Austerlitz – The Battle of the Three Emperors

La bataille d'Austerlitz. 2 decembre 1805, painting by Francois Gerard (1810)

La bataille d’Austerlitz. 2 decembre 1805, painting by Francois Gerard (1810)

On December 2, 1805, the Battle of Austerlitz, also known as the Battle of the Three Emperors, took place. It was one of the most important and decisive engagements of the Napoleonic Wars. Widely regarded as the greatest victory achieved by Napoleon, the Grande Armée of France annihilated a larger Russian and Austrian army led by Tsar Alexander I and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II. The battle occurred near the village of Austerlitz in the Austrian Empire. Because of the near-perfect execution of a calibrated but dangerous plan, the battle is often seen as a tactical masterpiece of the same stature as Cannae, the celebrated triumph by Hannibal some 2,000 years before.

At the SciHi blog, this is not the first time that we deal with Napoleon Bonaparte‘s rise and defeat [1,2,3]. But also Napoleon‘s influence on science can’t be underestimated, ranging from the discovery of the Rosetta stone during the campaign in Egypt, up to the invention of the pencil by Nicolas-Jacques Conté, a Napoleonic army officer. Today, we want to focus on one of the most important and decisive engagements of the Napoleonic Wars: the Battle of Austerlitz. The battle occurred near the village of Austerlitz in the Austrian Empire (modern-day Slavkov u Brna in the Czech Republic). Austerlitz brought the War of the Third Coalition to a rapid end, with the Treaty of Pressburg signed by the exhausted Austrians later in the month.


In December 1804, an Anglo-Swedish agreement led to the creation of the Third Coalition. British Prime Minister William Pitt spent 1804 and 1805 in a flurry of diplomatic activity geared towards forming a new coalition against France, and by April 1805, Britain and Russia had signed an alliance. Having been defeated twice in recent memory by France, and being keen on revenge, Austria joined the coalition a few months later.

In August 1805, Napoleon, Emperor of the French since May of the previous year, turned his army’s sights from the English Channel to the Rhine in order to deal with the new Austrian and Russian threats. The War of the Third Coalition began with the Ulm Campaign, a series of French and Bavarian military manoeuvres and battles designed to outflank an Austrian army under General Mack. By 1805, Napoleon’s Grande Armée had grown to a force of 350,000 men, who were well equipped, well trained, and led by competent officers. After eliminating an Austrian army during the Ulm Campaign, French forces managed to capture Vienna in November 13, 1805.

The Battle

The Austrians avoided further conflict until the arrival of the Russians bolstered Allied numbers. Napoleon sent his army north in pursuit of the Allies, but then ordered his forces to retreat so he could feign a grave weakness. Desperate to lure the Allies into battle, Napoleon gave every indication in the days preceding the engagement that the French army was in a pitiful state, even abandoning the dominant Pratzen Heights near Austerlitz. The battle began with the French army outnumbered. Napoleon had some 72,000 men and 157 guns for the impending battle, with about 7,000 troops under Davout still far to the south in the direction of Vienna. The Allies had about 85,000 soldiers, seventy percent of them Russian, and 318 guns. Napoleon deployed the French army below the Pratzen Heights and deliberately weakened his right flank, enticing the Allies to launch a major assault there in the hopes of rolling up the whole French line. A forced march from Vienna by Marshal Davout and his III Corps plugged the gap left by Napoleon just in time. Meanwhile, the heavy Allied deployment against the French right weakened their center on the Pratzen Heights, which was viciously attacked by the IV Corps of Marshal Soult. 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.


The remnants of the allied army were scattered. Two days later Francis I of Austria agreed to a suspension of hostilities and arranged for Alexander I to take his army back to Russia.[4] The Allied disaster significantly shook the faith of Emperor Francis in the British-led war effort. France and Austria agreed to an armistice immediately and the Treaty of Pressburg followed shortly after, on December 26. Pressburg took Austria out of both the war and the Coalition while reinforcing the earlier treaties of Campo Formio and of Lunéville between the two powers. The treaty confirmed the Austrian loss of lands in Italy and Bavaria to France, and in Germany to Napoleon’s German allies. It also imposed an indemnity of 40 million francs on the defeated Habsburgs and allowed the fleeing Russian troops free passage through hostile territories and back to their home soil.

Critically, victory at Austerlitz permitted the creation of the Confederation of the Rhine, a collection of German states intended as a buffer zone between France and Central Europe. The Confederation rendered the Holy Roman Empire virtually useless, so the latter collapsed in 1806 after Francis abdicated the imperial throne, keeping Francis I of Austria as his only official title. These achievements, however, did not establish a lasting peace on the continent. Prussian worries about growing French influence in Central Europe sparked the War of the Fourth Coalition in 1806.

Military and political results

Allied casualties stood at about 36,000 out of an army of 89,000, which represented about 38% of their effective forces. The French lost around 9,000 out of an army of 66,000, or about 13% of their forces. The Allies also lost some 180 guns and about 50 standards. The great victory was met by sheer amazement and delirium in Paris, where just days earlier the nation had been teetering on the brink of financial collapse. Napoleon wrote to Josephine, “I have beaten the Austro-Russian army commanded by the two emperors. I am a little weary….I embrace you.” Napoleon’s comments in this letter led to the battle’s other famous designation, “Battle of the Three Emperors.” However, Emperor Francis of Austria was not present at the battlefield. Tsar Alexander perhaps best summed up the harsh times for the Allies by stating, “We are babies in the hands of a giant.” The vistory at Austerlitz allowed Napoleon to establish himself as the dominant power in central Europe and set the stage for his eventual conquest of much of the continent. In the long term, the Battle of Austerlitz contributed to the rise of French power and the eventual downfall of the old European order. After hearing the news of Austerlitz, William Pitt referred to a map of Europe, “Roll up that map; it will not be wanted these ten years.

Mark T. Gerges, Napoleon’s Rise and Decline, [7]

References and Further Reading:

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