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1806 - Jena and Auerstaedt

Napoleon at Jena

The evening of Jena - Napoleon rides past captured Prussian colours.

Introduction

In the aftermath of Frederick the Great's great military victories, Prussia's military reputation was unrivalled. Unfortunately, reputations do not win wars. Although the Prussian army was well trained in the tactics of the day, its failing lay in the fact that the Prussians did not have a military leader to match Napoleon - the greatest military mind of the age. To make things worse, Prussian commanders could not even agree on a plan of action. Lack of an overall plan, combined with command and control failings would lead to Prussia's downfall - however, no one could have predicted the swiftness of that defeat.

Prelude to War

Austria had been defeated at Austerlitz in 1805. Although Prussia had been tempted to enter into the war of the Third Coalition against France in 1805, it had not done so in the hope of gaining French-occupied Hannover as a concession. However, the Austrian defeat left Prussia isolated in Central Europe. Sensing opportunity, Napoleon demanded and obtained the Prussian territories of Cleves, Ansbach and Neuchatel. In return, Napoleon offered Prussia Hannover - but the treaty had not been ratified. More humiliation followed - the formation of the Confederation of the Rhine threatened Prussia's control over German affairs. The final straw was Napoleon's offer of Hannover to Great Britain in return for peace. Napoleon had gone too far - Prussian honour was at stake and the army was mobilised on 10 August 1806.

Opening Moves

Valuable time was wasted as the Prussian high command could not decide on a plan of action. After several weeks of discussion, it was finally decided that the Prussian army would strike towards Stuttgart in order to drive a wedge between the dispersed French corps and threaten their lines of communications. But it was too late, by 5 October, the Prussians learnt that Napoleon had already seized the initiative and was advancing northward with 6 Army Corps and the Imperial Guard through the Thueringerwald (a heavily wooded and hilly area) towards Jena.

The Prussians had 2 divisions posted near Schleiz (under General Tauentzien) and Saalfeld (under Prince Louis Ferdinand). These were easily brushed aside by the French I and V Corps respectively as they came out of the Thueringerwald. At Saalfeld on 10 October, Prince Louis was killed in personal combat with Quatermaster Guindet of the French 10th Hussars. The Prussians fell back and were ordered to concentrate around Erfurt/Weimar area.

The French "battalion square" formation swung 90 degrees westwards towards the Prussian concentration. On 13 October, Lannes V Corps discovered 30,000 Prussian troops around Jena. Napoleon sent orders for all Corps to concentrate there by 14 October. To cut off the Prussian line of retreat, Davout's and Bernadotte's Corps were ordered to Naumburg and Dornburg respectively.

The Battle of Jena

The battle began in the early morning of 14 October. The battlefield was on a ridge (the Landgrafenberg) northwest of Jena. Lannes V Corps was ordered to attack at 6.30am in order to win more space on the ridge for the other French corps converging on the battlefield. Lannes' attack was spearheaded by Suchet's 1st Division on the right, and Gazan's 2nd Division on the left. These initial moves were centred around the villages of Cospeda, Luetzeroda, Closewitz and Vierzehnheiligen.

In the meantime, on the French right flank, Soult's IV Corps made contact with the Prussians in the area between Closewitz and Roedigen. A Prussian attack led by Lt General von Hoeltzendorff was repulsed by Soult's Corps. Augereau and his VII Corps were working their way around the Prussian left flank along the Jena-Weimar road in the valley below.

(Map by Joe Arrigoni)

Ney soon arrived on the scene with an advance guard of 3,000 men comprising 2 squadrons of light cavalry and 2 infantry battalions. Without waiting for the rest of his Corps to come up, the fiery Alsatian charged into the fray to the left of Lannes V Corps and towards Vierzehnheiligen. But Ney had overextended himself and soon found himself cut-off as hordes of Prussians bore down on his position. The Prussian commander, Prince Hohenlohe, had ordered a general assault by 45 squadrons of cavalry and 11 battalions of infantry. Seeing Ney's predicament, Napoleon ordered Lannes to make a fresh assault to link up with Ney. Augereau was ordered to cover Ney's left flank. Lannes Corps and the advancing Prussians made contact around Vierzehnheiligen and Ney's survivors were pulled out. Meanwhile, Hohenlohe's troops floundered around Vierzehnheiligen and started taking heavy casualties from French artillery.

