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The Battle of Ulm, 1805. (The 11W Military History Series)

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JKH1232's picture
March 20, 2016 at 10:38am

Well, it’s shaping up to be an interesting weekend for sports.  Yesterday, two Wrestlebucks earned national championships, there was some sort of important pro basketball game, and I’m sure there were other events.  Today, both basketball teams will take to the courts.  In the midst of all this action, perhaps there’s a little room for a major historical battle?

The War of the Third Coalition

While friction between Britain and France brought the end of the Peace of Amiens, it took a few notable diplomatic blunders by Napoleon to bring the Third Coalition into existence.  Like the 2nd, the 3rd Coalition formed around Britain and British diplomatic efforts in the wake of a series French missteps.

Napoleon’s reign as First Consul (A position that became a Life appointment in 1802) was loaded with political instability at the top.  While Napoleon’s government was effective at reestablishing law and order in France, which in turn rapidly improved the economy, Napoleon’s consolidation of power had left plenty of people and groups looking to bump him off and take control.  Once Britain declared war, these attempts increased rapidly.  While Napoleon survived these attempts relatively easily- his secret police was very effective, honed in the fires of the Revolution- he used one series of attempts as a pretext to settle an old score.  Louis Antoine de Bourbon, the Duke of Enghein and cousin of Louis XVI, had been a major commander in various Royalist armies during the First and Second Coalitions.  After the wars ended, he married the daughter of a minor German noble in Baden, and retired to the country,  In March, 1804, Napoleon sent a force of cavalrymen across the Rhine, into Baden, and kidnapped the Duke.  He was tried by a tribunal for treason- a crime he was supposedly pardoned for- and executed in the middle of the night.

Word of the execution of the Duke- an action famously condemned in France as “Worse than a crime, it was a blunder”- spread through the courts of Europe quickly.  The execution raised the specter of Napoleon as a Jacobin, renewing the war against nobility and monarchy in Europe, as well as a violation of the Treaty of Luneville and a serious violation of the sovereignty and rights of the Duke of Baden.  Tsar Alexander of Russia came to believe that Napoleon was a threat to security in Europe.  The King of Sweden recalled his diplomatic mission.  The Austrians condemned the action strongly. 

In order to quell the assassination attempts in France, and to convince other monarchs of his commitment to stability- even as revolutionaries inspired by France tried to overthrow German Princes, Napoleon took the step of abolishing the First French Republic.  In May, 1804, the Senat of France declared him Emperor, which a plebiscite later confirmed.  In December, he crowned himself Emperor of the French.  His government stayed largely the same as it had been under the Consulate- most of the power concentrated in his hands, with a legislature dominated by his hand-picked men.  He reformed the French legal, tax and provincial governments as well, creating a system that combined the best of the Monarchy, Republic, Roman ideas, as well as Napoleon’s own.  This reform set  Napoleon’s government on a firm footing going forward, in terms of stability, taxation, and conscription.

This also left a couple of sticky wickets lying around for Napoleon.  As we mentioned before, the French Republic had created several client republics in Switzerland, Holland and Northern Italy.  Napoleon had already settled the Heveltic Republic in 1803 by force of arms, an act that had propelled Britain’s eventual declaration of war.  In early 1805, Napoleon dissolved the Italian republics, creating the Kingdom of Italy.  He then crowned himself King of Italy, using the Iron Crown of the Lombards as his crown.  This was a triple insult to the Austrians.  First, it was a massive violation of the Treaty of Luneville, which guaranteed the independence and existence of those Republics.  Second, the principalities of Northern Italy had been Hapsburg clients and allies since the 1500s, and those nobles were now dispossessed by Napoleon, who replaced the local nobility with Frenchmen.  Finally, the Iron Crown of Lombardy was, most properly, the crown of the Holy  Roman Emperor- a title held by the Archduke of Austria.   In response to this move, Francis II of Austria proclaimed the Austrian Empire, and cut off diplomatic relations.

