In October 1805, the Russian army, led by General Kutuzov, is settled near Braunau in Austria, the home of their ally, the Archduke Ferdinand. The soldiers are clean and orderly despite holes in their boots. Pierre’s friend Dolokhov, demoted to the ranks, is criticized for inappropriate clothing, and he becomes resentful. The one-eyed General Kutuzov inspects the troops accompanied by his adjutant, Andrew Bolkonski. Kutuzov promises Dolokhov a promotion should he distinguish himself in battle. In conference with the Austrian commander, Kutuzov insincerely expresses regret that the tsar has not ordered the Russian troops to join the Austrian forces. Bolkonski rebukes a Russian who jokes about a recent major Austrian defeat.
At the Russian hussar (light cavalry) camp near Braunau, Nicholas Rostov and his commanding officer, Denisov, enjoy leisure time until a fellow officer, Telyanin, steals Denisov’s purse and Nicholas demands it back. Nicholas accuses Telyanin publicly, which earns Nicholas charges of insubordination from his superior. Nicholas refuses to apologize.
The Russian troops retreat over a river, pursued by the enemy. The military scene is chaotic. A Russian officer, Nesvitski, is nearly crushed on a bridge as the troops march over it, and he hears snatches of their various conversations. He does not recognize a cannonball when it splashes in the water. Orders are misunderstood. The Russian hussars, including Nicholas, succeed in burning the bridge under enemy fire, although three Russians are shot. The commanding officers somewhat selfishly weigh the lost lives against praise for the platoon.
Despite rumors of Napoleon’s retreat, the French troops are gaining ground against Kutuzov’s beleaguered Russian forces. Andrew Bolkonski is sent to the Austrian government-in-exile with news of a recent Russian victory. Along the way he gives money to wounded soldiers and dreams of the battle. Disappointed that the Austrian Minister of War seems more affected by the death of Schmidt, an Austrian general, than by the Russian victory, Andrew then chats with his friend Bilibin, a highly regarded diplomat. Andrew shares his astonishment that the blundering Austrians are not appreciating Kutuzov’s victories. Andrew reflects that the recent victory is not significant compared to the loss of Vienna to the French. Bilibin speculates darkly about the fact that Austria is considering a separate peace with the French, though Andrew refuses to believe this rumor. Andrew and Bilibin’s officer friends chat about women and Andrew’s upcoming meeting with the Austrian emperor. The officers advise Andrew to praise the emperor’s supply of provisions for the Russian army, even if he must lie in order to do so.
During the meeting, the emperor, pleased with Andrew’s news, confers state honors upon him. Returning from official visits, Andrew is surprised to find that Napoleon is again pursuing the Russian troops. Bilibin advises Andrew to stay with him rather than heroically join his own army on the move. Andrew, however, staunchly remains faithful to his army. But when he watches the Russian soldiers on the road, rudely refusing right of way to a helpless doctor’s wife, he muses that the army is a chaotic mob. Meeting with Kutuzov, Andrew expresses his wish to join the imperiled battalion commanded by Prince Bagration. Kutuzov warns that the battalion is doomed, but Andrew says that is exactly why his presence is needed there. Meanwhile, Kutuzov tricks the French commander Murat into believing a ploy, ultimately weakening the French and earning Murat a chastising letter from Napoleon.
A battle looms. Andrew witnesses Dolokhov chatting and laughing with the enemy across the battle lines. Drinking vodka, the troops muse upon life and death. The battle begins. Andrew rides beside Prince Bagration, noting that Bagration reacts to news of events on the field as though he had planned for them to happen, and that his manner improves the morale of all who speak to him. The two men encounter many wounded soldiers at a site where a Russian detachment has been overwhelmed. The commanding officer begs Bagration to turn back, but Bagration refuses.