10 October 1806 at Saalfeld, Prince Louis-Ferdinand of Prussia killed
in personal combat by an NCO in the 10th Hussars, part of Marshal
Lannes’ V Corps. (All Rights Reserved)
Why cut the throats of our subjects? A
victory bought with the blood of so many
of my children has no value for me.
(Napoleon to the King of Prussia, October 12, 1806)
The King and Queen of Prussia departed from Potsdam on September 18.
Frederick William was accompanied by his military household, together with Queen Louise and all her ladies in waiting, and a bevy of ministers and ambassadors with their respective attachés. One witness reports that the number of people at headquarters leaving on campaign came to 2.000.
The Prussian court wended its way merrily to a massacre in festive mood, as if for a parade or a wedding.
We shall read later in an account by a French officer of the “surgical amputation” inflicted upon the Prussian army because of Queen Louise’s social diversion that she so fervently embraced. But let us be fair; equally responsible were Tsar Alexander and, of course, that relentless instigator of war and slaughter, the English government.
The presence of Queen Louise with the army causes
dissension among the Prussian officers
For the next two weeks there was a constant round of galas and receptions, and much drinking of toasts to the forthcoming success of Prussian arms against the French Emperor, who, they said, only won his victories because of the mediocrity of his Russian and Austrian opponents. But entering the lists now was the army of the heirs of Frederick the Great and the general feeling was “they will get what they have coming to them.”
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.
Moreover, the delay that Napoleon’s desire to avoid war at all costs had imposed upon his preparations was interpreted by all the Prussian strategists as meaning that he could not make a move for another month, and that it would therefore be easy to crush his army of “ditch diggers” before it even assembled.
Their attitudes blinded them to a vital fact – the Emperor’s capacity for work, planning and organization. They were, to be precise, forgetting their enemy’s genius, such as we have tried to illustrate in the previous chapters.
There was an issue, however, that caused some dissension in the Prussian camp.
They were some who said aloud, if discretely, and with good cause, that the Queen’s state carriage followed by at least 20 other carriages, each escorted by an honour guard of cavalry and infantry, created awkward problems that were scarcely compatible with the needs of an army on the march.
Others, the majority, considered that, on the contrary, the presence of this young and beautiful lady was indispensable because she was the soul of the army, the idol of the soldiers and the beloved of her husband. Many Prussian officers were only too well aware that without the encouragement of this woman, of whom he was rightly enamoured and who was his motive force, the King of Prussia, who was still young at 36 but colourless in character, might well have returned to Berlin.
Beside this magnificent panoply of gleaming horses and men, as handsome and smart as if they were on inspection for Their Prussian Majesties, the French camp seemed a poor and shabby affair. The men made ready for battle, not like some holiday but rather as a necessity that was undesired but unavoidable. Preparations went ahead with the confidence inspired by the victory of Austerlitz the previous year and the presence in person of their “Great Captain.”
Jena was a city whose fame rested in part on its university founded in 1558, where Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, Schiller and Schlegel taught and where Goethe wrote Hermann and Dorothea, but because of the Prussian war party, it would soon acquire fame of a quite different order.
A Prussian army of pensioners…
The time has come to look rather more closely at the actors in the drama that was about to unfold.
The Prussians, with a fine disregard for superstition, had decided to entrust their future to the man who, in Cologne on July 25, 1792, had issued the famous manifesto that bears his name and which threatened Paris if the Revolutionaries made any attempt on the lives of Louis XVI’s family.
Far from having the intended result, this summons only hastened the already predictable downfall of the Crown.
The following September 20, 1792, Brunswick led the Coalition armies to defeat at Valmy, the battle that was the very first of the victories of French Revolutionary Armies over Austro-Prussian armies.
Despite this setback inflicted by the barefoot French “sans culottes,” Brunswick was still invested with unparalleled glory. Tsar Alexander himself, who had proposed him as commander of the 1806 campaign, declared to him one day:
“I hope soon to have the honour of serving under your command,” which made him the King’s anointed and bestowed upon him a sacred aura.
At 71 years of age, Brunswick still enjoyed the blind confidence of the Prussian king and it was taboo to question his brilliance. However, some who were better informed or less easily fooled, could not repress their doubts about this old man (at that time, one was old at 60) whose vital energies had declined with his years, and who so forgot his rank as to parade in his carriage a French actress, his current mistress, right in front of his troops.
The German historian, Leopold von Ranke, found it offensive, quite understandably so in the circumstances.
The remainder of the Prussian High Command matched Brunswick in age. Field Marshal Möllendorf was 82; General Count Kalkreuth, 69; the prince of Hohenlohe, 60; Generals Prittwitz, Arnim and Holzendorf, respectively, 72, 66 and 65; and the detestable Blücher (who will feature in a later chapter), 64.