In the course of a few short years, Napoleon had managed to alienate most of the Great Powers of Europe.  Meanwhile, in Britain, the weak government of Addington, who had negotiated Amiens, fell, and William Pitt the Younger resumed the premiership.  Pitt ordered his diplomats to begin trying to pull allies into the war against France.  In December, 1804, Sweden allied with Great Britain, agreeing to let the British use Swedish Pomerania as a base to attack the French army occupying Hanover.  (The Kings of Britain were also the Dukes of Hanover.) In April, 1805, the British secured an alliance with Russia.  In August, Austria joined the alliance, formally beginning the War of the Third Coalition.

The Corps d’Armee System

Napoleon was, without a doubt, a skilled commander.  He campaigned particularly well and vigorously, and was a fairly adequate battlefield commander.  He was excellent at choosing subordinates.  The first 18 Marshals of France were all excellent commanders in their own right.  He was certainly charismatic- his men believed in him, and were willing to exert themselves in his cause.  However, he was certainly not a tactical innovator.  His armies used the system developed  by Kellerman, Doumariez and Jourdan.  However, his lasting impact on military science, other than his well studied battles, lay in army organization.

As we discussed in our discussion of the Battle of Minden- a battle that you might find interesting to revisit in light of the Revolutionary Wars- armies of the Age of Reason had no permanent organization above the Regimental level.  Armies were organized for the campaign season largely on the basis of how many generals the army commander could trust with some initiative.  This ultimately limited the size of the armies a general could command.  With a good subordinate or two, a general might command as many as 100,000 men.  With none, most generals were lucky to manage 40,000.  For the most part, however, generals tended to micromanage their subordinates, who often had little experience in commanding above the regimental level.

Carnot, the great organizer of the French Republic, made two commonly ad-hoc organizations permanent formations in the French army.    The first was the brigade, an organization of regiments.  Carnot, as we discussed previously, organized the demi-brigade, which brought together old royal troops, conscripts and skirmishers into the same formation.  Napoleon abolished the demi-brigades, but kept the higher level of organization- rather confusingly renamed Regiment.  However, Napoleon’s regiments had two to four battalitions of around 1,000 men, for a total of 2,000 to 4,000 while regiments in other armies were around 1,200 men or so on paper. Carnot further organized his regiments in to permanent divisions of two to four brigades, plus a battery of light artillery and, in some divisions, a few hundred light cavalrymen.   These permanent organizations eased the administrative burden of running the army, and made organizing columns and detachments easier. 

In his Italian campaigns, Napoleon went a step further, creating corps, consisting of two or so divisions, plus extra artillery and cavalry.  These corps were commanded by talented subordinates, but were ad hoc organizations that changed often in the course of the campaign.  Other French commanders, such as Hoche, Jourdan and Moreau, did not use this extra layer of command, opting to use the more traditional wing, center, wing and reserve formations created as the battle developed. 

In addition to creating permanent brigades and divisions in the French Army, Carnot created a number of small armies.  This was a response to the inexperience of senior French commanders, who could not handle large armies, and the large number of conscripts brought in by the levee en masse.  Over time, the size of French armies increased, and the number of armies decreased, as the French found better commanders who could handle larger armies.  However, many noted the potentially effective maneuvers of several small armies organized by a skillful leader, such as Jourdan. 

In his reorganization of the French Army into the Grande Armee, which he would lead from 1805 until 1814, Napoleon incorporated all of these lessons, changes and experience.  He created permanent corps in his army.  These corps were commanded by marshals, and were, effectively, small armies of 10,000-40,000 men.  These corps had two or three infantry divisions, a cavalry division, and 20-40 cannon.  These corps were large enough to scout on their own, and to engage in a defensive battle for a day or so against an enemy army in the field.  The organization of divisions lessened the administrative and command burden on the corps commander, who only needed to think of a few units, rather than dozens of regiments.  Divisions commanders had the same advantages of command as well, their burdens lightened by brigade commanders.  In addition, the smaller size of corps allowed for quicker marches, allowing the whole army to move faster.

The Corps system also lightened Napoleon’s burden.  Corps could maneuver as independent forces, with their own routes of march.  All Napoleon had to manage was the general direction of march for the whole army, and his own personal corps, the army reserves and guard.  The corps themselves stayed within a day’s march or so of each other, travelling in something of a box or star formation, depending on the number of corps, with Napoleon and the reserve in the center.  When one corps found the enemy, the others immediately marched to the battle, arriving as reinforcements through that day and the next.  The nearest corps went into battle immediately, while late arriving corps could be used as reinforcement, or sent on flank marches, or to initiate a pursuit of a breaking enemy.   By using this system, Napoleon could command an army of several hundred thousand.

