Napoleon’s Final Hour – Failure at Austerlitz


I’ve just finished reading a book on the French Revolution of the Napoleonic Wars entitled Revolutionary Europe 1785 – 1815 (and you can also read my review of the book here, namely because I discuss, albeit briefly, some ideas that I won’t be talking about in this post). Anyway, I have to say that the author, George Rude, seemed to gloss over a number of important events, one of them being the Battle of Austerlitz. In fact this is what he says:
(Czar) Alexander, who had taken command of the Austro-Russian forces, fancied himself as a commander and was easily persuaded by an incompetent chief-of-staff that Napoleon was in a weak position and could be defeated. Infatuated with the prospect, he let himself be lured to the village of Austerlitz in Moravia, where Napoleon, in the most decisive of his victories, cut his army in two and inflicted a loss of 27,000 men.
I have to say that I was a little disappointed, especially since Austerlitz is one of those battles that military historians have studied ever since, and is one of those battles, on par with Canae, which demonstrated the effective use of military tactics to overcome a much more powerful army. However, despite Napoleon’s tactical genius, I am still of the opinion that when it comes to war there is still an element of luck, and I have to say that even in this battle (as in number of others) the cards managed to fall Napoleon’s way (which wasn’t the case with Waterloo).

Actually, what was interesting was that when I looked at a couple of other military history books on my shelf (including one that focused on battles), Austerlitz bearly made a mention. Sure, Trafalgar and Waterloo where explored, but then they were battles in which the English won, however I would argue that these two battles did not have the same effect upon the history of Europe that Austerlitz did (well, okay Waterloo nipped Napoleon’s second empire in the bud, but that is another story for another time).

Anyway, what I wish to speculate about here is what would have happened if Napoleon had not come out on top, and in fact what would have happened if he had been defeated at Austerlitz. However, before I go down that road, we need to take into consideration the background (since history does not occur in a vacuum) and then at the battle itself.

End of the Monarchy

Napoleon - The Short Dead DudeThere was a time in my life that the only thing that I knew about Napoleon was that he was some short guy that had conquered Europe, and that he was a laughing stock in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. I knew that he had lived, that he was this great general, and that he was short, but that was basically about it. Anyway everything suddenly fell into place when I returned to High School and took up Modern European History. The thing with Napoleon was that he had come to power at the end of a rather turbulent decade, the decade of the French Revolution. I won’t go into too many details here because the revolution is incredibly complex and would take too long to look at all aspects of it. However, as we probably all know, it came about when the absolutist Bourbon Monarchy was overthrown and a Republic was established.Anyway, while the causes of the revolution are complicated in and of themselves, in really all boiled down to one thing – money. You see, the government of France didn’t have any (they had blown it all on pointless wars). So, the government came up with this radical idea – raise the taxes. However there was a catch – the aristocracy, who pretty much formed the government, considered themselves to be exempt because, well, it was their money anyway and they had better things to spend it on, and the church was, well, the church, so they were automatically exempt (as they still are). So there was only one other group to get the money from – everybody else. The problem was that everybody else considered this to be incredibly unfair, so they went and formed their own government, the National Assembly, and basically sidelined the monarchy.

The Tennis Court Oath
And it all happened in a tennis court

To cut a long story short, over the period between 1789 and 1800 France went from one failed government to another, and it was become increasingly evident that the monarchists where slowly returning to power, much to the disappointment of the public (there had been a period, known as the Jacobean Terror, when heads were being lopped off left, right, and centre, all under the pretext of defending the revolution), so one day Napoleon, who had by this time risen to the rank of the commander of the army, staged a military coup and took control of the French Republic.

The thing with the monarchy though was at that time it was like one big happy family. All of the monarchs in Europe where somehow related, so when the Bourbon dynasty was toppled, this upset many of the other monarchs in Europe (though the English took a back seat for a while because they actually liked the fact that France was in chaos), so to help out their colleagues that had been deposed, they eventually took up arms. This war continued, intermittently mind you, right through to the end of Napoleon’s reign.

Napoleon Confronts his Enemies

Napoleon had not risen to his glorious heights through luck – he was a very skilled general and had won victory after victory (with the exception of a failed Egyptian expedition – though he did recover the Rosetta Stone that was the key to unlocking Egyptian Hieroglyphics), but many of them were in Italy. At that time Italy was basically a collection of states, and fairly weak ones at that. However they were under the control of the Holy Roman Empire, which was based in Austria.

As Napoleon had inherited a war from his predecessors, and being a general as well, you could say that he was addicted to battle (which was ultimately his downfall). He had already defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Ulm, however the coalition (I don’t like using the term allies because that gives us the idea that there is a ‘good’ side and a ‘bad’ side, and I would hardly consider Napoleon to be a brutal dictator – especially since he wasn’t the only dictator running around Europe at that time) was still trying to prosecute the war. What Napoleon needed was a decisive victory. He had already captured Vienna, but it appears that taking control of the capital was not enough.

