Anticipation and barely-suppressed excitement filled the air in the ballroom of the palace of Austerlitz. Kaiser Franz of Austria and Tsar Alexander of Russia were present and attentive, but in a rare show of Imperial wisdom and modesty deferred to the advice of their professional soldiers. General of Infantry Mikhail Ilariónovich Kutusov and General-Feldwachtmeister Weyrother entered the room side-by-side and walked briskly together to the conference table, a living demonstration of the mutual respect and confidence that had grown since the allied armies had turned to the offensive a week before. They unrolled the immense map over which they had been laboring, and presented their plan:
Gentlemen: Information of the greatest importance has come into our possession. As you know, the Usurper's army abandoned the Pratzen Heights on 30 November, a move we originally took as symptomatic of their weakness and disarray. An agent acting on behalf of Marshal Bernadotte has revealed that the Corsican hopes to surprise us, luring our main force into the Goldbach Valley and then striking swiftly against our right. Ha! We now have the opportunity to ambush the ambusher. We shall indeed bloody the French in the Goldbach Valley, playing along as if we were the Ogre's dupes, but the dawn of 2 December will reveal a powerful force arrayed on the Pratzen Heights, ready for defense! Let the Corsican and his banditti then quail!
While Bernadotte cannot openly revolt, he has promised to thwart Buonaparte's efforts by delaying the movement of his Corps. The day will be a rude one, but the doom of the comic-opera "Emperor" is sure. That Bernadotte is a strange fellow; fancies himself a sovereign, one supposes. No more nobility in him than in the Corsican himself, but his vanity and jealousy may be very weakness that brings down the card-castle of French hegemony over Central Europe.
I Column, Lieutenant-General Dokhturov, preceded by the Advance Guard of FML Kienmayer, are to probe in the direction of Tellnitz, seize the village, and either put it in a state of defense or further advance across the Goldbach, as opportunities arise. Be prepared for a French counterattack; do not become over-extended.
II Column, Lieutenant-General Langeron, is to occupy the left bank of the Goldbach opposite Sokolnitz, clearing the Pheasantry if possible, or at least denying it to the French as an avenue for a concealed approach to our lines.
III and IV Columns, Generals Prebyshevsky, Miloradovich, and Kolowrat, will deploy along the military crest of the Pratzen Heights and in Pratzen village, ready to resist the "surprise" French assault. Site your batteries well, gentlemen; they will be the key to your success.
V Column, FML Liechtenstein, and Advance Guard, Major-General Prince Bagration, will act to delay any French advance against our right; if pressed, fall back upon our main position on the Pratzen Heights.
The Russian Imperial Guard, under Grand Duke Constantine, will stand in reserve, advancing to support our position on the Pratzen Heights if needed, or to counterattack the French after their attack on Pratzen fails.
Gentlemen, Your Imperial Majesties, God willing, tomorrow's sunset will witness the ruination of the Corsican Usurper and the beginning of the restoration of peace and order in Europe.
In the icy predawn darkness, the Grenzers of General-Feldwachtmeister Carneville's 1st Brigade, I Column Advance Guard, advanced cautiously in open order. As the skirmish-line approached the eastern outskirts of Tellnitz, no sound could be heard but the light crunch of boots on the frosty soil. Then, with heart-stopping suddenness, a bellowed "Qui vive!" rang out from the darkness ahead, followed instantly by the flash and roar of a musket. Muttering curses, the Grenzers of the lead company flung themselves to earth or behind whatever scraps of cover could be found. The orders were clear: No blind frontal assaults; probe forward until resistance is met; pin the enemy in place while the comrade companies work around their flanks.
The tirailleurs of the 3ème Ligne were brave and hard-bitten veterans, but too few. As they exchanged a furious fusillade with the shadowy Grenzers to their front, new threats appeared to the north, the south, and even behind them to the west.
As Colonel Schobert formed the 3ème Ligne into assault columns to attempt to break out of the tightening ring of Grenzers, a new horror loomed: The Kavallerie-Batterien of the Austrians clattered up and poured volleys of canister into their rear. The French battalions dissolved, but not before FML Carneville was shot down leading a charge of his Grenzers. Tellnitz was in the hands of the Allies, clearing the way for the advance of the I Column.
Finding the ford over the Goldbach west of Tellnitz unguarded, Kienmayer's cavalry contingent (built around Husaren-Regiment Hessen-Homburg #4, Székler-Grenz-Husaren-Regiment #11, the élite Chevauxlegers-Regiment O'Reilly #3, and the Syosev and Melentev Cossacks, over 2200 light horse) swarmed across. Wild clashes erupted in the misty half-light as they collided with the French cavalry pickets screening Soult's right flank. The regrouped Grenzer infantry followed in support. The hamlet at (28,103) became the focus of intense fighting of all arms.
In the marshy Goldbach Valley opposite Sokolnitz, the gathering half-light and thinning mist at 0815 revealed to the Russians of Olsuvev's 1st Brigade, II Column, the gaping maws of a powerful 8-gun French battery sited on the opposite bank! Grape ripped into the green-clad columns as they scrambled pell-mell back up the slippery slope. Clearly, Sokolnitz would not fall to a rapid coup de main this day.
Probing westward in search of the French, The IV Column Advance Guard was ambushed near Kobelnitz, suffering heavy casualties and losing all its guns.
