On December 2, 1805, the Grande Armée of Napoleon defeated a larger Russian and Austrian army led by Tsar Alexander I and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II at the Battle of Austerlitz, also known as the Battle of the Three Emperors, which precipitated the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire and set the stage for a near-decade of French domination on the European continent.
Europe had been in turmoil since the start of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1792, during which the newly-founded French Republic defeated two consecutive coalitions of European monarchies, hostile to the political developments in France. By 1804, only Britain was left to face the rising French Empire of Napoleon Bonaparte, who had assembled a mighty force of 200,000 men with the intent of invading England.
But with the balance of power in Europe shattered, intractable differences with the British meant that the French would soon face a Third Coalition. British Prime Minister William Pitt spent the following year in a flurry of diplomatic activity geared towards forming a new allied front against France. And in April 1805, Great Britain and Russia signed an alliance, joined a few months later by Austria who, having been defeated twice in recent memory by France, was keen on revenge.
By August 1805, Napoleon had realized that the strategic situation had changed fundamentally. Facing a potential invasion from his continental enemies, he decided to strike first and turned his army’s sights from the English Channel to the Rhine. His basic objective was to destroy the isolated Austrian armies in Southern Germany before their Russian allies could arrive.
In September, after great secrecy and feverish marching, the Grande Armée of Napoleon began to cross the Rhine on a front of 260 km. With the greater part of the Austrian army gathered at the fortress of Ulm in Swabia, the French army performed an elaborate wheeling movement that outflanked the Austrian positions, captured the entire Austrian army, and forced the Austrian commander to surrender.
Following the Ulm Campaign, French forces managed to capture Vienna, which provided the French a huge bounty as they captured 100,000 muskets, 500 cannons and more importantly, the intact bridges across the Danube. It is at this critical juncture in the war that both Tsar Alexander I and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, who had taken position in neighbouring Moravia, decided to engage Napoleon in battle.
Outnumbered and desperate to lure the Allies into an early engagement, the French Emperor started giving the impression that his army was weak and that he desired to negotiate peace. After sending an envoy to the Allied headquarters at Olmutz to deliver his message, while secretly examining the enemy’s forces, Napoleon dispatched a relatively small French contigent of 50,000 men to take Austerlitz and the Pratzen Heights, east of Brno.
The French Emperor then ordered them to abandon their advantageous position and, while doing so, to create an impression of chaos during the retreat that would induce the enemy to occupy the Heights. The plan was successful. Many of the Austrian and Russian officers, unaware that French reinforcements from Vienna were already within range to be called in, strongly supported an immediate attack, and the Allied forces soon fell into the French trap.
Napoleon deployed his army below the Pratzen Heights, deliberately weakening his right flank and enticing the Allies to launch a major assault there in the hopes of rolling up the whole French line. French reinforcments arrived to plug the gap just in time and the Allied center, now weakened by the redeployment against the French right, was viciously attacked. With the Allied center demolished, the French swept through both enemy flanks and sent the Allies fleeing chaotically, capturing thousands of prisoners in the process.
One of the most important and decisive engagements of the Napoleonic Wars, the Battle of Austerlitz is widely regarded as the greatest victory achieved by Napoleon. Tsar Alexander perhaps best summed up the French Emperor’s victory by stating, “We are babies in the hands of a giant.”
In three months, the French had occupied Vienna, decimated two armies, and humbled the Austrian Empire. More importantly, by effectively bringing the Third Coalition to an end, the Battle of Austerlitz profoundly altered the nature of European politics and set the stage for a near-decade of French domination on the European continent. France and Austria immediately agreed to an armistice and the Treaty of Pressburg, which followed shortly after, confirmed the Austrian loss of lands in Italy and Germany to Napoleon and his allies.
As a result, the Battle of Austerlitz precipitated the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire, the overarching legal structure which had governed Central Europe since the Early Middle Ages. Within months, Napoleon reorganized parts of the Empire into a puppet state, the Confederation of the Rhine, and Francis II, abdicating his title as Holy Roman Emperor, dissolved the remnants of the decentralized elective monarchy. The House of Habsburg-Lorraine nevertheless survived and continued to reign as Emperors of Austria and Kings of Hungary and Bohemia until the Habsburg Empire’s final dissolution in the aftermath of World War I.
But the French victory at Austerlitz failed at establishing a lasting peace on the continent. While Frederick William III of Prussia had remained neutral until now, Napoleon’s gains at the Peace of Pressburg were seen as an affront to Prussia’s status as the main power of Central Europe. A Fourth Coalition was already brewing…
Every year, the “Napoleon in Brno” commemorations are held in the city of Brno and include a reenactment of the most famous of all the Napoleonic battles.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.