Massive city walls guarded by vigilant defenders and the Špilberk Castle – a fearful fortification built above the steep city hill – one of the strongest ones in the Habsburg monarchy. It was the image of Brno in 1805, in the period of the Three Emperors´ clash. It was believed there would have been no better place to defend against enemies. Surprisingly enough the city surrendered and voluntarily opened its gates - the fact that shocked even Napoleon himself.
Even though since spring 1805 the potential clash between the empires became more and more probable, anybody would hardly believe that the battlefields would reach the territory of Moravia. The huge French army was camping on the English Channel coastside ready to invade the British Isles. The English, however, managed a clever and successful diplomatic strategy - to sign an alliance with Russia and Austria, in fact the third Anti-French Coalition. Thus, instead of their troops, the English set on money for war operations to finance their allies.
The news about Russian and Austrian troops´ movement westwards reached Napoleon as late as in the middle of August 1805. Instead of invading the British Isles, Napoleon ordered his troops to march inlands to meet the enemies. Thus, the Third Coalition War began.
Campaign across Austria as Far as South Moravia
The French army was marching fast eastwards. They managed to cover one thousand kilometres within eight weeks. Even today the same distance would take you at least thirteen hours by car. French soldiers were able to move 25 – 30 kilometres daily and it was a really incredible pace. Moreover, they had to face clashes with enemies on their way. Near the fortress of Ulm (Germany), they had defeated the Austrian General Mack´s troops numbering thirty thousand soldiers thus having reached an open way towards Vienna. The Emperor of Austria Francis I had hastily fled the capital leaving it defenceless to foreign enemies. Having reached Vienna, the French troops moved fast towards Brno.
The city was short of time concerning profound defence, moreover it totally failed after the Emperor and his Court had fled and Vienna fell. In those days, of course, news spread very slowly and the situation was largely obscured by gossips. Information from distant regions was highly distorted and amended by people´s speculations. As a result, some Moravians were awaiting the French troops with great expectations, they believed, for example, that the French might have abolished their peasant duties. As the French army moved on and people had witnessed their plundering, their opinions changed. Personal clashes with soldiers meant bitter disappointment for most of them. Since the very beginning, Moravia was obliged to supply the enemies with food, horse fodder and money as well.
Both Nobility and Soldiers Escape from the French
On 17th day of November, total panic burst out after the news on the French troops´ stepping upon the Moravian territory near Znojmo (Znaim). Whoever from the local nobility was able to flee did so. The imperial road from Brno to Olomouc (Olmütz) was soon desperately ovecrowded – the situation very similar to the present one drivers witness during traffic jams. “On those days all the nobility were leaving either Brno or their own estates. The roads were overcrowded and offices quit all their activities,“ as stated in the local chronicle by Jan Čupík of the village of Olešnice.
When on Monday, November 18th even the Špilberk garrison fled, the citizens of Brno found themselves in deep shock. Fear, anxiety and total despair – more than these emotions were experienced by all those who remained unprotected. Citizens were left to defend the city walls on their own.
The first French soldiers of the mounted cavalry led by Marshal Murat followed by other cavalry units entered the city of Brno on Tuesday, November 19th. They broke in via Brněnská brána (Brno Gate) at the end of the contemporary Pekařská Street (the Baker Street) and within a couple of minutes they conquerred the inner city. That day the city remained silent, there was almost no other noise except the loud horse gallop. The everyday city life was interrupted. “All cafes and shops were closed. The city looked like a nightmare. From time to time you might have seen no one else but a French soldier,“ as recollected by priest Horký of the village of Myslibořice.
Napoleon´s Memorable but Fearful Arrival in Moravia
The French occupying the city announced Napoleon´s ceremonial arrival in Brno for the following day. The Emperor of France was wearing a brown coat and a bicorne hat, that distinguished him from all the rest of his marshals and generals, appeared at five in the afternoon. Following the other recordings by priest Horký, Napoleon was accompanied by the “rulers of the hell“: “He was surrounded by Mamluks that looked like devils. They had naked necks and bearded faces, their bodies were sunburnt and they had wide bands round their waists full of daggers as well as short curved sabres dangling on a string.“
Napoleon´s arrival meant nothing else but fear and misery for common people. They were worried that they might have occurred in the middle of a direct clash. As soon as the French started building ramparts around Židovská brána (Jewish Gate) – the place of the present central railway station – the citizens of Brno were overwhelmed with gossips on the impending military clash.
Napoleon, however had different plans concerning the battlefield location. He wanted to lure the Allies out to a slightly undulating terrain between Brno and Slavkov (Austerlitz). Starting from November 21st, he regularly attended this territory accompanied by his generals and faced them with the following challenge: “Gentlemen, examine this ground carefully, it is going to be a battlefield - you will have a part to play upon it.” He never returned to Brno earlier than at night. Approaching the city, the windows welcomed him with two lit candles in each of them and their flames reminded shining stars on the evening sky. Do you, perhaps, think that citizens of Brno favoured Napoleon so much? No, not at all, there certainly was no favour on their side. People were instructed to do so. It was Napoleon himself who ordered the ceremonial illumination. Even after the French army transferred closer to the battlefield the city was not relieved of war miseries.