In October 1805, the Semyonovsky regiment arrives in Braunau, Austria. The men prepare to be inspected by General Kutuzov; they prepare their fancy parade outfits, a long process which takes all night. By the time they finish, their boots, which have been destroyed by the 700-mile march, are the only thing imperfect about their appearance. However, General Kutuzov wants his men to appear tired and disheveled – the Austrians want this regiment to join their army, an idea which Kutuzov opposes. He believes that if the men look poorly prepared, the Austrians will gladly accept his argument against alliance. An adjutant arrives ahead of Kutuzov and explains that the men should change back into their disheveled greatcoats. The adjutant then proceeds to nitpick the men’s appearances. One soldier, Dolokhov, is proudly defiant when the adjutant critiques his appearance. Dolokhov had lived with Anatole Kuragin in St. Petersburg and had recently been demoted because of his attitude and behavior.
General Kutuzov reviews the regiment and is favorably impressed, especially since he can use the sorry state of their footwear as the excuse to resist joining the Austrians. Kutuzov singles out Dolokhov, advising him to learn from his demotion and to work hard to advance back towards commission as an officer. The men depart happily and sing cheerful songs. Zherkov, one of Dolokhov’s former acquaintances from St. Petersburg, approaches Dolokhov and invites him to gamble. Dolokhov coldly declines, explaining that he will not drink or gamble until he is promoted.
Kutuzov and Prince Andrei meet with an Austrian general to explain why they do not want to take the Semyonovsky regiment to join the Austrian troops. Since we last saw him, Prince Andrei has done well in the army and thereby earned Kutuzov’s trust. Shortly after this meeting, word comes in that the Austrians have surrendered and that Napoleon’s army is advancing toward the Russian troops. Despite Kutuzov’s machinations, the Semyonovsky regiment will soon see combat. When the defeated Austrian General Mack arrives, Zherkov makes an inappropriate joke about Austria's surrender. Prince Andrei, who takes the defeat very seriously, sternly reprimands him.
Nikolai Rostov is stationed with the Pavlogradsky hussar regiment in a village two miles from Braunau. On the morning of October 8, the squadron commander, Captain Denisov, returns from a long night of gambling, and asks Nikolai to put his money away while he gets a drink. Nikolai puts the money under the captain’s pillow in his bedroom. Lieutenant Telyanin enters and offers to help Nikolai shoe his horse. Nikolai agrees, and Telyanin leaves. A few minutes later, Denisov discovers that his purse has disappeared from under his pillow. Nikolai, Telyanin, and an orderly named Lavrushka are the only ones who could have taken it. Captain Denisov initially accuses Nikolai and Lavrushka, but Nikolai knows Telyanin is the guilty one. Nikolai goes to a tavern to get the money back from the sniveling lieutenant, but lets Telyanin keep it after he pathetically begs for forgiveness.
Nikolai approaches the regimental commander, Karl Bogdanovich Schubert (also called Bogdanych) to inform him about the theft. However, he does so in front of other officers – a serious breach of etiquette. Staff captain Kirsten advises Nikolai to apologize, but Nikolai’s pride prevents him from doing so. In the middle of this conversation, Zherkov bursts in. He has been transferred to the Pavlogradsky regiment because of the joke he made in front of General Mack. Zherkov announces that the Austrians have surrendered and that the regiment must prepare to march.
As Kutuzov retreats from the approaching French, Prince Nesvitsky joins the rear guard. He eats and jokes around with the other officers while firing cannons at the advancing French troops.
From the rear guard, Nesvitsky watches the infantry retreat. Even though the French are firing on them with cannons, the men are in good spirits – laughing, making coarse jokes, and catcalling at the local women.
In the Pavlogradsky regiment, the men prepare for combat amidst a frisson of nervousness and excitement. Nikolai sees Bogdanovich and wonders whether this whole encounter with the French is Bogdanovich’s way of testing Nikolai’s courage. The plan is to destroy a bridge that the French must cross before they can arrive, and so the regiment sets out towards that purpose, which means they are heading towards the French. Bravely, Nikolai runs as fast as he can, hoping to get there first.
From a higher vantage in the rear, Nesvitsky, Zherkov, and some other officers watch the siege on the bridge, and wonder aloud why so many men are needed to set a single bridge on fire. In the middle of the fighting, Nikolai Rostov is horrified by the violence, and unsure what to do. He sees peaceful hills in the distance, and wishes he could be there. Two hussars are wounded and one is killed, but the men eventually succeed in burning the bridge. The officers, who have only watched the action, are very pleased with themselves.
