Prussian Disaster II


1. Musketeer, 25th regiment c.1790, 2. Fusilier c.1790 (in 1789 they wore green vests and breeches), 3. Grenadier, 6th regiment c.1768 (the last year of the mitre before being replaced by the Casket, 4. Grenadier in Kasket c.1790, 5. Line Grenadier c.1799 wearing the new style mitre adopted by the Guard in 1798, 6. Officer of Light infantry c.1790 Note: the double breasted turnbacks standardised in 1802-1803, 7. Standard of the 17th (Ansbach-Bayreuth) in 1795, 8. Standard of the 57th Line regiment in 1798.


Queen Louise accompanied the Prussian Army into the
field. Her presence at her husband’s side was a subject
of discord among the Prussian Generals.

Prussia’s decision to join the war was dramatic indeed. Left all but unsuccoured, the Prussians would have done best to mass their army behind the river Elbe, but, exactly like the Austrians a year earlier, they elected to move forward and marched south-westwards into Thuringia. Invading Saxony in his turn, Napoleon got around their eastern flank and threatened their communications with Berlin. Desperate to escape the trap, the Prussians fled north-eastwards, only to collide with the grande armée along the river Saale. While Napoleon himself surprised a Prussian flank-guard that had been detached to watch the Saale at Jena, the corps of Marshal Davout, which was far out on the French right, suddenly found itself confronted with the main Prussian column under the Duke of Brunswick near Auerstädt. Faced by overwhelming odds, Davout pulled off one of the most extraordinary feats of the Napoleonic Wars. Feeding his three tired divisions – they had been marching all night – into line as they arrived, the marshal first checked the Prussian advance, and then launched a ferocious counter-attack that caused the increasingly demoralized enemy to disintegrate altogether. At Jena, meanwhile, Napoleon had been having a much easier time of it. Increasingly outnumbering the Prussians as the day went on, he first pressed the enemy back and then crushed them altogether by means of a great turning movement that overran their left flank and laid them open to a massed cavalry charge. A last-ditch counter-attack by a fresh corps that had just come up from the west made little difference and by dusk on 14 October the entire Prussian army had been beaten. ‘The struggle was keen, the resistance desperate, above all in the villages and copses,’ wrote one officer, ‘but once all our cavalry had arrived at the front and was able to manoeuvre, there was nothing but disaster; the retreat became a flight, and the rout was general.’ As at Austerlitz, the emperor seized the moment to endear himself to his troops and refurbish the legend that he was but one more soldier. During the night before the battle he spent much time personally supervising the construction of a rough track that would allow the French to get artillery up onto the summit of the plateau on which the battle was fought before grabbing a little sleep in the midst of the imperial guard. All this is recalled by a then private of the imperial guard named Jean-Roche Coignet:

‘The emperor was there, directing the engineers; he did not leave till the road was finished, and the first piece of cannon . . . had passed in front of him . . . The emperor placed himself in the middle of his square, and allowed [the soldiers] to kindle two or three fires for each company . . . Twenty from each company were sere sent off in search of provisions . . . We found everything we needed . . . Seeing us all so happy put the emperor in a good mood. He mounted his horse before day and went the rounds.’

