Austerlitz: The Story Of How Napoleon Crushed The Austro-Russian Army (Ian Castle, December 2023, History Today)

The problem facing Napoleon was his urgent need to bring this Austro-Russian army to battle. His greatest fear was that the allies would withdraw to the east, forcing him to extend his already precarious line of communications even further as the biting cold of an eastern European winter took hold.

And it was a move such as this that Kutuzov, commander of this new combined army, advocated. Yet the final decision was no longer his to make. Tsar Alexander rode into Olmütz along with the reinforcements, determined to join his army at the front and lead it to victory. It was the Tsar who would decide the future direction of the army.

A council of war took place in Olmütz on 24 November, during which Kutuzov outlined his plan for a retreat towards the Carpathian mountains, leaving a wasteland in his wake to deter pursuit. By gaining time in this way he hoped to draw in General Bennigsen’s distant army to further boost his strength. Other officers put forward ideas for a withdrawal into Hungary or Bohemia to join forces with approaching allied formations. However, all supported a common theme: that of retreat.

But the presence of the Tsar diluted the authority of these generals. Surrounded by his own circle of sycophantic advisors and would-be military experts, Tsar Alexander, without any military experience, willingly accepted their analysis that the French were over-extended and vulnerable. This, they advised him, was his best chance to cross swords with the man recognised as the greatest soldier of his age, and win. Flattered and entranced by what he heard, Alexander overruled Kutuzov and took the decision to fight. Such was the standing of the Tsar in Russian society that no one felt inclined to oppose his wishes. It was just the decision Napoleon desired.