War of the Third Coalition
11 November 1805
The French Provisional "VIII" Corps under Marshal Mortier: 10,000 total, 9 guns
The Russians and a few Austrians under Marshal Kutuzov: 25,000 total, 156 guns
Weather: Cold and snowing
First Light: 0627 Sunrise: 0700 Sunset: 1626 End of Twilight: 1659
(calculated from U.S. Naval Observatory from location and date)
Present Day Location: Durnstein, Austria
An excellent view on Google Maps of the entire valley from Durnstein Castle.
This battle was not supposed to happen. In one of the most dramatic strategic campaigns in history, La Grande Armee under Napoleon had within weeks utterly destroyed the main Austrian Field Army under Mack at Ulm just three weeks before. It had, in the 19th century version of blitzkrieg, knocked out one contingent after another in a series of small battles against what was left of the Austrian force. The bulk of Napoleon's army was now on the south bank of the Danube driving toward a defenseless Vienna. Napoleon had entrusted three small divisions in an ad hoc corps under his trusted Marshal Edouard Mortier to secure a bridge over the Danube at Krems. It was essentially supposed to be a housekeeping operation; the Russians were not yet present in force and the small expeditionary army under Kutusov was thought to be in retreat toward Moravia, much farther to the northeast. That was the belief, anyway.
|Copyright 2013, Jeffery P. Berry Trust, all rights reserved|
In reality a significant part of the Russian army, over 23,000 men under Kutuzov, had made it as far west as Krems on the Danube, having recently crossed the strategically situated bridge there and burned it behind them. Cossack scouts had alerted the old marshal that the French had left a small corps, strung out in a gorge on the north bank of the river and that if he could trap them in detail before they reached Krems (where the country opened up), he had a chance to destroy in an entire isolated corps of the enemy. He had the bridge at Krems fired to eliminate any possibility of the main French forces on the south bank from coming to the aid of his prey.
Mortier, with about 10,000 in his ad hoc "VIII" Corps, was making his way along the narrow gorge of this section of the great river toward the bridge at Stein, a suburb of Krems, and had lost touch with his cavalry division, supposedly screening his northern flank. Groping his way eastward, more-or-less blind, he was unaware that he was about to walk into a trap. In addition to three infantry divisions (two French, one Dutch), with their attached artillery (26 guns in all) and about 500 cavalry, he also had assigned to him a flotilla of flat-bottomed barges to allow him to keep in communication with the left bank and to allow him to mount any amphibious jumps downstream, should the opportunity present itself. However, the majority of this "marine" asset was too far to the rear to be of any help in the coming fight.
Kutuzov dreams of another Thermopylae
Kutuzov's plan was to entice Mortier's first division, 5,700 men under Gazan, to attack him at the head of a narrow, flat valley just east of the town of Durnstein (below the ruins of the historic castle where Richard the Lionheart of England had been held for ransom some 613 years prior). While launching a holding attack with a column of 2,800 men under Miloradovitch, Kutuzov's plan was to send two additional columns (7,400) under Dokhturov and Strik around and up the plateau above the gorge and descend on the French from the rear; in imitation of Xerxes' annihilation of the Spartans at Thermopylae in 480 BCE.
The flanking columns started their march in the late evening of the 10th in order to arrive in the rear of the French just after the morning attack at 0800 the morning of the 11th. They had only about five miles to go so they theoretically had plenty of time to get into position for their surprise attack. But an early snow had clogged the passes over the mountains and fouled a plan that, while sound strategically, was too complicated for the operational capacity of the Russian Army of the time, even in good weather.
The Austrian allies on Kutuzov's staff criticized the complexity of the plan and the Russian's ignorance of local terrain and conditions. They also questioned the wisdom of splitting his force in the face of the demonstrably far more capable French. But the Russians themselves held the Austrians in contempt for having lost to the French so embarrassingly at Ulm. They remembered having beaten the French just a few years before in the Alps when their brilliant general, Suvorov, had showed them how Russians fight. But Kutuzov was no Suvorov.
