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In The Footsteps of
Napoleon Bonaparte






T. Sher Singh



Brno is the Czech Republic’s second largest city and the capital of its province of Moravia. The western region, Bohemia, boasts the country’s capital, Prague.

Brno became our base camp during a stint through Central Europe because it is where my partner was born and grew up. Once we got there, however, I discovered an added delight to the time we spent with family and friends. About 20 km east of Brno lies, I was told, a village named Slavkov u Brna, known more famously by its German name Austerlitz.

Austerlitz was the site of Napoleon’s greatest battle which took place on December 2, 1805. Being a Napoleon-phile for much of my life, the location of the battlefield virtually next door was quite a windfall.

I didn’t need to read up or google to freshen up on the reasons behind my fascination over either Napoleon or his most decisive battle which made him master of much of Europe. Ever since I was introduced to his saga by my great-uncle, Sardar Avtar Singh, I was hooked. I was no more than ten or so when a parcel arrived from him containing a book he had talked about often when he first regaled me with stories of the General.

It was an old, leather-bound tome printed, I believe, in the 1840s. Just holding it in my hands transported me to another era … and, not surprisingly, also turned me into a life-long admirer and collector of antique books. It had well over 600 pages, the type was in a 5 or 6 pt font … as I look at it now, sitting here at my desk, I note that each one of its double-columned pages contains the equivalent of about 5 pages of an average book today. No wonder, it took me several years to make my way through it. But finish it I did, and through the process turned into a die-hard Napoleon fan.

I am aware of the plethora of books describing him as a tyrant and worse, But I swallow none of it. Partly because I’m immunized against it by the bias deeply entrenched in me almost six decades ago, but also because I’m not oblivious of Britain’s historical propensity (emulated since then by many, even today) to paint opponents as ogres and the devil incarnate, something that was craftily done in his case, literally.

I’m not blind to Napoleon’s faults and his excesses, but Britain itself, his arch enemy, is largely responsible for his transformation from a post-French Revolution republican to their own caricature to suit their propaganda purposes.

Britain had an axe to grind: they were terrified by the outcome of the French Revolution, specifically by the overthrow of the French monarchy, and the takeover by its citizenry, albeit an unruly one. The public execution by guillotine of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette sent shudders down the spines of so-called nobilities everywhere. Things became even more alarming to those grown accustomed to unearned privilege when, out of the chaos, a leader emerged amidst the anarchy in Paris who began to fulfill the promise of the original revolutionary dreamers.

It was easy for Britain to muster support from other European potentates -  each was worried about the threat of republicanism to his throne! Hastily, a number of coalitions against Napoleon were formed and the latter drawn into battle by the allies.

Two successive campaigns were easily beaten back and the conspiracies thrashed by Napoleon. Each time, Britain readily signed a truce. But as goes often with bullies, it did not last very long.

A Third Coalition was put together in 1804.

In late 1805 the armies, primarily of Russia and Austria, converged a hundred km north of Vienna -- after Napoleon had only weeks before taken the Austrian capital -- in the vicinity of Brno which then was under Austro-Hungarian suzerainty. Though subsequently called the Battle of the Three Emperors (Napoleon, Russia’s Tsar Alexander I, Austria’s Francis II), Britain this time around remained in the background, a shadow player: while conveniently keeping at a safe distance, still nursing the sting of recent defeats, they had secretly promised to help finance the war.

The adversaries met on December 2. Napoleon was vastly outnumbered. Using his disadvantages to his advantage, he feigned further weaknesses and even hinted a possible retreat or surrender. However, he used the days preceding to personally visit the terrain and studied it carefully … while his adversaries were already revelling in what they perceived to be an easy victory ahead.

The armies met in the morning, the entire area blanketed by a dense fog. By this time, Napoleon knew the lay of the land intimately, the allied generals had no clue. With the parry and thrust of his trademark strategies, he outwitted the allies and brought them to their knees. The Grande Armée inflicted the enemy four times its own casualties. By the end of the day, the Allies had 16,000 dead, the French 1300.

The combined monarchies of Europe had managed to make their arch enemy all the more powerful.

[Walking through the laneways of old Bratislava (capital of Slovakia) a few days later, I came across the pink Primatial Palace. Inside, in the Hall of Mirrors, the Treaty of Pressburg (the name by which the city was then known) was signed a few weeks later, marking the surrender. It also sealed the fate of the thousand-year old Holy Roman Empire: within a few months, Napoleon rang its death knell.]

