The Irony of Austerlitz

The 1805 Battle of Austerlitz was Napoleon's finest victory. His 70,000 troops fought and defeated 90,000 Russian and Austrians, led respectively by Tsar Alexander I and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II. Their battlefield maneuvers eventually encompassed several square miles, while casualties numbered in the thousands. Soldiers from both sides were buried in mass graves. The citizen population of the area was also affected, first by the battle and then by disease brought in with the troops. Then the armies and time marched on.

 A hundred years after the battle the locals decided that there should be a monument to those who fell there, and in the spirit of healing they would raise that monument as a peace memorial dedicated to the soldiers of France, Russia, and Austria, as well as the citizens of Moravia.

The monument was placed atop Pratzen Plateau, a significant location during the battle, and one that figured prominently in the battle plans of all three emperors. The view from atop Pratzen Plateau was the reason it was coveted by the men in 1805, and the monument could be seen from miles away when it was finally completed.
There was other important business. In the aftermath of the battle thousands of the dead had been hastily buried in mass graves, and there were 20 of those scattered around the countryside. The Moravians felt that those men were being forgotten, and that they deserved remembrance. So the peace monument was built with a chapel inside, and below that was an ossuary to hold the bones of those buried in the mass graves. But World War I came before the monument could be dedicated, and before the graves could be exhumed.

The interwar period was one of recovery, and the monument was finally dedicated in 1923. During World War II the area still held its military value, and the monument was damaged as retreating Germans attempted to use it as a shield during a firefight.

Today the battlefield exists much as it did in 1805, as a rural landscape with small villages dotted about. Inside the chapel there is a strange effect of the walls that virtually requires whispers when you speak. And there's an irony that whispers back. The memorial exists so that we will remember the death and destruction that war brings, yet its practical purpose was to serve as the final resting place of the men buried in those mass graves. Sadly, during WWII the file with the location and details of the 20 mass graves was lost or destroyed, with only 1 of 20 having been discovered as of today - and that being by accident. The ossuary was built to hold the bones of thousands of men as a reminder of the devastation of war. Instead, it holds just a few, perhaps as a more absolute reminder.

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