As if splitting his army in two weren't enough, Kutuzov made a further error by peeling off a further 10,000 men under Bagration (including the irritating Austrians) to send them to the northeast of Krems to watch that quarter. The upshot was that he dissipated whatever numerical advantage he had before he even started the battle.
Meanwhile, Mortier, aware that there were some Russians at the head of the valley, hurried Gazan's division on the 10th through Durnstein to drive them back from the strategic bridge at Stein. Gazan, in turn, pushed forward his light infantry regiment (4th Legere) to seize the hamlet of Rothenhof and drive back the Russian outposts.
Night marches are rarely good.
At dawn on the 11th, the flanking columns under Dokhturov and Strik had only managed to make it as far as the north head of the mountain passes, exhausted after having slogged through snow all night. After marching all night, they still had to negotiate the difficult, snow-covered passes down through the mountains, a steep descent of almost 1,000 feet through narrow trails choked with snow.
During the march Dokhturov had problems with discipline as some of his troops could not resist breaking formation to loot the two villages they marched through (Egelsee and Scheibenhof). This was a perpetual problem with Russian troops, even though they were marching through supposedly allied (and therefore "friendly") territory, they proved to be as bad for the locals as the enemy--often worse. The discipline problem with a battalion of the Yaroslav Regiment was so bad that it was sent back in disgrace to Krems. Discipline breakdown was also one reason, during the war, that Russian units arrived at the front at only a fraction of their original strength, before even fighting a battle. Half the army was lost, pillaging and raping. Indeed, according to Thier in his History of the Consulate & Empire of France (1876), the local Austrians tended to regard their putative allies, the Russians, as the true invaders and the French as liberators, precisely because the former acted like a horde of barbarians and the latter like disciplined, civilized soldiers...at least by this stage of the war. It is likely, too, for this reason, that the impressed local guides were not as enthusiastic in helping the Russians find their way. So these guides may have also caused the delays.
Miloradovich, meanwhile, waiting in Stein by the river with his six battalions of infantry and four guns, was ready to launch his end of the attack by dawn. Of course, Kutuzov had completely lost touch with his flanking force and (in the absence of modern communications technologies) was unaware that the timetable was off by several hours. Without awaiting word from Dokhturov, he ordered Miloradovich's attack to go in, supported by Essen's column of 3,600 held in reserve in Stein.
The first map above shows the situation at 0800, just as the attack begins. The flanking Russian formations had not even begun to attempt the steep descent through the mountain passes. It would take them almost a whole day to make it to the river.
The tactical significance of vineyards
This part of Austria, the Wachau district, has for thousands of years been a wine growing region, renowned for its excellent white grapes and cool climate. For the purposes of tactical significance, the entire area all along these banks of the Danube, would have been covered, even 208 years ago, with dense vineyards.
The map has also been drawn to show this tactical feature of the vineyards carpeting the battlefield, even up the steep hillsides. While other maps of this battle ignore this feature, this would have posed a significant disadvantage to any attacking force and an advantage to a defender. If you've ever tried to hike across a vineyard you know you can only go easily with the grain (up and down the vinerows), but going "cross grain" is like forcing your way through hedge after hedge every few meters (I wouldn't recommend this through a working vineyard today). Cavalry would have been hampered by the close vines and dense infantry columns would have been disordered trying to move through them (either with or cross grain). In the Durnstein-Rothenhof sector, the vinerows today run generally perpendicular to the river on the flat, and parallel on the hillside. We assume this pattern would have been the same in 1805.
So even though the French occupied a seemingly flat plain between Durnstein and Rothenhof, it was probably, for tactical purposes, broken ground, which gave the defending French an edge. One need only go to the satellite image in Google Maps (Durnstein, Austria) to see the density of this terrain.
Click this link to go to Google Maps to see an excellent 360 VR view of the terrain. And this link to see a panorama of the entire valley.
Miloradovich at least does his part.
