Last novel of W.G. Sebald, published shortly before his death in 2001.

In the 1960s, the unnamed narrator meets one Jacques Austerlitz, a Ludwig Wittgenstein-lookalike of indeterminate nationality based in London. Over a period of many years, Austerlitz gradually reveals his story to the narrator. The disturbing tale he tells takes us back, via the kindertransport, to pre-war Prague.

Sebald's themes - time, loss, displacement - are suggested through an imagery of archaeology, old buildings, natural history, people and places submerged in water, ghosts.

Is Austerlitz himself a ghost wandering the earth?

Avant garde elements - pictures, footnotes, no real chapters or paragraphs - complement a Germanic seriousness, producing something sepulchral (like marble - smooth, cool), haunted.

It will be enough for you to say: "I fought at Austerlitz," and everyone will respond: "There is a hero!"

(from Napoleon's proclamation to his soldiers after the Battle of Austerlitz)

The Battle of Austerlitz (or The Battle of the Three Emperors):


At the end of August, 1805, the new Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, had begun his military campaign against his enemies: Austria, Russia, and most of all Great Britain. Napoleon's initial plan was to land at Dover and defeat Britain on her own ground. His huge army, numbering around 200, 000 men, was already in the English Channel when the British Prime Minister (William Pitt the Younger) managed to save his country from invasion. At the last minute diplomats had been able to secure a third anti-French alliance, with Austria and Russia fighting Napoleon on the ground and Britain in the background providing much of the finances needed. As the eastern allies were already mobilised, Napoleon was forced to turn east to face the new threat, abandoning his plans for the invasion of England.

The French moved with lightning speed, taking the whole of Europe by suprise. Within weeks most of the Austrian army was surrounded and forced to surrender at Ulm. A slow moving Russian force had been on its way to reinforce the Austrians when this happened. The remnants of the Austrian army linked up with these Russians near Branau.

The French then proceeded to advance towards Vienna, driving the allied force before it and capturing the city, as well as occupying most of Germany, Austria, Bohemia and Moravia. Despite this, allied morale was lifted by the arrival of the Austrian emperor Francis I and the Russian Tsar, Alexander I, along with reinforcements. The combined force now totalled between 90, 00 and 100, 000 men, although only around 15, 000 were native to Habsburg lands (i.e. Austrian). The Austro-Russian force also had around 300 artillery pieces. Napoleon had half this number of guns at his disposal. The allied leaders decided to advance towards Napoleon's position, where it was believed he had only 50, 000 men, and fight the decisive battle of the campaign, overwhelming the French with their numbers. Instead of waiting for this, however, Napoleon quickly reinforced his troops with two Corps, bringing his total up to around 75, 000 men and meaning that his numerical disadvantage was greatly decreased; although still significant.

The opposing armies took up their positions between the towns of Brno and Austerlitz (Slavkov) on the evening of Monday, December 1st, 1805.

The Battle:

The battle took place on undulating ground between the two villages, with an area of 10 to 12 kilometers. This was bounded by a road to the north, the Litava river to the east and by a tributary of this river to the west, forming a triangle where the battle would be fought. At the southern point lay a small lake (really a large pond) called the Menin Pond. Another, smaller pond was formed on the Litava river close to the first. About a dozen villages also lay within this triangle. A line of hills known as the Pratzen (Prace) Ridge ran almost parallel with the road, about 6 kilometers from it. The high point of this ridge became the focus of military operations during the day.

The commander of the coalition troops was the 60-year old Russian, General Kutuzov. The allies presumed that the French would remain around Brno in defensive positions due to poor reconnaisance (for example, the burning of torches to celebrate Napoleon's first anniversary of being emperor was explained away by the allies as the burning of the French camp before they retreated!). The plan was to force the French north with infantry, attacking down off Pratzen Hill where the coalition headquarters was set up, and cut across the Brno-Vienna road before attacking the retreating enemy flanks with cavalry and more infantry. The army was split into five columns to implement this plan. Although not an altogether bad plan, it did not take into account the speed of the French army.

