A bizarre historical myth about Napoleon's victory at
Ulm, 1805 You can't believe everything you
read, nor everything you find on the Internet, even when found in
responsible sources. Here's a remarkable example of a historical myth that will
likely be impossible ever to stamp out.
Austria, Russia, Sweden, and a number of minor states launched the war of
the "Third Coalition" against Napoleon's France. In September, an Austrian army
invaded Bavaria, an ally of France, and marched without significant resistance
to the German city of Ulm, on the Danube. There they stopped, their mission
being to guard the Alpine passes from southern Germany to Italy, to prevent any
French forces from reinforcing the French armies in northern Italy. This
Austrian army was to be joined by a Russian army in late October.
Napoleon was quick to take advantage of the situation, launching his attack on the Austrian army in early
October, well before the Russians arrived. The French army, descending on the rear
of the Austrian army from the north, cut the army off from its supply
lines to Austria, then encircled it, trapping 30,000 Austrian troops in Ulm. On
October 20 the Austrians surrendered. The French army then turned east to face
the Russians and the remaining Austrians, defeating them in the Battle of Austerlitz on December 2. This was perhaps
Napoleon's greatest triumph, marred only by his naval defeat at at Trafalgar on October 21. That defeat ended any
possibility of an invasion of England, but Napoleon reigned supreme on the
Now, how was it that Napoleon was able to find the Austrian army alone at
Ulm, with the Russian armies still in Austria, far too distant to offer any help?
Had Napoleon been a few weeks later, or the Russians just a few weeks earlier, he
might have had to confront a combined Austrian-Russian army at Ulm, and the
outcome of the battle, and the war, might have been entirely different. How was it
that the Austrian army was so far ahead of the Russians, the Russians so far
The myth is this: that
they were simply confused by dates, due to the conflict between different
calendars in use at the time, and the Russians were supposed to be at Ulm
alongside the Austrians. Here, from
Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Austerlitz:
"But where were the Russians? In a staggering
display of administrative ineptitude, the Allied staffs had failed to recognize
that while the Austrians followed the Gregorian calendar, the Russians still
employed the older Julian calendar. In 1805 the difference was 12 days. So while
the Austrians expected the Russian army to arrive on October 20, the Russians
did not expect to join the Austrians until November 1."
explanation for the Russians arriving too late to help the Austrians is certainly pleasing,
in its elementary simplicity. And yet, to believe it, one has to imagine that the Austrian and Russian
military leaders were astoundingly foolish. How could they not be acutely
aware of the difference in calendars, given their regular meetings and discussions, in
Vienna and St. Petersburg? The problem of differing calendars must have come up myriad
times during their war planning. It's not credible that they would suddenly fail to remember the
difference at the crucial moment.
The truth is much more complicated.
The Austrians did not imagine that Ulm would be the site of a great
confrontation with the French armies, so they weren't prepared to face the full
force of Napoleon's Grande Armée. They believed that the main battles would
take place in northern Italy, where Napoleon had established vassal states, and
where the two principal powers, France and Austria, confronted each other. The
Austrian army racing through southern Germany, to Ulm, was intended mainly to
block the routes through the Alps for French forces in central Europe to come to
the aid of their armies in Italy. Even when a large portion of the French army
appeared in northern Germany, the Austrians still considered
themselves safe from attack, because the path of that army was blocked by the
principality of Ansbach, a Prussian state, neutral.
Wrong, of course. Napoleon chose to make Germany the main
battleground, not Italy; and he sent his army racing through Ansbach, ignoring
Prussian neutrality, and so made himself an opportunity to encircle, overwhelm,
and capture the Austrian army. Frederick W. Kagan covers this
in exhaustive detail in his definitive work on the campaign of
1805, The End of the Old Order: Napoleon and
Why, I wondered, did
Prof. Kagan not mention this matter of calendar confusion, and its supposed role
in leaving the Russian army far to the east while the Austrian army was being
captured by the French? Well, I e-mailed Prof. Kagan for an explanation,
and he was kind enough to reply virtually immediately:
Date: Mon, 10 Mar 2008 20:56:05 -0400
From: "Fred Kagan" <FKAGAN@AEI.ORG>
Subject: RE: Battle of Ulm
To: "Jack McKay" <jack.mckay@VERIZON.NET>
Thread-topic: Battle of Ulm
Dear Mr. McKay,
I'm happy to have an opportunity to think about 1805, thank you! I thought I had
addressed that issue in a footnote, but perhaps not.
It is a myth. I have seen with my own eyes the march-plans the Austrian general
staff developed showing where the Russian forces would be on each day--and using
the right calendar. And I have seen no evidence whatever in the voluminous
correspondence between the Russians and the Austrians and within the Austrian army
and court that anyone was confused about this. It is a bizarre myth, particularly
considering that Russian and Austrian armies had been fighting in close proximity for
many years both against France and against Turkey, and all Russian correspondence
directed to non-Russian recipients carried both dates as a matter of course.
I think that there is a contemporaneous French source that mentions this, and, of
course, David Chandler picked it up in his Campaigns of Napoleon. But it is
entirely without foundation.
So, it's "a bizarre myth", "entirely without
foundation". But will this truth ever catch up to, and overcome, that appealingly simple tale
of calendar confusion?
Jack McKay's home page
March 13, 2008