“You mean the Corsican actually joined the British? I should not be surprised. Afterall the Turks and the Austrians are now old friends. I suppose tomorrow the local dogs will embrace the cats and then we should be on guard for the Second Coming.”
~ Prussian King Frederick William III, March 18, 1804.
Lede from January 22, 1804 edition of The London Chronicle
“The French have entered the war. This morning at three o’clock, arrived difpatches from London with news that First Consul Napoleon Bounaparte has opted to side with Britain and in the coalition against the actions of Ruffia. No word yet of detailed war preparations but word has arrived from the schooner Mercury of battles between French and Italian ships and Ruffians in the Aegean Sea. Reports indicate that the French man-of-war Republique, of 80 guns and 670 men, captured the Ruffian frigate Nadezhda, of 40 guns and 120 men, as a prize off the Greek island of Rhodes. Another, the schooner Lorette of six guns and 40 men captured the Graf Panin, of unknown guns and crew, near Naxos.”
Excerpt from correspondence between Eliza Havisham and George Havisham, February 2, 1804.
“…You will be glad to know that your brother and Mr. Dansbury continue to operate the brewery with vigor and competence. Little Amelia misses you dearly and wishes you to hurry home. As is surely taken from the above, I echo her sentiments and cannot wait for your return home.
The town is quite the buzz with the news from London. Surely, you must know by now that Bonaparte is joining the fight against the Tsar. What a tremendous turn of fate! I pray this good fortune expedites your return.
With all of your love, your dearest,
Excerpt from Dr. Mark Gonzalez’ “The Great Transition of Europe”, University of Chicago Press, 1921
Napoleon’s decision to team up with Britain and Austria against Russia took Europe by storm. Indeed, of all the coalitionary wars the War of the Third Coalition would be the only war in which France fought as part of a coalition against a common foe.
The conflict immediately caught Russia off guard. With substantial armies in the Caucasus and Balkans, the lengthy border between Austria and Russia suddenly became a gigantic flashpoint. Furthermore, in the summer of 1803, Russia had dispatched a sizeable portion of its Baltic Sea fleet towards the Mediterranean. The lengthy voyage now risked engagement by Russia’s numerous naval enemies while simultaneously leaving the Gulf of Finland, and the capital at St. Petersburg, critically under guarded.
While Russia was strategically vulnerable, it did have the benefit of a unified command structure. Orders flowed down from the Tsar to his generals with little impediment beyond vast distance. A diplomatic coup for Russia kept Prussia out of the war when Frederick William formally declared Berlin’s neutrality shortly after France’s declaration. This allowed Russia to keep its forces concentrated on the south and southwest frontiers instead of maintaining armies to defend the coastal approaches to St. Petersburg or the long road to Moscow. Russia had always enjoyed the benefit of geography when it came to warfare but even vast distances, muddy springtime and harsh winters would be hard pressed to defend a Franco-Austrian army, led by one of the greatest generals in history, and supported by the Royal Navy, from marching across Belorussia.
Alexander drew up a four-pronged approach to the war.
In the distant Caucuses, General Pyotr Bagration, of the noble Georgian Bagrationi family, would continue Russia’s invasion of Pontic Anatolia while keeping a watch on Persia.
General Louis Alexandre Andrault de Langeron would lead up the Russian army dispatched towards the Duchy of Belgrade. A French Royalist turned Russian who distinguished himself in Sweden and Turkey (serving under the great Alexander Suvorov at Ismail in 1790); he had briefly served in the armee d’emigres, a royalist battalion fighting French revolutionary armies, before being wounded and ultimately returning to Russia. The Tsar suspected a French attack on Belgrade by Napoleon via Italy, and Moreau via Greece, and hoped that his brother Konstantin, and the royalist Frenchman, might combine forces to make a valiant stand.
The bulk of Russian forces in the Balkans remained under the command of the distinguished Mikhail Kutuzov. Kutuzov had competently pushed through Moldavia and into Wallachia before Russia’s daring amphibious capture of Constantinople. Alexander instructed these forces to assist Belgrade where they could but swing north into Austrian territory. Kutuzov had instruction to press towards Budapest with the goal of forcing a decisive battle against the Hapsburg Emperor as quickly as possible (i.e. before Napoleon could enter the fray). Despite serious logistical concerns, Kutuzov would comply with his orders.
Lastly, the Tsar dispatched Valerian and Nikolay Zubov towards the Carpathians to defend the long Russian frontier in the Ukraine and Poland from Austrian invasion. Removing the leading conspirators against his father from the court was merely an added bonus for Alexander.