For the rest of October, the 35,000 men under Kutuzov’s command retreat through Austria, hoping to meet up with reinforcements from Russia. At the end of the month, they stop at Krems and attack a French regiment, resulting in their first victory. Kutuzov sends Prince Andrei to announce the victory to the Austrian court, a great honor. Andrei is proud and excited when he first arrives in Brünn (where the court has relocated because Vienna is in danger of being captured). He is brought to the Austrian minister of war, and the minister and his adjutant are both courteously indifferent to Andrei. Their reaction to the good news about the battle is tempered by the fact that Schmidt, an important Austrian general, was killed in the action. Their attitude offends Andrei deeply and ruins his good mood.
Prince Andrei spends the night with his friend Bilibin, the Russian ambassador to Austria. Bilibin explains that the Austrians were cold to Andrei because they wanted the victory for themselves. The Austrians, he says, resent the Russians for pillaging their countryside and embarrassing them by succeeding against Napoleon when they could not. That night, Andrei falls asleep thinking happily of the glory of battle.
Bilibin introduces Prince Andrei to his friends, a merry circle of gentlemen that includes Prince Ippolit Kuragin (Prince Vassily’s son). Ippolit is well-known for his reputation as a playboy. Bilibin and his friends promise to show Andrei the best of Brünn, but Andrei cannot go out with them just yet because he has to meet with Emperor Franz to formally announce the battle victory.
Although the Emperor’s conversation skills are poor, he receives Andrei graciously. Andrei is treated very nicely by the Austrian nobility and forgets about his cool reception the night before. When he gets back to Bilibin’s house that afternoon, Bilibin is frantically packing to leave town. The French have taken Vienna and are advancing towards Brünn. This means that the court will have to move again, and that Kutuzov’s regiment is cut off from Russian reinforcements. Andrei sees this as an opportunity for more military glory. Bilibin tells Andrei about how the French took the bridge to Vienna, and tries to dissuade him from going to rejoin the Russian troops. However, Andrei ignores him.
Prince Andrei catches up with the army at Krems. The town is in chaos. General Kutuzov is meeting with Prince Bagration, who is about to lead a dangerous and probably futile attack on the French. Andrei wants to join Bagration, but Kutuzov insists that he stay with the Russians, who are retreating.
Kutuzov’s troops are surrounded by the French on all sides. His only hope is to get to the city of Znaim, where he can meet up with Russian reinforcements. However, the French are also on their way to Znaim, and they are slightly ahead of Kutuzov. Kutuzov sends Prince Bagration and his detachment to forestall the French and give the Russians a chance to get to Znaim. Although 4,000 men should not be able to stand a chance against the entire French army, the French general Murat assumes that there are many more men in Bagration’s detachment and offers a three-day truce. However, Napoleon sees through this ruse and orders Murat to break the armistice and to make a surprise attack on Bagration’s detachment.
Andrei finally convinces Kutuzov to let him join Bagration’s detachment. After greeting Bagration, Andrei explores the camp and meets Captain Tushin, an awkward but endearing soldier who manages artillery. Another officer scolds Tushin for walking around without his boots on. Andrei passes a young soldier being flogged for stealing. He observes Dolokhov and some other men bantering with the French soldiers on the other side of the line.
Late into the night, Andrei sits in his tent pondering military strategy. He overhears Captain Tushin nearby, arguing with another officer about what happens to people after death. Suddenly, a cannonball lands in the camp and Captain Tushin and his friend scurry out.
Despite the chaos caused by the surprise attack, at least some of the men find the action exciting. In the absence of orders, Tushin consults with another officer and decides to fire on the nearby village, which the French are about to storm. Despite the bad situation, Prince Bagration has a calming influence on his men.
A regimental commander comes to Bagration and informs him that half his regiment is dead after a French cavalry attack. However, no one really knows what is going on. Bagration leads his men into battle, and most of them are “cheerful and diligent” (186) despite the extreme danger. Although the Russians are outnumbered, the French are disorganized. Several Russians are shot as they march down a hill towards the French.
Kutuzov sends Zherkov to the left flank with orders to retreat. (Incidentally, the left flank is where Nikolai Rostov and the Pavlogradsky regiment are.) However, Zherkov panics and cannot bring himself to ride into danger, and thus never delivers the orders. Between Zherkov’s failure and the tensions between the Russian and Austrian commanders, the French manage to close in on the left flank, leaving the Pavlogradsky regiment to fight its way out. Nikolai is wounded and narrowly escapes being shot.
The men try to retreat, but the regiments mix together and fall into a state of complete disorder. Meanwhile, Timokhin’s company bravely attacks the French. After that siege is over, Dolokhov approaches Kutuzov and asks him to remember how well he fought.
