Austerlitz (Slavkov) hosts bicentennial staging of Napoleon's 'greatest' victory

This weekend saw the largest re-enactment of a Napoleonic battle in the history of central Europe. Tens of thousands of people braved the bitter cold on Saturday for the bicentennial staging of the 'Battle of the Three Emperors' of 2 December 1805 - Napoleon Bonaparte's greatest victory. On the rolling hills and fields outside Austerlitz, now Slavkov in South Moravia, the young French emperor outwitted a much larger Russo-Austrian force -- a feat of which he would be proud to his dying day. Taking part in the re-enactment on Saturday were some four thousand military history enthusiasts in full period costume from twenty two countries.

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK English cavalryman: "The unit is from the first regiment of the Polish lancers of the French Imperial Guard. We come from England. This is our first major event in continental Europe and being Polish and on the winning side - of course we'll win and live!"

And where in England are you from?

"We have members from all over - Yorkshire, Scotland, Wales, London - and we meet one weekend every month for training, and then we come to events in Europe.

And how did you choose this particular unit?

"We have some members who are Polish - their ancestors were with the regiment. I'm English, not Polish. Unfortunately, when I was in the army, I had a lot of experience with horses and so I was... recruited. Fifteen years later I'm still doing this."

Do you speak English?

French solider:Parlez-vous Francais? Si non, pas de chance!

Donc... Vous etes de quelle regiment?

La Garde Imperiale de Napoleon.

Croyez-vous qu'a la fin de la journee...

"That we will win? Oui!"

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK Russian horseman: "We are Russian lancers - from Moscow, we are from Mosow"

American cavalrymen: "We are hussars -- French cavalry - I am from Maryland, in the United States. My friend is from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - and we've flown here for the Battle of Austerlitz to enjoy some of the Napoleonic re-enacting."

Do you always take a French uniform?

"Yes, I always play the French side."

Any particular reason?

"Just for the love of the Emperor."

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK The regiments of Austrian infantry were divided into so-called 'German' and 'Hungarian' regiments. In 1805, the German regiments included twice as many recruits from Bohemia and Moravia as from Austria proper and the region of Tyrol; there were also units from what is today Belgium, as well as Croatia, Italy and other nationalities. There were 10 regiments made up of Galician Poles and Ukrainians -- but the Poles in particular were unmotivated and often deserted to join the countrymen on the French side. There were nearly a dozen Hungarian regiments.

Hungarian captain: "We came from Budapest, Hungary and this is the 32nd infantry regiment. It was a typical Hungarian regiment, which took part in almost all battles of Napoleonic era. We are re-enactors of this regiment and came here to celebrate the day when there was a great battle and, unfortunately, then we lost, but finally, we won the war. That was the time when we were in alliance with Britain and other countries."

So you've been doing this for many years - I guess you've been especially looking forward to the 200th anniversary of Austerlitz?

"Yes, of course, that's one of the greatest events. We've been doing this for about, let's say, ten years, with this team - but most started doing re-enactments much earlier."

And do you expect to live through the day?

"Of course! I want to catch Napoleon personally!" [laughs]

Good luck re-writing history!

"Thanks!"

The night before the 'Battle of the Three Emperors' Napoleon was said to have dreamt a vivid dream, in which a flaming red Austerlitz sun promised victory on the battlefield and eternal glory. Whether legend or prophecy, by the time "le solei d'Austerlitz" next set in the West, on December 2, 1805 -the first anniversary of his coronation as Emperor of France - Napoleon had indeed emerged triumphant, having bested the numerically superior armies of his enemies, Emperor Franz of Austria and Tsar Alexander of Russia.

Like a bird that fakes a broken wing to divert a predator from its young, Napoleon had tricked his foes into thinking that he had both abandoned a key hillside position and that his army was weaker than it actually was. Once they took the bait, Napoleon called in his reinforcements and drove a wedge between the confused Russo-Austrian forces. It took the 75,000 soldiers of Napoleon's Grande Armee six hours to defeat the opposing force of 90,000 troops. Over 20,000 men died in the battle, which would redraw the map of Europe, as the Holy Roman Empire was disbanded, and France took control over Italy and parts of Germany.

Although the real thing was bloodier by far, the re-enactment of the Battle of Austerlitz on Saturday was not without its casualties. Eight people were injured in the course of the day: a Spanish cavalry officer suffered a fractured shoulder when he fell off his horse, which had skidded on an icy Moravian slope covered with hay. Some 1.5 tonnes of gunpowder was ignited and 350 pounds of explosives were used in the event: a Russian foot soldier suffered minor burns when his historic rifle exploded in his face after firing a blank round.

Mark Schneider as Napoleon, photo: CTKMark Schneider as Napoleon, photo: CTK "My mother is from France, so I often say to people, 'J'ai deux patries: la France et les Etats Unis' - I have two countries, France and the United States."

Napoleon himself was played by Mark Schneider, an American with dual French citizenship and a striking resemblance to the emperor. At 36-years-old, he is even the same age as Napoleon was at Austerlitz.

"I work for a living history museum in Williamsburg, Virginia, where we [staff] are historians as well as actors. I've been portraying Napoleon for perhaps eight years now - mostly in the United States for television and historical societies - and I had the great honour of being Napoleon [for a European audience] in June of 2005, at the 190th anniversary of a segment of the Waterloo battle. I did a good enough job that they brought me to Austerlitz, where I've now portrayed Napoleon for this epic battle; his most famous battle. And I've just received an invitation today to come to Germany next year to mark the 200th anniversary of [another] battle. So it is my wish that, perhaps, I could go to all the anniversaries of Napoleon's battles."