Knowing Russian naval forces to be outmatched in every way, the Tsar ordered the Russian fleet to maintain control of the Bosporus where they could be aided by coastal fortifications. The Baltic Fleet would follow the same tactic in the narrow Gulf of Finland. Spies attempted to make contact with the squadron circumnavigating Europe and give them desperate orders to swing far north and make for the White Sea but this Hail Mary tactic ultimately failed. Lucky timing and placement allowed Admiral Horatio Nelson to catch the squadron off guard at the Battle of Cape Ortegal, several miles off the coast of the Galician cape. The June 9, 1804 overwhelming British victory eliminated any threat of offensive Russian naval operations and vaulted Nelson into the limelight. Before the year ended, the Admiralty would dispatch Nelson to lead up blockade efforts in the Baltic Sea.
On land, the coalition lacked the benefit of unity. Britain lacked any substantial standing army and most of its best soldiers and officers were half a world away fighting in India and the East Indies. For obvious reasons, the Hapsburg Emperor had no desire to see Napoleon lead a French army through his territory. Francis II and Napoleon’s personalities would clash numerous times over the course of the war even if, ultimately, Francis allowed Napoleon to lead an army into the Balkans by way of Venice and Dalmatia. Of course, two allied armies already operated in the region: General Karl Mack von Leiberich’s force operating near Vidin and General Jean Baptise Moreau’s Armee d’Grece operating in Thessaly as they worked to expel the Turkish presence from Greece.
We should also remember that the entire war hinged on the civil war between the reformist Ottoman Sultan, Selim III, based out of Antyaka after his exile during the Battle of Constantinople, and the janissary-backed Sultan Mustafa IV who benefited from his unholy alliance with Russia and the de facto janissary leader Osman Pazvantoğlu. Neither of the claimant Sultans could call on substantial offensive forces the way the Europeans could. Interestingly, both factions did have substantial support in the middle of their rival’s territory. Selim could count on the support of the Pontic Greeks (fighting Russia) and other allies in eastern Anatolia, as well as Alemdar Mustafa Pasha, a key commander in the eastern Balkans who supported Selim and proved a persistent thorn in the side of Russia. Pazvantoğlu could count on the support of Arab tribes to the south and numerous allies in Rumelia including a promising young Albanian commander, Muhammad Ali, currently leading efforts against Moreau’s Armee d’Grece. Following the Battle of Cyprus, neither side sported any substantial naval forces of note. Finally, the nominally controlled regencies in North Africa were a mess.
Francis and Napoleon did not agree on much but they both quickly agreed on securing Austria’s southern border against the Russian threat, especially the threat from Belgrade. In 1804, the “Duchy of Belgrade” was hardly an organized territory. Still a complex revolutionary mess, the only substantial progress made in the region since the Belgrade Uprising had been the expulsion of janissary forces after the Battle of Mišar. Russia, and Grand Duke Konstantin’s claim, extended as far as the more traditionalist sections of Serbian society allowed; which happened to not be much. While the Tsar certainly had his supporters, the unilateral and sudden Russian takeover had eroded substantial Serbian support for the Tsar. Numerous leading kneves chaffed at the thought that representatives of the Tsar and representatives of Pazvantoğlu’s janissaries, the very tyrants who pillaged their countryside, had decided their fate, without their consent. It should be no surprise then that, instead of a stalwart Orthodox ally in the region, Russia found a rebellious state with many Serbs flipping to the allied cause, and even independence. Furthermore, this was no longer a Serb problem. Wallachian Christians had suffered just as much under the raids of Pazvantoğlu, Greece had already staged a successful revolt (largely thanks to France of course) and a new wave of independence riots swept across Bosnia and Kosovo. While he might hold Constantinople, every day it appeared that Pazvantoğlu’s control of the Balkans shrank a little bit more.
Due to its positioning, von Leiberich’s army was the first to strike. Wheeling back towards Serbia, the Austrian force found welcoming arms amongst many Serbs and clashed at Alibunar with a makeshift Russo-Serbian force under the command of Konstantin on March 9, 1804. Having been in his new duchy for a matter of months, Konstantin held little loyalty amongst the Serbs and his ranks quickly crumbled against the hardened Austrians. By the start of April, Konstantin and his loyal Russo-Serbs were confined to the Belgrade, some territory in southern Serbia and the city’s immediate environs. A hard blow from Archduke Charles combined with von Leiberich’s forces would easily smash Belgrade and open fronts into Wallachia and Thrace.