At 0800 the eastern Russian column under Miloradovich, consisting of three battalions of the Apsheron Musketeer Regiment, two battalions of grenadiers from the Smolensk and Little Russia Regiments, and a battalion of the 8th Jagers, (2,500 infantrymen in all) and four 6 pounder guns swarmed in close (but disordered) columns down through the vineyards and up the defile next to the river and onto the outnumbered 4e Legere (1,300) around Rothenhof. This column also had two squadrons of cavalry (the Mirapol Hussars) but, as was mentioned above, the ground, being covered by vineyards, restricted the use of cavalry. So we can only imagine that these horsemen played little part in the attack other than to hover in "support" on the roads behind the infantry.
Scott Bowden's excellent and highly detailed account of this battle in his "The Glory Years: Napoleon and Austerlitz" describes the Russian troops being hindered by their thick overcoats, while the French troops had been ordered to "drop packs and overcoats" in order to fight more nimbly; standard French practice. It goes without saying that during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, Russian troops proved themselves again and again to be ferocious fighters in actual combat, though their discipline may have been lacking on the march. In this case, even though the 4e Legere gave a good account of themselves, and the Russians may have been both encumbered by their coats and attacking across vineyards, their overwhelming numbers around Rothenhof and the fury of their attack soon threw the French chasseurs back in disorder.
Rallying once, the three legere battalions kept firing into the ranks of the oncoming Russians but soon found themselves unable to stop the savage assault; the Russians kept coming and coming. At this point, too, Miloradovich brought up four 6 pounder guns along the narrow defile along the river and proceeded to pour canister into the dwindling light infantry. So the Frenchmen retreated again, in a sauve-qui-peut escape back past their supports at Unterloiben, a mile to the west. During the retreat, the officers of 2nd battalion, on the verge of being overwhelmed, broke its flagstaff and hurled their flag and eagle into the Danube to avoid a humiliating capture.
Mortier Stops Miloradovich at Unterloiben
Meanwhile, while the 4e Legere was heroically trying to fight for time, Mortier and Gazan were bringing up the two battalions of the division's third regiment, the 103e Ligne, from Durnstein to reinforce the 100e Ligne behind the village of Unterloiben. Gazan had also assembled all of the division's grenadier and carabinier (light infantry grenadiers) companies into an ad hoc battalion and had them fortify some stone buildings on the eastern side of the hamlet. Any attacking force would have to either take this makeshift fort from 574 elite troops or be raked going past it to attack the line of main French line on the west side of town. This was a pattern of "strong point" defense that the French had used weeks before at Haslach, before Ulm, where it proved to be highly effective in breaking up assaulting columns being channeled through narrow village streets.
Mortier was also able to post his three guns in the most advantageous position to devastate the Russians, having to come on in narrow columns down the village main street, in effect putting them into an enfilade as they made their way up the street. Each ball plowed deep into the stacked ranks behind each other, causing frightful carnage.
But on the Russians came, flowing around and past the French grenadiers' strong point on the east side of the village, taking galling fire from the flanks. Again and again they flung themselves at the steady French line regiments pouring volleys into them from close range across the grapevines, and with the artillery battery mangling them with canister, only to be forced back (once again past the hornet's nest of blue coated grenadiers firing from the buildings) to rally east of town, where they would form up and charge once again. This went on for about three hours, like waves battering a breakwater, until the Russians were spent. Miloradovich went into the fight with about 2,500 infantry and finally limped back to Rothenhof with barely 1,000. For some inexplicable reason, Kutuzov, during all this time, never thought to support him with Essen's 3,600 reserves waiting in Stein. But then Kutuzov now, and three weeks later at Austerlitz, was never known for his alacrity in battle. To him, Miloradovich's heroic, three hour attack was only a diversion. He expected his masterstroke to fall at any moment from the mountain passes on the rear of the extended French.
The Russian stroke finally falls, too weak and too late.
