Royal Naval Museum



Trafalgar conference > Synopsis

Austerlitz and the French

Peter Hicks

Fondation Napoléon, Paris

Above and beyond that of any other Napoleonic battle, the story of Austerlitz established Napoleon definitively as a Nietzschean ‘superman’. In addition to the accounts of the emperor’s famous dictation to Dartu and memoirs describing the battle itself, there are the stirring bulletins of the Grande Armee which gave the impression that Napoleon had somehow predicted it all. A European coalition had been quelled by the humiliating capitulation at Ulm and the crushing defeat at Austerlitz. Whilst the Boulogne dictation to Daru did in fact take place, the stories of the emperor’s perspicacity are greatly exaggerated. Indeed how could he have predicted Mack’s ineptitude at Ulm? Furthermore, Napoleon was renowned for his extraordinary ability to improvise on the battlefield. The first part of this paper will consider the events leading up to the battle, the battle itself and how the post-campaign propaganda talked up Napoleon’s reputation. Indeed, one wonders why, since there was genius enough already.

Trafalgar took place almost simultaneously with the Battle of Ulm: for the French the perfect moment at which to ‘bury’ such bad news. The naval disaster was not reported in French newspapers until more than a month later and even then without giving the engagement a name and emphasising the death of Nelson. By January 1806, attentive readers of the Moniteur could have learned the name of the battle. Quite naturally, the staggeringly successful results of the Austrian campaign were more than headline news. But it was not until 2 March 1806 that the first public recognition in France of the Battle of Trafalgar was to come. Napoleon famously described the fateful October day in his declaration at the opening of the legislative session, stating ‘we lost a few ships because of a storm, after a battle imprudently engaged.’ However, despite this apparent lack of concern and supremely powerful continental position (indeed, to use a financial metaphor, Trafalgar was not worth half a Austerlitz, as Pitt famously recognised) and in the immediate aftermath of Pressburg, Britain sued for peace. At a personal level Napoleon was, as Cambaceres described him, ‘deeply affected by the disaster.’ Hence the decade-long (and in the end insufficient) programme to increase the French navy in an attempt to rival British maritime power. Even as late as 1814, Napoleon’s naval budget was merely 30% that of Britain’s. Whilst Napoleon was unable to admit it, Trafalgar was conclusive and left the French Empire confined to the continent. Britain was thus free to conduct her policy of imperial expansion for the most part without fear of reprisals. The second part of the paper will discuss contemporary French reactions to (and avoidance of) Trafalgar.

Trafalgar and Austerlitz lived on in French consciousness. In the context of typically French (French scholars have maintained) self-mortification most notably with respect to the ‘defaite magnifique’ of Waterloo, it is perhaps surprising that Trafalgar does not occupy the same emotional terrain as its land counterpart. It did not sap the morale of the French navy, as often claimed. Austerlitz, on the other hand, as a victory, was perpetuated in both folk and national memory, surviving still today for example in the annual commemoration at the French military academy, Saint Cyr. This, the final part of the talk, will consider the place that these battles have occupied in French history and culture since their day.