Joachim Murat has come to epitomise the beau ideal cavalryman. Indeed, in the decades following the Napoleonic era, as a horse soldier excelled to extraordinary prominence, the name of Murat was often considered as analogous. In reality nobody could come close in stature and performance. Murat was one of many young men who saw the French Revolution as an opportunity to prosper in influence, power, status and wealth. An unabashed self publicist, his gorgeous uniforms were singular and exceptional even in an age when the dandy in military uniform was the norm. His ambition was insatiable and in this was the root of his downfall, for he lacked the intelligence and moderation to consolidate his advantages. Yet, Murat rose to be a soldier of the highest rank, through marriage a member of Napoleon’s own family, he was elevated to the aristocracy as Duke of Berg and in time crowned King of Naples. Though, like many of his calling, he was no military mastermind Murat was a reliable lieutenant to Napoleon often achieving—through deeds of daring—far more than other senior officers could for their emperor. Above all there could be no doubt about the quality of Murat’s personal courage. He led from the front and latterly rode into the fiercest melees armed only with a riding crop. Though he came from a different and lesser mould than his master Napoleon, Murat fatally shared his weakness for conceits and hubris and, as with Napoleon himself, poor judgment ended his career ignominiously before a firing squad of his former subjects. Atteridge’s biography is a well regarded classic and is highly recommended.
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Murat had nothing but his horsemen and light artillery in hand; but a few miles away the corps of Soult and Augereau, under the Emperor’s personal command, were coming up in a long marching column. It would have been common prudence to content himself with merely skirmishing with the enemy, and keeping them under observation till the infantry and field batteries were ready to come into action. But this was not Murat’s way. For him ‘to see the enemy and to charge him, was the same thing.’<br>
Reckless of the force opposed to him and the strong position it held, he flung his horsemen into action. Even before his main body had come up, his advanced guard, formed of Colbert’s dragoon regiments, was sent struggling through the thawing marshes along the brook, and launched upon the enemy in a reckless charge, from which it came back with many empty saddles. Colbert’s men rallied and were joined by Klein’s division, and then charged again, riding for the batteries on the left. They got in among the guns, temporarily captured four of them, and then were driven back by the fire of the infantry. While they were still in action the 1st Cuirassiers arrived, the leading regiment of D’Hautpoul’s division, and covered the retirement of the dragoons.<br>
So far there had been only failure. Murat had brought his light artillery into action. D’Hautpoul’s cuirassier division had come up and formed in a long line. They had just rolled their cloaks and waited breathing their horses, a splendid mass of steel-clad horsemen. The 1st Cuirassiers reformed after their charge had joined the division. On their flank, Legrand’s éclaireurs, the vanguard of the infantry, had come up. Suddenly, like a flash of light and colour, Murat in his brilliant Polish costume came galloping to the front of the cuirassiers. Reining up his horse for a moment, rising in his golden stirrups, and without drawing his sword, he yelled out, ‘Charge!’ pointing with a jewelled riding whip to the enemy’s left. Then he spurred forward with D’Hautpoul racing after him, and the cuirassiers breaking into a steady gallop, knee to knee, waving their long swords and shouting ‘Chargez! Rallions au prince!’ Legrand’s light infantry were thrown forward, after the rush of horsemen, forming a long firing line to their left.<br>
Murat, still with sword undrawn, led straight for the guns. The storm of the charge burst into and over the batteries, and thundered round the squares on the Russian left. Everything gave way before it. As the cuirassiers, after rushing the guns, turned upon the infantry, square after square broke. Klein and Colbert, eager to avenge their earlier failure, led their dragoons again into the battle. Legrand’s firing line closed on the enemy. The Russian cavalry, coming to the rescue of the broken infantry, were themselves driven back by the heavy charge of the cuirassiers. Murat was in the thick of the victorious mêlée. One would have thought that his very dress, his gold and diamonds, would have made him the centre of fierce attacks by the enemy’s best swordsmen, but he came out of the fighting without a scratch, though his fur pelisse was torn with bullets. The Russians retired through the woods, leaving more than 1200 killed and wounded on the ground: 800 prisoners, 9 guns, and 4 standards were in the hands of the victors.<br>
Next day Murat found the allied army waiting for battle north of the little town of Eylau. Benningsen had 65,000 men under his command including 22,000 regular and Cossack cavalry. The allied army was almost entirely Russian, for the Prussian contingent had only 5600 men in line. Napoleon had some 70,000 men within striking distance, of whom about 24,000 were cavalry. The fighting began on the 7th, but it was not till the 8th that the engagement became general.<br>
It was one of the most fiercely contested of Napoleon’s battles, one of those, too, in which he narrowly escaped defeat. It was fought in a driving snowstorm that limited the view over the field. It was not till the afternoon that Napoleon was able to meet the enemy with anything like equal numbers. In the morning he could oppose only 200 guns to Benningsen’s 450, but the Russians suffered heavily from the ricocheting fire of the French guns, for their infantry was formed in three successive lines, each of great depth. At first Napoleon could bring against them only the corps of Soult and Augereau and six divisions of Murat's cavalry (Colbert and Bruyère’s hussars and chasseurs, Grouchy, Klein, and Milhaud’s dragoons, and D'Hautpoul’s cuirassiers). The rest of his corps were marching towards the sound of the cannon, with long miles of snowy roads to traverse before they could fire a shot.<br>
The critical moment of the day was that when Augereau’s corps, with the snow driving in their faces and half blinding them, were assailed in front by the Russian infantry and artillery, enfiladed by other batteries thrown against their flank, and charged by a mass of Russian cavalry. Augereau himself was hit. Every one of his brigadiers and colonels was killed or wounded. His two divisions were seen retiring through the darkness of the snowstorm, some of the regiments actually breaking into confused masses that might soon be a rabble of fugitives.<br>
Murat was beside Napoleon, who with his staff and escort had posted himself on a rising ground near the cemetery of Eylau. Through a lull in the storm the emperor caught sight of Augereau’s broken line, and pointing to the Russian attack, said to Murat: ‘Nous laisseras-tu dévorer par ces gens-là?’ ‘Are you going to let those fellows eat us up?’<br>
His answer to the appeal was the famous charge that saved Augereau’s corps from utter destruction. Six divisions of cavalry were hurled upon the advancing Russians in three successive waves. First came Murat, leading the two divisions of light horse; then Grouchy with the three divisions of dragoons; last, D’Hautpoul at the head of his regiments of cuirassiers. A mass of some 18,000 horsemen rolled down upon the Russian centre, breaking through two successive lines of infantry that had hurriedly formed squares to meet the attack. In the fog of the snowstorm some of the Russian regiments were ridden down before they could form. In other cases squares were broken up. Sixteen standards were taken.