«Napoleon’s perfect battle», an interview with Jacques Garnier

Author(s) : CHANTERANNE David
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Given the significant number of books written on the subject, is it reasonable to expect new discoveries regarding the battle of Austerlitz? What approach can we adopt, two centuries on, to this battle which had been so frequently described and so significantly distorted by the legend. On the occasion of the publication of his recent book, Austerlitz, 2 décembre 1805, (1) the historian Jacques Garnier, specialist in battles (2) and Napoleonic history in general, here replies to questions put to him by the magazine, the Revue du Souvenir.
How should we look at the Battle of Austerlitz today?
Jacques Garnier: Napoleon did everthing he could to leave posterity with a vision of the perfect battle. He wanted to show in his descriptions of the battle, starting with the 30th Bulletin, how the Battle of Austerlitz should be read. Already with the Battle of Marengo, he wanted to be the sole victor. Kellermann's cavalry, Marmont's artillery and Desaix's infantry would not be allowed to depart from the “system”, they simply accompanied the general movement. Five years later, the general (now emperor) knew that the conditions were different, that he was indeed the sole victor, but he wanted to make his battle an “exemplar”, where every eventuality was “foreseen”, the “perfect” battle. The reference to the monarch of the Ancien Régime is clear. As we know, the king was infallible. Austerlitz was to be the victory of omniscience, the victory where everything was predicted beforehand. Now since some of the marshals in their reports simply copied the 30th bulletin, it's hard to find a good source on which base an effective exegesis of the battle.
What are the main works of history and the principle sources available to the historian working on the causes, the events and their consequences? How can we get back to the what really happened?
Jacques Garnier: The reports of the leaders of the corps are indispensable. Davout was intellectually honest and described the battle as he lived it; in fact, so much so that Napoleon asked him to make it a little more ‘on message'. On the other hand, Soult based himself largely on the 30th bulletin. As far as the campaign is concerned, we have the emperor's correspondence; but, for the day of 2 December, not a single written order has been preserved. Were the orders simply transmitted orally? The last written order which has survived is that of the “general dispositions”, dictated at 8-30pm on 1 December. Memoirs too can be useful, but you have to bear in mind, once again, that the authors were also influenced by the infamous 30th Bulletin when they were finally writing down their “recollections” of the battle, even without being aware of it. This was particularly true of Ségur. We also possess Napoleon's own commentary on Kutusov's report and Soult's commentary (did he really write it?) on Stutterheim's account. In the first case, the emperor wanted to enhance his own actions, in the second, the maréchal wanted not only to “match the bulletin” but also to talk up his own role. In addition to the above Russian and Austrian accounts there is Danilewski's version of events. This account, designed to be sent to the Czar, can be considered as the “official” version seen through Russian eyes. All things being equal, this account mirrors almost exactly Berthier's version written for the French side. In all this, you have to be ready to pick and choose. It is probably also important to take another look at the account written by Tranchant de la Verne, written in 1809. Though “official” in character, it was nevertheless properly done and based on the decent work of General Blin.
In your book you mention a certain number of discoveries. What would you say were the most significant?
Jacques Garnier:
It is important to understand that when he arrived at Brünn, Napoleon had no idea as to how he was going to direct the battle which he so longed for. It is always easy to say today that he drew the enemy on by weakening his right, but at the time, Napoleon was primarily bringing his army together, that is, concentrating it. Savary confirms this. On 1 December, Napoleon was keeping himself ready for every eventuality, ready to fight an offensive or defensive battle, depending on the information he received. The Russians marched down the Olmütz road to Brünn in a straight line up until the evening of 28 November. Up until 29 November, that is three days before the battle, Napoleon thought that they would make a frontal attack. This was why he fortified the Santon hill, placing on it 18 artillery pieces and a whole regiment, whilst in the end this position was to prove irrelevant to the outcome of the battle. Not once did he consider weakening his right. Indeed at that time his army did not present an aligned front but was rather ranged in a triangle, each of whose sides was five kilometres long. Even Davout, whose corps was to form the right of the battle line on the morning of 2 December, had orders to come to Brünn as part of the concentration of the army. What is more, after the occupation of the Pratzen Heights by the allies, and despite after having said “the enemy will have to wait a long time up there if they're expecting me to come and dislodge them”, he organised an offensive battle, as can be seen in the 8-30pm general dispositions where we find order to perform “a forward march by echelon, the right wing to the fore”. It seems clear then that at this moment he was thinking that all his psycho-diplomatic manoeuvres to give an impression of weakness and to incite the enemy to attack had (at least partially) failed. Where is the “weakening of the right” in all this? It was only in the night that he came back to a battle system which was much more flexible, his preferred way of going about things. It can never be said too many times, Napoleon's strategies and tactics were conducted in response to the situation developing at the time.
