Austerlitz negotiations

The taking of Tabor Bridge over the Danube River by Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces during his victorious Austerlitz campaign makes for a truly unbelievable tale of cunning and serves as a perfect example of how a military objective can be seized without any loss of human life.

The date was 1805, and after Napoleon’s triumph at the Battle of Austerlitz it seemed like Austria was on the verge of making peace with the First French Empire. On 12 November the commander of the Vienna garrison, Count Wrbna, not wanting to cast a pall over any possible peace negotiations, declared that the bridges over the Danube (which runs through the heart of Vienna) separating his troops from the French army would not be blown up.

This decision provided the perfect opportunity for the dashing cavalry commander Joachim-Napoleon Murat, one of Napoleon’s foremost marshals, named "First Horseman of Europe" by the Emperor in 1804, whose forces were deployed near the Tabor Bridge at Spitz. The ancient wooden bridge had already been prepared for demolition and was defended by a strong Austrian garrison with cannons. Since an attack was out of the question because of these defenses and demolition charges, Murat settled on guile.


Under a flag of truce a few French generals, including Marshal Jean Lannes, a daring and very talented commander who was a personal friend of Napoleon's, were sent over the bridge to parlay with the Austrians, asking to speak with the bridge’s commander, Count von Auesperg, who they claimed had asked to speak with them. The acting bridge commander, confused, replied that Auesperg wasn’t there at the moment, to which the French, hoping to convince the Austrians that the war was indeed over, responded by asking if the Count was on his way to the armistice negotiations. The commander rushed off to find his superior, asking the French emissaries to wait and making them give their word that in the meantime their forces would not destroy the bridge.

At this point Lannes delivered his masterstroke. Wandering around amongst the Austrian gunners and their cannons, he tried to distract them from the French hussars creeping through the underbrush on the opposite bank of the river. However the gunnery captain was having none of it and lit a slow match and gave orders to fire. Lannes reacted violently, extinguishing the slow match and exploding into a deluge of French protestation. This was of course totally incomprehensible to the baffled Austrian soldiers, who didn’t fire out of fear of jeopardising the rumoured armistice that the French emissaries, Marshal Lannes foremost among them, seemed so sure was happening.


It was at this moment that the acting bridge commander arrived with Count von Auesperg. Immediately Lannes demanded that the gunnery captain be shot for endangering the armistice, that the Count surrender the bridge to the French at once, and that he prepare to discuss terms with Murat. The shocked Auesperg, apparently also believing that word of an armistice was true, simply handed the bridge over to the French.