Austerlitz, the word slides off the tongue. It sounds sleek, energetic and scintillating. The first time I formed an image of the word, brilliance came to mind. That was during my junior year in college. This happened while I was visiting with some fellow history buffs at Western Carolina University. One of them had just completed a paper on the Battle of Austerlitz and was proudly waxing poetic on the tactical genius Napoleon had displayed during what was universally acknowledged as his greatest victory. I cannot recall a single detail of what was told to me, but my fellow student said it with such reverence and barely disguised elation that I never forgot that Austerlitz was both a beautiful word and an event of world historical importance well worth remembering.
Visiting Powers – An Intensely Personal Experience
I did not give much thought to Austerlitz (Slavkov u Brna in Czech) in the two decades after that quasi-magical narrative of the battle was imparted to me. Only a visit to Brno brought Austerlitz back into my consciousness. This occurred via some tourist literature left at the apartment my wife and I were staying at on the edge of Brno’s Old Town. After Brno we would be heading back to Hungary. Thus, I hoped to find one more attraction in southern Moravia worthy of a visit before our return. Flipping though the literature I discovered that Austerlitz Castle or as the Czechs called it, Slavkov Castle, was nearby. It was not so much a castle as a massive chateau with 115 rooms. Its historical importance was due to an armistice signed there between the Emperors of Austria and France after the battle. While Slavkov Castle looked like a fine place to visit, I was more intrigued by the actual battle site.
The importance of visiting the actual site of a battle cannot be understated. To stand in the same place where men fought to their deaths is both a fascinating and unsettling experience. Fascinating, because the fate of empires and peoples was decided in a matter of hours by men both great and flawed, famous and anonymous. Unsettling, because these visits always turn into an intensely personal experience. It causes me to put myself in their place. To ask the question of whether I would have been equal to the task at hand. Would have I cowered in fear and fled from death or fought to my very last breath? Would I have been slaughtered at the outset or survived to fight another day? These questions are impossible to answer, but always at the forefront in my mind. There was also the added sensation of walking the same ground where some of the most famous figures in military history plied their deadly trade. For these reasons, a visit to the battlefield of Austerlitz was a must.
Nowhere To Hide – A Landscape Turned White
Getting to Austerlitz should not have been problematic. The visitor center for the battle site is located at what is known as the Cairn of Peace (Pamatnik Mohyla miru). This monument was built in the early 20th century to commemorate those who lost their lives in the battle. It stands only 18 kilometers southeast of Brno. The drive there takes half an hour in normal conditions. What my wife and I soon discovered was that conditions were anything but normal. Snow had begun falling in Brno just before daylight. By the time we were on the road, it was snowing heavily. While visibility was decent, the road conditions were not. Wet, heavy snow interspersed with icy patches made the highway slippery. More than once, my wife asked me if visiting Austerlitz was worth driving in such poor weather? In a snowstorm probably not, but I fell back on the argument that this would be a memorable adventure. Such a line of reasoning did little to quiet her concerns. After all, how many people would be crazy enough to visit Austerlitz in a snowstorm?
After driving through the slush filled streets of Sokolnice, we turned off onto the road which lead to the visitor’s center. Our only problem, the road was nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding fields. The entire landscape was turned white from the snow. There was not an inch of bare ground to be seen, either on the road or in the fields. The lack of trees made me assume that these open fields were used for crop cultivation. They were likely to be lush, green and pastoral during the summer. We were a long way from summer and by the looks of the snowscape in front of us, a long way from anywhere. This was the famous Pratzen plateau that Napoleon reconnoitered prior to the battle. The Battle of Austerlitz had also been fought in the winter, a chilly Monday morning on the second day of December in 1805. On that day there was no snowstorm. The only thing falling from the sky was a hail of bullets and artillery fire raining down upon massed columns and ending the lives of 24,000 men.
Whited Out – Shrouded In A Swirl Of Snowflakes
As for our journey, we were left to fight our own battle. This one was against the elements. The road climbed slowly through a blindingly white landscape. With no landmarks to guide us, it seemed as though we would never reach our ultimate destination. The road kept rising before us while the snow fell so hard that it was difficult to see more than fifty feet in any direction. We both began to wonder if the visitor’s center would be open. I would not have blamed the staff if they decided to stay at home. The expected thrill of standing in the footsteps of Napoleon was lost in this eternal whiteness. Armies may have fought one of the most important battles in human history here, but traces of the fighting were covered in a thick blanket of snow. The present landscape was imperceptible. History had been whited out, as were my hopes of getting an idea a visual of the terrain over which the battle had been fought.
Finally, after 15 minutes of oblivion I made out the Cairn of Peace standing on a hillside. Nearby was a building, shrouded in a swirl of snowflakes. We had arrived at our destination. There were some cars in the employee parking, but none in the area for visitors. Lights were on inside the visitor’s center. Hope was renewed as we prepared to step away from the battlefield and into a man-made environment that would attempt the impossible, approximating the experience of 150,000 men fighting for the idea of empire and also for their lives.