- 1805: Austerlitz. Napoleon and the Destruction of the Third Coalition
The 2 December 1805 Battle of Austerlitz is rightly celebrated as Napoleon's greatest victory. Three leaders, Alexander, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon, are considered to be history's foremost great captains. So it is appropriate that Napoleon's greatest victory should serve as a subject for deep consideration.
The collapse of the Peace of Amiens prompted Great Britain to assemble a coalition in April 1805 to restrict French expansion. The so-called Third Coalition included Austria, Russia, and Sweden in addition to the British. Napoleon, in turn, had responded to the renewal of war with Great Britain by massing his army along the Channel coast in preparation for an invasion of England. Inability to assure French command of the sea always meant that such an invasion would be risky. Thus, the soldiers belonging to Napoleon's Grande Armée greeted with enthusiasm the news that rather than boarding awkward invasion barges they would instead march east to engage the Austrians and Russians. The subsequent campaign demonstrated a major advance in military organization: the French army corps. The army corps was a self-contained, all-arms combat force. Napoleon reckoned that if such a corps encountered a superior force, it could endure combat for up to a day until help arrived. This independent survival capacity allowed Napoleon to disperse his army along a broad front, which greatly eased logistics and increased the speed of the advance. So it was that six army corps crossed the Rhine and headed east with a never before seen velocity that dazzled Austrian and Russian generals. The Austrian capitulation at Ulm resulted. Overall, the Austerlitz Campaign provided the first demonstration of the army corps in action as it matured into the pre-eminent executive instrument of French conquest during the Napoleonic Wars.
Robert Goetz has utilized primary and archival sources to tell the story of the fateful Battle of Austerlitz. Eight chapters, covering 306 pages, take the reader from the formation of the Third Coalition through the Treaty of Pressburg in clear, workman-like prose. Goetz's interest, and four chapters of the book, focuses on the details of the battle itself. The result is a "micro-tactical study" along the lines of many recent American Civil War books. We learn about the movements of individual battalions and batteries in great detail. The author's purpose is to describe reliably which unit was where and [End Page 507] when, and tell what it did. He supports his description with detailed footnotes that persuasively show that he has consulted a fine array of sources. Consequently, the resultant text is not for the general reader. He will find the detailed tactical accounts monotonous. Rather, this book is for the committed Napoleonic military scholar or buff who wants to know everything there is to learn about the inner workings of Napoleon's greatest victory.