While these operations began, Napoleon remained stuck in a logistical and diplomatic nightmare. Famous for his ability to raise armies and ride to take command in a matter of days, Napoleon was hampered by “an irritation of the bowels” in Geneva on January 28 that sidelined him for three days, and then again by heavy rains in northern Italy that brought his mobilizing forces to a standstill. Officers mobilized wherever they could be found. Ever present in the Italies, Generals Massena and Duphot would be his right hand men in this operation. After six arduous weeks of maneuvering and mobilization, Napoleon had to wait an agonizing nine additional days for Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord to secure an agreed upon route for the Consul’s army to pass through Austrian territory. So anxious was the Consul that a letter to Joseph Bonaparte exists in which Napoleon threatens to have the Venetian fleet transport the army from Ravenna to Greece in a constant stream of small transports that surely would have ended up taking longer than just waiting (and would have certainly created a supply nightmare).
Once he received the diplomatic green light, Napoleon and his aptly named Armée d’Anatolie made record time towards Bosnia. Napoleon was in Venice two days after beginning his march and Agram [Zagreb] four days after that. Within two weeks of leaving Lombardy, Napoleon led his troops into Bosnia (he crossed the Una River on April 6). Underdefended and in revolt, the French found no major battle during their steady march to Bijeljina, a small crossroads town approaching the Drina River, and the Serbian frontier. What Napoleon did receive there was news.
Two days prior to his arrival in Bijeljina, the competent Albanian General Muhammad Ali had checked Moreau’s army at the Battle of Mount Olympus. Having previously broken into the plains of Thessaly, Moreau’s force rode high on confidence but still needed to bypass the rugged montane zone to enter either Epirus or Macedonia. With orders to attempt a link up with Napoleon at Kragujevac, Moreau attempted to bypass the great mountain and enter Macedonia only to find it heavily defended. With a desperate charge unable to break the tough Albanian lines, Moreau was forced to retreat to Larissa while Ali’s Albanians fanned out across the Pindus Mountains.
On top of this concerning setback, Napoleon then received word that the Archduke and von Leiberich’s armies were marching east, not west in an attempt to link up. Over the months Napoleon had peppered Francis, Charles, and von Leiberich with correspondence urging a link up in Serbia, between the Sava and Danube Rivers, and then utilizing the great army to knock out the Russians and Janissaries in that order. An April 2 letter to Archduke Charles proposed linking up at Ruma, securing Belgrade and marching southeast towards Vidin in unison. From there the coalition army could knock out the Russians in Wallachia and march into Thrace towards the Ottoman capital. Napoleon promised Francis in another letter that the allies would celebrate Christmas at the Hagia Sofia, the first such service the once great cathedral, and now great mosque, had seen in centuries. True to form, the Austrians mistrusted Napoleon and sought to find their own victory.
The decision would ultimately prove disastrous.
For one, the rough terrain of the Balkans made logistics a nightmare for all parties. Despite his trademark rapidity, even Napoleon found himself bogged down by rugged mountains, poor roads, and poor countryside that made foraging a nightmare. The local state of lawlessness did not help and supply lines were routinely raided. French, Austrian and Russian baggage trains were routinely held up when spring rains turned the roads to muck and the mishmash of languages in the Balkans only complicated matters when the armies found themselves in situations that required interaction with the locals. To the northwest, an understanding by the officer corps of some combination of French, Italian and German could generally fill in the gaps when these communication issues came up. Napoleon’s secretary Claude-François de Méneval would remark in a letter home:
“Surely we are near the Tower of Babel for every language in the world is spoken in this country. Yesterday I commissioned two locals to repair a dozen cart tongues. A simple task that should take only a few minutes. Yet neither man could be understood by any of our forces. After investigating, I discovered they speak primarily Macedonian but understand broken forms of Albanian and Hungarian. Having no men available to me that could speak Macedonian, I found another local who spoke both Albanian and Turkish. Through one of our commissioned Turkish translators, I managed to communicate, in French to our translator who brought my words in Turkish who spoke to the commissioned local who translated those orders into Albanian who then spoke to our local cartwrights. Situations like this are fairly common and no two villages ever seem to speak the same language. So far I have conducted official business in French, Italian, Croatian, German, Serbian, Turkish, Albanian, Hungarian, Greek, Bosnian and Yiddish. I half expect that tomorrow’s work will suddenly be conducted in Chinese and the following day’s in Iroquois.”
