A fine work by a highly regarded historian of the Napoleonic Age
Every period in history has—in its turn—produced great scholars to chronicle it. The names of fine historians are linked with their subjects by natural consequence of their scholarship, insight and authorship as they have communicated their research and analysis to students, both professional and amateur. The Age of Napoleon is no exception and high in the shortlist of its principal historians stands the name of the author of this book—F. Loraine Petre. Petre's work has enjoyed enthusiastic popularity since the time of its writing. This fine example, which chronicles Napoleon's campaign into Poland, is no exception. Those familiar with the subject need not be told that the thorough Petre method has here been applied to the campaign in its entirety including Pultusk, Golymin, Eylau, Danzig, the Vistula, Heilsburg, Friedland and Tilsit. Naturally the leadership of the respective armies, the theatre of war and the forces themselves are considered with equal skill. This is, of course, an essential Napoleonic War reference work—and a true and acknowledged classic. Available in softcover and hardcover with dustjacket.
On arrival, Morand formed his 1st brigade in battalion columns for the attack of the wood. The 2nd brigade (d’Honnières) was behind him. It was 3.30 before the 1st brigade was ready. Darkness had fallen, though the scene was illuminated by the burning village of Garnowo, which had been fired by the Cossacks as they left it. This light facilitated the direction of the fire of the Russian guns.40 As the brigade charged into the wood, with its voltigeurs in front, the Russian infantry, to free their limbs for the struggle, threw off their knapsacks. Their resistance was obstinate, but the vigour of the French attack overcame all opposition. Fighting hand to hand with their favourite weapon, the bayonet, the infantry of Gallitzin was slowly driven back through and out of the wood, leaving it strewn with their dead and wounded, and with 4000 knapsacks, which, in the agony of the struggle, the soldiers had no opportunity to recover. As in Augereau’s case, Davout could attack only with infantry, for his guns had fallen behind. Perceiving that the enemy was attempting to retreat to the right by the Makow road, Davout despatched d’Honnières’ brigade, in that direction, to attempt to turn the wood and to advance on Golymin by the Pultusk road. The 51st Regiment moved into the wood in front of Osiek, on the near side of the Pultusk road, whilst Rapp with his dragoons charged, on the road, the Russian cavalry. Himself at the head of his men, Rapp, ever in the forefront of the battle, bore back the Russian horsemen in confusion towards Golymin. But, in doing so, he fell into a trap. The marshes on either side were filled with Russian infantry, standing up to their waists in the bog, safe from any attack by cavalry.41 From their fire, Rapp’s men suffered heavily. The general himself was wounded, and his dragoons were compelled to fall back into line with their own infantry. To avoid what appeared to be probable useless loss, Morand did not attempt to advance beyond the border of the woods towards Golymin. There he took post, with Rapp’s dragoons in reserve, for the night. Friant’s division had not come into action at all.
In the midst of this turmoil of the elements, before Napoleon had completed his last arrangements, Bennigsen, about 8 a.m., commenced the battle with a tremendous artillery fire directed on Eylau. The French, in and behind the village, were, to some extent, sheltered by the houses and by the mounds which closed up to it.33 The Russians, on the other hand, standing out, when the atmosphere was clear, in sharp relief against the white snow on the bare slope, without any cover whatever, were exposed from head to foot to the fire of the French guns.<br>
The Russian fire, at first somewhat wild,35 increased in intensity, as did that of the French. The preponderance in numbers of the Russian guns made up for the inferiority of the marksmanship.<br>
Despite the awful fire, the French left pushed forward, whilst the centre and right gained the slight elevations in front of the Bartenstein road. The light cavalry, on the left, got as far forward as the fulling-mill on the stream, 500 yards below the saw-mill. Legrand, advancing to the storm of Tutchkow’s position, was met in front by two infantry regiments of the Russian right wing, and charged in left flank by 2 dragoon regiments. He was driven back towards Eylau with considerable loss. Napoleon, thinking the Russians meditated the recapture of the windmill height, and an advance against Eylau from that direction, sought to disengage his left by an advance from his right.36 With this object in view, he directed St. Hilaire to move forward, bearing off somewhat to his right, whilst Augereau acted in like manner.37 By this movement St. Hilaire would come into touch with Davout, who was now gradually coming up, and the army, pivoting on Eylau and wheeling to the left, would drive in the Russian left wing. It was soon after 10 a.m.,38 when this advance began. At that moment a terrible snowstorm