What is striking about Napoleon’s strategic genius is his ability to visualize troops in battle not as separate entities, but as connected nodes in a network of tensions. Tensions that push, pull, support, threaten, and protect elements connected in a network of relationships. Likewise, the quality and effectiveness of a design depends on the designer’s ability to identify this invisible network of tensions and pull the right strings to achieve the desired ending.

Napoleon crossing the Alps, Jacques-Louis David (1801)
kb.dk pic, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1478444

On November 21st Napoleon inspects the terrain to the east of the village of Austerlitz. He is obsessed by details, wants to take note of every particular. He moves around, observes, measures. He studies the maps for a long time , but he only trusts his own eyes. He has 63,000 soldiers against the 85,000 available to its enemies. He knows that a strategic retreat is not an option at that stage and that he needs a decisive victory because his frayed troops might not be able to sustain prolonged confrontation.

Thus, the French emperor must come up with something. He is a military genius who knows how a battle develops and can be won. He knows that in the first phases of a battle, troops behave as the rings of a chain that oscillates forward and backward over the battle front, depending on the amount of pressure exerted by the enemy troops. Sooner or later, however, maybe because of a strategic error or because of random factors, the equilibrium will be breached and some of the rings will start weakening and tearing out. The battle will then enter in a critical phase in which it will be critical to take advantage of the smallest opportunity on the fly and launch the decisive attack. 

Napoleon figured that the key was in the geography and that’s why he analyzed Austerlitz’s battlefield with with extreme care. It was a right triangle with one of the sides stretching east for 8.7 miles and other extending  towards the south for 6.2 miles along the Goldback river (see figures above). The hypotenuse is defined by the Littawa river, which forms a series of ponds and frozen marshes in the winter. Between the two rivers, the Pratzen plateau rises for 30-36 feet above the level of the rivers.

The emperor makes an apparently illogical choice. He renounces to occupy the most advantageous position, the Pratzen plateau, and arranges the troops along the Goldback river, then he set up a slender front line and hide the bulk of the troops in the back taking advantages of the thick fog. He then makes the lower-right side of his deployment deliberately weak to deceive the enemy. Finally, he orders his troops to wait for the enemy first move and to hold positions.

The enemy bites the bait and at 7:00 am on December 2, 1805, the Russian-Austrian coalition launches the attack on the south side of the French formation and the troops begin to move from the Pratzen flat towards to encircle the French troops. It would be more appropriate to say that the enemy is sucked in the vacuum that Napoleon has masterfully created. Napoleon observes the movement and wait until the Pratzen outpost is almost empty, then at 9:00 am orders his hidden troops to take over the Pratzen. After a fierce fighting at 12:00 the Austrian-Russian army attempted a flight over the iced pond of the Satschan, a move that Napoleon had clearly anticipated, so much so that he ordered his artillery to crash the ice to drown the enemies. The battle resulted in one of the heaviest defeats for the coalition army, one that required the acceptance of a humiliating treaty and long time to recover from materially and morally.

What is striking about Napoleon’s strategic genius is his ability to visualize troops in battle not as separate entities, but as nodes connected in a network of tensions that push, pull, support, threaten and protect. It is a network of dynamic relationships in which every movement reverberates immediate effects on the other parts and affects the network as a whole . Napoleon masterfully manages the evolution of this dynamic pattern: he designs a master plan and then flexibly relies on his ability to evaluate and adapt to circumstances. 

One of Napoleon favorite maxims was: “The art of war has no fixed rules, it is based on execution”. He behaves like a great chess master who does not see the single piece, but the pattern within which each element is encased. Or like a great painter, who manages to continually move his attention from the single brush stroke to the general structure of the composition. Or like a master designer who creates differences in potential and information vacuum with the aim of moving users towards the desired direction.

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