Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

The War of the Third Coalition


Swift decision was as essentially a characteristic of Napoleon as was his policy of having an alternative scheme to fall back upon should the first and more important plan miscarry. A typical example in which both are to be seen is afforded by a study of the War of the Third Coalition, against the allied Powers, Austria, Russia, and Great Britain. Disappointed at the failure of his preparations for the invasion of England, but clinging to his pet project, the humiliation of that country, the Emperor suddenly, and with apparently little forethought, led his legions in the opposite direction. England remained unviolated, but he saw a chance of stealing a march on Austria, her faithful friend.

On the 26th August, 1805, two days after the Elector of Bavaria had signified his intention of casting in his lot with France, the Army of England, never destined to get nearer to the land whose name it bore than its headquarters at Boulogne, and now known as the Grand Army, began its long march from the coasts of the English Channel to the banks of the Danube. Napoleon's forces soon reached the enormous total of 200,000 men, the majority of whom, braced up by their long sojourn by the sea, were more fit physically for an arduous campaign than any other army in Europe. Despite defects in organisation and the free-and-easy methods of some of its officers, the Grand Army was the army of achievement. It carried the eagles of France, not to one victory only, but to many. No armament since the dawn of history has failed to be criticised for its imperfections. It is easy to be drill-perfect, and yet to fail in the field.

[Illustration] from Story of Napoleon by H. F. B. Wheeler


That the invasion of England was a mere feint has often been asserted, whereas the weight of evidence is on the other side. The multitude of orders issued by Napoleon, the reckless expenditure of money on the flotilla and the enlargement of Boulogne harbour, the medal struck to commemorate the achievement destined never to be used, the determination with which he waited until the last moment for the appearance of his fleets, are surely sufficient proofs of his sincerity in the matter. Moreover, on its first campaign the Grand Army had to plunder or to starve because the commissariat arrangements were hopelessly inadequate, the greater part of the provisions being left on the coast. This in itself shows with what haste the camp was broken up and the march begun.

The army was divided into seven corps commanded by tried warriors of France, namely, Ney, Lannes, Soult, Davout, Bernadotte, Marmont, and Augereau. Murat was placed at the head of the cavalry. With the Emperor was the magnificent Imperial Guard, at once the pride of Napoleon and of the whole army. The Bavarians numbered some 27,000.

The Imperialists had two principal forces. That in Italy numbered nearly 100,000 troops, who were under Archduke Charles; the other in Germany totaled 76,000, and was commanded in theory by Archduke Ferdinand. As the latter was a youth of nineteen summers the real work devolved on General Mack, chief of the staff, although the Archduke was responsible to the Emperor. Unfortunately Mack was not particularly popular, and consequently received but weak support from his immediate subordinates.

The Austrian service was steeped in tradition and crowded with aristocratic nobodies. To be sure some of the cleverest officers had studied the men and methods of the all-conquering French armies since the last campaign, but the quick movements of the enemy at once dismayed and deceived the slow-moving Imperialist columns. Augsburg was speedily occupied by the French; at Wertingen, Lannes cut up a division; and Ulm, Mack's headquarters, was so completely at the mercy of the enemy's army owing to the rapid concentration of troops under Lannes, Soult, and Marmont that the unfortunate general speedily capitulated. He was made a scapegoat, court-martialed, deprived of his rank, and placed in a fortress for two years.

All these events happened within one month, and were the work of men who had been forced to provide themselves with most of their necessities. Bad weather had added to their troubles, marches had been made in torrents of rain, and the wind had sometimes been so boisterous as to prevent their lighting a fire by which to dry their soaking uniforms. Says a contemporary officer whose information is beyond dispute

"To surround Ulm it was necessary to concentrate. Numerous columns defiled upon the same road, appeared at the same point. 100,000 men, fatigued by long marches, destitute of provisions, come to take up a position which grows more and more confined. They are now no more allowed to straggle from their post, for then the whole enterprise would fail. What a critical moment! The resources of the country occupied by this mass are consumed in an hour.