Napoleon also made permanent several changes to the logistical system of the French army that had developed over the Revolutionary Wars.  In the Age of Reason, armies relied on the magazine system of supply.  Fortresses managed large logistical operations- not just in terms of arms, shot and powder, but food.  Fortresses maintained massive supplies of fodder for horses as well as massive bakeries and stores of salted meat.  Convoys of wagons would ferry cooked bread, meat and other supplies from the fortress to the army.  This reduced the reliance of the army on local requisitions- which brought back nightmares of the 30 Years War- but forced armies to stay close to friendly fortresses for food and other supply.  The French, however, had to move away from the magazine system.  They relied more heavily on taking food from their local area for their supply, and bringing their supplies of powder and shot along.  Also during the Revolutionary Wars, the French developed mobile bakeries.  These bakeries allowed the French army to move away from their magazines for a short time, and allowed both for faster marches over a few days, and for marches that previously would have been impossible because of supply issues. 

The Battle of Ulm

The Austrian entry into the Coalition in August opened up an avenue of invasion into France for the Russians.  However, it was rather ill-timed as well- British forces in Pomerania couldn’t move out to support the Austrians, and the Russian armies were not in position to support the Austrian army in the early going.   This was further complicated by palace intrigues in Vienna.  After the Treaty of Luneville, Archduke Charles, the best Austrian commander of the Revolutionary Wars, had taken command of the Austrian Army, and engaged in a reform of the army.  Charles opposed entry into the war, since his reforms were incomplete.  His opposition to the war led to his replacement in overall command by Archduke Ferdinand Josef, a man with no actual experience.  To support Ferdinand Josef, a more experienced commander, Karl Mack, was made his quartermaster, and effectively commander of the Austrian Army.  Mack then reversed some of Charles’ reforms, kept others, changed his mind, and reversed his reversals a few times.  He then decided on a plan of campaign for the rest of 1805.  His army would head into Bavaria to block a French invasion by holding the exits to the Black Forest.  The main Austrian army would cross the Alps under the command of Archduke Charles (Mack wasn’t a complete idiot!) and invade the Kingdom of Italy.  Mack would wait for Russian support before crossing the Rhine.

Napoleon, on the other hand, had spent most of 1804 trying to organize an invasion of Britain.  The Royal Navy of Britain’s effective blockade made this impossible, and the French Mediterranean Squadron, combined with the Spanish Fleet, had taken a number of extreme measures to shake the British Mediterranean Squadron, which we’ll look at in more detail later.  Once it became clear that Austria would mobilize, Napoleon pulled the Grand Armee of the French coast and maneuvered it to the Rhine. 

Napoleon decided not to act in the way Mack assumed he would.  Rather than maneuvering the Grand Armee to Italy, he headed for the Lower Rhine.  Under Murat, a French cavalry corps demonstrated against the Black Forest, convincing Mack that Napoleon would use the same line of advance across Bavaria that Jourdan and Moreau had used in previous campaigns.  Napoleon also sent smaller forces to delay Mack in Italy, under Massena, and armies to Naples and the French coastline to fight British forces and defend against British attacks. 

On September 2nd, Austrian forces invaded Bavaria with 70,000 men.  The Kingdom of Bavaria had allied with France, but the Austrians brushed aside their small army.  On September 19th, Mack reached Ulm, the highly defensible fortress town where he planned to meet any French army coming from the Black Forest.  Meanwhile, Napoleon marched his army to the Lower Rhine, and, on September 22nd, began his maneuver.  In many ways, his plan for the campaign was the same as the campaign he had waged in 1800 before the Battle of Marengo.  Napoleon crossed the Rhine with 200,000 men in six corps. 

