That night, Prince Andrei goes in search of the Russian army, getting caught in the disorderly mass of men and wagons choking the roads. Suddenly a distressed woman cries out to Andrei for help, seeing he’s an adjutant. An officer, maddened by the confusion, is beating the woman’s husband, a doctor, for trying to get ahead of the crowds. Andrei angrily intervenes; afterward, he hurries off, embarrassed, before the woman can thank him. Reaching the village which houses the commander in chief, he tries to clear his mind.
Tolstoy pays attention to war’s impact on the masses and not just officers and soldiers. With the French army approaching, ordinary people clog the few available roads, adding to the overall chaos and confusion. Though Andrei cares about behaving honorably and helping civilians, he finds it shameful to be publicly recognized for doing so.
In the village, Prince Andrei runs into Nesvitsky and another officer, who know no more than he does. In a nearby house, he finds Kutuzov, Prince Bagration, and an Austrian general named Weyrother. Even here, things are confused, but Andrei manages to learn that, far from surrendering, the army has been ordered to prepare for battle. He watches Kutuzov and Bagration share an emotional farewell, then Kutuzov orders Andrei into his own carriage.
At this point in the war, Kutuzov’s troops are in danger of being surrounded by Napoleon’s army, like General Mack was, and losing contact with the rest of the Russian army. Now Kutuzov’s goal is to reunite with the rest of the army at Znaim before the French get there; unfortunately, the French have better roads and are moving faster.
Kutuzov sends Bagration’s vanguard over the hills to try to forestall the French on the road from Vienna and give Kutuzov’s men enough time to catch up. It seems impossible. But when French general Murat meets Bagration’s detachment, he mistakenly believes it’s the whole Russian army. Therefore Murat suggests a three-day truce until the rest of the French army catches up with him, claiming that peace negotiations are underway and there is no point in useless bloodshed. When Kutuzov receives this news, he accepts the truce, giving his men enough time to reach Znaim and giving Bagration’s men a chance to rest.
The Russians have a stroke of luck, misleading the French by pretending Bagration’s vanguard is the whole army. Even though the French resort to trickery again, falsely claiming a truce as they did earlier with the Austrians, the ruse gives Kutuzov time to meet his objective of getting the whole army in one place. Kutuzov’s method is to take his time and avoid unnecessary battle, continuing to show his preference for careful, calculated defense rather than strategically sophisticated offense.
Fifteen miles away in Schönbrunn, Bonaparte receives word of the supposed truce and Kutuzov’s suggested conditions of surrender. He realizes Kutuzov is deceiving him and writes a furious letter expressing his displeasure at Murat and ordering him to destroy the Russian army while he has the chance. Meanwhile, not trusting his generals to follow through, Napoleon himself prepares to move into battle, while Bagration’s men complacently rest.
Like Kutuzov, Napoleon is a savvy general, and he quickly realizes his army is missing its chance. Tension builds as Napoleon moves into the story as a character for the first time.
Prince Andrei persuades Kutuzov to let him join Bagration’s detachment. He surveys the condition of Bagration’s bedraggled troops, deciding to stay with a group near the front line. From here, Russian and French soldiers study one another, laughing and talking curiously. Andrei sees Dolokhov taunting the French. Then another officer lets out a stream of nonsense words, pretending it’s real Russian, and the Russians’ uproarious laughter causes the French to burst out laughing, too. Yet the two armies’ cannons remain pointed at one another.
The encounter between the two sides at the front line is an example of Tolstoy’s contention that war is inherently nonsense. The two sides don’t understand each other’s languages for the most part, yet they’re able to joke around—to recognize each other’s shared humanity, in other words. Yet they’re still about to kill each other. Tolstoy suggests that such behavior is senseless and inhuman.
Having ridden along the line of the troops, Prince Andrei goes up the battery. From here he can see the distant village of Schöngraben and most of the French troops. From this position, the French could easily encircle the Russians. Retreat would be difficult, because there’s a steep ravine just behind the Russians. Prince Andrei takes out a notebook and jots some ideas to tell Prince Bagration, picturing various battle contingencies. At the back of his mind, he listens to soldiers in the nearby lean-to speculating about life after death. Just then a cannonball whistles through the air and crashes nearby.
Prince Andrei, still committed to his idealistic view of war, automatically searches for ways to support the Russian effort and promote a better outcome. He only vaguely listens to the nearby soldiers’ speculations—in other words, matters of life and death still seem abstract and unimportant. The cannon fire changes that in an instant, symbolically destroying Andrei’s complacency by bringing the prospect of death front and center.
