Written by Daniel Sharp
2 December 1805: a battle takes place that was to enshrine Napoleon Bonaparte’s reputation as a genius military tactician and which would forever change the map and future of Europe. This battle would end the thousand-year-old Holy Roman Empire and would spell the end of the Third Coalition mounted by the European powers against France. This battle was the Battle of Austerlitz, known also as the Battle of the Three Emperors, fought between the forces of Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I of Russia, and the Holy Roman and Austrian Emperor Francis II. The battle has been hailed as Napoleon’s finest victory. To Andrew Roberts it was ‘the greatest victory of his career’ and to Richard Overy ‘There is perhaps no finer example of Napoleon’s remarkable military genius’ than Austerlitz. In this short essay I want to explore the battle itself and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire which it engendered. First, however, some background will be necessary.
Background I: The Holy Roman Empire
The Holy Roman Empire is generally agreed to have been inaugurated by the declaration in 800 of Charlemagne as Emperor. From there, its thousand-year history took a complicated path. Over the centuries the Holy Roman Empire navigated a variety of crises and issues, from disputes with the papacy to differing ideas of what being Holy Roman Emperor meant. Born out of various issues, such as the lingering tradition of the Western Roman Empire and the need for a Christian empire to face down the ‘barbarians’, the Empire was always a hotchpotch of differing ideals and issues.
By 1356 the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV realised that the Empire must be a solely German entity rather than a pan-European one – such lofty ambitions were no longer possible. A Golden Bull was issued in that year redefining what the Empire was and its new name reflected the centrality of its Germanic lands: Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.
Through the difficult years of the Reformation the Empire survived, and according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘from 1556 until its end…the empire meant little more than a loose federation of the different princes of Germany, lay and ecclesiastical, under the presidency of the House of Habsburg’. The Thirty Years War of 1618-1648 and the Peace of Westphalia which followed confirmed the federalisation of the Empire, but by the time of the French Revolution and the beginnings of nationalism, it was outmoded. It was later to provide inspiration for the formation of the German Empire in 1871 and to Hitler’s conception of a Third Reich, not to mention that Napoleon posited himself as the heir to Charlemagne. But the decayed Holy Roman Empire was to be destroyed by Napoleon in 1805-6.
Background II: The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars
Between 1792 and 1815, war engulfed Europe pitting most other powers against revolutionary and Napoleonic France. The French Revolutionary Wars ended in 1802 when the Peace of Amiens brought a cessation of hostilities between France and Britain. Europe, having fought the Wars of the First and Second Coalitions (1792-1797 and 1798-1802 respectively), was to see peace at last. But it would not last long.
Tensions surfaced which led to the resumption of war, among which were Britain’s hesitancy to remove troops from Malta as agreed at Amiens and Napoleon’s towering ambitions. Napoleon had declared himself president of the recently created Italian Republic and ‘mediatised’ in Switzerland and Germany, his actions in the latter reducing the number of states there from 365 to 40. In May 1803 Britain declared war on France and was joined by, among others, Russia and Austria.
The Russian Tsar Alexander I had been offended by Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor of the French on 2 December 1804, and Napoleon’s other actions, including the kidnap and execution of the royalist exile the Duc D’Enghien, taken from Germany in March 1804, convinced rival powers to go to war once more. As Mike Rapport has argued, these wars were often the result of long-term rivalries between the European powers rather than ideological in nature – nonetheless, the threat posed by the French Revolution and the Corsican usurper were powerful incentives for conflict. These and many other tensions, including a perceived French threat to British lands in India, led to war.
Thus the stage was set for the War of the Third Coalition between 1805-6 which would see seismic changes in Europe.
The Battle of Austerlitz
The battle took place on 2 December 1805, the first anniversary of Napoleon’s coronation, something which was to later appeal to the Emperor’s superstitious side. By late 1805 Napoleon’s forces were deep in central Europe and his lines were stretched. The great British victory of Trafalgar had occurred in October and the threat of Prussia joining the Coalition was ever present. Napoleon needed a swift and decisive victory, and that was what he got.
Napoleon picked his battlefield on 21 November and feigned weakness, indecision and desperation in dealings with the enemy. The battlefield was well chosen – the Plain of Turas near the town of Austerlitz with the hilly Pratzen Heights to his right. His genius was in his anticipation of what the enemy would do, and they played straight into his hands. The cautious Russian general Mikhail Kutuzov and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II were more in favour of a withdrawal to the east (and the former was aware of the high risk during the battle itself) but the young and hot-headed Russian Tsar wanted offensive action. By the end of the battle he so desperately wanted, Alexander was in tears under a tree.
On the night of 1-2 December Napoleon reconnoitred and on his return to camp he was greeted with cries of ‘Vive L’Empereur!’- this was ‘the finest evening of my life’ according to Napoleon. He was confident and morale was high.
