Gaugamela and Austerlitz

September 2, 2020

I am struck by some parallels between two battles — Gaugamela and Austerlitz. 

I wonder in fact to what degree Napoleon copied Alexander’s tactics. 

My son and I have enjoyed watching these videos and it’s great fun to think about these things, though comments, clarifications and corrections are more than welcome here; even more than with the last post, this is stuff I’ve never studied to any extent.

Both Alexander and Napoleon essentially laid a trap by moving first with the right flank, seeking to get the enemy to weaken his center, then driving through the enemy’s center with a decisive blow. 

Alexander stretched out his right flank, forcing Darius to stretch out his left (Darius was worried that Alexander might leave the part of the field that Darius had carefully cleared for the benefit of his chariots; I wonder if Alexander knew this).  Napoleon made his right flank look weak with a “retreat” from the high ground on the battlefield (the Pratzen Heights), and with messages to the effect that he wished to settle.  All this induced Russian Emperor Alexander to attack Napoleon’s right, rather than simply occupying the heights recently abandoned by the French, as Kutuzov (and the Austrian Emperor) wished to do.  Both the Persian and the Allied (Russian/Austrian) armies, through these actions, weakened their centers. 

Alexander’s march to the right, though, also weakened his own center, or at least appeared to do so, which led Darius to rashly attack Alexander’s center; the Macedonian infantry opened ranks to let the chariots through and then rained spears on them; an attack on Alexander’s left and another one on his center further weakened the Persian center, which Alexander eventually drove through (with his right-wing cavalry and some of his center); Darius fled and his army retreated.  Napoleon’s center was a different story; it didn’t look weak, or strong; it was largely enveloped in morning fog.  After Kutuzov attacked Napoleon’s right, the center of the French army came out of the lifting-fog and drove into the Allied center, eventually breaking through and scattering the Allied army. 

Alexander had to turn back from his pursuit of Darius to save his own still-embattled left flank, and routed the enemy forces fighting there. Napoleon, rather than pursuing the Allied center, wheeled around to his own right flank to rout the enemy divisions fighting there.

Alexander had started similarly at Issus, attacking with his right-flank cavalry, preparing the way for the advance of the phalanxes in his center across the river.

Napoleon chose the Austerlitz battlefield; Darius chose the Gaugamela field.  What stands out for me is that Napoleon occupied the Pratzen Heights but willingly gave them up, as part of an elaborate ruse.  He planned of course to take back the heights, but I’m struck by this general who audaciously gave up the advantage of the high ground.  He wasn’t interested in defensive ground, but in destroying armies.

I was interested to learn that Napoleon invented the army corps, which allowed him to split his forces into independently run smaller armies that could, as needed, attack separately or be rejoined later. In fact, part of the reason Napoleon was successful in making his right flank look weak is that he had a corps not far away which would support it when the time came for battle; the Allies did not know this and thus took the bait more readily.

Austerlitz and Gaugamela are sometimes compared to the Battle of Cannae, about which I know nothing.

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