At around 12.30pm, Napoleon judged that the "battle was ripe". VII (Augereau's) and IV (Soult's) Corps were ordered to pin down the Prussian flank, while V (Lannes') and VI (Ney's) Corps punched through the centre. In the face of repeated French assaults, finding both flanks in danger of being turned, and with no sight of reinforcements, Hohenlohe ordered a general withdrawal. At this point, Murat's cavalry was unleashed and the withdrawal turned into a rout.

Murat leading the charge at Jena

Murat leading the charge at Jena.

The French had lost 5,000 men - the Prussians: 10,000 dead, 15,000 prisoners, 34 colours and 120 guns. All this while, unknown to Napoleon, another desperate battle raged on at Auerstaedt - 8 miles to the north.

The Battle of Auerstaedt

This battle happened quite by chance. Davout's III Corps (around 29,000 men) was following orders to cut off the Prussian line of retreat from Jena. At the same time, the main Prussian army under the Duke of Brunswick (63,000 men) was moving northwards to link-up with Wuerttemberg's Reserve Corps of 15,000 men at Halle. These 2 forces were destined to meet at Auerstaedt on 14 October 1806.

Map of Auerstaedt

First contact was made at 7am when cavalry detachments from both sides stumbled into each other in the thick morning fog. The French, outnumbered, fell back and their leading infantry regiments formed square to repel the Prussian cavalry. Initial Prussian attacks (led by the hot-headed Bluecher) were made almost solely by cavalry. The bulk of the Prussian infantry and artillery were still in the rear. Without infantry and artillery support, the cavalry charges against solid infantry squares did not succeed.

However, by mid-morning, the bulk of the Prussian forces were on the field. The fighting centred around the villages of Spielberg and Hassenhausen. Davout took a risk and placed 2 Divisions around Spielberg leaving only the 85th Line Regt to watch Hassenhausen. Fortunately for him, the Prussian main assault was directed against Spielberg. Fierce fighting developed around these 2 villages. At one point, the hopelessly outnumbered 85th Line broke and fled - but was rallied by Davout himself and pushed back into the line.

During the fighting around Spielberg, the Prussian commander, the Duke of Brunswick, was killed. This left the Prussian army in the hands of the inexperienced King Frederick-William III - who was overawed by the erroneous belief that he was facing Napoleon in person.

By 11am, Davout's 1st Division arrived on the battlefield. These were directed to reinforce the exhausted troops at Hassenhausen. Prussian assaults were repelled.

By noon, the French - initially outnumbered 2:1 - began their advance and forced the Prussians to retreat. The toll was 10,000 Prussian dead and 3,000 prisoners at a cost of 7,000 French casualties. In recognition of Davout's feat of arms, Napoleon caused the following Bulletin to be published:

"On our right, Marshal Davout's Corps performed wonders. Not only did he contain, but drove back and defeated, for over three leagues, the bulk of the enemy's troops, which were to have debouched through Kosen, This marshal displayed distinguished bravery and firmness of character, the first qualities in a warrior."

Aftermath

The main Prussian armies had been defeated. Remaining Prussian forces were scatterred all across Prussia. The remainder of the campaign was basically a mopping-up operation. By 27 October, the French entered Berlin - with Davout, the hero of Auerstaedt - at their head.

Although almost the whole of Prussia lay in French hands, Prussian forces east of the Oder river continued to resist - waiting for their Russian allies. The stage was set for the terrible winter campaign of 1806-1807.

. . . . .

Sources:

David Chandler, Campaigns of Napoleon

David Chandler, Jena 1806 - Napoleon Destroy's Prussia (Osprey Campaign Series)

AG MacDonell, Napoleon and his Marshals

Keith Simpson, History of the German Army, 1648 - Present

 

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