Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The Battle of Austerlitz

That an "upstart" (parvenu)  should dare assume the title of Emperor, and that a soldier should wear a royal crown, seemed so monstrous to aristocratic Europe, that England, Russia, Sweden, and Austria soon banded together in a coalition against France,—the third since royalty had been abolished. On hearing this news, Napoleon hastened back to Boulogne, hoping to be able to carry out at last the long-cherished plan of attacking England. But before England could be reached, the French had to cross the Channel with their armies. The troops assembled at Boulogne were so numerous that many vessels would be necessary to transport them, and such vessels, of course, needed to be escorted and protected by French men-of-war. Then, too, before the army could start, favorable winds were needed to swell the sails, for although Fulton had already experimented with a steamboat on the Seine, and he and Papin had offered their inventions to the French government, such means of propulsion were still considered wildly impractical. So also seemed the proposal to go in balloons, or to dig a tunnel under the sea so as to enable the soldiers to march across, although airships and submarine tunnels are now no longer novelties.

Meantime the English, alarmed by the preparations at Boulogne, made sundry brave attempts to enter that port and destroy the "nutshells" intended to convey hostile armaments to their shores. They also watched and pursued the French fleet of warships, which, hoping to give them the slip, dodged about the Atlantic, even sailing as far as the West Indies. The trick succeeded, but, on the return home, the French admiral made the mistake of stopping for repairs at Cadiz in Spain, where his fleet was soon bottled up by the wary foe. Knowing it useless to attempt to cross "that ditch"—as Napoleon contemptuously termed the English Channel—save under cover of a strong fleet, the French emperor wrathfully put off the invasion of England. Then, learning that the Austrians were attacking his ally, Bavaria, he determined to carry the war thither. In an incredibly short time, therefore, the Boulogne host marched eastward and at Ulm surrounded the Austrian general, who was forced to surrender with a large army! This was a grand triumph for the French soldiers, who, full of admiration for the general they adored, spoke jokingly of their long march, thus, "He has found another way of making war; he no longer makes us fight with our arms, but with our legs!"

On the very day after the surrender at Ulm, the French fleet was almost annihilated in the great naval battle of Trafalgar, where the English admiral Nelson lost his life, and the French admiral Villeneuve committed suicide rather than face Napoleon after such a disaster. The destruction of the French navy, of course, ended all chance of invading England; there was nothing, therefore, to prevent Napoleon's hurrying on to beat the armies of the Austrian and Russian emperors, before the Prussian king could make up his mind to join them.

As he passed some Austrian wounded, Napoleon's cordial salute, "Honor to the brave," showed that he could put himself in the enemy's place, although he was even then hurrying on "to conclude this campaign by a stroke of thunder!" His plan was to take Vienna,—where, the emperor having fled, resistance proved slight,—and to attack the allies, who stationed themselves on an advantageous height at Austerlitz. Napoleon, on learning this, determined to lure part of them from their position so as to take possession of it himself. His plans proved so successful that when morning broke,—on the first anniversary of his coronation (December 2, 1805),—all was favorably arranged for the "Battle of the Three Emperors," as it has also been called. Even the fog, which had hitherto veiled the foe's movements, was suddenly dispelled by the rays of the rising sun, which Napoleon hailed as "the sun of Austerlitz," an omen of good luck.

The soldiers, inspired by his triumphant assertion, "That army is mine!" and fired by one of his stirring speeches, filed rapidly past him, begging him with rough devotion to keep out of danger. As Napoleon had foreseen, the allies were routed, and as some of them fled over a frozen lake, his gunners pointed their cannon so that the heavy balls broke up the ice and the fugitives perished by drowning. By skillful maneuvering and brave fighting Napoleon beat his opponents so thoroughly that even one of the seasoned Austrian generals sadly declared he had "no conception of such a defeat!"

As for the French, they were jubilant, and the soldiers present never forgot Napoleon's laudatory speech: "Soldiers, I am proud of you. When you reenter your homes, you need but say. 'I was at Austerlitz!' and you will be welcomed with the cry, 'There is a hero!'" To his wife Napoleon wrote on this occasion: "I have beaten the Russian and Austrian armies, commanded by the two emperors. I am a little tired." But such was his marvelous endurance that a very few hours' sleep always sufficed to restore his strength.

This defeat at Austerlitz not only crippled the Austrian and Russian forces, but determined the Prussians, who were about to join them, to make friends with Napoleon instead. Hoping to obtain better terms of peace, the beaten Emperor of Austria now begged for an interview with Napoleon, who received him by a camp fire, saying playfully, "Here is the palace your Majesty compels me to occupy!" But after Austerlitz there was no further attempt on the part of this emperor to treat Napoleon otherwise than as an equal, and it was by the light of this bivouac that they settled the preliminaries for the peace of Pressburg, by which Austria gave up Tyrol and the Venetian territories. The Emperor of Austria soon after relinquished the title of "Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire" (really, Emperor of Germany)—which thus came to an end after existing a little more than a thousand years, 8001806. He retained only the title "Hereditary Emperor of Austria," while many of the other German states formerly in the Empire now united to form the "Confederation of the Rhine," under the protection of France.

Seizing the excuse that while he was closely engaged in Austria, Naples had started to attack the French in Italy, Napoleon now declared, "The dynasty of Naples has ceased to reign," and sent an army to take possession of the kingdom of Naples, which he soon after bestowed upon his eldest brother, Joseph. Then, to his third brother, Louis,—who had married Josephine's daughter Hortense three years before,—Napoleon awarded the throne of Holland, and upon his sisters and marshals he conferred numerous duchies in Italy and Germany; for he knew the French would resent any new division of their soil, and disliked any addition to the ranks of their aristocracy.

On his way home from Pressburg, Napoleon stopped at Munich, where he announced the suppression of the old Republican Calendar, and witnessed the marriage of his stepson, Eugene, to a daughter of the King of Bavaria, his faithful ally in the recent war. On this occasion he formally promised that Eugene should have the throne of Italy if he himself should die without a direct heir.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


On returning to Paris, the emperor received a great ovation, the Senate bestowing upon him the title of "the Great." Then, too, the "Column of Austerlitz" (or of the "Grand Army") was fashioned from the cannon won in battle, the bronze spiral of bas-reliefs around it representing various episodes in the campaign. This column, crowned by a statue of Napoleon, was erected in the center of the Vendome Square, and is hence known also as the "Column Vendome." It still stands on the original spot, although its existence has been sorely endangered several times, and although, as we shall see, it was once actually thrown down by an angry mob!