At about noon, Miloradovich, having lost over 60% of his force, called off his assault and finally pulled his exhausted, wounded survivors back toward Rothenhof, given a little encouragement by the equally exhausted but victorious bayonets of the 100e and 103e Ligne.
|Copyright 2013, Jeffery P.Berry Trust, all rights reserved|
Unfortunately, as the first battalion emerged from the woods onto the steep, vine covered slope, they were unable to deploy due to the broken nature of the vineyard covered terraces. The two surviving battalions of the 4e Legere, having rallied, reloaded and redeployed among the vinerows, met the first Russians with devastating volleys. They were supported by some dismounted squadrons of the 4th Dragoons. In quick order the first Russian infantry to emerge were thrown back and started fleeing back up the defile, taking each succeeding battalion with them, until Strik's entire column was in retreat northward. All that work for nothing.
Mortier Starts to Pull Out of the Trap
Having successfully flicked away Strik's half-hearted feint on his flank, Mortier ordered Graindorge and what was left of his indefatigable 4e Legere to move east to Rothenhof once more and make sure Miloradovich's survivors kept retreating. In so doing the light infantry managed to capture the Russian guns and all of the survivors of the 8th Jager. By 1400 all the firing in the valley has died down and the battle seems to have been won by the French.
Nevertheless, Mortier sensed that this was probably only the lull. He had been attacked by only a fraction of Kutuzov's army and he rightly anticipated that the main attack was going to fall on his rear, through Durnstein. So by 1400 he ordered a staged withdrawal of the division back through Durnstein in an attempt to link up with Dupont's division, which he hoped was marching to his rescue from Weissenkirchen. This withdrawal must have taken a couple of hours to organize as the detached grenadier companies in Unterloiben had to rejoin their battalions. And transport for the hundreds of wounded would have had to have been organized.
Some two hours later, at 1600, Gazan's division was making its way back up the river road west through Durnstein when the heads of Dokhturov's large column started to emerge (finally) from their night-and-day-long trek through the mountains and woods. Immediately a second battle began, which was even more desperate because the French were, by now, nearly out of ammunition, so they had to bludgeon their way up the road against the blocking Russians by bayonet charges. Mortier's staff and Gazan plead with the marshal to flee on one of the few boats moored at Durnstein so a Marshal of France wouldn't be captured, but he refused, saying, (supposedly) "We must be saved or parish together!" Of course, this was probably romantic reconstruction in the tradition of 19th century memoir. But it wasn't in Mortier's nature, either, to abandon his men; he was a giant of a man and a fighter. So he personally led charge after charge of elite dragoons and infantry against the Russians, slowly driving them back.
|Copyright 2013, Jeffery P. Berry Trust, all rights reserved|
Dupont to the rescue, a reverse Thermopylae
But something was happening behind Dokhturov's dense columns. More firing and shouting could be heard up river. Dupont had come to the rescue!
Dupont's division was led by the 9e Legere, probably one of the most elite units in the entire Grand Armee. The two battalions came on to the rearmost Russian regiment, the Vyatka Musketeers, like a buzzsaw. In short order they had annihilated that unit, sending the survivors fleeing back over the pass they had just spent hours struggling over. These, in turn, started an uphill avalanche as one Russian battalion after another panicked before the homicidal 9th, themselves supported by six more fresh battalions of Dupont's infantry (the 32e and 96e Ligne).
Night was falling (about 17:00 at this time of year in this location) and confusion, followed by panic, started to infect all of Dokhturov's troops. Suddenly, where they had been the westward jaws of a vice on Gazan's division (Dokhturov could not have gotten word about the failure of Miloradovich's attack), they were now trapped in a vice themselves and cut off from their base. The tables were now reversed; what was supposed to be a Thermopylae (a classic double envelopment in a narrow pass) was unchanged, but the role of the Spartans had flipped to the Russians. It was they who were now assailed in a narrow pass from front and rear. And so they were cut down or they fled back up into the passes.
By 19:00, the fighting had died down. Mortier, thanks to the superhuman fighting of Gazan's division and the timely arrival of Dupont, had avoided what would have been the first catastrophe of the entire 1805 campaign for the French. But it would have been more of a symbolic catastrophe than a strategic one. The outcome of this first act of the War of the Third Coalition had already been decided three weeks earlier, at Ulm.
