“Offence is the best defense.” …Sun Tzu
Upon his accession to the imperial throne of France, Napoleon’s first act was to wage war against his two last enemies who remained vigilant in the War of Second Coalition: Austria and Russia. Archduke Charles and General Suvorov were the true leaders of the allies in this battle, but their Emperors, Francis II of Austria and Tsar Alexander I of Russia, also followed them to the battle. They were intent on crushing the large French forces there and ending the threat that France posed to Europe once and for all. In the humble city of Austerlitz, Napoleon met this vastly superior army with courage that only one man in his time could possess.
In truth, Francis had a great disdain for Napoleon. He did not think the low-born Corsican noble was his equal as Emperor. Only the pure blood of Bourbon was deemed worthy to rule the rival empire of France, and he imagined putting them back on the throne at his debt. Likewise, the religious tsar Alexander felt that Napoleon was no more than a serf (Russian for ‘peasant’) who overreached his bounds and attempted to establish a dynasty. It was an ungodly deed, and Mother Russia would put an end to it.
Nevertheless, when the newly crowned Emperor of France reached Austerlitz, the troops gained heart and were not afraid of the enemies even though they were outnumbered five to one. They had known Napoleon as the general who never lost. If Nelson had defeated Napoleon not once but twice at sea, the news was safely suppressed by Fouche, Napoleon’s insidious Minister of the Interior and arguably the second most powerful man in France. They remembered the story of how Napoleon went thirsty in Egypt rather than drink alone. If he did not have nobility of blood like Francis and Alexander, it did not matter, for the nobility of his deeds and heroism far exceeded all of them combined.
Archduke Charles Louis John was a great military leader, but like the British, he still maintained certain conventions. Where he excelled was speed, though not quite as well as Napoleon. The Archduke marched quickly to the French army base in Austerlitz, hoping to crush them in one go, with the Russians following him with a three day lag on the march. Surprisingly, when he reached the base, Charles found very few die-hard French soldiers there making the appearance of defending the base. He realized something was wrong, but the Archduke could not quite put a finger on it.
Many days had passed, and yet there was no communications from Suvorov’s Russians, and the supplies did not come! Francis repeatedly asked his son what was going on. He had been exhausted by the young man’s forced march, but now that they won control of the army base, there was neither enough supply nor water. The Holy Roman Emperor was much displeased. He even went so far as to call the Archduke a “disappointment!”
Meanwhile, Napoleon’s army cut through the lines of communication between Austria’s quick army and the slow Russians, while Joachim Murat and Desauix successfully plundered the supply lines and food depot. Soon, the Austrians would know the meaning of starvation. The three French forces converged on Suvorov’s Russians.
Suvorov too was depending on the Austrians for supplies, for Russia was a far way from this battlefield and the tsar already had an understanding with the Austrians beforehand. Taken by surprise, Suvorov’s half-starved unready army, though vastly superior in numbers, proved no match for the French, who seemed to fire at him from all side.
Suvorov ordered the Cossacks to break the French lines. The Cossacks were born on horseback and an immensely brave tribe, but they were few in number compared to the core Russian army or even the French. Furthermore, they were less accustomed to the terrain than Murat’s Second Cavalry. In the bitter combat that followed, Murat made short work of them. Unable to gain help from the Austrians and not wanting the tsar to be captured by the French, Suvorov presented his sword to Napoleon in formal surrender.
Suvorov: “The Russians will never forgive me if I allow the son of Romanov (Russia’s dynastic name) to be captured. Please take my sword and perhaps my life if only to save the life of my liege, Emperor Napoleon.”
Napoleon: “Why should I not shame the son of Romanov, good General? You fought well, and for that, I shall admire you. But this war was never of necessity if Russia did not provoke us first. Like the tsar, I too am monarch. France is no longer a Republic, yet your tsar did not deign to treat us with friendship. How then do you come before me today and ask for kindness?”
Tsar Alexander: “It was the Austrians who instigated this war, who poured poison into my young ears, that I should turn my sword upon a noble Emperor like yourself. Forgive me, Emperor of France, …Let us be friends.”
Napoleon knew Alexander was lying, but he did not wish to battle both Austria and Russia at the same time, so he inquired, “So it is true that Austria plotted against my life? And is it also true that the monarchists and Talleyrand had a hand in this?”