Meanwhile, Tushin is commanding a small group of artillerists, who continue to fire on the village. In the excitement of battle, the absent-minded Tushin becomes curiously detached and ignores orders to retreat, even as French cannons kill half of his men. He eventually does retreat, leaving two guns behind in the process, and runs into Prince Andrei among the carnage.
Behind Russian lines, Tushin sees the wounded Nikolai Rostov being carried in on a stretcher. Nikolai is obviously in great pain, but though Tushin wants to help him, there is nothing he can do. Kutuzov and Bagration summon Tushin to their quarters. They are upset that Tushin lost two guns, but Andrei steps in and defends him. At the end of the chapter, Nikolai and Andrei separately reflect on the fact that war is very unlike what they had hoped. The remainder of Bagration’s detachment joins Kutuzov’s men, having held off the French.
Readers will notice a substantial difference in the nomenclature used in this section. In Part II, people are usually referred to by their last names, whereas in Part I, they are usually introduced with a full title; even in casual conversation, people use both the first name and the patronymic. This difference indicates the less formal military atmosphere, but it also suggests that the military might be something of a social equalizer. Although Andrei and Bagration are always referred to as “prince,” no other titles are used. One exception to all this is Karl Bogdanovich Schubert; interestingly, the subplot related to him (about Nikolai and the stolen purse) is the most similar to the subplots of Part I, in that it turns on etiquette and questions of honor rather than on military action.
Throughout this section, Tolstoy investigates the origins of patriotism and national identity. Although many of the characters enthusiastically support the Russian cause, their reasons for doing so are diverse. Prince Andrei hopes to achieve a glorious career and get away from his wife; dreamy Nikolai romanticizes battle; Ippolit Kuragin wants opportunities to pick up women. None of these characters seem to be moved by nationalist feelings – all of them volunteered for the war due to self-interest or misconceptions.
Indeed, the most patriotic character we see in this section seems to be Bilibin, and he isn’t even a Russian patriot. In his time as a diplomat, he seems to have become loyal to Austria, often using “we” to refer to the Austrians and siding with them against Prince Andrei in Brünn. Bilibin’s patriotic feelings are not for the country where he was born, but rather for the country where he has lived and made his career since he was sixteen. In the same way that war is a social equalizer, patriotism is not as rigid as each country would like to believe, but rather is a malleable concept as dependent on an individual's desires as on his homeland.
Tolstoy weaves the motif of theft throughout Part II. In addition to the subplot about Telyanin stealing the purse, Prince Andrei witnesses someone being flogged for stealing, and one anonymous soldier accuses another of stealing on p. 197. Although the perpetrators are always people of relatively low rank (Telyanin is a low-ranking lieutenant, and the rest are foot soldiers), there is a loose parallel with the scuffle over the Bezukhov inheritance in Part I. Tolstoy seems to suggest that although stealing may be more overt in the lower classes, it stems from basic qualities of human nature that are also present in the nobility. By transposing this theme into such a markedly different setting, Tolstoy continues to explore his theme of presenting the highest and lowest realms of humanity, here finding interesting parallels.
If Part I presented itself as a satirical pageant of manners, Tolstoy switches in Part II to a mode of gritty realism. Although he would come to idealize the working class in his old age – converting his estate to a farm and working alongside the tenants – in these chapters, he highlights the negative qualities of military men, especially common foot soldiers. They make catcalls at the German women fleeing a village; they steal, and their attitude toward killing and danger is surprisingly callous. Some of these qualities are shared by higher-ranking officers; Prince Andrei sees war only as an opportunity for glory, and Nikolai romanticizes it, until he is wounded and rapidly disillusioned.
In the end, it is probably the absurdity of war that most emerges from the gritty realism. Before the Napoleonic Wars, warfare had never been quite so vicious in Europe, and thus do many of these people see in war simply a way to pass the time or gain boons quite removed from the reality of battle. The skirmishes of Part II, and the surrender of Austria, are the first time the characters begin to confront the reality of modern warfare, the depravity (whether in the flogging that Andrei observes, or in the violence of battle) that stands in stark contrast to their expectations. Tolstoy also employs certain observations to stress the absurdity. The officers who watch the bridge destruction from the hill praise themselves on its success, even after they had formerly criticized the number of men employed towards that purpose, suggests a certain detachment from reality in the men most responsible for victory or defeat. Further, Kutuzov's deliberate consideration of how his men should dress seems more akin to the social pageantry of Part I, as it totally ignores the reality that these men are exhausted from hundreds of miles of marching. Though War and Peace is by no means a social protest novel, Tolstoy's observations do consistently remind us that war is equally absurd to the machinations of high society, albeit with far more bloodshed and with greater consequences.