Secondly, despite being outgunned, the various Russian and janissary armies operating in the region were still substantial threats. Sizeable Russian forces operated to the east and Muhammed Ali’s army occupied the rugged terrain of Epirus, Albania and Macedonia. Even good roads and a common language wouldn’t negate those threats.
Knowing Moreau’s army was effectively trapped in Greece, Napoleon believed it even more imperative that his army link up with the Austrians to engage the Russians. The Hapsburgs disagreed.
Excerpt from “The Battle of Craiova National Historic Site – About the Site Webpage”, nphs.gov/craiova, 2018
In the summer of 1804, the Coalitionary Wars were a long way from conclusion. As part of the larger series of wars, the War of the Third Coalition raged in response to Russia’s audacious intervention in the War of the Janissaries. Britain, France, Austria and the United States clashed with Russia in the only coalitionary war that placed France, Austria and Britain on the same side. Coalition armies spread out across the Balkan Peninsula with battles, campaigns and rebel movements racking up casualties by the thousands.
With Russian forces under the command of Mikhail Kutuzov and Louis Alexandre Andrault de Langeron operating deep in Wallachia, and more Russian armies marching across Ukraine towards core Austrian territory, the Hapsburg Emperor Francis I gambled on a bold strategy. Despite the protestations of Napoleon, the Emperor opted to leave his northern territories exposed and sent two armies under Karl Mack von Leiberich and Archduke Charles, Duke of Teschen, south to catch the Russian armies from the rear. Marching through Hapsburg Transylvania and crossing the Carpathians via the Olt River Valley, the twin Austrian armies did catch the Russian armies from behind. However, the tactic did not catch the Russians by surprise and baggage trains from Russia had already become rarities as the two Russian armies were operating virtually independently and living off the land by this point. Instead, the Russians had plenty of time to wheel around and cut off the Austrians from resupply and utilized the rough geography of the Carpathians to their own advantage. A decisive victory by the Austrians would eliminate the Russian threat in the Balkans and open the road to Constantinople. A decisive Russian victory would remove the Austrian presence in the Balkans and expose critical Hapsburg cities like Prague, Vienna and Budapest to Russia attack from the north and the south.
With so much hanging in the balance, it is no surprise that the Battle of Craiova is one of the most important battles of the Coalitionary Wars. What is surprising is that such a critical battle began as a chance encounter at a small crossroads town, which evolved into a three-day, desperate, battle. Initial Austrian success floundered as Russian forces dug into the rocky foothills of the Carpathians (eliminating Austrian retreat back into Transylvania) and the bluffs overlooking the Jiu River. Late on the third day as Kutuzov pushed into the town from the north, Langeron, a royalist Frenchmen who opposed Napoleonic France, outflanked Von Leiberich and cut off any hope of Austrian retreat. Von Leiberich died at the height of the fighting as he led from the front. A desperate attempt by Charles to utilize his heavy cavalry and core veterans on the night of May 1 failed. Surrounded, beaten, and having lost one of their commanding generals, Charles surrendered the great Austrian army.
Excerpt from Dr. Mark Gonzalez’ “The Great Transition of Europe”, University of Chicago Press, 1921
The devastating loss at Craiova eliminated Austria as an offensive force in the war and, arguably, marked the high water mark of Hapsburg might in Europe. With tens of thousands of Hapsburg soldiers, and an Archduke, in Russian captivity, it seemed Austria would be forced to sue for peace within weeks. However, the distant battle and confused news took nearly time to filter back into core Hapsburg territories. On May 8, the headline of the Viennese newspaper, Wiener Zeitung, declared the opening of the Battle of Craiova, the same day that the army of the Zubov brothers crossed the Eastern Carpathians into Austrian Galicia. Correspondence indicates that Emperor Francis knew that disaster had befallen his armies in Wallachia, though he did not know the full extent of the disaster nor that von Leiberich had died on the battlefield. Yet, the Zubov brothers did not know about the Battle of Craiova at all. A truly desperate attempt by Francis to halt the pending disaster failed as Valerian Zubov ignored an Austrian messenger seeking a cease-fire truce believing the story to be a ruse to buy the Austrians time. On May 11, the Russians entered Kaschau and captured valuable stores and provisions while exposing Budapest to direct assault.