"To enhance the difficulty, the heavens seem to dissolve. A heavy rain, continuing for many days, floods the country. The streams burst their banks. The roads are frightful, and in more than one place altogether disappear. The army marches in mud, and bivouacks in water; it is ready to perish with misery and hunger; discouragement and murmuring spread through it. What is to be done? A proclamation is read at the head of each column, which praises, flatters, and caresses the army, pours eulogy on its constancy, tells it the enemy is enclosed, and that only a few moments more of perseverance are needed. Thus the soldiers are kept quiet; but as they must have bread, active and intelligent officers are sent through all the neighbouring districts, to obtain it by threats, if requests fail. All yields to the power of requisition, and in twenty-four hours bread is procured, and the horses and vehicles of the inhabitants are used to bring it in. . . . Ulm is invested, blockaded, capitulates, and the French army reap the fruit of its endurance and of its incredible activity."

[Illustration] from Story of Napoleon by H. F. B. Wheeler


Napoleon next turned his attentions to the Russians under Kutusoff, who had now entered the field on behalf of their allies, trusting to disappoint their hopes as speedily as he had dispersed those of the Austrians. Time was all-important, as extensive reinforcements were shortly expected by the enemy. Without scruple or qualms of conscience some of the French forces under Bernadotte were therefore marched through the neutral territory of Prussia. It was unjustifiable, of course, but Napoleon made no apologies for treading on national corns. By the middle of November the Emperor was in Vienna, no opposition being offered.

In Italy all was not quite so well. Massena was unable to overcome the Austrian forces under Archduke Charles at Caldiero, which retreated in good order to Laybach. There they concentrated with Archduke John, who had been driven from Tyrol with severe losses by Ney and the Bavarians. After failing to bring hostilities to a conclusion by diplomatic measures, and foreseeing a winter campaign which would in all probability prove a protracted one, Napoleon determined, as on many other occasions, to put all to the hazard in an attempt to bring the contest to an end by a crushing victory. His forces were necessarily widely scattered, but 65,000 troops were available, whereas the allies had some 90,000. On the morning of the 2nd December, 1805, the rays of the sun quickly dispelled the mist which hung about the plateau of Pratzen—"the sun of Austerlitz," as the Emperor frequently termed it in later campaigns.

Rapp, with the authority of an eye-witness, thus describes "The Day of the Anniversary," as many of the soldiers called the battle, because Napoleon had been crowned just twelve months before:

"When we arrived at Austerlitz, the Russians, ignorant of the Emperor's skilful dispositions to draw them to the ground which he had marked out, and seeing our advanced guards give way before their columns, they conceived the victory won. According to their notions, the advanced guard would suffice to secure an easy triumph. But the battle began—they found what it was to fight, and on every point were repulsed. At one o'clock the victory was still un certain; for they fought admirably. They resolved on a last effort, and directed close masses against our centre. The Imperial Guard deployed: artillery, cavalry, infantry were marched against a bridge which the Russians attacked, and this movement, concealed from Napoleon by the inequality of the ground, was not observed by us. At this moment I was standing near him, waiting orders. We heard a well-maintained fire of musketry; the Russians were repulsing one of our brigades. Hearing this sound, the Emperor ordered me to take the Mamelukes, two squadrons of Chasseurs, one of Grenadiers of the Guard, and to observe the state of things.

"I set off at full gallop, and, before advancing a cannon-shot, perceived the disaster. The Russian cavalry had penetrated our squares, and were sabring our men. In the distance could be perceived masses of Russian cavalry and infantry in reserve. At this juncture, the enemy advanced; four pieces of artillery arrived at a gallop, and were planted in position against us. On my left I had the brave Morland, on my right General d'Allemagne. 'Courage, my brave fellows!' cried I to my party; 'behold your brothers, your friends butchered; let us avenge them, avenge our standards! Forward!' These few words inspired my soldiers; we dashed at full speed upon the artillery, and took them. The enemy's horse, which awaited our attack, were overthrown by the same charge, and fled in confusion, galloping, like us, over the wrecks of our own squares. In the meantime the Russians rallied; but, a squadron of Horse Grenadiers coming to our assistance, I could then halt, and wait the reserves of the Russian Guard.