The battle begins in earnest. Prince Andrei rides in search of Prince Bagration. General Murat has just received Napoleon’s letter, and he moves his troops around both Russian flanks in hopes of crushing them before Napoleon arrives. Bagration calmly listens to Prince Andrei’s report of what he’s seen and then rides toward the front, Andrei trailing him along with Bagration’s personal adjutant Zherkov and a state councilor who’s come to observe. As Zherkov and the councilor are joking around, a cannonball kills a Cossack right behind the councilor.
It's now evident that Napoleon’s supposed truce has been called off. General Murat acts quickly in hopes of redeeming himself in Napoleon’s eyes. Again, as Prince Andrei rides with Bagration and his staff, the officials’ lightheartedness belies their surroundings—they don’t seem to realize that they’re under deadly fire until there’s a near miss.
The Russian battery starts firing on the village of Schöngraben as musketfire breaks out in the valley below. The French begin to press into both the right and left Russian flanks. As Prince Andrei listens to Bagration’s orders, he’s surprised that no orders are actually given—Bagration acts as if everything that happens, whether by chance or by an inferior officer’s decision, is just what he’d intended all along. As a result, Prince Bagration has a calming and encouraging effect on all those who speak with him.
Prince Andrei’s observations about Prince Bagration’s leadership fit with Tolstoy’s views of history—that the decisions of commanders and generals aren’t the biggest deciding factors in war. While Bagration’s command is important, it’s not because of the specific orders Bagration gives; it has more to do with the way he inspires those beneath him, encouraging them in their own initiatives.
Prince Bagration moves down into the valley and begins to encounter wounded soldiers. The air is thick with gunpowder, and soldiers are bunched together amid general confusion. The nearby regiment hastily lines up to meet an approaching French infantry column. They maintain ranks even as a cannonball crashes among them. Bagration dismounts and joins the soldiers, and Prince Andrei, too, feels a kind of euphoria. As the French begin to shoot, Bagration yells, “Hurrah!” and the soldiers echo him.
As he continues to follow Prince Bagration through the battlefield, Prince Andrei gets closer to the chaos of direct fighting. Bagration’s willingness to join his soldiers on their ground, even if it’s a superficial gesture, succeeds in rousing them. Even though Andrei is moved, too, Tolstoy isn’t necessarily praising the soldiers’ bravado; he subtly critiques the way idealizing a hero can move people to give up their lives.
After this, the Russian right flank is able to retreat, but the left flank is in disarray. Bagration sends Zherkov to order the left flank to retreat, but Zherkov becomes frightened and fails to carry out the order. The infantry general and the hussar colonel exchange heated words and begin riding together toward the front. But their standoff is disrupted when the French attack Russian soldiers in the woods, and the Russians are forced to cut a path for retreat. Rostov is part of the cavalry squadron that’s facing the French. Though Rostov felt lighthearted during the initial advance, something suddenly strikes the squadron, and he finds himself alone in the field with a numb arm.
Zherkov’s cowardice is a good example of Tolstoy’s emphasis on the consequential actions of the rank and file, regardless of commanders’ orders. Because the left flank doesn’t get the order to retreat, they face the French attack head-on while in a vulnerable position. Nikolai Rostov reappears in the story at this moment, among the embattled hussar cadets.
As Rostov gets off his horse, he sees French soldiers rushing toward him and stands frozen, wondering why anyone would want to kill him. When the nearest Frenchman draws close with bayonet extended, Rostov throws his pistol at the man and runs in the opposite direction. He dives into some bushes, where he finds Russian riflemen.
Rostov’s behavior—tossing his weapon at the approaching enemy—is less about cowardice than about war’s maddening effect on people. Tolstoy suggests that when faced with the senseless madness of war, people will behave irrationally regardless of their training.
The Russian infantry regiments run out of the woods in disarray, crying out that they’re surrounded and cut off. But when the French suddenly retreat, Timokhin’s company (including Dolokhov) pursue them with terrifying ferocity. Dolokhov sustains a bayonet wound and captures an officer, both of which he happily displays to the regimental commander, asking him to remember. Meanwhile, Tushin’s battery succeeds in setting fire to Schöngraben. As French guns return fire, Tushin feels happily delirious, as if he’s entered a fantasy world—he’s like a giant flinging cannonballs at the enemy. Then Prince Andrei gets through with the order to retreat. After Andrei helps Tushin remove the guns, Tushin bids Andrei a tearful goodbye.
Just when it looks as if the Russians face devastation, there’s a reversal in the Russians’ favor. Dolokhov achieves his goal of redeeming himself for his bad behavior and regaining his reputation. Then Tushin saves the day by destroying the French position with artillery fire. Tushin’s delirium is another example of Tolstoy’s view of the madness of war. At the same time, the determined, emotional Tushin is also an example of what Tolstoy sees as a characteristically “Russian” soul.