The nail in Austria’s coffin came at the Battle of Mischkolz on May 15. While far smaller in scope than Craiova, the battle was fierce, as the opposing Austrians (in this case, the Hapsburg army was comprised mainly of Hungarians and Slovaks) knew they were defending their heartland. It also meant that the Emperor himself was at the front to oversee the defenses and provide a morale boost. This explains why Francis was where he was when a Russian cannonball smashed his chest, killing him virtually instantly. With the Archduke in Russian custody and Francis’ heir being 11 years old, the Hapsburg realms fell into disarray. Further complicating matters, Francis’ brother (the former Emperor Leopold’s second son), Ferdinand, emerged as a regent ruler when the queen (eight months pregnant around the Battle of Mischkolz) died in childbirth several weeks after the battle due to a complicated pregnancy .
Ferdinand had been the former Grand Duke of Tuscany before the formal end of the War of the Second Coalition ended Hapsburg rule in that territory in favor of the House of Bourbon-Parma as part of larger territorial realignment in northern Italy. His popularity in the empire was not high and he had nothing but contempt for Napoleon who he believed cost him his throne in Tuscany and had brought misfortune on his family. His nephew, the 11-year old Emperor Ferdinand I (Ferdinand the regent and former Grand Duke confusingly shared the same name with Francis’ heir and the new emperor) became distraught at the deaths of his parents. Complicating matters was the fact that Ferdinand I suffered from epilepsy, hydrocephalus, neurological problems, and a speech impediment . With Russians parading in Budapest, Napoleon commanding an army in the Balkans and a host of familial disasters, the two Ferdinands found their work cut out for them. It did not help that the Hapsburgs were thoroughly beaten. On May 27, Ferdinand and the Zubovs signed a cease-fire agreement and Vienna named Johann Philipp Stadion, Count von Warthausen, the ambassador to Russia, as Austria’s Foreign Minister to conduct negotiations.
An infuriated Napoleon could do nothing but watch the disaster unfold via correspondence. Speeding across Bosnia as quickly as he could, the French army was slowed by a variety of obstacles but crossed into Serbia on April 21. This was a remarkable 15 days rapid march across muddy, mountainous, and very foreign land, all while suffering raids and various supply problems. True to his predictions, the teetering Russian forces in Belgrade collapsed as Napoleon pushed into the city on April 27. Konstantin fled towards Wallachia with an entourage of his most loyal guards and Serbians, which meant actual fighting for the city, was scattered and light. Indeed, during Napoleon’s weeklong march across Serbia he had been forced to form a volunteer “Légion Serbe” to accommodate the Serbs flocking to his banners. The triumph of the capture of Belgrade and the expulsion of Russians from Serbia soured quickly when news of Craiova arrived on May 4.
Correspondence to Lucien indicates that Napoleon considered simply stopping where he was. A May 5 letter reads:
“The Austrians are fools. Together we could have divided the Balkans between ourselves, humbled Russia, and conducted a triumphal parade through Constantinople like Belisarius. Instead [Francis] gambled out of pride and greed and lost everything. Now Austria is a second-rate power and I have to deal with the Russians and Turks myself. Even more foolish for Austria is that I don’t have to do anything. This war began to intervene on behalf of Serbian patriots and to expel Russia from the east. Serbia is secure. Why should I risk more French deaths when the English ships can guard Constantinople or simply send Moreau across the Aegean and bypass the mess altogether? Why shouldn’t I sail to Jaffa, join Desaix, and march across Anatolia like Alexander? Austria gambled and lost; now we are the masters of our own destiny.”
Of course, Napoleon was not actually going to turn his army around and go home. His romantic teenage dreams of conquering the ancient world were too near to simply give up. Despite his claims that the war began over Serbian republicanism, the War of the Third Coalition only truly began when Russia overstepped its bounds in the War of the Janissaries. Napoleon knew that the day he walked away from Belgrade would be the day Konstantin would begin marching back to the “Duchy” at the head of a larger, unchecked, army. Instead, Napoleon boldly pressed towards Vidin and into Wallachia.
——————- Author’s Notes ———————–
: Maria Teresa died in childbirth in 1807 but was actually eight months pregnant in our timeline in May 1804. In our timeline, she gave birth to Archduchess Maria Anne of Austria in June 1804 and Maria had considerable disabilities and by all accounts Maria Teresa’s pregnancies became more complicated until her event death. Due to the stress of the war, the death of Francis and the changed royal climate I flipped a coin on the issue and the butterflies in this timeline mean she dies earlier in this childbirth.
: Ferdinand I suffered from these issues in our timeline as well. Francis went as far as to name his brother, the Archduke Louis, as de facto head of state whom Ferdinand would have to consult in all matters along with the great Austrian foreign minister Metternich.
Roberts, Andrew. “Napoleon: A Life.” Penguins Books, 2014.