Heights Of Arrogance – Storming Austerlitz: A Genius Laid Low (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-two)

Everything was covered in snow. Our car, the leafless trees and the small museum/visitor’s center for the Battle of Austerlitz that had been at the mercy of the elements all morning was slumbering beneath a layer of wet snow. The nearby Cairn of Peace Memorial (Pamatnik Mohyla miru) was fringed with an icy frosting. Meanwhile, the snow continued to fall like white rain, weighing everything down. I never could have imagined that beautiful and deadly name of Austerlitz would henceforth be associated in my mind with a snowstorm. Thoughts of the great battle fought here were lost on me under a storm of soggy snowflakes and ice pellets. My wife followed close behind me hoping that we would soon find shelter indoors. Our sense of relief was considerable when I turned the knob, pushed inward and the door to the museum opened. It was hard to believe that the site was open to visitors.

A Transcendent Moment - Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz

A Transcendent Moment – Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz (Credit: François Gérard)

A Novel Approach – Guided By The Tour
We were soon met by two smiling staff members, a couple of younger Czechs who looked as though they could not be any older than thirty. We remarked that it was a surprise to see them, or that matter anyone, considering the weather. They shrugged the snowfall off as just a fact of winter. According to the two men, everyone had come to work that morning. Even so we were the only visitors on this grim morning. I soon got the distinct impression that they were glad to see us. Both men were upbeat, pleasant and ready to give us a tour of the exhibits. This was a level of customer service I was not used to experiencing in a museum. Usually one is left on their own to browse exhibits as they please. In this case, we were to be accompanied throughout our visit to the museum. We would soon learn that there was good reason for a guide to be with us throughout.

The exhibits were a strange hybrid of traditional and quixotically new. There were the requisite artifacts such as weapons, shells and smaller accoutrements. Their uniqueness came from the fact they had been found on-site, other than that there was nothing unusual about them. While we perused these artifacts, our guide stood beside us the entire time. I had trouble understanding why he was accompanying us until we entered another room where the lights went down, the floor began to shift and we saw a film that gave us the first-hand experience of soldiers on the verge of battle. The multimedia production was partially operated by the guide, thus his presence beside us throughout the tour. The problem with this and the ensuing rooms was that the staging of such an elaborate production overrode our ability to comprehend the battle. It was an attempt to put the visitor inside the battle, replicating the experience rather than attempting to retrospectively understand what had occurred at Austerlitz.

After The Battle - Scene from The Austerlitz Phenomenon

After The Battle – Scene From The Multimedia Presentation at Austerlitz

Lost In The Process – Shades Of Genius
There were four parts to the multimedia presentation: Before the Battle, The Battle, About The Battle and After the Battle. It was a novel approach that did not quite come off as the exhibit designers had planned. Only the final part, After The Battle, where a life size figure of Napoleon meets and negotiates with the defeated Austrian Emperor made a distinct impression. The figures were so lifelike, the dialogue so real that it felt as though they were standing before us. It was remarkably surreal. After the tour ended we were offered the opportunity to view more artifacts. The exhibit flow – the traditional bookended by the technological – was confusing and strange. The guides made up for it with their eager to please attitude. Unfortunately, there was a great deal of information lost in the process. Foremost was a comprehension of the brilliant tactical genius displayed by Napoleon at Austerlitz.

In the days leading up to the battle, Napoleon had his forces surrender the high ground, known as the Pratzen Heights, something almost unheard of in military strategy. This fooled the Allied forces (Austrian and Russian), into believing that Napoleon’s French Army was weak and suffering from low morale. When the battle was joined on that historic winter morning in 1805, the overconfident and numerically superior Allies attacked the French Army’s right flank in force. By doing this they fatally weakened their center on Pratzen Heights. At 8:00 a.m. a ferocious French attack stormed the heights as the sun broke through the fog which had shrouded the battlefield. Napoleon referred to it as the “Austerlitz Sun”. The Allied center split apart. Napoleon’s other forces then launched attacks on both the northern and southern flanks of the Allied army forcing it to fall back on a nonexistent center which was now held by the French. It was an incredibly decisive victory for Napoleon. His mastery of tactics had led to a decisive victory, one that historians rank with the greatest in military history.

Blind Spots – A Sense Of Invulnerability
It is difficult to overstate the consequences of the Battle of Austerlitz. The French Army’s resounding victory ended The War of the Third Coalition and led to the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. Most importantly, it had a lasting influence on Napoleon’s mindset. Many historians believe that in the wake of Austerlitz he developed a sense of invulnerability, lost touch with reality and was consumed by blind arrogance. Austerlitz was then, as it still is today, a singular masterpiece of military genius. Napoleon let this incredible achievement go to his head.

Ironically, the victory at Austerlitz played a large role in his downfall. The biggest lesson of the battle for me was where Napoleon’s brilliant victory took him, first to the heights of arrogance than defeat and exile. His generalship would never again rise to the level of greatness he displayed on the Pratzen Plateau. How could it? Austerlitz was the stuff of genius, but events in the future would prove Napoleon to be a mere mortal. In future years he was unable to replicate Austerlitz. That moment of brilliance was always beyond his grasp. History has a way of humbling everyone, even Napoleon.

Click here for: Beneath The Cairn Of Peace – The Most Enduring Legacy Of Austerlitz (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-three)

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