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The Real History of Napoleon’s Greatest Victory Didn’t Happen Like in the Movie

It’s absolutely terrifying. Here is the grisly punctuation mark on Napoleon’s greatest victory: a catastrophic slaughter of his greatest continental opponents, and a declaration for good and all (or at least the next handful of years) that Napoleon alone is Master of Europe! This is how Napoleon’s armies chronicled the devastating final moments for tens of thousands of Russians (if not more) who met the French general outside of a little town called Austerlitz on Dec. 2, 1805, and it is how Napoleon’s last reigning triumph is remembered still—as evidenced by no less than it being a centerpiece sequence in a Ridley Scott movie.

The aforementioned trailer even ends with Napoleon’s voiceover smirking, “I’m the first to admit when I make a mistake. I simply never do.” For those who know anything about the history of the Napoleonic Wars, the line is deeply ironic considering the French emperor’s later exploits in Russia or on the fields of Waterloo. However, whether intentionally or not, how the sequence itself is dramatized in Napoleon could be a mistake… at least according to modern scholarship and historians.

The Battle of Austerlitz and Napoleon Triumphant

Scott’s Napoleon is right to bask in what was one of the most impressive showcases of Napoleon’s tactical brilliance. For on this day, the French ruler soundly defeated the Austrians and Russians at the same time, despite the other empires having the greater numbers. Often romanticized in the 19th century as “The Battle of the Three Emperors,” Austerlitz was a climax of sorts to the most concerted effort yet by France’s enemies to curtail Napoleon’s ambitions and ever expanding tendrils.

The culmination of what is also known as The War of the Third Coalition, the Battle of Austerlitz occurred after the Allied forces of Great Britain, the Austrian Empire, the Russian Empire, Naples, Sicily, and Sweden rallied to war following, among other things, Napoleon’s encroachments into the Italian and Germanic lands, and his ordering the execution of Duke of Enghien in 1804. As a consequence, battles were fought that determined the fate of Europe for the next century (although not necessarily on land, but more on that later…).

To narrow this to just the sequence in the film, Napoleon is correct to depict the Battle of Austerlitz, which occurred in what is the modern day Czech Republic, as a brutally effective trap sprung by the French emperor against his enemies. Prior to the battle, Napoleon attempted to cultivate a false sense of security in the far larger Austro-Russian army. This was achieved by seeding false information that Napoleon’s men were starving and demoralized with the coming of winter; he also seemingly weakened his position on the land near the town of Austerlitz, known as Pratzen Heights, thereby suggesting the French were abandoning their positions. He even resorted to play-acting for the Russian envoy Prince Peter Petrovich Dolgorukov the month before the battle. Reportedly during a meeting with the Russian princeling, Napoleon affected nervous facial tics which were intended to suggest that the French emperor was terrified of his Russian opponents.

On the morning of Dec. 2, his enemies, urged on by an overconfident and tactical novice in Tsar Alexander I, took the bait and descended on what they assumed to be abandoned positions along Pratzen Heights. In actuality, Napoleon had divided his forces among a handful of generals in concealed locations around the trap, and the French cut the Austro-Russian army to pieces.

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