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The War of the Third Coalition: the Austerlitz Campaign


Europe had been at peace for a year when, in May 1803, relations between Britain and France collapsed, restarting the Napoleon Wars. The former refused to leave Malta because France wasn’t pulling troops out of its satellite republics as stipulated in the Treaty of Amiens (which ended the war of the Second Coalition, hinting at renewed Egyptian wars, insulting the British ambassador, kept on annexing land, pushing more French influence into the Holy Roman Empire, and threatening British interests round the world where they could. The French were upset because Britain was supporting French royalists and subsidizing attacks on Napoleon in their newspapers.

Britain’s overall policy was to keep France to the ‘natural frontiers’; Napoleon had other ideas. Once relations failed Britain returned to trying to blockade France with their navy, while Napoleon once again began considering an invasion of the British Isles, and also taking the British king’s possession of Hanover.

The War at Sea: Trafalgar

Britain’s Royal Navy was a bigger and stronger force than the French navy, and Napoleon’s plan to cross the Channel and invade demanded the French fleet distract the British away from their home. The invasion would need two thousand craft, which thanks to tides meant several days of invasion. However, while Napoleon was able to dominate control of campaigns on land with his success (in this period at least), he did not have the same control of the sea.

The leading French Admiral, Villeneuve, managed to get past the British blockade of Toulon in April 1805 and as they headed for the West Indies the British, led by Nelson, followed. Villeneuve merged his force with a Spanish fleet but Nelson prevented him from threatening British possessions there and so returned to Europe, fighting a battle at Cape Finisterre on July 22nd and then taking refuge at Cadiz.

Napoleon’s plans to invade had already been abandoned, because there was little chance of achieving the domination the French needed in the Channel to get their troops across and supplied. However, when Napoleon kept harassing Admiral Villeneuve to act and then asked for four thousand men to be transported, the Admiral sailed back out to sea to attack the British. Blocked by Nelson, Villeneuve tried to return to port but the two fleets met at Trafalgar on October 21st 1805. The British fleet was smaller, but they won a decisive victory over the French which shattered the latter’s fleet and destroyed all but eleven of their ships for no British loss... at least not in ships, for Nelson was killed. The Royal Navy would remain dominant at sea for the rest of the Napoleonic Wars (and, some might argue, decades after).

The Third Coalition

Meanwhile, a new coalition of forces had formed up to challenge France, and the Third Coalition officially came into being in April 1805. Austria, Britain, Russia, Sweden and some German states all signed up, afraid the balance of power had shifted too far to France, who kept gobbling up smaller states. The Tsar was angered over France taking Hanover and Naples and spreading their power into Germany, and was personally paranoid that the French wanted the Ottoman lands the Russians coveted. Austria was angry at the new Kingdom of Italy threatening its land nearby and stopping it retaking Italian land, but opinions were divided, leading Archduke Charles’ own plan, favoring peace, to be passed over in preference for Mack, who favored war. The Pope provided religious support.

The alliance wasn’t strong and had taken a while to organize, all sides being suspicious the others weren’t 100% committed. Luckily, Napoleon kept restructuring Europe, and annoying the coalition partners enough to push them into action. With a large proportion of the French army waiting on the north coast for the invasion of Britain (or just there to fool his enemies), the coalition’s forces planned to neutralize the French army in Italy (under Massena), and then move into France. What they didn’t know was that Napoleon was secretly pulling troops out of the north and moving then east, ready for the coalition. Prussia feared a Germany dominated by France, but stayed neutral.

The coalition had three focal points: Mack, who attacked into Bavaria and was then supposed to push on into France, and who was theoretically under the commander of Archduke Ferdinand; Archduke Charles who was moving towards Italy, and Kutuzov, marching west with Russians. But Napoleon, who was wielding arguably his finest ever army, 194,000 men composed of veterans who had trained for years in the latest tactics, and who he could move quickly and effectively, struck with surprise before Russia had arrived, distracting Mack with feints while sweeping multiple corps across Europe, crossing the Rhine, flanking Mack and moving up to the Danube: 300 kilometers in 13 days.

Mack – who had earlier refused Archduke Ferdinand’s instructions - was now cut off – despite at one point thinking he had Napoleon retreating - and lacking the initiative of other commanders failed to break out and ended up surrendering himself and the whole 24,000 man army without a major battle at Ulm; the Archduke escaped. Napoleon was now able to march on Vienna, driving the recently arrived Kutuzov back and occupying the city. Meanwhile Archduke Charles had some success in Italy, but pulled out and raced to confront Napoleon, having gathered 88,000 men. But Kutuzov still had 80,000 men too, and Napoleon’s force was stretched out and suffering supply problems. It could be argued (such as Gates does), that the coalition had the initiative as their armies were gathering, and Napoleon needed something decisive quickly.


Had Prussia entered the war Napoleon would have been flanked, but they refused passionate calls from the Austrians – there was a possible provocation as Bernadotte had marched through Prussian territory to flank Mack - instead staying neutral, a triumph for Napoleon. They were, however, preparing for war should Napoleon falter. Napoleon now tried to draw the enemy armies into a trap, and moved seventy miles north. While Kutuzov was nominally in charge of the newly combined Austrian and Russian army, both the Tsar of Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Emperor were trying to influence events, but the Emperor was ignored by the Tsar who overruled Kutuzov, didn’t wait for Charles because he wanted the personal glory, and moved up to chase Napoleon, walking into the trap.

They reached Austerlitz on December 2nd 1805 and began to outflank the French, hoping to sever Napoleon’s line of retreat and force a surrender; they stalled in the marshes as Napoleon hoped, and he struck: he split their army up the center by taking the Pratzen Heights and then destroyed their left, sending the Russians, and the allied command, fleeing. The Austro-Russian force was defeated in one go, scattering. While Russia refused to negotiate for peace, neither did they ready a new attack. Napoleon had lost 8000 men and caused 25,000 losses. Austria had to surrender on December 4th; the Russians left for Russia. Prussia gave up any thoughts of acting and negotiations opened.

The resulting peace deal was called the Treaty of Pressburg, and it transferred Austrian ruled land in Germany, Italy and the Mediterranean Coast over to France and Napoleon’s allies, and recognized Napoleon as King of Italy. Napoleon followed by taking revenge on Naples for aiding the coalition, sending an army which caused the royals to flee, and put his brother Joseph in charge. The British landed a force of 5000 to aid resistance, but found the local rebels hated the old royals as much as the new one and withdrew.

Austerlitz ended the war with the Third Coalition, but left Austria bitter with large territorial losses, Prussia feeling snubbed at inadequate gains, Britain in control of the seas and others biding their time. However, Britain and Prussia were now quarreling.

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