Next to this rheumatic assemblage, Prince Louis-Ferdinand of Prussia, at the age of 34, seemed like a young whippersnapper.
The mentality of all these individuals was fixed in the time of the Seven Years War when Prussia defeated the troops of Louis XV at Rossbach on November 5, 1757.
When Frederick II received the defeated French officers at dinner that evening (other times, other customs!) he offered this cruel and insulting greeting beneath the mask of regal courtesy:
“Gentlemen, please excuse the frugality of the meal, but I was not expecting you so soon and in such great number.”
… And the magnificent army of energetic
thirty-year old Austerlitz veterans
Above: Jean Lannes (1769-1809); left: Jean-Baptiste Bessières (1768-1813) |
Who was opposing this army of pensioners?
The forces led by the energetic thirty-year old Austerlitz veterans.
Let us list them, starting with their leader, the Emperor, 37 years old; then his marshals: Lannes, Ney, Soult, also 37; Davout, the youngest, at 36; Bessières, 38 years old; Murat, 39; and two stout-hearted 40-year olds who were the equal of the rest in every way: Bernadotte, 43, and Augereau, who at 49 was almost a father-figure.
Marshal Michel Ney
The difference was just as striking between the troops.
The army bearing the hopes of the Prussian war party certainly presented a splendid façade while preparing it was for battle with Napoleon’s Grande Armée. They maneuvered majestically, but slowly, and although the bravery and discipline of the Prussian soldiers could not be denied, their abilities could not compare to those of Napoleon’s men.
Bivouac of the French Army during the 1806 campaign. Napoleon’s soldiers were used to enduring the hardships
of military life.
In the Prussian army, a 10- or 20-kilometre march was considered quite a feat, while Napoleon’s men could easily do double or triple without batting an eyelid, if not without a few groans. And while the Imperial soldiers spent the night under the stars, their Prussian counterparts camped in a whole city of tents, which they took down the following morning, like the big top of a circus.
Under attack from the Coalitions, France became
experienced in war without wishing to
The arts of war had advanced considerably, due particularly to the formation of the Revolutionary armies, who at the start had to make up for what they lacked in discipline and training by enthusiasm, speed and flexibility. But after serving under officers whose talents were proven on the field, under the command of the First Consul and now the Emperor, these armies had become masters of the battlefield.
Napoleon’s soldiers feared nothing.
Furthermore, while Prussia had spent the last 12 years without fighting a war, France had been attacked relentlessly by the European monarchies since 1792 and had not ceased fighting in its defence.
Grenadiers of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, circa 1806. Napoleon’s soldiers were well-trained and experienced in modern warfare.
In addition, by the time of October 1806, the French soldiers were used to exhaustion and danger and were commanded by officers they had seen in action, fighting alongside them and most of the time enduring the same ordeals and privations.
Even when the outcome of the impending battle was unknown, it was clear that this relic from the age of Frederick the Great, a force of courageous but stolid “lead soldiers,” was doomed from the start.
This illustration shows outdated Prussian
soldiers of the King’s Regiment in 1806.
The arrogance of their commanders blinded them to this fact.
At the time, it was estimated that Prussia mobilized a force of 240,000, of which the active army consisted of 154,000 overall, while the rest was made up of those in the garrisons and militias.
The forces were divided into three corps.
The right flank (34,000 men) commanded by General Ruchel, on the borders of Hesse.
The centre, called “the King’s army” (70,000 men) under the command of the Prince of Brunswick, assisted by Field Marshal Möllendorf and General Kalkreuth across the Elbe near Magdeburg.
The left flank, or the Silesian army: 50,000 men including 20,000 Saxons, under the command of General Hohenlohe, of which the vanguard was commanded by the hothead Louis Ferdinand.
The French troops were divided into a number of army corps under Marshals Augereau, 20,000 men; Bernadotte, 23,000; Lannes, 22,000; Davout, 35,000; Ney, 33,000; Soult, the largest with 41,000 men; to which were added the reserve cavalry commanded by Murat, and the Imperial Guard under Bessières.
It was Bernadotte’s corps, followed by two reserve divisions and preceded by General Lasalle’s light cavalry brigade, which had the first brush with the enemy near Schleiz, 40 kilometres south of Jena, when they came up against and easily repulsed a division numbering around 6,000 Prussian and 3,000 Saxon troops with orders to flank their enemy in that area.
But it was Marshal Lannes’ 5th corps that wound up in the first serious engagement of the campaign and the most symbolic.
Lannes, whose corps was at the head of the left flank of the army, had received orders from the Emperor to attack the enemy at Saalfeld if their forces did not exceed 18,000 men, or otherwise to await the arrival of Marshal Augereau with the 7th corps.