Like a colossal curtain rising in a theater of Titans, the break of day revealed a breathtaking spectacle. The powerful Divisions of Vandamme and Saint-Hilaire, with a Division of Dragoons in support, advanced in grim array, driving in the weak outposts of Jägers deployed in the plain. Above them, the Allied IV Column, still slightly winded from the long approach-march in the dark, dressed ranks and leveled their guns on the slope of the Pratzen Heights. It was time to do or die.
The initial French assault targeted the salient angle of the IV Column line, held by the Austrian Infanterie-Regiment Salzburg #23. While in some respects one of the strongest regiments available, with five battalions totalling over 3000 men, lack of experience and shaky morale made this formation a weak reed. Under the hammering of Soult's veterans, battalion after battalion broke and routed. The dangerous gap was only just covered by throwing in the already bloodied Apsheron and Novgorod Musketeers, survivors of the fatal clash at Kobelnitz. In the next few minutes these regiments would cease to exist.
In the south, the now-apparent strength of the French defenses showed that Kienmayer's force was over-extended and in peril; in spite of their early successes, only the prompt arrival of the main body of the I Column could prevent the Allied left from being hurled back across the Goldbach. The Grenzers hunkered down and prepared to sell their lives dearly. At all costs, the French must be prevented from recapturing the ford!
A sustained cannonade thundered over the Golbach Valley as the batteries of the II Column challenged their French counterparts on the western bank. Some guns were dismounted, but as always the infantry on both sides suffered the worst. In the Pheasantry, Russian Yegers and the Tirailleurs du Po sniped among the trees, neither able to gain an advantage.
In a prodigious display of firepower and courage, the Divisions of Vandamme and Saint-Hilaire continued their grinding progress up the gory slopes of the Pratzen Heights, giving better than they received in the contest of short-range musketry but brutally battered by Austro-Russian cannon. The steadiness of the Little Russia Grenadier Regiment maintained the IV Column line, but at a fearful cost.
With the I Column finally deployed across the Goldbach, the Allied attack on the French right began in earnest. Kienmayer's cavalry sweep was soon met by an all-out counterattack of previously-concealed French horse. The III Column, preceded by charges of the attached Cossacks to sweep away pickets of French Tirailleurs, descended the Heights south of Pratzen.
In a massive sabre-to-sabre mêlée, the French horse routed but failed to destroy Kienmayer's cavalry southwest of Sokolnitz. The French squadrons in turn were ravaged by Allied artillery emplaced on the overlooking hill.
At 1030 A.M., French attacks of redoubled fury crumpled the Allied salient on the Heights, and drove to the very walls of Pratzen village. One advanced Allied battery was overrun, and the remainder forced to limber-up in haste and redeploy to the rear. Could nothing stop the impetus of the French advance?
In the south, Kienmayer's shaken cavalry retired behind its infantry supports, while the Grenzer battalions formed square. A heavy assault by Legrand's infantry scaled the hill and destroyed one Russian battery. Counter-assault by the Russians of the I Column surrounded and isolated the French spearhead, and broke the French line southwest of Sokolnitz.
Just as the Allied IV Column approached the brink of catastrophe in the Pratzen sector, high on the Heights behind them appeared the glittering massed squadrons of the Russian Imperial Guard Cavalry! With Grand Duke Constantine's powerful regiments about to dramatically shift the local balance of forces, only the prompt commitment of Bernadotte's I Corps could sustain the French offensive and win the Pratzen Heights. But where was Bernadotte??
Far to the north, along the Brünn-Olmütz Road, the V Corps of Maréchal Lannes and the Advance Guard of Major-General Prince Bagration had been conducting their own tense confrontation. Realizing he was outmatched, Bagration played for time, withdrawing to a strong natural position on the hill south of Krug. Lannes was little inclined to play Bagration's game, and was furiously pressing the attack when the massed cavalry of the Allied V Column abruptly appeared to his right. This would require some adjustment...
On the summit of the Zuran Hill, the Emperor of the French snapped shut his telescope, his face hard-set and eyes narrowed in the way his aides knew well to fear.
"Berthier! The I Corps is then paralyzed? Must I ride down there personally and shake Jean-Baptiste-Foutre Bernadotte by his Republican neck to get him to obey my orders?!"
Berthier was interrupted by the arrival of a Colonel-aide-de-camp of the I Corps, who galloped up in great agitation and whispered rapidly to the Chief-of-Staff.
"Mon Empereur!" exclaimed Berthier, "You must hear this man's statement, at once!"
The tale was quickly told: Trembling, gasping, weeping for shame, the Colonel confessed having joined Bernadotte in a conspiracy to sell-out the Emperor and defect to the enemy.
"Rapp! Take a battalion of the Old Guard and place ex-Maréchal Bernadotte under arrest. Shoot anyone who resists."
Turning to the faithful Berthier, the Emperor spoke quietly and firmly, the intensity of his concentration at its peak:
"This day is not for us, we must prepare to win another. Call off the attacks. We withdraw west of Brünn. The I Corps shall redeem its honor by serving as the rearguard for the Army."
More quietly still, his face flickering momentarily with the passion of centuries of Corsican vendetta, he murmured,
"Serjent Belle-Jambe has much to answer for."