Sure, all’s fair in love and war, but there are still a few deceptions that strike a bit below the belt – like tricking an enemy with the promise of peace. It’s the wartime equivalent of shaking a guy’s hand then sucker punching him in the face. Indecorous as it may be, though, the ploy has worked well in a number of instances, perhaps most notably in 1805, just before the Battle of Austerlitz.
The large wooden bridge over the Danube river on the road to Vienna was of great strategic importance to Napoleon as his army marched to confront the combined forces of Austria and Russia. The Austrians knew this, of course, and kept the bridge well guarded. They also rigged it with explosives should a French approach make its destruction necessary. Confronted with this obstacle, two of Napoleon’s top marshals, Jean Lannes and Joachim Murat, devised a scheme to take the bridge intact. Dressed in their full ceremonial uniforms and accompanied by a group of German-speaking officers, they approached the bridge.
“Armistice! Armistice!” they called as they calmly walked across. The Austrians, unsure what to do, called the local commander, General Auersperg. Murat and Lannes told the elderly, and not too bright, general that the French and Austrian emperors had come to terms. As the leaders of each side conferred, French troops quickly advanced on the bridge and disabled the explosives. No one fired at them for fear of breaking what was believed to be a truce. There’s a scene in Tolstoy’s War and Peace in which an Austrian soldier warns General Auersperg that he is being deceived by the French. Murat responds to the accusation with a challenge to the general: “I don’t recognize the world-famous Austrian discipline if you allow a subordinate to address you like that!”
Whether or not such an exchange actually occurred is unclear, but general Auersperg did give up the bridge in the belief that an armistice was in effect. The poor old guy was court-martialed for his folly and died in disgrace. Napoleon, meanwhile, went on to defeat the combined Austrian and Russian forces at Austerlitz, a battle he described as the greatest he ever fought. The emperor’s private secretary called Lannes and Murat’s trick preceding it an “act of courage and presence of mind, which had so great an influence on the events of the campaign.” But another French officer, General Baron de Marbot, had a different opinion. “I know that in war one eases one’s conscience,” he wrote in his Memoirs, “and that any means may be employed to ensure victory and reduce loss of life, but in spite of these weighty considerations, I do not think that one can approve of the method used to seize the bridge . . . and for my part I would not care to do the same in similar circumstances.”
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