Meanwhile, on October 9, Prince Louis Ferdinand received strict orders from Hohenlohe not to engage in any action against the French before being joined by the vanguard of Blucher’s army and, if he were attacked, to retreat to Orlamunde (about 19 kilometres equidistant from Jena in the south and Saalfeld in the north-east) with cover from General Grawert.
But, that same day, Louis Ferdinand was informed that the French had repulsed the forward posts and would most probably be at Saalfeld the following day. This was sufficient for him to disregard the strict orders he had received.
Louis-Ferdinand slain in single combat by
a hussar of Marshal Lannes’ 5th corps
On the 10th, while the French troops were spreading out all along the right bank of the Saale, Louis Ferdinand headed for Saalfeld on the left bank of the river and, in a very unsound strategic position, waited for the French he so despised. In front of him were wooded hillsides; to his rear was the Saale, a steep-sided tributary of the Elbe, 427 kilometres long. Should trouble arise, the only field of battle available to this arrogant individual, who had precious little understanding of the realities of war, would be the bottom of a ravine wedged between two rivers, namely the Saale, already mentioned, and the Schwartza.
Motivated by his hatred and contempt, he launched an attack on the lead columns of Marshal Lannes’ entire corps.
What had to happen, came about. At around one o’clock in the afternoon, the Prussian troops, who were engaged in fighting both to the front and the rear of Saalfeld, broke ranks in no time at all and all their battalions were dispersed.
Louis Ferdinand now realized the appalling reality he faced, and understanding the necessity for immediate retreat, placed himself at the head of five squadrons of Prussian and Saxon hussars. They impetuously charged the left flank of the French hussars (Treilhard’s division of light cavalry) sent to attack the Prussian infantry.
10 October 1806 at Saalfeld. Prussian troops routed and pursued
by the French after Prince Louis-Ferdinand was killed.
At first, the French hussars fell back with the impact of the assault. But not for long, since the hussars of the 10th Regiment came immediately to their rescue and launched an assault on the two flanks of Saxon-Prussian cavalry, forcing them back onto the infantry, thereby causing immense confusion that was only made worse by the uneven ground that Louis Ferdinand had chosen as his battleground.
In the midst of this chaos, the Prince, who was attempting to rally his fleeing soldiers, realized that his decorations and high-plumed helmet made him an easy target for the French cavalry. Covering his orders with his helmet, he tried to extricate himself from the mêlée by jumping a garden hedge, but his horse’s legs got tangled up.
It was then that he was caught by a quartermaster of the 10th Hussars by the name of Guindey, who dealt him a blow to the head with his sabre and called on him several times to surrender, although he had no notion of the Prince’s identity. Each thrust met its riposte from Louis Ferdinand, forcing Guindey to strike finally at his chest, whereupon he inflicted a mortal wound that flung the Prince from his horse.
Guindey, listed in the mounted grenadiers of the Imperial Guard, met his death at Hanau in 1813, at which time he was a captain and an officer of the Legion of Honour.
Marshal Lannes had Louis Ferdinand’s body carried off and gave orders that military honours be accorded to this arrogant but courageous prince.
French hussars discovering the identity of Prince Louis-Ferdinand
of Prussia after Quartermaster Guindey of the 10th Hussars
killed him in personal combat.
The combat between Guindey and Louis Ferdinand had been fierce. Surgeon-Major Gallernat, (some sources claim Virvaux) of the 40th line (Marshal Lannes’ corps) who examined the Prince the following day in Saalfeld church noted in his report that the Prince had sustained six sabre blows, including four to the head, one to the right arm and a final thrust to the chest.
Learning of Louis Ferdinand’s tragic end, the Emperor – and we must commend his courtesy toward those who had so grievously insulted him – had Berthier write the following message to the King of Prussia.
“Sire, the Emperor Napoleon instructs me to convey to you that he shares the deep distress that the death of Prince Louis causes you.”
In the same vein, he had this notice inserted in the second Bulletin of the Grande Armée:
“The death of Prince Louis Ferdinand was glorious and worthy of respect. He died as every good soldier would wish to die.”
The Emperor’s final plea to the King of Prussia
Two days after the ominous disaster of Saalfeld, on the 12th, despite the advantage Napoleon had gained, the Emperor sent Frederick William a final appeal to reason, which we quote in part in the epigraph to the present chapter.
It is a wonderful letter, from which the following long excerpt is drawn.