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We drove into the countryside surrounding the village of Slavkov only a few days before the anniversary of the battle on December 2. I knew of the annual re-enactment of the Battle of Austerlitz due to be held there within a few days, but I’m shy of crowds and did not relish being amidst thousands of Frenchmen, Russians and Austrians in period uniforms playing at war, though the day promised to be a spectacular one. We opted for a day when, mercifully, we were the only visitors.

The undulating fields on both sides of the road we drive on play hide and seek with the sun as thick fog wafts in and out from one hillock to the other: a reminder of how deftly Napoleon used this gift of nature to out-maneuver his adversaries. One moment, you see a hill-top, the next it dissolves into thin air.

This goes on for miles, as we first head for the village of Slavkov. Not much of a spot; the only attraction vis-à-vis its Napoleonic history, is a Baroque castle which was around two centuries ago during the wars and on the eve of the Battle of Austerlitz, hosted the Allied high-command. After the defeat of the Coalition, the latter’s humiliation was complete when the French Emperor moved in for a well-deserved rest.

Back into the country. Again, it’s the topography of the area, 360 degrees of it, which is the real attraction here. Seeing it live, under the shroud of its living and breathing weather, gives me an inkling of how almost two hundred thousand soldiers could be moved around like chess pieces, each hill and valley serving as a black-and-white square. It makes sense why the terrain had been specifically selected and the enemy lured to it. As does the choice of the farmland, in the middle of nowhere, far from Paris, Vienna, Moscow … and London!  

On one of the hills which had been used as a lookout during the battle, a memorial was built a century ago by a Czech priest/historian representing a ’reconciliation’ between the powers a century after the great confrontation. The cost was split between the historical winner and losers.

Art Nouveau in design, it is sombre and serene, especially inside where the flags of the nations and mournful figures carved in stone remember the losses on all sides, promising a future of peace.

Alas, a mere five years after the Cairn of Peace was constructed, Europe would erupt in yet another war, this time around enveloping the world and laying claim to the title, the Great War. Sadly, the carnage that would follow would make Austerlitz pale in comparison and look like but a backyard game. [Nevertheless, Austerlitz retains the honour as one of the greatest military victories of all time.]

A new museum, using technology to bring out the highlights of the Napoleonic conflict, stands next door. It does a good job in telling the story.

We are all quiet as we drive back to Brno, weighed down with the awareness that we are passing through a sprawling graveyard possibly a hundred square kilometres in its span. Farming country, all of it now.

At least here, they have beaten ‘their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks‘.

But has anyone anywhere else paid heed to Isaiah‘s words?

“ … Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more …”  Naa-aah! Tragically, never have, never will.         

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Marketa Holtebrinck


On the road to Austerlitz through the Austrian Weinviertel, the long hills north of Vienna roll towards the Czech border. The deeper into the country, the more we see of the semi-underground, grass-covered wine cellars alongside the roads on the way out of villages and towns. On the other side of the border opens up Moravia, the hereditary land of the Czech Margraves and heirs to the Czech royal crown and kingdom.

The historical kingdom, which roughly corresponds to today’s Czech Republic, is a small country surrounded by mountains and hills on all sides, and, unlike in Shakespeare’s ‘Winter’s Tale‘, it is landlocked.

Yet in the 13th century, Ottokar II, the Iron and Golden King, ruled over an empire that stretched as far as the Adriatic. In 1620, after centuries of widespread rebellious dissent against the papal doctrines in Bohemia and Moravia, the Habsburgs came to rule the Czech lands and stayed for the next three hundred years.

Southern Moravia is a land of fertile lowlands and hills high in lime minerals where burgundy wines flourish and Karel Absolon found the thirty-thousand-year-old Venus of Dolní VÄ›stonice in 1925.

It has always been farming country. As big landowners came and went through the twists and turns of history, the people actually tilling the soil remained largely the same. Newcomers in the wake of the Napoleonic era and after the mid 19th century emancipation of the non-Catholic population in the Austrian Empire, both sides of my family arrived in the region and intermarried with the local population and propagated. God bless them … for here I am.

When the communist coup in the country in 1948 and the subsequent expropriation of farming land forced people to give up their land, they held their heads high (well, some did, some not) and worked for the wobbly socialist communality.

So, whenever our family got together, the older generation would tell stories.