Being the cunning strategist that he was, Napoleon knew that simply charging the enemy wasn’t going to work, especially since the Austrians had just been reinforced by the Russians. Instead he made it appear that he was quite weak, and even withdrew from one of his strategic positions (as well as making his right flank appear weak). Instead of charging at his enemy, he lured his enemy to him, which ended up giving him the advantage. The coalition forces decided to strike at where they believed Napoleon was weakest – his right flank – which ended up being a huge mistake. Napoleon exploited this by attacking at the centre, and eventually splitting the Coalition army in two and resulting in the decisive victory that Napoleon wanted.

Battle Map

It is interesting how strategists seem to like to create the illusion of weakness to draw in a more powerful foe. The Greeks and the Carthaginians did this as well, though they created a weak middle which would retreat, drawing the army in and allowing the flanks to attack from either side. No doubt the generals during the Napoleonic Wars were more than familiar with these tactics, so Napoleon went for something different – divide and conquer. Instead of entrapping the army as the Greeks and Carthaginians did, he split the army in two, allowing him to attack two weaker foes. Anyway, in case you are wondering, here is the location of where the battle took place (modern day Czechoslovakia):

Also, the Wikipedia article is much, much more detailed than what I’ve said here.

The Empire Collapses

Well, things may not have gone Napoleon’s way, or he may have even made a rather stupid move (which is unlikely), but let us consider what would have happened if Napoleon had been defeated. He had already been defeated once, in Egypt, but that was more of a failed expedition as opposed to a decisive battle. This was supposed to be a decisive battle, but in this timeline Napoleon was defeated. While he suffered a huge defeat in Russia years down the track, Napoleon had already become entrenched, and he was still able to raise another army to continue the war. At this stage of his empire, it was still young, and such a defeat would have been a huge blow to his career.

Having been defeated by a combined Russian and Austrian Coalition, Napoleon suddenly discovers that his allies in Germany have deserted him, the people of his conquered territories begin to rise up in revolt, and his political position back home very precarious. Embolded by their victory, the Coalition press their advantage, with their original goal of restoring the Bourbon dynasty. They quickly retake Vienna, and Napoleon returns to Paris to lick his wounds. However the Coalition do no leave it at that – they decide to march on Paris, especially since the original goal of the war was to overthrow the Republic and avenge the execution of Louis and Marie-Antoinette.

Upon returning to Paris, Napoleon discovers that he is basically no longer in charge. He is removed from his position through another coup-de-tat, this one headed up by the royalists (who are receiving support from abroad). As Coalition troops march into France, the French put up little resistance, and the remnants of Napoleon’s government are arrested, put on trial, and executed. In short, the monarchy is restored, and the Napoleonic empire is dead even before it was born.

Europe after Napoleon

To say that the Europe of this timeline is much different than ours is an immense understatement. First of all the Holy Roman Empire is never destroyed, and continues to dominate central Europe as it had done for centuries. The ideals of the French Revolution are never spread beyond its borders, and the entire bloody decade of the 1790s is simply viewed as a failed experiment. This means that the revolutions of 1848 never occur, and Louis Napoleon never becomes president of France. In fact, for quite a some time, the monarchical systems remains purely entrenched.

Otto Von BismarkThe thing with the Napoleonic Wars is that it gave rise to a new movement across Europe – Nationalism. With this movement we see the rise of the nation states such as Germany and Italy. By removing the Holy Roman Empire as an effective power meant that the idea of a national identity began to develop. In fact what the French Revolution did was to remove the idea that the people were the subjects of the king and gave them the idea that they were French (or German, or Italian). Cunning rulers would use this sense of nationalism through the 19th Century to unite people under a common cause and common identity. Sure, nationalism existed in one form or another prior to that, but what the French Revolution did, in removing the monarch as the head of state, gave the people a sense of actually belonging to a nation.

Another thing that Napoleon did was to create what is known as the Napoleonic Code. This was a series of civil laws designed to effectively govern the country. The Napoleonic Code is still in use in France to this day. If you are familiar with law you will know that there are two forms of civil law – common law and the civil code. Common Law is what is known as judge made law, in that judges decide cases based on previous decisions. The civil code provides guidelines for judges to determine the outcome of the cases, and while in common law countries (England, America) the judges look to case history to make a decision, in the civil code countries the judges look to the code. The thing with Europe (at least continental Europe) is that they are all covered by a civil code – which they inherited from Napoleon. Where ever Napoleon went conquering, he would establish a republic and set up a code based upon the code that he established in France. Prior to that cases where generally decided based on the whim of the rulers. In this alternate timeline, Napoleon’s complex civil code would not have been exported to the rest of Europe.

