The Battle at Slavkov

by Marie Zahnova
The Battle at Slavkov

The purpose of this article isn't to describe in detail the different strategies of the battle itself. Instead it is to inform the reader of the impact such an event had on the people who lived in this part of Southern Moravia. Those whose lives were directly effected by the battle and those whose belongings were used to supply the advancing armies.


Before the start of any battle the process of enlarging the army with young men had to be organized. It was not possible to just randomly pick and choose these new troops. The process of recruiting had its own rigid structure based on strict rules.  Soldiers for the Slavkov battle were chosen based on two separate documents. The first was a Conscription Census from 1753, and the second was a Lists of Households (Scitani domu) from 1777.

In 1773 stable recruiting counties were established, which operated according to an annual plan.  Military service was required, especially of poor, young men. Among those who did not have to serve were citizens, priests, nobilities, state officers and doctors. Owners of land, as well as inheritors, mainly the oldest sons, did not have to serve either. Military service was mainly the concern of the poorest serfs, journeyman tradesmen and farm laborers. Few of these had the ability to buy themselves out of military service. In many cases, the prospect for financial reward through service was also not likely. Thus, the army was constantly filled by so called “volunteers”, conscripted against their will. In most cases these volunteers had been recruited through tricks, and against their free will.

According to the Patent from May 4. 1802, recruits for infantry had to serve for 10 years, for cavalry 12 years, in artillery or engineering battalions 14 years. After this service, they could return back home, or renew their service contract. In Hungary, army enlistment was to be for life. Such a rule was the source of a great fear for the young generation. Many men tried to resolve this reality by self mutilation. The age of recruits was from 18 - 45 years. Even during times of peace, the Habsburg army stood at 150,000 men and 50,000 horses. In 1802 there were 310,000 mostly conscripted young men in the army.

How did it all start?

As French Emperor Napoleon was threatening to land on the shores of his long time enemy England. This country by, it's diplomatic activities, was able to pull together a three part Anti French Coalition. Thus, Napoleon was forced to first turn against Austria and Russia, before all of their armies could combine their forces as one against him.

The Great French army was progressing rapidly in the month of August, from the Lamanche (English) Channel towards the East. Russian and Austrian armies were coming to Moravia  from the North. Russian soldiers marched through the towns of Frydek, Příbor, Nový Jičín, Hranice, Lipník nad Bečvou, Olomouc, Prostějov, Vyškov and others, were the citizens had to supply these army on their way. The army took over wagons and carts. For each wagon a compensation of 3 golden per day was offered. Wherever the army rested, sufficient amounts of bread, meat, as well as beer and vine had to be supplied.

Before the battle

On the first of December 1805, there were five Anti Napoleon armies ready near Slavkov, resting on the last night before the battle around the villages of Hadějice, Křižanovice and Bučovice. The armies were:

1)    Russian convoy of general Dochturov with 14,000 men and 64 cannons
2)    Russian convoy of count Langerov with 11,500 men and 30 cannons
3)    Russian convoy of Przykyszevsky 8,000 men and 30 cannons
4)    Russian-Austrian convoy of the Count Kolowrat with 1,600 men and 76 cannons
5)    Russian-Austria convoy of the Count Lichtenstein with 6,000 men and 24 cannons.

Together with two other  Russian guards, this huge army consisted of 85,000 men,
15,000 cavalries and 230 cannons.  Of these, 15,700 were Austrians and the remainder were Russians. Their head quarters, under the command of general Kutuzov, was in the village of Křenovice.

In comparison, Napoleon's French army consisted of 74,000 men from which there were 11,000 cavalries. This army had 250 cannons.

The Battle itself

The events of the Battle at the Slavkov were well described in many publications. It started on the morning of Monday, December 2, 1805 near the villages of Telnice, Sokolnice, Kobylnice and Ponětovice. The most important skirmishes of the cavaliers took place and damaged the villages of Kruh, Holubice and Blažovice. The final attacks happened near the two local pounds named Žatecký and Měnínský. The defeated Russian and Austrian armies retreated from their positions through the villages of Újezd, Křenovice, Rousínov and Slavkov in the direction towards the town of Hodonín.

The local villages and the inhabitants suffered the most after the battle, when the armies were clearing their positions. In several village chronicles we can read the complaints and reactions towards both the defeated Russian and Austrian guards, as well as the victorious French army. The list of villages that were either burned down or destroyed would be quite long. Plundering, violence against local farmers and their families, stealing of food supplies and farm animals, and looting the village treasuries happened on a regular basis.

Napoleon together with his head quarters and 10,000 men arrived and accommodated themselves in the town of Znojmo. The army members stayed in the houses of the citizens. Totally exhausted, the town was finally abandon by the army on Jan 6, 1806.

The greatest fear among the local people was caused by the spreading epidemics. That year the winter was very mild, temperatures above the freezing point and the battle fields were covered with dead soldiers and animals. Work by the local peasants from throughout the region was compulsory to clean the battle fields, and as quickly as possible to dig multiple graves. Up until now, many of these still haven’t been located. Everyone knew, that an epidemic could be worse than the battle itself.  Unfortunately, an outbreak of typhus did occur, and the weather helped spread this illness. In some of the villages more then 1/4 of all the inhabitants died that winter due to the typhus.

The armies left in their wake a destroyed and exhausted Moravia in January, but not entirely. Many wounded army members were transported to the hospital in Brno (some to Vienna). Ordinary soldiers who were wounded had to remain in local farms until they could recover. For many weeks and months soldiers were dying from their wounds and typhus. Thus, about 16,000 soldiers died after the battle. This number was almost as high as the amount of those who died in the battle.

After the battle

Trying to find hope for the future for the simple inhabitants of Moravia had to be very difficult at the beginning of the year 1806. With no farm animals, no clothing, constant hunger, seeing the depopulated communities, and the continuing presence of death as a cause of the epidemic, few people could see a light at the end of the tunnel. People were trying to survive the winter by making bread baked from bran, eating dried roots of different kinds of grass, the luckier ones had some potatoes and beats left. There was no meat or salt. The price for grain went up. The number of beggars increased, and consequently the requests for emigration. Some escaped illegally to Hungary, Prussian Silesia and Bukovina. This was not without hazard, though, as organized groups of robbers endangered transportation on all the roads. This situation lasted until the year 1811.

What good did the war bring?

After the Peace agreement signed by the leaders of the armies in Bratislava (it was meant to be signed in Mikulov, but due to the quickly spreading typhus, the location was changed), people were asking this question. The emperor still remained the emperor, and the landlords were still the lords of their estates. This war did not change the Feudal system, as it also did not change the relations between the Nobilities and workers. Simple people did not believe that the presence of the French army would actually bring equality and freedom to their lives. The truth was that after the war, the French were generally hated for all the violence and robberies that lingered on after the war.

There were some positive changes though, that had a direct effect on the life of simple people and generally the entire continent of Europe.

So called Continental Blockade announced by Napoleon in 1806, limited the amount of import to Europe from the colonies.  This was the beginning of the production of different kinds of substitutes such as the production of sugar from sugar beats and coffee substitute made of chicory. The expanded cultivation of wood and growing potatoes for food and other products such as alcohol began in earnest.

The Napoleonic wars in Europe brought one last positive effect to the individual nations on the continent. National consciousness was strengthened. Although people of our generation are mostly detached from the cruelty of such wars, the tragedy of the victims, and grief of the mothers, wives and children who survive, 200 years later, there are some who continue to place flowers on this old battle field that became a grave for the thousands of victims of The Battle at Slavkov. Thus, their sacrifice has not been forgotten.
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