Battle of Schöngrabern
16 November (4 November OS) 1805 marks the Battle of Schöngrabern in the 3rd Coalition War when Lieutenant General Count Pyotr Bagration’s 5,500 Russian infantry, 1,500 Russian and Cossack cavalries.
Furthermore, 12 guns fought a successful rearguard action against Marshals Joachim Murat’s & Jean Lannes’ 10-20,000 French infantry, 15,000 cavalry & 48 guns. Bagration’s stalwart defense delayed Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies, giving LG Mikhail Kutuzov’s army crucial time to escape.
Kutuzov retreated northeast from the Danube. He hoped to reach Brünn, where Infantry General Count Friedrich von Buxhöwden’s army waited. Murat & Lannes pursued him along a parallel northwest road. The crossroads town of Guntersdorf was key to both armies. If Murat seized it, Kutuzov, or at least much of his army, would be cut off. On 14 November, Kutuzov sent Bagration ahead. Bagration would deploy on the northwest road. He was to delay the French as long as he could, to give Kutuzov time to pass through Guntersdorf. Neither man had illusions about potential casualties. Kutuzov wrote to Tsar Aleksándr I Pávlovich: “I will not deceive myself, but on this march, I may lose, perhaps, up to 1,000 men. But the whole must be saved, if at all possible.”
Bagration meets Kutuzov at Schöngrabern
Bagration occupied Hollabrunn, 10.5 km (6.5 miles) south of Guntersdorf. He decided it was indefensible, as a result retreated 4.7 km (2.9 mi) north to Schöngrabern. He deployed behind a stream. The Kiev Grenadery & the Azov & Podolsk Mushketery formed line, with the Chernigov Draguny on their right & Pavlograd Husary on the left. The Narva & Novgorod Mushketery formed a reserve. The 6th Jägers held Schöngrabern itself. 12 guns of the 4th Artilleriya deployed across the highway. Austrian Major General Count Johann von Nostitz remained at Hollabrunn with a vanguard. He led his own Hungarian No. 4 Husaren & the Khanzhenkov No. 1 & Sysoev No. 3 Kozaky. Grund Village, 3.3 km (2 mi) north of Schöngrabern, was fortified. It would be a final holdout.
Murat arrived with the cavalry on 15 November. When he reached Hollabrunn, he lied to Nostitz that Napoleon had made peace with Austria. Despite Bagration’s warnings, Nostitz believed him. He withdrew. The Cossacks returned to Schöngrabern. They deployed on either side of Bagration’s line. At this point, Kutuzov passed behind him. He observed both forces. Moreover, he was even more alarmed! He wrote: “The annihilation of Prince Bagration’s detachment was inevitable, as was the defeat of the army itself, because the proximity of the outposts denied us the means for a swift withdrawal. The exhaustion of the soldiers from forced marches & bivouacs made them unable to resist even in battle.” It seemed his plan had failed. He would be destroyed.
Then salvation came from Murat himself.
He didn’t expect Bagration’s presence at Schöngrabern. He believed Kutuzov was deployed in force. In a clumsy attempt at manipulation, he offered Bagration a truce. He hoped to buy time for his own infantry to arrive. Once they did, he’d destroy his foes. When Kutuzov received the message, he instantly saw through it. He decided to turn the trick back on Murat. He sent Adjutant General Baron Ferdinand von Wintzingerode to agree to the “truce” & string Murat along. Both “armies” would remain in place pending ratification by Napoleon & Kutuzov. If either party rejected the treaty, neither side was to attack without 4 hours’ notice. Kutuzov accelerated the retreat, grateful to be free of interference.
When Napoleon received word of the truce, he was infuriated at Murat’s presumption, in addition his naivete.
Fragment of portrait of Joachim Murat
He wrote back at once: “I cannot find words to express my displeasure. You only command my vanguard & have no right to agree to an armistice without my orders. You will cost me the fruits of a campaign. End the armistice at once. Attack the enemy. Inform him that the general who has signed this has no power to make it, that only the Russian Emperor has the right, & that when the Russian Emperor ratifies this agreement, I will also ratify it. But it is only a ruse. March, destroy the Russian army. You are in a position to take his baggage & artillery.”
Murat got this message at 17:00, 16 November. By now, his full force was present. He notified Bagration that the truce was cancelled. Nor would the 4-hour deadline be observed. When Bagration received this message, Murat’s guns opened fire. Murat advanced.
But the attack was made on such short notice that his generals had trouble getting it underway.
Still worse, Schöngrabern lay directly opposite his center. The Jägers fired it. The fire spread quickly. Embers & smoke blew into the French’s faces. There was real danger that Murat’s munitions might become ignited. The center attack stalled as panicking teamsters began evacuating the caissons, interfering with his infantry’s forward movement.
Murat’s wings flanked Schöngrabern & attacked Bagration’s wings.
The Grenadiers à Cheval attacked his right, which was led by Major General Ulanius. The Kyivs & Jägers fired a volley at point blank range, driving them off twice. The Chernigovs & Cossacks drove the Grenadiers off. Ulanius resumed retreating. The Grenadiers returned, but made no further attacks. On the left, Lannes attacked with a large force. The Pavlograds were isolated & forced to retreat. They would rejoin Bagration later after clearing an alternate path to him. The Azovs & Podolks made 2 bayonet charges to break through. Murat moved his center men & guns around Schöngrabern. He attacked. French cavalry & infantry on the flanks redoubled their efforts. It was a Russian island in a French ocean.
The Russians, incredibly, maintained discipline & cohesion.
Bagration flew from force to force, exposing himself to terrible danger to inspire his men. Finally, he reached Guntersdorf. It was dark. Both forces ceased to exist as cohesive armies. Countless little actions sprang up as Bagration slowly retreated through Guntersdorf. Several Russian officers deceived the French. Speaking perfect French themselves, they stood in front of French columns, shouting at & misdirecting them. At midnight, Napoleon arrived. He ordered Murat to halt. Bagration escaped. 2 days later, he reappeared with a captured colonel, 2 officers, 50 men & an eagle. He met Kutuzov at Pohrlitz. Kutuzov hugged him, saying “I won’t ask about the losses. You’re alive. That’s enough for me!”
Murat lost 2,000 dead/wounded, at least 53 captive & an eagle. Bagration lost 1,200 dead/wounded, 1,800 captive, 4 guns & 100 wagons. News of Schöngrabern spread like wildfire. Congratulations for Bagration poured in from everywhere. He became a Russian household name. Austrian Kaiser Franz II issued him the Commander’s Cross of Maria Theresa, Austria’s highest recognition for bravery. He was the first Russian to receive it. His men were likewise revered. Austrians called them a “Company of Heroes.” The Tsar conferred the coveted St. George standards on the Pavlograds & Chernigovs & the St. George colours on the Kyivs & both Cossack regiments. The Jägers received silver trumpets. Kutuzov reached Brünn on 18 November. Bagration’s inspired leadership & the courage of his men had saved Kutuzov’s army.
(Lastly, I owe a great debt to the scholar Peter Phillips, whose translation of Russian primary sources was invaluable.)
Written by Garrett Anderson
Battle of Schöngrabern