In view of the great debate that was precipitated by these events, it is worth pointing out that the Prussians were not defeated by either lack of enthusiasm among their soldiers or the supposed inferiority of their tactics. The defective system of military organization described above did not help as it ensured that no Prussian troops could compete with the French on equal terms. But what really lost Frederick William the Jena campaign was the chaotic situation that reigned in the high command. At best a mediocre leader, the commander-in-chief, the Duke of Brunswick, was hampered by the presence of Frederick William III on the one hand, and the hostility and resentment with which he was regarded by many of his fellow generals on the other. On top of this, though the army had recently been given a general staff, this body had been divided into three parallel sections, whose heads – Gerhard von Scharnhorst, Karl von Phull and Christian von Massenbach – all hated one another. Nor had the general staff been permitted completely to supersede the army’s Oberkriegskollegium – the body responsible for the military’s internal administration – in the elaboration of plans of campaign. As a result the unfortunate Brunswick was deluged with an endless variety of different schemes. A weak individual, he then proceeded to compound his problems by eschewing personal responsibility in favour of a series of councils of war that brought together his leading generals and advisers. In some respects the decision to advance was understandable: it meant that the troops could be fed by someone other than Prussia and it was the best way of proving to Britain and Russia that Prussia was in earnest. But the best chance of success was a swift and smashing blow into the heart of the French positions on the river Main, designed to take advantage of the fact that Napoleon was not expecting Prussia to go to war, whereas Prussia’s movements were in reality slow and indecisive. Plans were only adopted after vitriolic meetings lasting many hours, such as the one that was held at Erfurt on 5 October, and these hardly boosted the high command’s cohesion. ‘Scharnhorst,’ recalled the staff officer, von Muffling, ‘thanked heaven when, about midnight, the conference came to an end, as no result could be expected from such a meeting. No one who was present at it could deceive himself as to the issue of the war.’ And even then decisions were on a number of occasions modified or ignored, or communicated to the army in language so vague as to allow recalcitrant commanders to interpret them more or less as they thought fit.

The result could not have been more catastrophic: Brunswick’s forces did not reach a position from which they could strike at the grande armée until the first days of October, although they could have hit the French a full month earlier. By October it was too late, for Napoleon’s forces were now fully mobilized and on the move. Once the campaign had properly begun, moreover, the articulation of the Prussian forces broke down altogether. In the chaos, supplies dried up: ‘For three whole days before the battle of Jena the troops had . . . no bread,’ wrote Funck. ‘They had to fight on empty stomachs.’ As for the battles, they broke every principle of the military art. At Jena Napoleon, who began the day with 46,000 men and ended it with some 50,000 more, was initially faced by a mere 38,000 men, and it was not until they had been shattered beyond repair that the 15,000 -strong corps of General Rüchel – a force that had begun the day only a few miles to the west at Weimar, but had taken many hours to march to the sound of the guns – flung itself on the French. And at Auerstädt, the Prussians did not bring up all their overwhelmingly superior forces – Brunswick had 50,000 men to Davout’s single corps of 26,000 – but rather launched a series of piecemeal assaults, the timid Frederick William proceeding to make matters far worse by insisting on keeping back a large reserve whose use might just have turned the balance in favour of the beleaguered Brunswick. Compare all this with the French camp. Napoleon resolved on war around 9 September, and had his men on the move on 8 October. From the start there was but one plan of operations – an offensive from the headwaters of the river Main north-eastwards towards the Saxon city of Leipzig and, ultimately, the key fortress of Magdeburg, that was designed to cut the Prussians off from Berlin – and within six days the grande armée had advanced a hundred miles or more. At this point Napoleon, it is true, completely misjudged the situation and came to the conclusion that the Prussians lay somewhere to the north of him when they were in fact on his left flank, but when the enemy’s situation was revealed by cavalry reconnaissance such was the disposition of the grande armée that a flurry of orders was sufficient for its corps to change face on the march and start moving west across the river Saale. Nor was diplomacy forgotten, the emperor dispatching a letter to Frederick William whose honeyed words served to deepen the confusion in the king’s tortured mind: ‘Why shed so much blood? To what end? I have been your friend these six years . . . Why let our subjects be slaughtered?’