The toll of the daylong battle was enormous for both sides. Of the 10,000 troops that were actually committed to the battle by Kutuzov, a staggering 6,000 were lost, almost 60%. Entire battalions were wiped out. In addition to these, another 1,700 to 2,000 fugitives of Strik's and Dokhturov's commands never rejoined their regiments, but slipped into the countryside (and eventually back to Russia, presumably).
But the French also lost heavily. Gazan's division, naturally, suffered the most, with some 2,152 lost (36% casualties). The most bloodied unit was, of course, the 4e Legere, which had fought the longest, against the greatest odds and had stood as the rear guard into the evening, losing over half of its roster killed, wounded or captured. Dupont's division, arriving toward the end of the battle and dishing it out more than taking it, lost only 106.
Because the French had retreated upriver from Durnstein at the end of the day, Kutuzov declared victory. In his 18th century tradition of honor, the side remaining on the field of battle was the technical victor, even though both sides had retreated. Kutuzov was more of a public relations officer than an actual general.
Initially embarrassed by being ambushed, Mortier was now on the aggressive again and ordered another advance, seizing Stein and Krems on the 14th after the Russians had started a strategic retreat northwest into Bohemia, and commandeering the hospitals set up there by them.
Kutuzov, who had been handed a gift by Mortier's precipitate over-extension of the 10th, had thrown away his opportunity by splitting his forces in so many parts and relying on an overly complicated maneuver to outflank the French. Where he had initially outnumbered the French by two-to-one, he dissipated that advantage and everywhere his piecemeal attacks probed, they were actually outnumbered and over-extended themselves.While Mortier was in the thick of the fight, slashing away with his saber, Kutuzov was managing affairs in the rear at Krems during the entire battle; waiting for news, we assume.
The Russians also enjoyed an overwhelming strategic advantage in artillery, (162 to 11 tubes), but the snow, the steep and broken nature of the ground, and the strategic wastage of horses had prevented them from using all this firepower against Mortier. Except for six guns, most of Kutuzov's artillery was massed in battery on the bank of the Danube near Stein, ready to blast out of the water any attempted amphibious move by the French past Krems. As it happened, there was only one hapless boatload of Frenchmen (some survivors of the 4e Legere) whose boat had been picked up by the swift current and taken into the maw of the Russian grand battery, where it was blown into splinters.
It made no difference, though.
Strategically, in the context of the campaign, the Battle of Durnstein made very little difference. What could have been a temporary setback for one corps of the French, was made null by Kutuzov's incompetence. Napoleon was delighted with the heroic performance of Mortier and the newly formed VIII Corps. And he sprinkled medals, titles, and field promotions all 'round. But even if Kutuzov's Thermopylae had succeeded in wiping out Gazan's division, the overall outcome to the campaign would have been negligible (as Thermopylae itself had been to Xerxes).
The 1805 campaign so far had been almost flawlessly executed by the French. They were already at the gates of Vienna, with the vast majority of the Hapsburg field army destroyed and the Emperor Francis in flight. Kutuzov was already in retreat back toward the highlands of Moravia, racing to link up with reinforcements from Russia. As it happened, Durnstein made more of a propaganda victory for the French as they inflated the odds against them, in some bulletins claiming that Mortier had held off 40,000 Russians (instead of the 10,000 that were actually engaged).
Kutuzov was on his way back into Moravia where he was to link up with the rest of the Russian expeditionary force under Tsar Alexander and what was left of Austrian forces in central Europe. There he hoped to make a decisive stand against Napoleon on ground favorable to the Coalition--somewhere near Brunn, the high ground east of that town, near the Castle of Austerlitz, looked like a promising place to do that.
A war game of Durnstein could test a small number of "what ifs". Though, given the nature of the combat efficiency, the discipline, and material condition of each of the combatants, the outcome would probably have been the same. But some of the following scenarios could be played out:
1. Assume Kutuzov is smarter than he actually was.
Instead of splitting his army into little packets and sending half of it to guard against imaginary threats from the north, you could assign the outflanking force to not just Dokhturov and Strik but also to Bagration's column (5,500 men--Bagration being a far more innovative and aggressive commander than the other two). Additionally, Essen's idle reserve column, picking their feet back in Stein, could have been thrown in (like a reserve is supposed to be) to support Miloradovich after he had achieved his initial victory in the morning. The additional reserve column under Skepelov (4,000--see Orders of Battle below) could also have been used to press Mortier as he tried to escape the valley later in the afternoon.
