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.

In 1805, 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 European continent.

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 behind?

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."

That 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 Europe, 1801-1805.

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.

Fred Kagan

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