KUTUZOV had, on the 1st of November, received from one of his spies information that showed the army he commanded to be in an almost hopeless position. The spy reported that the French, after crossing the bridge at Vienna, were moving in immense force on Kutuzov's line of communications with the reinforcements marching from Russia. If Kutuzov were to determine to remain at Krems, Napoleon's army of a hundred and fifty thousand men would cut him off from all communications, and would surround his exhausted army of forty thousand, and he would find himself in the position of Mack before Ulm. If Kutuzov decided to leave the road leading to a junction with the Russian reinforcements, he would have to make his way with no road through unknown country to the mountains of Bohemia, pursued by the cream of the enemy's forces, and to give up all hope of effecting a junction with Buxhevden. If Kutuzov decided to march by the road from Krems to Olmätz to join the forces from Russia he ran the risk of finding the French, who had crossed the Vienna bridge, in advance of him on this road, and so being forced to give battle on the march, encumbered with all his stores and transport, with an enemy three times as numerous and hemming him in on both sides. Kutuzov chose the last course.
The French, after crossing the river, had, as the spy reported, set off at a quick march toward Znaim, which lay on Kutuzov's line of routes more than a hundred versts in front of him. To reach Znaim before the French offered the best hopes of saving the army. To allow the French to get to Znaim before him would mean exposing the whole army to a disgrace like that of the Austrians at Ulm, or to complete destruction. But to arrive there before the French with the whole army was impossible. The road of the French army from Vienna to Znaim was shorter and better than the Russians' road from Krems to Znaim.
On the night of receiving the news Kutuzov sent Bagration's advance guard of four thousand soldiers to the right over the mountains from the Krems-Znaim road to the Vienna and Znaim road. Bagration was to make a forced march, to halt facing towards Vienna and with his back to Znaim, and if he succeeded in getting on the road in advance of the French, he was to delay them as long as he could. Kutuzov himself with all the transport was making straight for Znaim.
Bagration marched forty-five versts, by night in stormy weather, through the mountains, with no road, and with hungry, barefoot soldiers. Leaving a third of his men straggling behind him, Bagration reached Hollabrunn, on the Vienna and Znaim road, a few hours before the French, who marched upon Hollabrunn from Vienna. Kutuzov needed fully another twenty-four hours to get to Znaim with all the transport, and so to save the army Bagration would have had, with his four thousand hungry and exhausted soldiers, to have kept at bay the whole army of the enemy confronting him at Hollabrunn for four-and-twenty hours, and this was obviously impossible. But a freak of fate made the impossible possible. The success of the trick that had given the Vienna bridge into the hands of the French encouraged Murat to try and take in Kutuzov too. Murat, on meeting Bagration's weak detachment on the Znaim road, supposed it to be the whole army of Kutuzov. To give this army a final and crushing defeat he waited for the troops still on the road from Vienna, and to that end he proposed a truce for three days, on the condition that neither army should change its position nor stir from where it was. Murat averred that negotiations for peace were now proceeding, and that he proposed a truce therefore to avoid useless bloodshed. The Austrian general, Nostits, who was in charge of the advance posts, believed the statements of Murat's messengers and retired, leaving Bagration's detachment unprotected. The other messengers rode off to the Russian line to make the same announcement about peace negotiations, and to propose a truce of three days, to the Russian troops. Bagration replied that he was not authorised to accept or to decline a truce, and sent his adjutant to Kutuzov with a report of the proposition made to him.
A truce gave Kutuzov the only possibility of gaining time, of letting Bagration's exhausted forces rest, and of getting the transport and heavy convoys (the movement of which was concealed from the French) a further stage on their journey. The offer of a truce gave the one—and totally unexpected—chance of saving the army. On receiving information of it, Kutuzov promptly despatched the general-adjutant, Winzengerode, who was with him, to the enemy's camp. Winzengerode was instructed not only to accept the truce, but to propose terms of capitulation, while Kutuzov meanwhile sent his adjutants back to hasten to the utmost the transport of the luggage of the whole army along the Krems and Znaim road. Bagration's hungry and exhausted detachment alone was to cover the movements of the transport and of the whole army, by remaining stationary in face of an enemy eight times stronger numerically.
Kutuzov's anticipations were correct both as to the proposals of capitulation, which bound him to nothing, giving time for part of the transport to reach Znaim, and as to Murat's blunder being very quickly discovered. As soon as Bonaparte, who was at Schönbrunn, only twenty-five versts from Hollabrunn, received Murat's despatch and projects of truce and capitulation, he detected the deception and despatched the following letter to Murat:
To Prince Murat.
Schönbrunn, 25 Brumaire, year 1805,
at 8 o'clock in the morning.
“It is impossible to find terms in which to express to you my displeasure. You only command my advance guard and you have no right to make any truce without my order. You are causing me to lose the results of a campaign. Break the truce immediately and march upon the enemy. You must make a declaration to them that the general who signed this capitulation had no right to do so, and that only the Emperor of Russia has that right.
“Whenever the Emperor of Russia ratifies the aforesaid convention, however, I will ratify it; but it is only a stratagem. March on, destroy the Russian army … you are in a position to take its baggage and artillery.
“The Emperor of Russia's aide-de-camp is a … Officers are nothing when they have not powers; this one had none. … The Austrians let themselves be tricked about the crossing of the bridge of Vienna, you are letting yourself be tricked by one of the Emperor's aides-de-camp.
Bonaparte's adjutant dashed off at full gallop with this menacing letter to Murat. Not trusting his generals, Bonaparte himself advanced to the field of battle with his whole guard, fearful of letting the snared victim slip through his fingers. Meanwhile the four thousand men of Bagration's detachment, merrily lighting camp-fires, dried and warmed themselves, and cooked their porridge for the first time for three days, and not one among them knew or dreamed of what was in store for them.