The primacy amongst them was held by my maternal great-grandmother. With long black curly hair and an unbound temperament, paired with a taste for fabulation that lasted well into her late years, she often visited my grandmother, her only daughter, and treated everybody to all sorts of unusual fare. To us children she was like an apparition from another century.

Not only did she always wear a traditional folk costume – a large, ankle-long, multi-layered embroidered skirt with an equally festooned camisole (white on weekdays, coloured on Sundays and holy days) and a woollen head kerchief replete with red roses – she talked like a character in ‘Marysha‘, the popular 19th century Czech drama written entirely in dialect. [Its famous heroine is said to have poisoned the much older man she was forced to marry. My great-grandmother always liked to baffle us by claiming they were once girlfriends. True, I found out later, they were.]

She recalled stories she had heard as a child from her elders about the Austrian cavalry breaking through ice and drowning in muddy waters of the battlefield of Austerlitz, about local men storing guns and ammunition retrieved after the battle and brandishing them in the subsequent local Revolution of 1848. She would cite names of those who were imprisoned by the imperial secret police in the infamous Fort of Brno and elsewhere in later years, and trace their descendents to families we knew.

Just as my grandparents could point out people who were forced to house German soldiers and SS officers in WW II, my great-grandmother could still point out houses in which the imperial troops were billeted before the Austerlitz battle – and the French ones after it. However, we were too young to fully understand the century-old gossip about children born out of wedlock after the troops had gone.

At school, we never heard of Austerlitz. Whenever the talk was about Napoleon having spent a night in the Kaunitz chateau after the famous battle, the name that came up was Slavkov, the old Slavic name of the town. I may have not even made the connection between the two in my early school years. Thus my first conscious encounter with ‘Austerlitz’ came from a book – a long read, Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’.

As a kid deprived by the communist education system of learning French at school -- I was born during Czechoslovakia‘s Communist rule -- I was fascinated by the book‘s original mixture of French and Russian. Long exchanges between the book’s aristocratic characters are in French, at the time the language of the Czarist court and administration; their translation into Czech was limited to footnotes that went on for pages.

The carnage described in volume one of the book is Austerlitz and Tolstoy’s hero, lying wounded on the battlefield, stares at the lazy winter sky and reminisces famously: “How is it that I haven’t seen this high sky before? And how glad I am that I’ve finally discovered it. Yes, indeed! Everything is empty, everything is deceit, except this endless sky.”

But the Austerlitz in ‘War and Peace’ is not a place so much as a moment of epiphany and disillusion with Napoleon’s bird-of-prey-like will to victory. It never connected for me to the undulating landscape and the place names I knew from driving with my parents to visit my butcher uncle in Újezd, or my repeated school trips to the monument to the so called Battle of the Three Emperors.

I had visited the Cairn of Peace many times before I moved to Canada, mostly on request of my young son who was an enthusiastic collector of tin soldiers that the museum shop was selling.

The elegantly ethereal art nouveau building, finished in 1912, is located on a hill where the French wrenched decisive control of the battle from their Russian and Austrian counterparts. What sets the monument apart from other Austerlitz memorials is its clearly stated mission as the memorial to the dead on all fighting sides (the Czechs were the involuntary hosts). The governments of the Austrian Empire, the French Republic and the Russian Empire each contributed funds towards this act of official piety.

Given our present vantage point in history, we could take it with a pinch of salt, knowing that it too was a part of the war effort leading to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.

But the collection of bones from the surrounding fields and those exhumed from local cemeteries, now laid to rest in the memorial, bypasses the politicizing of the times and resembles more a bell-toll for the dead, muffled as if by the merciful and forgiving fog.

What has kept me thinking since we visited Austerlitz a few weeks ago is the fact that the driving force behind the conception and execution of the monument was largely local – at a time when no Czech state existed politically and no national war heroes could have been mourned. Before and after the monument became a transnational affair, it for sure was an act of active collective memory.

It stands on in sharp contrast to the victims of official histories who are deemed unmemorable by political circumstances, their key players and ongoing vested interests.

One such major tragedy is the American institution of slavery, another the Partition of Punjab, both involuntary witnesses to the violent birth of a nation. It seems unthinkable to me that there is not a slavery memorial in every little town in the United States, or a memorial to the victims of Partition in every village in Punjab that lost people in the so-called ‘transfer of population’.

Looking back to the peaceful fields of Austerlitz, a thought stirs in my head: that it took a hundred years for a redeeming act of official memory to take place!


February 1, 2018

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