Was the battle really inevitable?
Jacques Garnier:
People say that Napoleon made the battle inevitable by showing sign of weakness, and this is true. But it is always very tricky to have the enemy believe that your position is poor and then to keep saying precisely the opposite to your troops. This is a difficult role to play. And it doesn't always work. Savary's mission to the Czar to demand an armistice can easily be set in this context since it only concerns the enemy. But try telling Lannes that the army is going to retreat and leave the posts at Wischau to fight on their own with coming to their aid, that message is pretty difficult to “get across” to the troops.
One element in Napoleon's preparation for the battle has been somewhat forgotten, namely Soult's corps' movements between 20 and 30 November: when the 4th corps was sent to the Austerlitz region, its role was merely one of cover and observation. It performed that role perfectly. Furthermore, when – under threat of an enemy advance – Napoleon pulled that corps back (you couldn't under any circumstances call this the Grande Armée “abandoning the Pratzen Heights”), he at the same time performed a full reconnaissance of the roads which the enemy might use. As a result of this “dry run”, seeing the difficulties encountered by the divisions led by Vandamme and Saint-Hilaire, on the day of the battle the emperor had a considerable advantage over his adversaries. And this is not the least of his talents.
Amongst the leaders of the corps, are there any who have been unjustly forgotten?
Jacques Garnier:
Two are particularly interesting. Soult, first of all. He knew the battlefield well since he had taken part in the manoeuvre mentioned above. Napoleon could have sent a ‘front line general', (Lannes, for example), but he chose Soult because he wanted for this mission someone less combative and more thoughtful. All the reconnaissance missions performed in the two days preceding the battle were undertaken by Napoleon with maréchal Soult. Although it must be said that the marshal did not immediately spot the “ideal” side to the battlefield. Indeed, when he was in place on the site, he wrote to Napoleon on 24 November, noting “this region is so rambling that half of the regiments will have to be used to protect the other half”.
The other great figure of the day was of course Davout. Simply his marching his men 112 kilometres in 44 hours was an exploit in itself. On the day of battle, he showed intelligence in not following his orders and marching to not Sokolonitz but to Telnitz where he was needed. He showed great initiative and was the only one to do it judiciously.
A third should not be forgotten, although he is the antithesis of the two above, Bernadotte. True to his reputation, he was too slow on the day of the battle and not energetic in the pursuit of the following day; the same as he was to be the following year at Auerstadt.
Which regiment played the decisive role?
Jacques Garnier:
At Tilsit, the Czar's brother, the Grand Duke Constantine who led the Russian Guard at Austerlitz, said to someone in Davout's entourage: “The Battle of Austerlitz was won by the 48e d'infanterie”. In other words, broadly speaking, Friant's men. And if this is true, it's because this thin line didn't break. At the opposite end of the scale, the 4e de ligne (attacked between midday and one o'clock and commanded by Major Bigarré – although the leader on paper was Joseph, who remained in Paris) “distinguished” itself by losing its standard.
Was there a fault-line in the Napoleon's dispositions?
Jacques Garnier:
Unlike at the battles of Jena and Wagram, where Napoleon set out his troops gradually as they rallied and where he commanded the manoeuvre in all respects, strangely, at Austerlitz he gave his orders at dawn on the day of the battle and then seems to have let his left and right go off on a slack rein, especially the left under Lannes and Murat. Towards 3pm, Lannes was to stop precisely because he did not know what was happening to the south. Davout had Merle's brigade from Legrand's division at his disposal, but he used his troops – to use a cycling metaphor – “with his head down”. This explains why Levasseur's division was not used on the day.
