's bill was calculated the French had lost nearly nine thousand men killed and wounded, while the Allies lost close to sixteen thousand. All told the Allies lost nearly a third of their forces. The Treaty of Pressburg was signed between the Austrian Emperor and Napoleon on 26 Dec. 1805. In the meantime, Britain had defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805). British prime minister William Pitt died on 23 Jan. 1806. His death perhaps an unexpected by-product of the dramatic failure of the Third Coalition.

Blame for the failure of the Third Coalition was place squarely on the shoulders of Austria. The Allied plans, according to the British secretary of state for foreign affairs, Lord Mulgrave, "were unfortunately deranged by the precipitancy of Austria. The deviation of Austria from the plan agreed upon was not slight and trivial, but it was a complete and entire deviation, and to this must be attributed all the calamitous consequences that ensued." Though British minister Arthur Paget's dispatches before the battle of Ulm didn't reflect a concern for Austria's "precipitance" and after the defeat at Ulm he stated, "The first and principal fault which has been committed, was to have taken the field with too small a force" And before the opening of the campaign the Russians feared Austrian foot dragging, noting "the court of Vienna, if it would consult its own true interests, should not hesitate to renew the war as speedily as possible"

The book presents a level of detail that may overwhelm the casual reader but will be welcomed by Napoleonic hobbyists. Written in a straight-forward, documentary fashion, the volume lacks the blood and guts the smell of gunpowder and horse-sweat that a writer using a more 'novelistic' approach would have given the subject. This too might make the book a difficult read for those not intimately interested in the period. This extremely detailed account of the battle takes advantage of not only the older accounts and documents-French, German and Russian, but also the work of more recent writers. Goetz does an excellent job of coordinating, melding, comparing and contrasting the diverse and sometimes contradictory reports of the battle.

The appendices include orders of battle (OOBs), army strengths and capsule biographies of the main participants. The book includes forty illustrations, including portraits of many of the leading personalities mentioned in the text, as well as photographs of the battlefield as it appears today. Finally the volume includes twenty excellent maps produced by Max Sewell. The index is not analytical and lists chiefly references in the text to the main participants of the campaign.

To read excerpts from the book, click here: 1805: Austerlitz

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg
Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2005