The Pavlogradsky hussars are stationed two miles from Braunau, in the village of Salzeneck. Nikolai Rostov serves as a junker in this regiment. He lives with his squadron commander, Captain Denisov. Nikolai rides up to his quarters, fondly takes leave of his horse, and exchanges cheerful greetings with the German landlord. When Denisov gets home, he rants gloomily about his bad luck at cards last night, then sets Rostov to counting the coins left in Denisov’s purse. Lieutenant Telyanin, from the same regiment, comes to the door. Nikolai stows Denisov’s purse under a pillow and reluctantly chats with Telyanin, whom he dislikes. Telyanin teaches Rostov how to shoe his horse, then leaves.
From Kutuzov’s suite, the action shifts to the relatively lowly Nikolai Rostov, who ranks at the bottom of the hussars. So far, Nikolai’s life as a junker isn’t very eventful. Rather than gaining glory in combat, this life mostly involves supporting his superior Denisov’s dissipated habits like gambling—a first hint that war isn’t much like people imagine. Nevertheless, Nikolai seems to adapt smoothly to the routines of regimental life.
When Rostov returns to the cottage, Denisov is eating a meal and writing a love letter. The sergeant major shows up for his winnings from last night’s gambling, and Rostov offers to cover the debt, but Denisov refuses. Yet when Denisov looks under his pillow for the purse full of coins, it’s not there. Denisov starts menacing his orderly, Lavrushka, for taking the purse, but Rostov realizes who must have taken it, buckles on his saber, and prepares to go out.
Rostov’s eagerness to cover Denisov’s debts, and then intervene in the apparent theft, shows his impulsive, even foolhardy sense of honor and personal loyalty.
Rostov finds Telyanin at a tavern, where he demands to examine Telyanin’s purse and quietly accuses him of stealing Denisov’s money. Telyanin begins to sob about his elderly parents, and Rostov returns the purse. Later, back at Denisov’s quarters, another captain tells Nikolai that it looks bad for a mere junker to try to get a superior (Telyanin) in trouble. He’s now put the regimental commander, Bogdanych, in a tough spot—if Bogdanych prosecutes Telyanin, he’ll bring dishonor on the entire regiment. Tears in his eyes, Rostov gives a stumbling retraction. But just then Zherkov comes in with the news of Mack’s defeat; they’re to march out tomorrow.
Nikolai’s incident with Telyanin shows his naïve, youthful impetuosity and idealistic sense of principle. Nikolai believes that Telyanin’s apparent theft of Denisov’s money is a matter of honor. However, he doesn’t yet understand that in the army, the honor of one person matters less than the honor of the whole—in other words, if Telyanin gets in trouble, the entire regiment will be shamed. Before this lesson can fully sink in, though, the war gets real—it’s time to leave petty matters behind and march to battle for the first time.
Kutuzov’s regiment falls back toward Vienna, destroying bridges as they go. By October 23rd, a warm, rainy day, Russian troops have reached the Austrian town of Enns, near where the River Enns meets the Danube. In the distance, they can see enemy troops. While the artillerists scurry into position to fire on the enemy position, Nesvitsky rides down to urge the hussars forward; they must cross the bridge and then burn it. The sound of an exploding shell, as well as a sudden burst of sunshine, lifts everyone’s spirits.
When the Russian army reaches Enns, there’s a heightened sense of urgency—they’re within firing range of the enemy for the first time. Still, spirits remain high as soldiers anticipate getting into battle; even the sound of weaponry hasn’t yet gained ominous associations.
As enemy cannonballs fly overhead, the infantry soldiers and hussars exchange jibes, the hussars’ horses splashing mud on the foot soldiers. Then they see French troops and artillery appear on the road opposite, a mere 600 yards away. Rostov sits on his slightly lame horse, Little Rook, beaming like a schoolboy at his comrades. Then the commander orders the two squadrons of Pavlogradsky hussars to cross back over the bridge. Rostov finds himself riding near the regimental commander, Bogdanych—the first time they’ve seen each other since the affair of Telyanin—and feels guilty. He speculates about Bogdanych’s motives.
On the brink of the novel’s first battle scene, Tolstoy focuses on the good-natured joking of ordinary soldiers, a reminder of his view that such men were ultimately the most consequential figures in war, not generals and commanders. Rostov is excited about his first encounter with the enemy. When he sees Bogdanych—with whom he’d gotten into trouble for accusing Telyanin—he’s even distracted from battle entirely. Meanwhile, orders are confused, and it’s unclear why the hussars are told to cross back over the bridge they’ve been ordered to destroy.
Soon Nesvitsky returns, wondering why the bridge hasn’t been burned already. The colonel argues, insisting it wasn’t part of his original orders, but he finally agrees in an injured tone. Rostov feels that his first test has come. As the hussars make the sign of the cross and start running, Rostov suddenly feels afraid and hurries to get ahead of the others. But he falls in the mud near the bridge. Bogdanych, not recognizing Rostov, yells at him to stay back.
The disagreement between the colonel and Nesvitsky illustrates one of Tolstoy’s key arguments about history, especially war—that miscommunications and mistakes can have a bigger impact on battles than simple orders do. Meanwhile, finally put to the test, Nikolai’s first, instinctual reaction isn’t courage but fear.
Beyond the range of fire, officers watch, wondering if the hussars will succeed in setting fire to the bridge before the French get there. Soon the French draw close enough to throw canisters at the hussars, a few of whom fall. The hussars set fire to the bridge and race back to their horse-handlers, but some are struck down by canister-shot. Rostov realizes this isn’t how he’d imagined battle—there aren’t any French to strike down—and he’s failed to bring any straw with which to set the bridge alight. So he stands there uselessly, gazing around at the blue sky and the glistening Danube; he feels at peace. He runs with the others, yet his thoughts are elsewhere. By the time he’s back on Little Rook, he realizes nobody has noticed his cowardice on the bridge. He’s just like any other junker under fire for the first time.
Because the hussars were slow and hesitant on the bridge, some are killed before they can finish carrying out the order to destroy the bridge. Rostov had pictured battle differently—presumably fighting French soldiers face-to-face. When he’s actually under fire from the French, he finds himself completely unprepared for the task at hand. Unexpectedly, he experiences an intense awareness of nature, especially the sky, around him—a sensation that other characters will experience when in mortal danger. Though Nikolai feels his running and fear on the bridge are shameful, the reality is that most cadets react no differently in this situation, and everyone is so absorbed in his own feelings that he doesn’t notice what others are doing.