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1805: Austerlitz: Napoleon And The Destruction Of The Third Coalition Hardcover – Bargain Price, August 20, 2005
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1805: Austerlitz consists of eight chapters, three of which discuss the formation of the Third Coalition, the Ulm Campaign and the movement to Austerlitz. Goetz' chapter on the background to war is unusually good because he goes beyond the typical examination of the three main armies to discuss the forces and plans of all the coalition partners, including Sweden and Naples. Most books virtually ignore events in this war beyond Bavaria and Austria. Goetz is to be applauded for putting Austerlitz in proper strategic context. The description of the Ulm phase is good, although not much different from other accounts. Four chapters discuss the battle itself in great detail, covering the four main phases (Allied attack, French counterattack, French exploitation, Allied retreat). The author provides four very detailed appendices on Allied strength estimates, capsule biographies and order of battle.
The author joins with other historians in criticizing the Allied plan of attack for Austerlitz and later concludes that, "defeat was likely from the outset." However, I think that bashing the Allied plan is a straw man argument at best, since it does not appear that the Allies had a real battle plan. As Goetz notes, Weyrother's instructions for battle were based on guesswork and providing no specific guidance for actions on contact or how to utilize the Allied artillery superiority. Instead, the Allied columns marched off into the fog, hoping for the best. That is not a plan. Goetz does cover the battle in minute-by-minute fashion and the 20 excellent maps make it easy for the reader to follow individual actions. Goetz also provides a table on Allied artillery losses - there is a wealth of data in these pages.
The author is also to be applauded for his balance in the book; although his main interest lies with the Russian forces, Goetz acknowledges the "near flawless" French tactical performance. Goetz attributes the French victory to better leadership, better training, more combat experience - all of which added up to "superior tactical execution." On the other hand, he blames the poor Allied performance on a premature attack before all forces were available and a plan based on faulty assumptions (although the text makes clear that poor command and control was a decisive weakness). However, Goetz believes that the Russian soldiers fought as well as the French at the small unit level and that the French enjoyed no doctrinal advantages. In his assessment of the battle, Goetz seems to want to find a silver lining for the Allies by claiming that the French pursuit failed and the Allied armies were able to escape. Perhaps, but the fact that the Allies agreed to an armistice almost immediately and meekly agreed to all of Napoleon's terms indicates that their armies were unwilling or unable to carry on the war. The author's attempts to "dispel many of the myths" surrounding Austerlitz does not contain any fresh revelations. Goetz asserts that the `myth' that the Allied defeat was due to the use of outdated tactics is untrue, but it is unclear who he is refuting. He also notes that the `myth' that thousands of Russian troops drowned in the Satchan Pond is untrue, but Chandler noted as much forty years ago. This "myth busting" effort seems to be wrestling with phantoms in not disputing any specific counter-claims and sounds like a publisher's effort to attract more attention to a book for commercial purposes.
While 1805: Austerlitz is an illuminating work that delivers a wealth of data, the author's portrayal of the actual human beings involved and the drama of close combat is fairly flat. Although Goetz criticizes Tsar Alexander as `inexperienced' and General Buxhowden as `incompetent' this still does not explain the dysfunctional nature of Russian command and control on December 2, 1805. After reading Goetz' account, it should be clear to the reader that the Allied defeat rested heavily on Buxhowden's leadership failures, which crippled the Allied main effort. Buxhowden's failure to commit his plentiful reserves to either the fighting on the Goldbach or the Pratzen Heights was so incomprehensible that it cannot be chalked up to mere incompetence. Kutusov is portrayed as being in thrall to his sovereign's faulty decision-making but Bagration is shown acting aggressively without orders - clearly personalities mattered. The French commanders, with a few exceptions, are depicted as little more than ciphers. Ultimately, 1805: Austerlitz is an excellent study of this classic battle, but the author's efforts to present every last fact that he has extracted from Russian reports sometimes obscures the human drama.
Goetz is very concerned with precisely describing what actually happened. It becomes clear in the text or footnotes at many points in the narrative that Goetz has discovered a commonly repeated misconception. This was particularly apparent in the dramatic story of the clash between the Russian Cavalier Guard and the French Imperial Guard Grenadiers a Cheval. I cross referenced the 3 most accessible English texts. All 3 portray the Russian Guard as advancing on the center trying to restore the disastrous situation - Goetz points out the Tsar's brother was trying desperately to leave the field but remain in contact with the army HQ. All 3 have the Russian foot guard racing 300 yards up hill to attack, then cavalry clashes deciding the action; Goetz has the column's cavalry discovering and routing isolated French battalions, then battling the French guard cavalry to allow the foot to escape, an ultimately successful rearguard action. Night and day, and thoroughly convincing.
A must buy for anyone interested in the battle.
The first few pages are dedicated to setting the stage. It discusses Napoleon's moves and the desperate maneuvering that brought about the Third Coalition. This section is very short and appears to be thrown in almost as an afterthought. Unless you already are aware of some of the players and the history, it will provide very little enlightment as some of the action are given a sentence or two with no rationale provided. So, you have to grasp the significance of any of these events on your own. As a newcomer, you will likely be scratching your head over what caused this war to even start.
The second part of the book describes the initial campaign from the declaration of war to the surrender of the Austrian army at Ulm and the movements that brought the French and Coalition armies together on 1 December 1805. This is another section that is very much a buildup to the main event. It makes for very dry reading as it seems to be page after page of recitations of the movements of one military unit after the other as they pass through various small towns in the countryside. Even with the help of the included maps, it makes for very hard slogging. It does not help that there are no anecodtes or anything to brighten up the very dull recitation of place names and dates. There is one exception to this general rule and it is the exception that proves how much better this book could have been. The specific anecdote of how the French managed to capture a key bridge intact even though it was already ringed with explosives and guarded by Austrian soldiers is both incredibly funny and poignant!
The bulk of the book is devoted to a blow by blow and almost minute by minute account of the batlle itself from the early maneuvering at 7:00 AM until the fall of darkness at about 4:00 PM. Each unit and its roles and activities is described from both sides at the Battalion level. Since there were almost 200 battalions involved, you can understand why this book is over 300 pages in length! To ease understanding of the big picture, the author divided the action into chapters that are arranged by timelines and by portion of the battlefield. So, the story starts from the early morning activities on the south end of the battlefield where the Coalition forces started their attack and moves to the center at the same time, and then the North. This is followed by a similar recitation when the action shifted to the center and then the north.
The descriptions of each facet of the battle are laid out in extreme detail with movements of generals as well as units explained with maps interspersed frequently through the text and many footnotes that explain some minute detail or provide a reference to the author's sources. In general though, I found the footnotes to be less than useful to me.
The final two chapters are very short and attempt to explain the causes of the Coalition defeat and route as well as to wrap up the story of the war which essentially concluded after this battle. The causes of the great French victory are ascribed to a much better trained army and to Napoleon's flexible planning as counter to the suspicion, distrust, and rigidity of the Coalition generals. This is probably true althought Napoleon's actions throughout the day are only glimpsed and he appears to be a disinterested observer on the day of the battle itself. The final chapter is again a very dry recitation of what took place after the battle and the various diplomatic treaties that ended the war and the shifting of the national boundaries that followed those treaties.
In summary then, I find this book to be very complete as far as recreating individual unit actions during the battle at the Battalion level and higher. However, its very dry nature and almost complete lack of any focus on the personalities and the people involved made it a very difficult read. I suppose if you need a reference for a wargame that attempts to replicate the battle then this book should grace your library shelves, but if you are interested in anything beyond the bare bones movements of units then this book is not what you need.