To prevent this happening, Napoleon was relying on the arrival of the Third Corp under Marshal Davout to reinforce the area towards which the allies were moving. The first three columns started to move downhill at around 7am towards the sparsely defended French position. Only the arrival of one Division of Davout's troops prevented a breakthrough by one of these columns. Napoleon then launched "the lion's leap". Thick fog had obscured the bulk of the French forces which had been in the valley all day, and now two divisions were unleashed on the unsuspecting flank of the enemy. Nobody had thought of the possible danger from the right as the columns moved off, and by the time the fog cleared it was too late.

It was also at this moment, as Napoleon waited to make sure the allies were attacking where he had predicted, that the sun rose above the horizon to illuminate the battlefield and clear the fog. The emperor from that day on associated the sun with his success, calling it "le soleil d'Austerlitz".

The allies, however, were moving more towards the south than Napoleon wanted, and so Davout was ordered to reinforce the French defences at the point of impact. Marshal Soult was free to launch an attack on Prace Hill itself with his Corp. The attack caused great suprise among the allies, but the Austrians and Russians to their credit recovered quickly, organising a stiff defence. The fight lasted for several hours, largely consisting of close-quarter bayonet work. It was at this point that the French became outraged at Russian prisoners attacking and disarming their guards, and so some units ceased to take prisoners, instead slaughtering whole enemy units that had been captured.

Several allied cavalry charges on French horsemen were foiled by well-placed squares of infantry. Other cavalry encounters occurred throughout the battle, usually resulting in a localised French victory. The Russian Imperial Guard was broken by cavalry, their place on the battlefield taken by the French equivalent. Elsewhere allied troops formed in square to repel cavalry were destroyed by horse artillery which had been hidden by charging horsemen, who veered away at the last minute.

So, by early afternoon, the allied columns on Pratzen Hill were under fire from two sides, the front and flank, with French attackers threatening the summit where the allied headquarters had been placed. Napoleon's trap (not to mention gamble), of making his flank seem weak so that the Allies would attack in strength there only to be defeated by a counterattack, had worked brilliantly. The allied commanders had completely emptied their centre to focus on the French right flank and were vulnerable in the extreme. The main focus of fighting then shifted east, away from the hill, enabling Napoleon to move his headquarters to this spot where the opposing commanders had been that morning. The French could now split the Austro-Russian force in two.

The French succeeded in forcing the allies to retreat off the Pratzen ridgeline, isolating elements of the enemy army from each other. The Russian Guard was lucky to escape at this point; had the French given chase it would have been destroyed. The coalition command panicked, as did its troops. The retreat turned into a rout, and an estimated 4, 000 allied troops were captured. Having captured the main avenue of retreat, the French forced a large part of the allied army towards the two frozen ponds.

25 French cannon had been deployed by Napoleon near the ponds. Few ways across were available, several subsequently blocked by artillery fire or ruined due to the sheer weight of the equipment trying to cross. As men began crossing the ice, Napoleon ordered heated shot to be fired into the frozen ponds. 38 cannon were later recovered. Only 2, 000 men on the Austrian and Russian side, 6% of those who had begun the day's fighting, escaped.


French losses are estimated at around 1, 300 killed and 7, 200 wounded, with one battle colour lost. The butcher's bill for the allies was much greater. There were around 6, 000 Austrians killed, wounded, captured or missing. Russian losses numbered in the region of 20, 000, also killed, wounded, captured or missing. 45 colours were lost. It is thought that around 15, 000 on both sides died in the battle itself, with hundreds more dying in the following days due to lack of care and a typhoid epidemic that spread quickly in the mild winter.

The subsequent peace treaty, the Treaty of Pressburg (the old name for the town of Bratislava where the treaty was negotiated), was signed on December 26. Hostilities had ceased immediately after the battle, but this treaty detailed the conditions imposed on the losers, especially Austria. 140 million francs in reparations, 6, 300 square kilometers of land and 3 million people were lost by the emperor of Austria. The Russians retreated back into their territory, but were not yet beaten fully.

Austerlitz was Napoleon's greatest victory. The third alliance had been comprehensively defeated and French territory extended to cover most of Europe. William Pitt, the architect of the alliance, was devastated and died a few weeks later. Prussia entered the scene far too late, and was itself beaten at the battles of Jena and Auerstadt. Mainland Europe was conquered. Only Britain remained to defy Napoleon; but the emperor's eyes were fixed on Spain and Russia.

"If you wage war, do it energetically and with severity. This is the only way to make it shorter and consequently less inhuman."

(Napoleon Bonaparte)

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