No doubt over time things would have continued to change – Prussia would have once again sought to expand its control over Germany, and the Holy Roman Empire would have continued to weaken. However the Bourbon dynasty would have been much more entrenched. Sure, pockets of resistance would have arisen, and in time the monarch would have been forced to establish a form of constitutional monarchy (especially if he had not learned from the mistakes of his predecessor). By this time the Holy Roman Empire was already weakening, as was the influence of the church. However it is unlikely that the France of today would have such a secular stance. More likely than not, modern day France would still have a king (assuming that the World Wars didn’t break out, but with Prussia’s imperial ambitions, this would have been unlikely – Germany would have reached a point where they would have become a threat to European stability).

The colonial land-grabs would no doubt have continued, but since England didn’t have to put huge amounts of resources into fighting Napoleon, the empire would no doubt have grown much faster. In fact they probably would have been seen as the new threat to European stability. There would have been no Congress of Vienna after the war, which England managed to dominate, and as such they would have found themselves, once again, facing the threat of a united Europe attempting to prevent them from becoming too powerful. When the War of 1812 broke out in North America, France would not have been embroiled in a war on the continent, and would have been able to provide more support for the Americans. However it is also unlikely that they would have sold their North American terriories. In fact, it is quite possible that the United States that we know today would not exist – a large part of the North American continent would be controlled by the French – thus no wild west, no western and, unfortunately, no Fist Full of Dollars.

This would have severely changed the outlook of the American Nation. It was the Louisana Purchase that created the idea of manifest destiny, and the desire to conquer the land from ‘sea to shining sea’. Yet the French territories were in the way, and the only way they could have taken them would have been to go to war with France. If they were to have done this they may have found themselves suddenly embroiled in European politics. The reason they were able to fight Spain was because Spain was weak and nobody came to their aid. Sure, they may have been able to  take the Louisiana Territories, but it would have suddenly revealed their imperialist ambitions. This would have come to the attention of the European Powers, and possibility even brought together an alliance between Britain and France to put a stop to this. No doubt England was itching to get back her lost colonies. Of course, there was still the war of 1812, which the English won, despite being caught up in a war on the continent. Without having to split her resources, England could have put more resources into the field, and instead of just burning the Whitehouse, could have occupied Washington, and established a puppet regime.

The Alternate Timeline

So, with these speculations above, let us consider the scenario as it would play out in our new history:

Napoleon is defeated and returns to Paris where he is arrested. The Coalition then invade France and re-establish the Bourbon Dynasty. France, having been burnt by the failed revolution, agrees accept the new king, however Louis XVII, who has learnt from his father’s mistake, agrees to establish a parliament based on the English model. Louis takes the executive role, while parliament takes the legislative role. The Napoleonic Code is retained however, and the voting franchise is restricted through a property qualification. The French republic is no more.

Hostilities in the United States results in an invasion of Canada, which brings a swift rebuke from the English. Not being constrained by a war on the continent, the British navy manages to field a lot more troops and quickly takes Washington. Congress is closed down and the president deposed. British troops once again occupy North America. A vice-roy is established and martial law is imposed. However this is to prove to be a drain on British resources and a guerilla war ensures. Britain, despite its colonial possessions, needs to continue to send in troops to keep order. This has an effect in preventing her imperial ambitions elsewhere. As such Britain never conquers India, and never manages to penetrate China.

After thirty years of war, Britain finally decides to pull out of North America, which results in the United States gaining control of Canada. However the United States is still restrained by the Louisiana Terriorties to the West. Despite driving out the British, the United States is tired of war, and chooses not to move west. As such it only exists on the East Coast of North America.

While all this is happening, a new ruler arises in Prussia, and through political manoeuvring, manages to unite the German provinces. Prussia declares independence from the Holy Roman Empire, and war once again ensures. However this time Prussia manages to retain its identity, and over a period of a decade the Holy Roman Empire begins to disintegrate. Germany thus arises as a dominant power in Central Europe. This in turn results in an alliance between France and Russia, who feel threatened by the rise of Germany, and a state of cold war ensures. Eventually this breaks out into a hot war, as it did in our timeline.

Elsewhere, Britain is forced to scale back on her colonies. The Boars in South Africa take control of the Cape Colony, and France, who has successfully recovered from the revolution, expands her empire to eventually take control of India and South East Asia. Instead of the sun never setting on the British Empire, it turns out that it is France. In fact it is France that begins to make headway into China, establishing colonial trading settlements. However, since the United States is prevented from expanding west, she never establishes a presence in the Pacific.


Creative Commons License

Napoleon’s Final Hour – Failure at Austerlitz by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me


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