Vauban Tile 500 pixels

Vauban Tile 500 pixels

The stunning victory of Austerlitz. ended the Third Coalition against Napoleon, with the surrender of the Austrian Empire, the demise of the Holy Roman Empire and the creation of the Confederation of the Rhine, an amalgum of 16 minor states within the Holy Roman Empire that were supportive of France.

Despite this victory, Russia vowed to fight on in the Fourth Coalition, backed by Britain, the inveterate opponent of Napoleon. Prussia, the other major European power, nervously watched Napoleon create the Confederation of the Rhine in July 1806 as the balance of power in Germany swung towards France. Intrigues with Britain over the fate of Hanover (promised first to Britain, then to Prussia as a means of securing peace) formed the Casus Belli for Prussia, and she joined the Fourth Coalition in October 1806.

With typical rapidity, Napoleon launched an attack against Prussia in the autumn of 1806, culminating in the great French victories of Jena and Auerstädt.

The Prussian army collapsed in the ensuing pursuit, and Napoleon had achieved the seemingly impossible; destruction of the once vaunted army of Frederick the Great. In truth, the Prussian army had ossified, after the passing of their Master, and were no match for the French army at their peak.

After entering Berlin, Napoleon took time to visit the tomb of Frederick the Great declaiming “If he were alive we wouldn’t be here today”.

But despite the crushing victory, the Prussian king Frederick William III would not surrender to France, and drew the remnants of his army towards the Polish/Russian frontier. Napoleon, frustrated at this turn, created the Continental System to economically bring Britain to negotiations.

The struggle would still continue on, so France faced another campaign against Russia to impose his will.

The French army entered Poland, with the intention of subsuming the captured Prussian regions of Poland into what would eventually become a new political entity, The Duchy of Warsaw, allied with France. This lay in the future, once Russia was subdued.

By early December, La Grande Armée held Warsaw and the territory around the river Vistula. Russian troops were concentrating around Pultusk, and Napoleon launched a number of Corps across the rivers in the area in an attempt to force a major battle.

This lead to inconclusive actions at Tscharnovo, Pultusk and Golymin in late December, 1806.

The failure of these battles to destroy the Russian army, together with the deteriorating weather, forced La Grande Armée to concentrate around Warsaw for the winter.

He found time for extra diversions, in the form of Countess Marie Walewska who became his Mistress.

Russia did not enter winter quarters. By mid January, the new commander of the Russian forces, Count von Bennisgen ordered a series of advances, hoping to press the French towards the Vistula.

Napoleon issued plans to try to split the Russian advance into two halves near Allenstein, allowing the destruction of each. However, the Realm of Chance intervened and the French orders for advance fell into Russian hands.

Bennisgen ordered his troops to concentrate at Jenkendorf/Ionkovo. A brief action took place here on the 3rd February. Napoleon’s dispersed forces were unable to pin down the Russians, who put up a stout defence of their position. They escaped at night, retreating towards Eylau.

‘Until this very moment, the enemy has been hard pressed. It is now clear that he appreciates our manoeuvres, though only with some difficulty, and wishes to escape – a fact that makes me think he is informé

Napoleon to Talleyrand

Napoleon’s army had become strung out during the manoeuvres. On the evening of the 7th February, he had the Imperial Guard, IV Corps (Soult), VII Corps (Augereau), Cavalry Corps (Murat), amounting to 45,000 men and 200 guns. Two further Corps were nearby within a day’s march. (III, Davout & VI, Ney), a possible extra 30,000 men.

After a brief rearguard action at Hoff, the Russians arrived at Eylau (present day Bagrationovsk) at the beginning of February.

Bennisgen had approximately 67,000 troops and 460 guns, with a further 9,000 Prussians under General L’Estocq nearby. Bennisgen ordered General Bagration, to cover the approaches to Eylau from the south with 15,000 men whilst the rest of the army formed up on the ridge to the north of the town.

Jean Baptiste Marbot, ADC to Marshal Augereau in 1807 left the following record of a conversation between Napoleon to Augereau, regarding the combat on the 7th February.