“Why spill so much blood? To what end? I shall address Your Majesty in the same terms as I used with Tsar Alexander two days before the battle of Austerlitz… Sire, I have been your friend for six years. I do not wish in any way to take advantage of the overexcitement that has affected Your Majesty’s advisors and that has resulted in political errors that still astound Europe and military errors that still echo around Europe. If in your note Your Majesty had requested what is possible, I would have granted it. But Your Majesty insisted upon my disgrace, and must have known what my response would be. We are, therefore, in a state of war and our alliance is ruptured forever. But why cut the throats of our subjects? A victory bought with the blood of so many of my children has no value for me. If I were at the start of my military career, and were I afraid of the risks of battle, I would not speak so. But Sire, your army will be defeated. You are jeopardizing a peaceful life for no cause at all. You have not yet suffered any harm and may negotiate with me in a manner suited to your rank. A month from now, you will be dealing with me in very different circumstances. You say to me that you have often rendered me services. Well then, I shall give proof that I am mindful. You are in a position to spare your subjects the miseries and ravages of war. Fighting is scarcely underway and you can end it whenever you please and thereby earn the gratitude of all of Europe. Sire, I have nothing to gain from Your Majesty. I do not want, nor have I ever wanted anything from Your Majesty. The present war is an imprudent war… I beg Your Majesty to read into this letter nothing but my desire to spare men’s blood and to save a nation, which geographically should not be hostile to mine, from bitterly repenting its decision to indulge the fleeting emotions that flare up between peoples and just as quickly die down.”
To those who would be tempted to read into this letter some Machiavellian plot, we offer this excerpt from another letter written to the Empress Josephine during the night of October 12th to 13th.
This brief letter expresses in more personal terms exactly the same sentiments as he conveyed to Frederick William.
“Gera [around 30 kilometres west of Jena] at two o’clock in the morning.
“I am at Gera, my dear friend. Things are going very well and just as I hoped. With God’s help, in a few days the poor King of Prussia will be in an appalling position, which I personally regret, because he is a good man. The Queen is at Erfurt with the King. If she wishes to watch the battle, she shall have that bitter pleasure…”
Napoleon’s confidence and calm
The Saalfeld disaster, an essentially minor but symbolic affair, caused great consternation in the Prussian ranks. After all, Louis Ferdinand, the idol of the court, one of those who derided Napoleon the most, the most relentless instigator (with Queen Louise) of the present war, had just met his death from the sabre of a French quartermaster.
The Emperor understood.
On the same October 12, he wrote to Marshal Lannes:
“All the dispatches intercepted indicate that our enemies have lost their head. They are in council day and night and do not know which party to support… Thus far, they have shown how little they know of the arts of war.”
And the same day to Talleyrand:
“Things are going just as I planned in Paris two months ago, step by step, almost incident by incident. I have not made any mistakes… Everything seems to confirm my opinion that the Prussians have almost no chance. Their generals are great idiots. I cannot imagine how the Duke of Brunswick, who is reputed to have some ability, can lead an army in such a ridiculous fashion.”
And also to Davout, still on the same day:
“This campaign promises to be even more miraculous than those of Ulm and Marengo.”
Now that he was confident of certain success, what was the Emperor’s next move?
Marshal Louis Davout
Did he take advantage of the situation, as he had every right to do? Indeed not. He actually proposed mutual disarmament and the reestablishment of ante bellum conditions.
After reading the letter quoted above, one would have to be inspired by the pathological bad faith of the French royalists, those failed has-beens who would rather yap away in their boudoirs in the Faubourg St-Germain and quiver at the “exploits” of that leader of a band of cutthroats, the Comte d’Artois, the future Charles X, a cowardly conspirator who sought a cozy refuge in London rather than serve the great man who could extricate France from its post-revolutionary chaos; one would need bear some indelible grudge like those lackeys of the foreign monarchies of the time, so often defeated in the wars they provoked, like the English, the absolute worst of the bunch; one would have to possess the commercial greed that inspires the pens of those embittered pamphleteers (they know who they are) who have made an art out of flinging insults, with the sole and always unacknowledged purpose of selling more copies; such would one have to be, to presume to suggest that Napoleon ever rejoiced in the battlefield’s gory carnival.
We leave it to the world to judge the difference in tone between Napoleon’s words and the arrogant insults of the Prussians.
General Kalkreuth’s farsighted prediction
Although the losses of 600 Prussian dead and 1,000 captured were comparatively minor (a description that always seems inappropriate when discussing human lives), the news came as a shock when it reached Berlin and panic and terror supplanted their haughty and smug posture of before.
The first part of General Kalkreuth’s pessimistic predictions when he saw Brunswick’s procrastination and vacillation had just come true. Like Nestor, King of Pylos, a hero of the Trojan War in Greek mythology, his Prussian equivalent was the very model of a judicious advisor who had foretold:
“Our fatal doom is fast approaching, and unless there be a miracle, we are marching to disaster.”
It took only four days more for the approaching disaster to unroll its course.
Feld-Marshal Count of Kalkreuth
To be continued…