From the 22nd to October 5th, Napoleon’s army swept from the Rhine to the Danube, and, on October 5th,  began concentrating his army at Donauworth, to the east of Mack’s position at Ulm.  As Mack gained intelligence concerning Napoleon’s march, he decided to stand pat at Ulm and wait for the Russians, as planned, rather than maneuvering to face Napoleon across the Rhine at Donauworth, or marching to the south to gain maneuvering room for an escape to the east. 

It wasn’t until the 5th, with Napoleon’s army assembled on the Danube, that Mack moved to act.  He decided to cross to the north bank of the Danube at Guenzburg, and moved his army in that direction.  At the same time, Napoleon sent Ney’s corps to Guenzburg to take control of the bridges there, cross the river, and make contact with the Austrian army and observe it.  Mack detached a force to go further east, to Wertingen, where Lannes and Murat had already crossed.  On the 7th, the Austrian force ran into the two French corps, and was annihilated.  With a strong French force on the southern bank, Mack accelerated his plan to cross the Danube to the north.  His army ran into Ney’s corps on the 8th.  The Austrian Advanced Guard, reinforced over the day, held off one of Ney’s divisions.  However, Ney sent another slightly upriver, to Elchingen, where the bridges were lightly guarded.  This division arrived on the Austrian flank, and over the course of the 9th and the 10th, the Austrians retreated to the west, towards Ulm.

Mack spent the 10th and 11th reorganizing his army.  Meanwhile, Ney, believing Ulm lighly defended, made preparations to attack while Napoleon split his army into two wings- one to watch the Russians, the other to watch the Austrians.  Mack decided to break out, and, on the 11th, ran into Ney’s forces.  The Austrians, with overwhelming numbers, forced the French back.  However, Pierre Dupont, the French commander on the scene, launched a series of violent counterattacks that convinced Mack that the whole French army was near, and, rather than maneuvering to destroy Ney’s isolated corps, he slowed his advance.  It also convinced Napoleon to act, and he maneuvered most of his army to the west against Mack, leaving a force in Munich to cover the Russian army at Bresigau.  As Mack shifted back towards Ulm, Napoleon’s marshals began taking bridges across the Iller and Danube.

Meanwhile, the indecisive marching caused confusion in the Austrian command and demoralized the soldiers in the army.  Archduke Ferdinand began to quarrel with Mack, his theoretical subordinate, while the Austrian soldiers held serious doubts about the men trying to lead them in the face of the French.  On the 13th, Mack tried again to move against Ney at Elchingen, but Ney outflanked him again, pushing Mack back towards Ulm.  By the 14th, Ney was reinforced by Lannes, the Reserves and Marmont, while Soult’s corps marched further to the south to try and hook around Ulm. 

These maneuvers left Mack in a box.  He could not move south, since Soult blocked his route out.  Ney blocked the north bank of the Danube, Lannes the south.  His men were low on supplies, and he began losing contact with Ulm and its supplies.  Furthermore, many of his orders were countermanded by Ferdinand, leaving confusion throughout the Austrian army about what everyone was supposed to be doing. 

Once in place, Napoleon’s commanders kept up the pressure against the isolated, disorganized Austrians.  On the 15th and 16, Ney made several successful attacks against the Austrian fortified camps, bringing Ulm under bombardment and destroying any real chance of Austrian supply from that fortress.  On the 19th, Murat surrounded and forced the surrender of a large Austrian detachment.  With his supplies failing, his men demoralized and defeated, and already beginning to surrender in droves on their own, Mack decided to call it quits on October 20th, surrendering the rest of his army.  At a cost of about 2,000 men, Napoleon had effectively eliminated 70,000 Austrians without a serious battle.

The surrender at Ulm had serious consequences for the Austrians going forward.  Archduke Charles, engaged with Massena in Italy, had to try and retreat to Vienna, but, despite his victory over Massena at Caldiero, he couldn’t escape rapidly from Italy to get to Vienna.  The Russians, with Mack surrendered, decided to undertake another plan of the campaign, and began maneuvering for what would culminate in the Battle of Austerlitz.  However, the news was not all bad for the Coalition- as Mack was getting outmaneuvered in Bavaria, Nelson was closing in on a major engagement himself.

If you like military history and this post, feel free to comment below.  Also, there’s plenty more to read in the archive, if you like.  Just click here.

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