‘The Marshal [Augereau] mounted the plateau to find the Emperor already there, and I heard Napoleon say to Augereau: “Some of them want me to storm Eylau this evening; but I do not like night fighting, and besides, I do not wish to push my entire too far forward before Davout has come up with the right wing and Ney with the left’.

Marbot

Despite this, the French did press on into Eylau, with a skirmish leading to a full battle between Soult’s corps and the Russian rearguard centred on Ziegelhoff, which went on from 2pm until midnight.

Soult’s corps approached Eylau and were met with a fearful fire from the Russian infantry. The French “was dispersed by the volley of grapeshot and almost slaughtered and pressed back after that horrible bloodshed.”

“Both artilleries fired on the streets at a distance of several metres…the bullets poured as hail, and cannonballs pierced our infantry, that crowded in the streets…”

Mikaberidze

Eylau eventually fell to the French on an extremely cold night. The troops of both sides made shelter as best they could and prepared for the next day’s ordeal.

‘When you have resolved to fight a battle, collect your own force. Dispense with nothing. A single battalion sometimes decides the day’.

Maxims of Napoleon, XXIX

Napoleon’s knew his army was outnumbered on the morning of the 8th February. He also knew that the III Corps (Davout) & VI Corps (Ney), another 30,000 men in total were likely to appear that day and factored them into his intitial battleplan.

This double envelopment would depend upon IV Corps (Soult) being able to pin down the Russians, whilst the flanks attacks from the south III Corps (Davout), and north VI Corps (Ney) would draw Russian reserves away, before la masse de décision from VII Corps (Augereau), Cavalry Corps (Murat) delivered the final blow. Early arrival of III and VI Corps was therefore essential if Napoleon was going to overcome the intial odds of 2:3 in favour of Bennisgen‘s Russians.

The battle was fought in heavy snowstorms, hampering visibility throughout the day, restricting the troops ability to see unfolding events.

The battle began with an artillery exchange.

About 8:30am, Soult and Lasalle advanced to engage the Russians and begin the pinning attack.

General Tutchkov led his Russians forward against Soult’s men

Meanwhile from the south on the French right flank, Marshal Davout appeared with the first division of III Corps, led by Friant.

Tutchkov’s men began to drive Soult back towards his starting position, with Lewal’s division under pressure on Windmill Hill, on the French left wing.

Meanwhile, the Russians performed a cavalry attack on Davout’s men on the French right wing in order to pin them down.

Napoleon ordered Augereau and his division to attack the Russian left wing to relieve the pressure on the French flanks.

In the thick snow of the blizzard, VII Corps got lost and under the sway of the realm of chance emerged directly before the guns of the Russian main artillery.

“There are on the field of battle, circumstances when one must sacrifice some troops in order to preserve the great majority and ensure victory. General Corbineau, the Emperor’s aide-de-camp, was killed by a cannon shot near to us while bringing to Marshal Augereau the order to advance. The marshal passed between Eylau and Rothenen and led his two divisions boldly against the enemy centre, and already the 14th Line regiment who made up our advance guard had seized the position which the Emperor had ordered to be taken and held at all costs, when the guns which formed a semi-circle about Augereau hurled out a storm of ball and grape-shot of hitherto unprecedented ferocity. In an instant, our two divisions were pulverised under this rain of iron!

“Augereau’s Corps was almost entirely destroyed. Out of fifteen thousand combatants under arms at the beginning of the action, there remained by evening only three thousand, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Massy: the Marshal, all the Generals and all the Colonels had been either killed or wounded.”

General Desjardins was killed and General Heudelet gravely wounded; however, they stood firm until the corps having been almost entirely destroyed, the remnants were compelled to retire to the cemetery of Eylau, with the exception of the 14th, who almost entirely surrounded by the enemy, remained on the little hill which they had occupied. The situation was made even worse by a gale of wind which blew a heavy snowfall into our faces, and reduced visibility to about fifteen paces, so that several French batteries opened fire on us, as well as the Russians. Marshal Augereau was wounded by a bullet.”

