Austerlitz: The Battle of the Two Emperors: The Greatest Battle of Napoleon's Career Took Place Two Hundred Years Ago, on December 2nd, 1805. Although It Is Often Called the Battle of the Three Emperors, Michael Adams Sees It as a Very Personal Clash between Two Men Struggling for the Mastery of Europe

Article excerpt

This year has seen much commemoration in Britain of the bicentenary of Nelson's great victory at Trafalgar, but that was not the only famous battle fought in 1805. Just six weeks later, on December 2nd, more than 150,000 men in two mighty armies clashed near the small town of Austerlitz (modern Slavkov) in the eastern part of what is now the Czech Republic. This time the French came out on top, inflicting the kind of decisive defeat on their opponents--the combined forces of Austria and Russia--that Nelson had so recently handed out to the Franco-Spanish fleet.

The name of Austerlitz will forever be linked with that of Napoleon Bonaparte. The battle was fought, poignantly, on the first anniversary of his coronation as Emperor of the French and it is widely acknowledged as his military masterpiece, the engagement over which he exerted more personal control than any other. There is, however, another man whose name deserves to be just as closely identified with the events of December 2nd, 1805 as Napoleon himself; but this man spent the rest of his life trying to distance himself from that day just as assiduously as Bonaparte sought to bask in its glory.

Austerlitz is sometimes referred to as the 'Battle of the Three Emperors' after the fact that the rulers of all three states whose armies fought there--France, Russia and Austria--were present on the battlefield. Yet at a more fundamental level it was really the battle of just two emperors: Napoleon (r.1804-14, 1815) and Tsar Alexander (r.1801-25). Alexander's troops made up five-sixths of the allied army, and no understanding of why the battle took place and how it turned out, is complete without attention being paid to the attitudes and decisions of Russia's young monarch.

Alexander Pavlovich Romanov was just a few weeks shy of his twenty-eighth birthday at Austerlitz, making him eight year, younger than his rival Napoleon. Like Bonaparte, he had achieved power at an early age as a result of a coup; in his case the murder in March 1801 of his father, the volatile Tsar Paul I by a clique of pro-English aristocrats upset at his sponsoring of a League , of Armed Neutrality directed at Britain.

The young Tsar's personality was every bit as complex as that of the man who would later humiliate him at Austerlitz. Indeed, he is often referred to as the enigmatic tsar. Outwardly, Alexander liked to project the image of a liberal progressive, but any thorough examination of his life and reign is likely to end up agreeing with the judgement of Lenin that he was merely playing at liberalism. Alexander remained at heart a believer in, and defender of, strict socio-political hierarchy, an ancien regime monarch whose Enlightened attitudes were but a veneer. Another important contradiction in the young tsar's character was that between an affected modesty and an inner arrogance. Despite projecting an aura of Christian humility, Alexander undoubtedly saw himself as destined to play a key role in history. After a brief and unsuccessful flirtation with domestic reform, which produced much hot air but precious little action, he turned to international affairs as the sphere in which he was to achieve greatness, with profound consequences for the rest of Europe.

In Britain, we tend to think of the Third Coalition, the alliance comprising Britain, Austria, Russia, Naples, and Sweden that confronted France in 1805 and which was effectively destroyed at Austerlitz, as a largely British construct, the fruits of the labour (and gold) of the second administration of Pitt the Younger. In reality, however, the chief architect of the coalition was not Pitt but Alexander. British diplomacy certainly played a role, but it was only a key one with the minor members of the anti-French alliance, such as Sweden and Naples. Russia's (or, perhaps more accurately, Alexander's) motivations for opposing Napoleonic France owed little to Pitt's blandishments and bribes, while it was the Russians rather than the British who were decisive in persuading Austria to join the coalition. …