2. What if Dupont doesn't arrive.
Another scenario could see if Mortier could have saved himself had Dupont not arrived in the nick of time at 1600. Roll dice (or use some other randomizing device) to make his arrival iffy. This would add an element of tension to any simulation since the side playing the French would not know, as Mortier didn't know, if the "cavalry" would arrive in the nick of time or not.
3. Suppose the weather was better.
To see if the unseasonably cold weather and the early snow was a factor, make the weather more balmy. The roads and ground movement could be normal. If your rules make the Russians fatigue more easily and fire more slowly because they would be wearing coats, you can have them take their coats off. and fight on more equal terms to the French.
4. Simulating the march indiscipline of the Russians
Part of the delay on the part of the Russians was on account of the sloppy discipline of the units. Several regiments (such as the Yaroslav Musketeers and the Pavolograd Hussars) had disgraced themselves by breaking and looting the surrounding countryside and every village they happened to march through. Russian officers were not, at this period, nearly as professional as the French. Moreover, there were not as many of them or of NCOs in the units to manage the serf soldiers.
To simulate this lack of march discipline, generate a randomizing event (a die roll, for instance) every time a Russian unit moves through or near a village. If the test fails, the unit becomes completely disordered and is out of the game. Or a number of soldiers can be lost to looting or "melting" away when tempted by a village or woods to do so. For example, if you roll a "1" when the unit passes through a village, 10% of the strength (in combat power or model figures) is lost.
The Russians, however, were also ferocious and tenacious in battle, so this indiscipline could be ignored once the unit is engaged. Rallying for Russian units in combat should be as easy as that of the French, since historically they were noted for their ability to reform in battle.
5. Movement Restrictions
As mentioned above, the vineyard-covered nature of the battlefield would have greatly hampered all movement across it in tight formations. The French, being more trained and experienced in light infantry tactics, could operate in this ground more easily. Not so much the Russians. For a war game, consider all movement "across the grain" of vineyards to be the same as through woods. With the grain (e.g. parallel to the rows), movement can be normal. But regardless of direction, the vineyards would have broken up linear formations, so they would have disordered any close order formations moving through them. Cavalry could not move cross grain but only down the rows. Same with artillery.
In addition, while accounts don't describe the snow on the valley floor as being all that thick, in the passes it would have been deeper. So have troops moving downhill through the mountains and woods as moving even slower because of the ice and snow.
Orders of BattleThe following OOB and unit strengths are based on those given in Bowden's Napoleon and Austerlitz, p 479-481. French strengths are fairly reliable as they are from actual parade states just prior to the battle, on 6 November. Russian unit strengths are proportional estimates based on reported total strengths. Some accounts give the Russians as many as 40,000 at the battle, however, these are evidently based on an assumption of full unit rosters, not accounting for attrition from desertions and sickness from the 1,200 mile trek from Russia.
The actual forces engaged at Durenstein are tallied, with the Russians and French showing equivalent strengths of about 10,000 each, not the heroic stand of the outnumbered as described in contemporary French propaganda. Russian troops (e.g. under Bagration, Essen and Skepelov) are listed separately for those who would like to run a war game with these troops thrown in. Dumonceau's Dutch division is not included at all with the French OOB as it was too far to the rear to have participated in time.
Thiers, Adolphe, History of the Consulate and the Empire of France, 1876, William Nimmo, London
Hourtoulle, F.G., Austerlitz, 2003, Histoire & Collections, Paris, ISBN 2-91390371-1
Duffy, Christopher, Austerlitz 1805, 1977, Seeley Service & Co, London, !SBN 0-85422-128-X
Copyright 2013, Jeffery P. Berry Trust, all rights reserved. No part of this post may be used for republication or re-posting without documented permission of the Jeffery P. Berry Trust. However, feel free to link to this site as a resource from related sites.