To return to the issue of Prussia, if Jena and Auerstädt were by no means a total disgrace, what followed was by any standards a catastrophe. No sooner had the guns fallen silent than the victorious French armies launched an invasion of Prussia that carried all before it. Broken into several fragments and reduced to a state of semi-starvation, most of what remained of the Prussian army was rounded up with hardly a fight, while many fortresses capitulated at the first summons (in fairness, it should be remarked that few of them were provided for a siege). Berlin fell without resistance on 24 October, and everywhere the populace remained quiet. As the governor proclaimed, ‘The king has lost a battle. The first duty of the citizens is to keep quiet.’ Prussia was not yet out of the war – Frederick William had escaped to the east – while a little honour was salvaged by the gallant General Blücher, a fiery officer who had had a horse killed under him at Auerstädt and escaped capture only by dint of some desperate swordplay. Ordered to take command of another division and make for East Prussia, Blücher found the way blocked, yet unlike most of Prussia’s generals, he did not lose hope. Shelter might yet be found in the coastal regions north of the river Elbe and with it the possibility of linking up with the Swedish forces in Stralsund or even a British expeditionary force. Meanwhile, a force based in this area might at least win time for the king to reach East Prussia, rally such forces as he could and join up with Russians. But such hopes proved short-lived. Harried all the way by French cavalry and desperately short of food and ammunition, Blücher got his ever-diminishing band of fugitives to Lübeck. Here, however, he was finally cornered on 6 November by Marshal Bernadotte, and after a desperate battle forced to surrender. As even the French recognized, it had been a good effort, but it did nothing to alter the awe-inspiring nature of Napoleon’s triumph. For all that, Napoleon might have done well to note the reservations that were later expressed by one of the members of his council of state:

In France enthusiasm was at a peak: nothing could have appeared so incredible. However, in the middle of this most understandable atmosphere, one noted that a sentiment was gaining strength that thereafter never ceased to grow, a sentiment that the conqueror was far too much inclined to ignore and which yet would later do much to explain the misfortunes of the last days of his reign. France, beyond doubt, was proud of his victories, but she wanted to enjoy their fruits, and of these in her eyes the first ought to have been peace. Only moderation in victory could have achieved this result, and, generous as it is, the French character ensured that there was a general disposition to believe that that moderation existed. On all sides was to be found the belief that someone who had risen so high would not be found lacking in the only quality that could assure his conquests: with every battle that was won, with every town that was taken, the first assumption was that this new success offered the pledge of a peace that could not but be very close. Was that calculation reasonable? Above all, could it be accommodated with the character that might have been imputed to a man who for ten years had never ceased to risk the most redoubtable dangers, and had been followed by such rare good fortune? One might well have doubted it, but it must be said that the hope was understandable enough . . . It is so natural to believe in that which we desire!

This desire for peace was not unknown to Napoleon, for it was hinted at by a delegation of the senate that travelled to Berlin to congratulate him upon his victories. Then, too, there was the Foreign Minister. As an acute German observer who had frequent dealings with French headquarters noted:

Talleyrand . . . desired some political rapprochement. He regarded it as a possibility for the first time after the collapse of Prussia. The new English ministry still seemed undecided in its policy; the nation wanted peace . . . It was only with reluctance, therefore, that Talleyrand had drafted the decree . . . that was designed to bar every coast to the English [see below] . . . Talleyrand continued to buoy himself up with . . . hopes of convincing the English Cabinet, or of inducing it to recognize by pressure of public opinion, that many of the advantages arising out of the war might, on conclusion of peace, be shared by England. But it was essential that Napoleon should cease going on giving the English Cabinet a pretext, by his speeches no less than his measures, for reconciling the nation to their policy by the bugbear of his name. The objective on which Talleyrand staked all his efforts and all his influence was to persuade the emperor, even against his own inclination, to adopt an attitude of moderation.