Desperate for peace, Suvorov replied, “It is true, my Lord. Talleyrand does not deserve your kindness but death, and the Austrians…they are simply…low, but I beseech you, give my Tsar a second chance, and for that, the people of Russia will be eternally grateful.”
Desauix: “Will you now execute the cur Talleyrand, Sire? It was as Lucien told us all along.”
Smiling, Napoleon replied, “I knew his treachery all along, Desauix, but he is a useful dog. Talleyrand has no match in diplomacy in all of Paris, and for that, I shall use him. The secrecy of his crime is something I can use to keep him in his place, as my rebuke of my younger brother (Lucien) served very much the same purpose. Familiarity breeds contempt. It was necessary for Lucien to understand that I am now Emperor of France.”
Desauix and Murat looked at their Emperor and knew he was an extraordinary man. Many said that Napoleon was a man who could not keep his temper, but nothing could be further from the truth. Those tantrums were all a farce, designed to serve some political purpose. All of his life…was a stage play, much in the style of Shakespeare.
And so, Napoleon agreed to these terms, and Tsar Alexander retreated from Austerlitz back to his snowy empire in disgrace. Now, it was time to march against the Austrians. Young Archduke Charles was an arrogant man who thought himself a peerless commander. Now, Napoleon would show him who the greatest general of Europe truly was.
Initially, Archduke Charles, commander of the Austrian forces, thought of waiting for the French to attack. After all, he had captured their stronghold, and it seemed to be a position of strength. However, his men were starved, and there was no means of getting food supplies to them even if Austria remained wealthy. Soon, morale was dropping. He had to do something! So against his good senses, he attacked!
The French were well-rested and well-supplied, and that day, we fought for Napoleon and we fought like lions. Though the Austrians were equally matched, their morale was low. We beat them back easily, and the Austrian casualties were high.
Swallowing his pride, Archduke Charles went forth to meet Napoleon and offer his terms of surrender, but our Emperor demanded the return of all territories recently seized by Austria, such as Holland, Switzerland, and all of Italy. This was simply too much for the proud Archduke. When he told his father Emperor Francis of Napoleon’s demands, Francis cursed Napoleon, so the siege of Austerlitz continued.
And so the war continued. The French remained strong and well-supplied, while the Austrians grew weaker by the day. Charles ordered his men to be fed on a full ration, hoping to enhearten them, and then he went out for another all-out attack. But Napoleon was a great warrior, and he inspired his men not to be complacent. Once again, France triumphed. Archduke Charles went forth to ask for terms of surrender, and Napoleon did not budge. The Emperor Francis cursed Napoleon and all that was France, though Charles could see that his resolute curses seemed weaker than the first time now.
Finally, Napoleon stormed the greatly weakened stronghold of Austerlitz, obliterating most of the Austrian army. His “divide-and-rule” tactic hath worked, and the Austrians did not think he would attack fiercely after showing patience for so long. Utterly defeated, Archduke Charles presented his sword to Napoleon, “Accept this as terms of surrender. Take Holland, Switzerland, and Italy and perhaps my life too, but spare that of my father. I beseech you, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.”
Seeing the humbled Archduke, Napoleon replied regally, “To address an Emperor, one only needs to mention his first name. By the way, you have fought well, Archduke Charles, though your cause is unjust. I salute you for your bravery, misguided though they may be.”
Charles had intentionally done that to prevent truly acknowledging our Emperor, but Napoleon, as always, saw through the ruse. Charles nodded, realizing that Napoleon was sparing their lives in return for the death of his aunt, Queen Marie Antonette of France.
As such, the War of Second Coalition came to an end with the surrender of once mighty Austria. Napoleon was now truly Emperor, for he would anoint his elder brother Joseph as king of Naples, his younger brother Louis (the lawyer) as king of Holland, and his brother-in-law Joachim Murat as king of Milan.
The minor Corsican warlord and awkward child at the French Academy did not simply rule a country. He was the most powerful monarch of Europe today.
But then, Europe was never happy with Napoleon at its helm. Beneath the calm facade, Austria, Prussia, and Britain conspired against him once again even as Napoleon found allies in Spain and the petty German states of Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg. The War of Third Coalition was about to begin in earnest. Perhaps under our great Emperor, much as I loved him, France would know no ends to conflict and war.