It is astounding to think that the only order given in person by Napoleon that day is that given to the Garde à cheval to defend the 4e de ligne. The emperor followed his army initially from his observations post at Zuran – he was here at the beginning of the battle – but from which point he could not see what was going on at Telnitz and Sokolnitz. He then followed the advance of his centre, establishing himself on the hill of Stare Vinohrady. He finally took up a position in the tower of the Chapel of Saint Anthony which overlooked the whole marsh region. But he knew well that the key to his manoeuvre lay in this region.

What was the decisive moment in the battle?
Jacques Garnier:
We should here differentiate between the “symbolic” moment and the actual key moment. The most important actual event was undoubtedly the taking of the Pratzen Heights by Soult's men in the morning. Thiébault reached the village at 9am. At about 11am, French troops were masters of the hill, whilst Buxhöwden's Russians were down below, near Telnitz and Sokolnitz, already caught in the vice. Earlier, at 9am, with Telnitz empty, Doktorov's 1st column could have passed through, making things decidedly tricky for the French; by chance, however, Weyrother had ordered the three Russian columns to assemble side-by-side before beginning their attack. The time it took them to perform this manoeuvre was that used by the French front line to reform. At 1pm, the defiles near Telnitz and Sokolnitz could have been seized by the Russian troops, but at this moment, Langeron and leaders of the Russian corps learned that their position would soon become untenable because the French were coming up on their rear. On the other hand, the symbolic moment was at about 1pm when the 4e de ligne and Vandamme's 24e léger, forming Soult's left, were in difficulty and bailed out by the grenadiers, the chasseurs and mamelucks of the Garde, who had been sent by the emperor. This last ditch attack by the Russian imperial horse guards repulsed by the French imperial guard implied that victory was certain. Indeed, Berthier chose this moment to send the news of victory to Talleyrand in Vienna. However, even without this clash of imperial guards, victory was already certain.
Were there not other solutions, other ways of going about things on the days following the battle?
Jacques Garnier:
In 1806, against the Prussians, Napoleon chose to annihilate the enemy forces. At Austerlitz, on the other hand, he was unsure as to how far he could go: already the fact that his 72,000 men far from their base were victorious against a possible 100,000 was a spectacular result. The Russians were fleeing and the Austrians were ready to negotiate. He made do with that. And let's not forget that the Prussians, though suing for peace, were not far off, not to mention the fact that the ‘Italian' troops of Archduke Charles could have joined up with those of Archduke John. Napoleon had had his victory, a complete victory. He was simply happy to leave it at that.
How do you explain the place of honour given to the Battle of Austerlitz both by French collective memory, and more specifically by the French army?
Jacques Garnier:
The anniversary of the coronation, the double bonus paid to the soldiers of the 1805 campaign (a sure sign of how important the event was), the memorabilia and monuments all reveal the significant political role that Austerlitz was to play. The soldiers of the Republic are still there – their uniforms show that -, so it is also a victory for the Revolution. Napoleon also puts emphasis on being seen as emperor, not just the ‘head of the French government', as Alexander addressed him in a letter. Everything was cranked up for a great theatrical display. On a more personal note, ever since my youth (I've always been a great walker) I've always had a great admiration for the soldiers. With their modest footwear, they ate up the miles, day after day, and then fought. Friant's division covered the 120km to Raygern in two days, they then fought the whole day of the 2nd of December in sleet – I've been there at that time of year and can say from experience that the conditions are difficult – and then began pursuing the enemy on the following day. That was where the real heroics were. To fight well when you're up for it is one thing, but to march almost to exhaustion to get to where the battle is going to be and then fight shows almost superhuman heroism.


(1) Paris: Fayard, 205
(2) Dictionnaire Perrin des guerres et des batailles de l'histoire de France, ed. Jacques Garnier.
Publication Title :
Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien
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