This, to put it mildly, was the vainest of hopes. Ensconced in Berlin amid the adulation of his generals, he had, after all, vanquished the ghost of Frederick the Great, whose great victory at Rossbach was now avenged. With the grande armée at the very peak of its performance, all this was reflected in his disposition: ‘Having arrived in Berlin, Napoleon did not just speak and act as a victor moved by self-righteous anger, but affected the language and attitude of a sovereign who commands his subjects. Loyalty to the prince who had fled before him was treated as rebellion, and, angered by the defiance of certain nobles who had stayed in communication with that unfortunate monarch, in the palace of Frederick the Great himself he cried out, “I will bring these petty courtiers so low that they will be reduced to begging for their bread.” His proclamations and bulletins constantly mixed insult with menace, whilst misfortune . . . was not even respected when it came to the person of the Queen of Prussia.’ Even before the fall of the Prussian capital, Napoleon had taken a hard line: a personal appeal for an armistice on the part of Frederick William was rejected out of hand, while the dispatch of a special envoy to the emperor’s headquarters in the person of the erstwhile ambassador to Paris, Lucchesini, succeeded only in eliciting peace terms that were grim in the extreme. These terms were more or less those that the Prussians were forced to accept the following year but with the added demand that they should go to war with Russia if the latter should attack the Ottoman Empire, something that was by now almost certain. After much agonizing, Frederick William and his advisers screwed themselves up to accept these terms, only to discover immediately that no terms at all were on offer any more. Once again the Prussians were just too late.

In the wake of Jena and Auerstädt, the emperor seems to have envisaged Prussia in the role of a satellite state that could seal his eastern frontier against Russia, whose attitude to a continuation of the war could not yet be predicted with any certainty. On November, however, a large Russian army crossed the frontier into Prussian Poland. Moved by the plight of Frederick William and Louise, for both of whom he had conceived a warm affection, and determined that Prussia should not make a separate peace with the French, Alexander had decided to reenter the war. Beyond the issue of Prussia, meanwhile, was that of Germany: the abortive D’Oubril treaty had made the cost of peace without victory very clear to the tsar, and he was in consequence determined to put an end to the Confederation of the Rhine. Napoleon could have peace, but the terms would in essence be those of Lunéville and Amiens. The Russian advance, of course, in turn raised the issue of Poland. Hitherto Napoleon had had little interest in the Polish question – indeed, it is clear that, had Russia recognized the gains that he had made since 1803, she could have had peace, for the emperor had no desire to wage a winter campaign in the depths of Poland. Continued war with Russia, however, transformed matters, for now Napoleon was free to lay claim to the mantle of hero and liberator. In the absence of any fear of provoking Russia, a Polish state could be restored and Poland’s manpower made available to the grande armée. As yet no concrete assurances were given, for there were serious worries that going too far might provoke Austria into re-entering the war, but even so Napoleon summoned a number of Polish exiles to his presence and hinted that a serious military effort against Russia might well buy Poland her freedom. So far as Prussia was concerned, this meant that the terms that had been on offer were now obsolete, for she could no longer be guaranteed her lands east of the Elbe. Instead of a treaty, then, all that Frederick William’s emissaries could obtain was a truce and even then one whose price would be the evacuation of Silesia and of Prussia’s gains from the second and third partitions of Poland. To accept this, however, meant the certainty of peace being made over the heads of the Hohenzollerns, and this even the badly shaken Frederick William III could not accept. On 21 November Napoleon’s terms were rejected, leaving Prussia’s agony to drag on. As for the emperor, he had no hesitation in picking up the gauntlet thrown down by Alexander: on 5 November the first French troops entered Poland (it is noticeable that a special mission was simultaneously dispatched to Vienna to secure a declaration of Austrian neutrality). For the grande armée the move was scarcely welcome. While cantoned in and around Berlin, the troops had lived a life of relative ease and plenty – many memoirs, indeed, comment on the seeming generosity with which they were treated by the local populace – but now things were very different:

It was . . . the beginning of a most terrible winter in a deserted country covered with woods and with roads heavy with sand. We found no inhabitants in the deserted villages . . . The weather was terrible: snow, rain and thaw. The sand gave way under our feet, and the water splashed up over the sinking sand. We sank down up to our knees. We were obliged to tie our shoes round our ankles with cord, and when we pulled our legs out of the soft sand, our shoes would stick in the wet mud. Sometimes we had to take hold of one leg, pull it out like a carrot, lift it forwards, and then go back for the other, take hold of it with both our hands, and make it take a step forwards also . . . The older men began to lose heart; some of them committed suicide rather than face such privations any longer.


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