The War of the Third Coalition


Napoleon at AusterlitzAs 1805 began, Napoleon was planning to cross the English Channel and invade Great Britain with 2000 ships and 200,000 soldiers. The French and British were at war once again: irreconcilable enemies struggling for dominance on the continent of Europe.

At the end of summer, Napoleon paraded his soldiers along the Channel shore, then, to everyone’s surprise, ordered them to turn their backs on England, and march into Europe.

Austria and Russia had joined Britain in an alliance to destroy him. On September 10, Austria attacked French-controlled Bavaria. Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers lumbered forward to unite with their Austrian allies.

Napoleon’s soldiers marched deeper and deeper into Europe. Waiting were two enemy armies that outnumbered them almost two to one. The Russians and Austrians planned to defeat the French by sheer force of numbers.

But Napoleon saw at once the flaw in the allied strategy.Their forces were widely dispersed across the continent. By moving quickly, he could strike at the Austrians before the Russians arrived.

In less than six weeks, the French reached the Danube, catching the Austrian army of General Karl Mack by surprise. While his enemy wavered, Napoleon struck the decisive blow.

At the battlefield near Ulm, 27,000 men surrendered on October 19. Mack had lost almost his entire army. “I did not intend to fight any but the English,” Napoleon told the defeated Austrian General, “until your master came along and provoked me. All empires come to an end.” Now nothing stood between Napoleon and Vienna. “I have accomplished my object,” Napoleon wrote. “I have destroyed the Austrian army by simply marching.”

On November 14, Napoleon led his soldiers into Vienna, the capital of the ancient Austrian Empire. The Emperor Francis I had fled, leaving his palaces and gardens to the enemy. Bonaparte triumphantly paraded through the winding streets. Two months before, he had been encamped on the English Channel. Now, the Viennese elders were giving him the keys to their city. But his triumph had been shadowed by a disaster.

On October 21, the British Admiral Horatio Nelson had caught a French and allied Spanish fleet at Trafalgar and utterly destroyed it — at the cost of his own life. Great Britain had lost its greatest sailor, but never again would the French challenge the might of the British navy.

Napoleon no longer had a fleet he could count on, and now, in December 1805, the Grand Army itself was in danger. Although Napoleon had crippled the Austrian army and driven the Emperor from Vienna, his conquest threatened to become his undoing.

All of Europe had become a deadly trap. He was deep in the center of the continent; Prussia was now threatening to declare war. And on November 22, the Russian and Austrian armies finally united into a single fighting force — 90,000 allies against 75,000 Frenchmen.

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