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Jena to Eylau

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Jena to Eylau
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Author(s): Colmar, Freiherr von Der Goltz
Date Published: 2010/10
Page Count: 228
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-368-7
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-367-0

The Prussian army at war against Napoleon

The author of this book has chosen as his subject the campaigns of the Prussian army during the Napoleonic Wars, specifically between the humiliating defeat of his countrymen at the Battle of Jena in October of 1806 and the next major conflict at the Battle of Eylau in February of 1807. The author has an understandably partisan motivation, but nevertheless this is an in-depth, serious and thorough historical analysis of a time and conflict that is rarely covered in books available in the English language and it will therefore be a welcome addition to the libraries of those interested in the Napoleonic Wars as they touched the continental European powers. Goltz is clear in his condemnation of the performance of the Prussian Army in 1806, but asserts that it redeemed itself in early 1807 by its performance at Eylau and his books tracks the performance of the Prussian forces from their darkest hour to, perhaps, the first glimmer of light from potential success against the hitherto invincible French under Napoleon. Certainly the consequences of the defeat at Jena were more far reaching for Prussia than could be remedied by the outcome at Eylau. Indeed, whilst L’Estocq’s corps acquitted itself well at Eylau within a principally Russian force, that alone was insufficient to claim a victory of Prussian arms in a bloody stalemate of a battle that ultimately benefited none of its protagonists to any degree strategically. So this is the account of an army finding its worth after defeat and gathering itself at the beginning of the long road that would ultimately lead to the rout and vengeance at Waterloo. Available in softback and hardcover with dust jacket for collectors.

The Russians had not had time thoroughly to organize and prepare the defence of Eylau. On the extreme right, near the bailiff’s house—a group of strong old buildings where the road to the suburb Freiheit emerges—there seems to have been no more than a cavalry detachment. It was there that the French first effected an entrance, and thence, in the face of an obstinate resistance, they forced their way into the street that leads to the market-place. At the same time the assailants gradually pressed in by the road from Landsberg and the Landsberg-Strasse within the town.<br>
At the other, or south-east end of Eylau there stands on a hill a church which in 1807 was surrounded by solid walls. Against this the French formed up their columns of attack on the north part of the Langer See, and it was carried after heavy fighting at about 5 p.m. But in and around Eylau market-place the Russians offered a stern resistance. The fighting grew more and more murderous. Cannon engaged cannon with a street’s width between,2 or drove through narrow streets over the bodies of dead and wounded men. Little by little the French, more experienced house-fighters as they were, made their advantage felt. The Russian losses mounted up. General Barclay’s right hand was shattered, many of the higher leaders were killed or wounded, and Prince Bagration (who was still in command) began to evacuate Eylau.<br><br>
At this moment Bennigsen suddenly appeared at the exit of the town with the Russian 4th Division, which he had brought up in three columns from the reserve of the main line. This was launched to the attack, and by 6 p.m. Eylau was once more in the hands of the Russians. But half an hour later it was deliberately evacuated by Bennigsen’s express orders. This almost unaccountable decision Bennigsen himself, in his Memoirs, explains3 by saying that he had wished to attract the French towards the strongest part of the position, which was that lying behind the town. This explanation, it need hardly be said, will not bear investigation, and in all probability Bennigsen’s order was the outcome of one of those sudden impulses that so often storm into the heart of a commander in a fierce fight such as this, and which defy analysis. <br><br>
The French moreover, for their part, assert that they re-captured Eylau. Be this as it may, the town was certainly in their hands during the night. The emperor established his headquarters in a merchant’s house in the Landsberg-Strasse—a fine and at that time a comfortably furnished house, but now vulgarized by alterations and improvements—which was able to accommodate the secretaries and the general staff as well. Next morning, as was ever his habit, he rose very early to reconnoitre the enemy’s lines.<br><br>

Soon, not only these batteries but those of the Guard that were in line with them as well had to cease fire as their own advancing infantry came between the gun-muzzles and the enemy. An icy north wind and a dense snowstorm drove full in, the faces of the French, so that it was impossible to see for a distance of twenty paces. The original direction was lost. The regiments on the right wing pushed in front of those that were marching on their left, and the attacking columns crowded together, closer, deeper, more helpless every moment. At last, blinded with snow, they stumbled upon Russian infantry, which slipping away to the right and left cleared the front of the hitherto invisible great battery of the Russian centre.<br>
At this critical moment the snowstorm ceased. Dense sheets of case-shot, fired at 80 paces distance, swept the approaching French masses. The wings of the infantry firing line swung inwards and embraced them in a semicircle of fire. The French indeed strove to deploy for fire-action, but their muskets repeatedly missed fire, for the snow as it melted on their clothes had damped the primings. More and more deadly became the fire as the Russian line of battle took it up to the right and left, In spite of all, Augereau’s corps broke through the line of the defending guns. But its fate was now sealed. From its concealment behind the heights the Russian cavalry sprang out and flung itself upon the now exhausted attackers. The longest resistance was that of a square of the 14th Regiment of the line on the right flank of the attack, but in the end this was completely destroyed by infantry fire and case-shot.<br>
In twenty minutes Augereau’s corps had been annihilated. As an independent unit it disappeared from the army list. The corps commander and both the divisional commanders were disabled. Mere remnants drifted back to Eylau.<br>
The snow having ceased, it was in the full view of the emperor and his staff that this awful scene was enacted. Napoleon himself was in danger. The Russian counter-stroke penetrated almost to the churchyard hill, and drew from the emperor more than once the half-wondering, half-angry exclamation, “Quelle audace! “Marshal Bessiéres sent for the horses, and a cry went up, “Save the emperor!” But the assailants came up spent and breathless, and the French cavalry hurrying up on the flank, struck them in rear and dispersed them.<br>
Meanwhile, by the emperor’s orders, Murat’s cavalry with the Horse Grenadiers and the Chasseurs a Cheval had filled up the gap in the line of battle and advanced to deliver a counter-stroke. The infantry of the Guard Napoleon kept firmly in his own hands.<br>
In all 18 cavalry regiments were put in. But we must not imagine them as regiments with the full ranks and complete organization that we associate with our own—for such a force indeed there would have been neither deploying nor manoeuvring room. The squadrons had shrunk to handfuls, which now rode closely locked into the turmoil to rescue the broken corps and check the oncoming Russians. A series of French cavalry charges followed. But these attacks were not of the sort that we are wont to see at our army manoeuvres, for the horses were incapable of such exertions. There can have been no question of anything more than a short advance at the trot and a feeble gallop. The deep snow, too, was an obstacle to movement. The Guard cavalry was in a better condition than the rest, and the two Guard regiments which figured in this general attack took a more effective part.19 Small groups broke through the Russian line, and individual survivors of these groups regained Eylau by roundabout ways. In the end friend and foe fell apart, and the position in general remained practically the same as it had been at the beginning, except that the French seemed to have advanced beyond the line of the Bartenstein road.