This series has four easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Napoleon Receives Emissaries.
After Napoleon went from being a republican to an emperor, Great Britain, Russia, and Austria formed an alliance against him. While the British Admiral Nelson was sweeping the French navy from the ocean at Trafalgar, Napoleon was doing the same to the allied armies on land. He destroyed the first Austrian army at Ulm on October 20th the day before Trafalgar. This victory gave the French possession of Vienna, the proud capital against whose walls the Turks had so often surged in vain. The Austrian ruler was Francis II, who still retained his title of Emperor of Germany and who had also begun to call himself Emperor of Austria, a title as incongruous as Napoleon’s own. He was resolved to ﬁght to the bitter end, and with all his remaining forces he joined the Russian Emperor, Alexander I, who was advancing to his aid. Thus the three emperors of Europe were present in person at this significant battle.
This selection is from History of Napoleon by Pierre Lanfrey published in 1875. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
All these preliminaries are noted in the following account by Lanfrey the French scholar who had set out to debunk Napoleon’s admiration. His work has been criticized as so anti-Napoleon that he fails to give proper credit to Napoleon’s real achievements. Since Austerlitz was Napoleon’s greatest achievement, this selection is a true test of his history.
Place: Austerlitz (now in the Czech Republic)
The ﬁrst act of Napoleon’s Austrian campaign had been marked by the thunderstroke of Ulm, and the second by the occupation of Vienna. He had left this capital in the middle of November and advanced into Moravia as far as Bruenn, a strong place of great importance, but undefended, which he was able to occupy without striking a blow, thanks to the carelessness and want of foresight of the Austrians. The army of the allies was massed ﬁfteen leagues from there, near Olmuetz. It formed, according to the official statements, a total number of eighty-two thousand men, of whom fourteen thousand only were Austrians. It was composed of good troops, in no way demoralized, for Kutuzoff, though forced to retreat before forces of an overwhelming superiority, had resisted the French at Amstetten, at Duerren stein, and at Hollabrunn, with a ﬁrmness that did him the greatest honor.
This army had so much interest in gaining time before they attacked Napoleon that their operations are still an enigma. Important reinforcements, under the command of General Béningsen, were marching to rejoin them; the month at the term of which Prussia was to bring her armies into the ﬁeld was on the eve of expiring, and this was a hundred twenty thousand men more for the coalition; the Anglo-Swedish army was about to march from Hanover into Holland, which was undefended; the Archduke Charles had arrived in Hungary, where he was repairing his losses and preparing to take up the offensive; lastly, Napoleon, in presence of the imminent danger to which these eventualities exposed him, had suspended his forward march, feeling that his position, at so great a distance from his base of operations, was already very dangerous. In all probability, a simple temporization on the part of the Austro-Russians would in a very short time have constrained him to retire, under the double necessity of concentrating his troops and preserving his line of retreat. The struggle being renewed under these new conditions, his destruction was almost inevitable, for he was about to ﬁnd himself enclosed between three considerable armies, with reduced forces; and if two of these armies had joined hands in Hungary, as Kutuzoff proposed, they would have presented a mass difficult for him to cut through.
These were urgent reasons for avoiding all meeting with Napoleon before the expected events had taken place. It is not easy, even now, to explain the motives that induced the allies to act when they had everything to gain by waiting. It has been stated, it is true, that the Austro-Russian army wanted provisions at Olmuetz, but it was easy to procure them elsewhere, and nothing obliged them to keep this position. They had even an interest in falling back upon Hungary, to join eighty thousand men of the Archduke Charles. Alexander had committed a ﬁrst fault in coming, in spite of the remonstrances of his wisest friends, in the midst of his army, where his presence would naturally paralyze brave but servile generals, and, moreover, he was surrounded by young men, full of ardor, courage, and illusions, impatient to distinguish themselves in the eyes of their sovereign, who spoke with the most profound contempt of the dilatory system proposed by Kutuzoﬁ, by the Emperor of Austria, and by the most experienced chiefs of the army. Grave discords that had arisen between the Austrians and the Russians, in consequence of the unfortunate opening of the campaign, also contributed to make both desire a prompt renewal of hostilities, in which each hoped to ﬁnd his justiﬁcation.
Napoleon was aware of this state of things and turned it to account with marvelous skill. He had just received, with a great deal of haughtiness, Messieurs de Stadion and Giulay, whom the Emperor of Austria had sent to his camp to make overtures to him. He almost immediately afterward regretted this, on learning that Prussia was on the point of joining his adversaries, and he became as communicative as he had hitherto been haughty and suspicious. On November 25th he dispatched Savary to the camp of the allies, with a complimentary letter to the Emperor Alexander, and with a secret mission to observe attentively the army of the enemy, while he felt the ground for a negotiation.
Savary was received with courtesy, but very coldly. He only brought back to his master a curt and evasive letter, which was addressed not to the Emperor, but to the Chef du Gouvernment Francais. Napoleon, who was so sensitive upon this point, took no offence; he wanted to show that he was superior to the triﬂes of a vain etiquette, and only became more complaisant. Savary immediately returned to Olmuetz, to propose an interview between Napoleon and the too conﬁding Alexander. At the same time he was to complete his studies on the Austro-Russian army. Savary, who had the eyes and ears of a future minister of police, observed the size and disposition of the army; he got into conversation with the aides-de-camp, and took note of the rash conﬁdence of the young officers. Alexander refused the interview, but he consented to send to Napoleon his aide-de-camp, the Prince Dolgoruki.
Napoleon took care not to give the Prince the same opportunity for making observations that Savary had had with Alexander. He received him at his advanced posts, and only let him see just enough of his army to deceive him. A few days before, a squadron of his advance guard had been separated and taken prisoner at Wischau. Dolgoruki found the French troops falling back upon all points in order to concentrate themselves in the positions studied long beforehand, toward which Napoleon wished to draw the Austro-Russian army. Crowded in a narrow space, still separated from Bernadotte’s corps and Friant’s division, which were only to arrive at the last moment, ostensibly occupied in raising entrenchments upon different points as if they feared to be attacked, they could only strike the Prince by the apparent weakness of their force and by their timid and constrained attitude.
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