Napoleon’s plan went brilliantly. The battle began around 4am on 2 December and his enemies walked into his trap. He had vacated the Heights, a seemingly terrible tactical error, and allowed his foes to take them. They occupied the plateau and planned to attack Napoleon’s (apparently) weak right flank and attack the main French force from the rear. The wily Emperor, however, had secret reinforcements behind his right flank and it held throughout the day while the main French force attacked the plateau – aided by fog and bright sunshine they took the enemy by surprise and, despite fierce fighting in close proximity to Napoleon, the French held Pratzen, cut the enemy in half and gained command of the battlefield.
The Russians and Austrians managed to retreat, the former in better fashion than the latter. The defeat was decisive, however. Richard Overy has stated that had Napoleon had spies in the enemy camp he could not have anticipated his enemies’ actions better. Luck, some incompetence on the part of the enemy, including a drunk Russian general, gambles (for example, the reinforcements for the right flank were not guaranteed to arrive in time) and sheer genius had won the day for the Emperor of the French. Coalition losses were far larger than French losses and they had been routed despite a numerically superior army.
While Napoleon’s enemies despaired at this defeat, the Emperor addressed his soldiers that night, writing to them: ‘Soldiers! You are the finest warriors in the world. The recollection of this day, and of your deeds, will be eternal!’ On the evidence of the battle of Austerlitz, won by Napoleon’s genius and the soldiers’ doggedness against the enemy, and considering the mythical status Austerlitz has gained since 1805, it is hard to disagree with his assessment.
Aftermath and Consequences: An Empire’s End
Austerlitz had many consequences. Perhaps its greatest effect was on Napoleon himself. As Philip Dwyer has put it: ‘One can cite the victories at Austerlitz and Jena as turning points, moments when Napoleon became even more imbued with a sense of destiny than he already was, when he believed himself invincible.’ Austerlitz gave Napoleon confidence – perhaps, in later years, overconfidence that was to be his downfall. The foundations for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris were laid after Austerlitz, though reception to news of the victory was lukewarm at best. Austerlitz and Napoleon’s coronation were celebrated in tandem in future – the Emperor and his best victory inextricably linked together.
Most notably, Austerlitz heralded the end of the War of the Third Coalition – but tensions would lead to a new coalition being formed within months. The Austrian defeat was absolute. Napoleon met Emperor Francis II soon after Austerlitz where they discussed terms – Napoleon was hesitant, not knowing whether the war would continue, but once it became clear the allies had no will to fight on he imposed a dictated peace on Austria. The Treaty of Pressburg in late December 1805 was extremely persecutory towards Austria – little justice was there in this settlement.
Napoleon created the Confederation of the Rhine, a loose grouping of German states which he once more ‘mediated’, essentially spelling the end of the Holy Roman Empire. The Confederate states officially declared their secession on 1 August 1806 and Francis II dissolved the Empire a few days later, partially out of fear of Napoleon taking the title of Holy Roman Emperor, becoming only Francis I, Emperor of Austria; a post he had created in 1804.
Ironically Napoleon’s destruction of the Holy Roman Empire led to growing feelings of German nationalism which would culminate in the creation of a unified Germany in 1871, a just settlement for many German nationalists but which destroyed the Second French Empire (Napoleon’s being the first) of his nephew, Napoleon III, and which would cause untold misery and persecution to France in the First and Second World Wars.
In the end, as Frank McLynn has put it, Austerlitz was Napoleon’s Gaugamela, his Cannae, and his Alesia, ‘his most perfect victory’. It was a display of immense military skill and raised the Emperor to the first ranks of history’s military geniuses. It changed the map of Europe forever (Eric Hobsbawm notes that the French Revolution dragged Europe’s political geography out of the Middle Ages and this is shown nowhere better than in the events after Austerlitz) and ended 1,000 years of history. Perhaps most of all it shows the importance of personality and luck in history – without Napoleon, the Holy Roman Empire may have limped on for a few more decades. Long-term processes are important in historical development but so too are the personalities, skills and events of certain people and certain days. Napoleon’s career as a whole is testament to this: impossible without the French Revolution and elements of good fortune yet indelibly marked and shaped by his will and those of his enemies.
- Geoffrey Barraclough, ‘Holy Roman Empire’, entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/place/Holy-Roman-Empire. Accessed: 3/3/2018.
- Richard Cavendish, ‘The End of the Holy Roman Empire’, in History Today Vol. 56 Issue 7, July 2006, https://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/end-holy-roman-empire. Accessed: 3/3/2018.
- Philip Dwyer, Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power 1799-1815, (Great Britain, 2013).
- Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789-1848, (Great Britain, 1977 print).
- Frank McLynn, Napoleon: A Biography, (Great Britain, 1998 print).
- Richard Overy, A History of War in 100 Battles, (Great Britain, 2014).
- Mike Rapport, The Napoleonic Wars: A Very Short Introduction, (Great Britain, 2013).
- Andrew Roberts, Napoleon the Great, (Great Britain, 2015 print).