burst upon the field. The snow, driven full in the faces of Augereau’s infantry, blinded them, and caused them to lose all sense of direction. Instead of bearing to their right, as ordered, Desjardins’ division, followed by Heudelet’s, took a direction to the left, towards the Friedland road. They thus passed partially in front of the batteries at Eylau, which, in the darkness, fired on their own troops.39 The corps thus diverged rapidly from St. Hilaire’s, which had kept the prescribed line. Presently it found itself, unexpectedly, close in front of the Russian line, at the point where the right wing joined the centre. Augereau had the leading brigade of each division deployed, the second behind it in squares. One battalion, which had gone more to the right, was alone in the midst of the Russian position. The corps artillery was at the church.<br>
Desjardins and Heudelet were met by an overwhelming fire of grape from the great central battery, which was alone sufficient to disorder them and cause immense losses.40 Seeing their advance, Bennigsen had moved forward part of his two great reserve columns. This body, after firing a volley in the faces of the shaken French, charged with the bayonet. Simultaneously, a brigade of the 4th division and the Russian cavalry came upon the unhappy French corps. No troops could withstand such an onslaught in front and on both flanks, especially when the Russian cavalry were in their midst before they were perceived through the snow. Almost every regiment was broken; the whole mass fled in the wildest confusion, followed, bayoneted, sabred by the victorious Russians. As the snow cleared, Augereau—of whom Napoleon said that he wearied even with a day of victory,—wounded, ill,41 disheartened, saw the remnants of his corps pouring back into Eylau in broken detachments. One regiment, the ill-fated 14th,42 was still on the slope, formed in a rough square on a small mound, surrounded on all sides by infantry, cavalry, and Cossacks, fired into by musketry and artillery, stabbed by the long lances of the Cossacks, sabred, suffering every conceivable woe, yet gallantly fighting to the death. The marshal had not a battalion in condition to attempt its rescue. He sent, in succession, the officers of his staff to urge the 14th to retreat if possible. Two of them disappeared in the hosts of the enemy, and were heard of no more. At last, Marbot succeeded in reaching the doomed regiment. Retreat was impossible. The eagle was carried off by Marbot, though he nearly lost his life in doing so. Firm to the last, the isolated regiment fought, unsupported, refusing to surrender.43 Not one officer and scarcely a soldier escaped.<br>
Napoleon, from the church, watched the course of this awful disaster to Augereau on his left, whilst he saw St. Hilaire, on his right, not destroyed, it is true, but checked, his left attacked by cavalry in the gap between it and Augereau’s corps, unable to make any progress.<br>
The triumphant Russians, following on the heels of Augereau’s ruined corps, were breaking into Eylau. Even they, with the snowstorm at their backs, had partly lost their way. One “colonne perdue,” as Napoleon described it,44 which he estimates at 4000 to 6000 men, had wandered into the western street of Eylau, and had approached close to the position of the Emperor. Behind him, the Guard was moving forward to his rescue. Beyond the Russian column, Bruyère’s cavalry, by direction of Murat, was preparing to charge it in rear. The Russians were actually amongst the French hospitals in the barns in rear of Eylau. The terrified wounded who could walk were endeavouring to escape. Even the others, trying vainly to follow them, were only induced, by Larrey and his assistants expressing loudly their intention of remaining where they were, to desist from the vain attempt.45 The Emperor was in the most imminent danger of death or capture. A stray bullet, a little more hurry by the Russian column, might have changed the whole history of Europe. Napoleon alone, in the midst of all this confusion, standing on the mound with only his staff and a single squadron, his personal guard, maintained his calm and his presence of mind.
Before the Guard infantry46 could reach the spot, the Russians would be upon him. The Guard refused to fire; they considered it was their duty to charge with the bayonet without firing;47 they were blind to the consequences of delay. Every instant gained was of vital importance to their Emperor. He employed the only means he had to gain a few moments. The squadron of his personal guard was ordered to charge. Rushing upon almost certain death, with loud shouts of “Vive l’Empereur,” this little band of heroes fell furiously on the head of the Russian column. It was the attack of the pigmy upon the giant, but it gained the necessary time. Before this squadron was exterminated, the Guard had reached with the bayonet the front, Bruyère with the sabre the rear of the Russians. Their destruction was inevitable, and was as complete as had been that of Augereau’s larger force. The latter’s corps had been wiped out. Marbot goes so far as to say that it had but 3000 men left out of 15,000.