Marbot

“I can see no way of saving the regiment. Return to the Emperor and give him the farewells of the 14e Régiment de Ligne which has faithfully carried out his orders, and take him the Eagle he gave which we can no longer defend; it would be too terrible to see it fall into enemy hands during our last moments.”

Marbot

The regiment was overwhelmed, the Eagle lost,

and Marbot was wounded, but survived the battle.

The Russians swept forward, reaching Eylau and a fight broke out around the cemetery, later made famous in Victor Hugo’s poem.

The Russians continued their advance into Eylau, and almost captured Napoleon‘s command post, only being saved by the self sacrifice of his personal escort.

Two battalions of the Imperial Guard arrived to retake the town and stabilise the situation.

‘In war the General alone can judge of certain arrangements. It depends on him alone to conquer diffiulties by his own superior talents and resolution.’

Maxims of Napoleon, LXIV

The French position was precarious, with the initial battleplan of double envelopment overtaken by events. One part of the masse de décision (VII Corps) has been bloodily repulsed. That only left the Imperial Guard or the Cavalry Corps under Murat. Napoleon ordered the cavalry into position in the French centre.

Marshal Murat formed the cavalry Corps up, some 10,500 troopers, comprising Cuirassiers, Dragoons and Chasseurs.

The charge swept into the Russians, scattering all before them.

To cover the retirement of Murat‘s cavalry, Napoleon ordered the cavalry of the Imperial Guard forward in another charge.

Murat‘s cavalry charge, arguably one of the most successful in history, swung the odds back towards the French, for the loss of some 10% of Murat‘s Corps.

The French received reinforcements as Davout‘s III Corps had finally arrived at the south.

About the same time, General L’Estocq and his Prussians were arriving at the Northern edge of the battlefield, having successfully fought rearguard actions against Ney‘s VI Corps pursuing them.

Napoleon ordered Davout‘s III Corps to attack the Russian left flank.

The odds had swung towards the French. The Russian line, slowly bending back upon itself from these attacks was close to breaking. At this critical juncture, General L’Estocq’s Prussians began attacking Davout‘s III Corps exposed flank.

The odds began to swing back again to the Russians and Prussians.

The allied force slowly pushed Davout‘s III Corps back towards their starting position. As daylight failed and night drew on, VI Corps under Ney finally arrived.  They immediately attacked towards the village of Schloditten.

Night eventually fell across the battlefield.

“The uncertainty about the outcome of the day was so great that both sides ordered a retreat during the hours of darkness. Marshal Davout, who spent the night with the most advanced troops, confided to someone who shortly after told me that he was on the very point of beginning his retrograde movement when an officer arrived from the picquets to tell him that loud noises were emanating from the enemy camp…Putting his ear to the ground he recognized the distant sounds of cavalry and guns on the move, and as the noise was receding…He no longer doubted the enemy was in full retreat.

ED Pasquier

Napoleon was in possession of the field of battle and the victor by the terms of warfare of the period, but at the cost of enormous casualties to both sides.

The French army was in no position to pursue the retreating Allied force. The next day, Napoleon and his Marshals surveyed the horrors of the battlefield., captured in the painting by Antoine-Jean Gros.

Given the earlier sweeping victories in the Prussian campaign, the extent of losses were disguised. Napoleon claimed that the French had only 7,700 casualties in the battle, which was clearly propaganda.

“Spread the following reports in an unofficial manner. They are however true…The Russian army is greatly weakened – that the Russian army demand peace…”

Napoleon

“The Emperor was exceedingly anxious that everyone should view that event as he himself viewed it”.

Bourienne

The phrase “mentir comme un bulletin” (to lie like a bulletin) was never more true.

The Battle of Eylau was commemorated in Victor Hugo’s poem.

The extent of the battlefield losses forced both sides into winter quarters. Ahead lay the spring campaign of1807, culminating in another bloody day; the Battle of Friedland.