"Again we charged, and this charge was terrible. The brave Morland fell by my side. It was absolute butchery. We fought man to man, and so mingled together, that the infantry on neither side dared to fire, lest they should kill their own men. The intrepidity of our troops finally bore us in triumph over all opposition: the enemy fled in disorder in sight of the two Emperors of Austria and Russia, who had taken their station on a rising ground in order to be spectators of the contest. They ought to have been satisfied, for I can assure you they witnessed no child's play. For my own part . . . I never passed so delightful a day. The Emperor received me most graciously when I arrived to tell him that the victory was ours; I still grasped my broken sabre, and as this scratch upon my head bled very copiously, I was all covered with blood. He named me General of Division. The Russians returned not again to the charge—they had had enough; we captured everything, their cannon, their baggage, their all in short; and Prince Ressina was among the prisoners."

[Illustration] from Story of Napoleon by H. F. B. Wheeler


The total loss of the allies reached the amazing figure of 26,000, or not quite four times as many as that sustained by the victors. The story told of Napoleon that when the fugitives of the defeated armies were endeavouring to cross the frozen surface of Lake Satschan he ordered the artillery of his Guard to fire on the ice, thereby drowning the poor wretches, has now been proved apocryphal.

Those who have read Macaulay's Essays  will perhaps remember an anecdote introduced to show that exact fulfilment of certain rules does not necessarily constitute success. "We have heard of an old German officer," he relates, "who was a great admirer of correctness in military operations. He used to revile Bonaparte for spoiling the science of war, which had been carried to such exquisite perfection by Marshal Daun. 'In my youth he used to march and countermarch all the summer without gaining or losing a square league, and then we went into winter quarters. And now comes an ignorant, hot-headed young man, who flies about from Boulogne to Ulm, and from Ulm to the middle of Moravia, and fights battles in December. The whole system of his tactics is monstrously incorrect.' The world is of opinion in spite of critics like these, that the end of war is to conquer, and that those means are the most correct which best accomplish the ends." Napoleon was great enough to break rules which a man of mediocre ability would not dare to defy. This is the secret of the Emperor's skill in warfare, of his short but decisive campaigns which astonished officers of less intuition and daring.

After Austerlitz an armistice was arranged, followed on the 26th December 1805, by the signature of the Peace of Pressburg. Venetia, Istria, and Dalmatia were ceded by Austria to Italy; Bavaria gained Tyrol and Vorarlberg; Baden and Wurtemberg also came in for a share of the spoil, and their rulers, hitherto styled Electors, became Kings. Prussia, deeming it wiser to appear as a strong ally than as a weak neutral, attached herself to the Nation of Conquests, although Frederick William had been within an ace of declaring war before Austerlitz. An offensive and defensive alliance was first drawn up, then the former clause was struck out, it being arranged that the respective territories of the countries should be held sacred. Hanover was handed over to Prussia in exchange for the territories of Cleves and Neuchatel, Anspach was ceded to Bavaria, and the principal rivers were closed to British commerce.

This high-handed action was partly nullified by a strict blockade on the part of Great Britain and Sweden, and many Prussian ships were secured as prizes. King Frederick William III. speedily began to regret his bargain with Napoleon, and with the genius for double-dealing so often characteristic of weak men, he came to a secret understanding with the Czar, promising among other things that he would refuse to attack Russia should he be called upon to do so by Napoleon. On his part, Alexander was to come to the help of the House of Hohenzollern should it need assistance. Time was to teach them, as it does most individuals, that "no man can serve two masters."

Napoleon now parcelled out territory for the special benefit of his family and friends. Joseph Bonaparte became King of the Two Sicilies in April 1806, Naples having been occupied by French troops under Saint-Cyr. In the following June Louis ascended the throne of Holland. Caroline Bonaparte, now married to Murat, was granted the Grand Duchy of Berg and Cleves the same year. Pauline was given the miniature Duchy of Guastalla, near Parma. To Berthier Napoleon presented the principality of Neuchatel, to Talleyrand that of Benevento. Their power was somewhat limited, it is true, but it pleased the recipients of the honours for a time, and put gold in their purses, which was perhaps even more desirable from their point of view.

Napoleon was putting into practice the theory he had propounded in 1804 when he said "there will be no rest in Europe until it is under a single chief—an Emperor who shall have Kings for officers, who shall distribute kingdoms to his lieutenants, and shall make this one King of Italy, that one of Bavaria, this one ruler of Switzerland, that one Governor of Holland, each having an office of honour in the Imperial household."