Nearly 50 years after Napoleon met his Waterloo, generals across the West continued to study his tactics and engage their armies the same way armies fought during the Napoleonic Era. Despite advances in military technology and the advent of railroads for transportation, all of which made defensive warfare more effective, acclaimed military geniuses like Robert E. Lee used flank attacks and infantry charges against superior numbers in an effort to win decisive victories, and it would not be until World War I that concepts of modern warfare made the Napoleonic Era of the early 19th century outdated.
For those questioning why generals continued using tactics from the Napoleonic Era even as technology changed the battlefield, the Battle of Austerlitz may provide the best answer. Napoleon is regarded as one of history’s greatest generals, and Austerlitz was his greatest victory. In 1805, Britain, Austria, and Russia allied together to form the Third Coalition against the French, and the Third Coalition’s forces consisted of armies from Austria and Russia, with Britain providing naval support as well as its financial powers.
Napoleon had already defeated and mostly destroyed an Austrian army in October at Ulm before it could link up with the Russians, setting the stage for the Battle of Austerlitz to be the culmination of the war against the Third Coalition as a whole in early December. Despite the smashing victory at Ulm, Napoleon’s French army would still be well outnumbered at Austerlitz by a joint Russo-Austrian army in a battle that would also come to be known as the Battle of Three Emperors.
Napoleon’s enemies would famously say he was worth 50,000 men in the field, but the simple truth is that he wasn’t able to dominate Europe on his own. In fact, the subordinates and soldiers underneath him participated in several of history’s most famous battles and charted the course of Napoleon’s rise and fall.
The French army – which became known as the Grande Armée – existed for just 10 years, from 1805 to 1815, and the question of what it was about this army that allowed it to win so many notable victories and to survive defeats which would have destroyed lesser armies has fascinated historians and writers ever since.
After all, in terms of equipment, weapons, and battlefield tactics, there was little to distinguish the Grande Armée from other European armies in the early 1800s, but in battles such as Austerlitz (1805), Jena-Auerstedt (1806), and Wagram (1809), it won stunning victories, often against numerically superior enemies. No single factor can account for these victories, which could be attributed to a combination of high morale, a truly egalitarian approach to promotion from the ranks, a radical army organization, and the inspired leadership of Napoleon, all of which combined to make the Grande Armée virtually unbeatable for the first few years of its existence.
As noteworthy as those battles all were, Waterloo is the most famous battle in modern history if not all of history, and appropriately so. Gathering an army of 100,000 men, Napoleon marched into what is now Belgium, intent on driving his force between the advancing British army under the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian forces under Marshal Blucher. It was the kind of daring strategy that only Napoleon could pull off, as he had at places like Jena and Austerlitz.
At Waterloo, however, it would end disastrously, as Napoleon’s armies were unable to dislodge Wellington and unable to keep the Prussians from linking up with the British. The battle would end with the French suffering nearly 60 percent casualties, the end of Napoleon’s reign, and the restructuring of the European map.
Simply put, the next 200 years of European history can be traced back to the result of the battle that day in 1815.